Longing for Home: The Edge of Heaven

Obsessive dreams of love and hate. Awareness of evil, madness, uprooted memories, human frailty, pain, and the fatality of the equal exchange of coffins across international airports.

The pleasure of waiting, being part of history as radical marchers, the pleasure of being part of non-history as a teacher explaining Goethe’s aversion to the revolution, the contagious languor of pure spectatorship, and the awareness of the world as an undecipherable enigma either for the mind’s glory or for its mockery, a play-in-itself.

The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite, 2007), directed by Fatih Akin, is one of the few recent films that I’ve enjoyed watching. And there’s the beautiful Nurgül Yeşilçay (sigh!), who plays the over-confident radical who learns of the terrible suspicion you have about the present— that history of the present consists of everyone being put to use by someone.

The film veers away from the perpetual scrambled of the Hollywood makes, and recognizes the variety of the will to explore two irreconcilable domains— the ‘Western’ and the ‘non-Western’— which is also the proof of the confusion. (Read a typical ‘Western’ take on the film here).

The confusion of times and places appears and reappears, dissolves into the blue...

When the story of a young Turkish musician dying of the Chernobyl radiations recurs as a motif, when a Turkish street kid becomes the indirect assassin to the dreams of a German student trying to help (read condescend) a TKP-ML militant disowned by her comrades in Germany and inside the Turkish prison.

Or when a respectable and elderly German lady (who had in her time been an hippie planning an exotic trek to India) trying to come in terms with her daughter’s mysterious death in Istanbul, and when a Turkish professor of German literature in Germany returns to Istanbul looking for the militant Turkish girl and ends up buying a book store from a German who wants to return home. All those books at the bookstore, almost none to read but the owner!

You get to see the lives of six individuals trying to balance their positions on the edge, and thinking of what it means to have somewhere to go, to lay claim to a home of some sort. After all, home is where you hang yourself, while the vagabonds die not-so-peacefully on the streets.

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Small cars and all that technodiscourse

"All technodiscourse either is or seeks to be discourse about humanity, about human primacy and objectives. It does not merely seek to assure us of happiness, nor does it discuss power. (There is never any question of power in this pious talk.) Its theme is true human fulfillment, which it rates very highly. Nothing is more important than the human race."

Rat kills printer

Stop press: CALCUTTA. 24th August 2008.
Our Special Correspondent:

A REAL BLACK RAT had barged into the first-floor rented apartment of the old colonial city and killed an unsuspecting printer a week ago. The two-week-old "corpse" was officially "declared dead" on Sunday. The rat is still on the loose.

"This is an extremely unfortunate affair," said the visibly bereaved Mr. Buroangle, 208 year-old, the only living relation to the printer in the city.

According to Buroangel, it was a week before when the astringent rodent was spotted making serious rumpus in his room. "It was 3.30 into the night and I was staring into the blinking screen when my right eye caught the whiff of a black tail next to me," he said.

The assailant is on the run ever since. "The rat took flight as I opened the head of my printer in apprehension. There was the stingy smell of rat-piss and you could see all the bits of chewed foam and the small pellets of shit inside,"said Buroangelo. According to sources, the rat fled during the fracas generated by its presence. The printer's corpse had been lying there in the room ever since till his owner took him to the doc for repair last Saturday.

"The doc tells me that the acidic content of the rat's piss has caused a short-circuit somewhere and melted down the printer's logic card reducing it to a piece of hardware junk," said the bereaved.

The printer's other relations and parents are probably in Vietnam, and he is left without the means to contact them, said Buroangal. It's still so impossible to believe the fact, he said. "The printer's doc called me up at 10 'o'clock in the night to confirm the demise," he added.

The printer's doc was, however, unavailable for comment. Sources confirmed that the printer was a Canon PIXMA MP 160, who made strange frightening noises whenever he was made to print pages, even a single letterhead page with two words on it. "But he was a moderate printer who was serving me for more than a year, and even worked with duplicate ink," said Buroangle. "He was a laser-jet and occasionally posed as a scanner, too," he added.

With the rat on the loose, Buroangla is in constant apprehension about the condition of his books, manuscripts, photocopies, printouts, and all other domestic equipment. "Is it possible for the rat to damage my CPU and the circuits as well?" he wondered.

Memory of images

Human beings can understand nothing without images, said the eccentric called Thomas Aquinas, and I guess he was right to insist at the same time that these images are mostly phantoms. So if you're working with your memory on the vacuity of substances, expressions, purity of faith, prohibition of imagination and so forth, you're probably restructuring the smoky images you have of them in your mind. And these appear, or fail to appear, at the unlikeliest of moments, severing and transforming possibilities you see of the world, and for yourself. To think outside images, is to think within them. To be outside memory, is to think within forgettable frames.

Consider, I mean what you call the 'past', in terms of these simultaneous processes of inclusion and exclusion. And you invariably get to think of yourself as of 'now' as obese, inactive and static, a melancholy witness to unchanging differentiation of the world around you. Call this thinking historical if you like. But you know there lies a serious flaw in those pristine pasts imagined, as they were, those mosaic of images, separated only by the reverberating smoke mists above the swamps of your mind, those that try to call themselves hoarse the perfect picture, simultaneously running along with that strange neurophysiologic logic of the thing called memory that exterminates any images and anything that cannot be easily understood.

Ah, observe how Walter Benjamin defines this position wonderfully:
The true picture of the past whizzes by. Only as a picture, which flashes its final farewell in the moment of its recognizability, is the past to be held fast... For it is an irretrievable picture of the past, which threatens to disappear with every present, which does not recognize itself as meant in it.
(Benjamin, Thesis V, On the Concept of History, 1940)

Because, perhaps, and also because, you exist as a gaze that's incapable of convoking its own shades, images and shadows, the harsh voices, the wailing cries, the cults of appearances and disappearances...

Twelve rules for perfect tea-drinking

What are the twelve golden rules for tea-drinkers? What makes the perfect cup of tea? Let me invite you to a problem. If you haven't noticed, there are few railway stations in Bengal which still sport the almost-century-old colonial-era advertisements promoting tea-drinking. The mystery lies there. Needless to say, these have been missed out by the Archaeological Survey of India and frantic journalists looking for bytes and column spaces for the next day. These have gone into the shaping of the Bengali tea-drinker.

And consider this, whatever be their Olympian achievements, Bengalis of India can out beat Chileans, Japanese and Russians (legendary tea-drinkers), and Britishers (the initiators of this strange habit) in at least one act—the relentless consumption of tea. Whether you are in a remote village without electricity, roads or hospitals, or inside the mad crazy urbanias (again, without access to electricity, roads and hospitals), you'll find people making, drinking and talking tea— the solvent for all troubles, the panacea for lost souls brooding over life and other complexities, the magic potion brewed from stranger leaves all claiming to be 'Darjeeling Tea' that eases out the problems of your being (without your being Subhas Ghishing).

Does that mean you've to know all these? Well, no.

Ah, but those wonderful historical signposts. Close to the subway entrance on platform no.2 of Dum Dum railway station, and at platform no. 1 of Krishnanagar railway station, they survive, in spite of scrappy paint and buckling tin, and bemuse tea-drinkers who wonder how that brown (ugggh!) liquid served to them in small plastick cups can be officiously called 'tea' . But even when you're, let's say, hypothetically drinking 'tea',— it is a forced optical illusion, my mother always insisted that the cup of Horlicks I had back in schooldays was tea— you've to believe. And these adverts tell you 'bout the benefits of tea-drinking
("চা-পানের উপকারিতা", in bold letters).
The first of these benefits is very interesting:
"There is no harm from tea-drinking"
("ইহার কোনও অপকারিতা নেই").

The other benefits are, er, less interesting: tea increases your appetite, tea affects your intelligence, tea is not an addiction... but then you're not supposed to ask questions, are you?

If you'll remember, these adverts have their bearing to a forgotten past, when in the early part of the 20th century, tea was viewed with extreme suspicion here by people who are still suspicious about anything and everything, and deeply, er, stoically, philosophical about life. It was the boom time of anti-colonial Bengali nationalism at around 1908— the package complete with bombs, Hindutva and secularism, rallies and successful protest marches after the stalling of the Partition of the Bengal Province— when there were British tea-company people out on the prowl, surreptitiously armed with cups, saucers and even money in some cases, trying to entice would-be Bengali consumers, in what could have been the best example of successful marketing of consumables against odds.

I think tea appealed to the philosophical bit of the Bengali mind— you can philosophise best when you got a purpose to your inactivity ('Hey! I'm sitting in this roadside tea-stall and this is only my seventh cup! I've got lots of work to do, you see!), and which outmaneuvers the suspicious bit ('Why is the boy sitting next to me not in school or college at this time of the day? What's cooking up between him and the girl he's talking to on the phone?'). But excessive philosophising makes you forget your tea in tasseomancy.

Enough of lengthy digressions. So you consider yourself a serious tea-drinker, and want to know. OK, try considering the twelve golden rules of tea-drinking. Eleven of them were compiled in 1946 (by a wonderful Englishman who hated calling himself an Englishman) and this still stand relevant. The twelfth is an unfortunate addition by me.

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays - it is economical, and one can drink it without milk - but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase 'a nice cup of tea' invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities - that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes - a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup - that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one's tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea - unless one is drinking it in the Russian style - should be drunk 'without sugar'. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

(The complete article by George Orwell can be accessed here).

Stretching the eleventh point further, you reach the twelfth point (though it contradicts point no. ten in a way): Have your tea without milk, sugar or any other addendum. The best tea-leaves are not powdered, but small, delicate, and visibly green. Pure tea is organic, and without artificial flavours. Add that to boiled water (not boiling water) and leave it covered for 2-3 minutes, to make the perfect cup. The brew should be dark like mature wooded rum, but it should not be dark like the night or coal. Use the tip of your tongue to savour. You'll know heaven.

absence of speech

"Language is not eternal.
It will be replaced.
We are not going to talk for ever."

Fifteen minus four

Never! Never in my lifetime had I been to the first class that started at 10.20 in the morning. I simply hated it. Most of my classmates probably thought it had something to do with my complex communistic principles, a conscious act of defiance against the bourgeois university system, essentially typified in the 10.20 class, which denied students the right to sleep till noon.

But today, post 9.30, I sweated profusely and pedalled furiously as I moved in through drizzling rain and roaring city traffic to reach the university. There were kids supposedly waiting for my—whazzit called? ah, yes!— sermon. Yesterday had been my first class with a bunch of postgraduate kids, fifteen in number, and I had been assigned by R...di (the course coordinator) to take classes on Eric Arthur Blair for the rest of this week.

I reached the verandah and smoked one and a half cigarettes (I had to throw off one for ADG had stepped in from nowhere, speaking absent-mindedly on his phone). Five minutes past, I saved up the stubbed-out one in my pocket for emergency futuristic consumption, and picked up the attendance register from the HoD's office. By then only two kids had appeared and at 10.35, I was still patiently waiting. Damn, I had to explain so many things by 11.10. Another two turned up at 10.40. Two plus two made four, and I started off. It's so strange to be on the other side of the desk—this is a metaphor, for I deliberately chose a small room with a big table and lots of chairs around it— with people fidgeting and gaping at you, and you fumbling for words.

As I was, er, exploring the, er, complexities, er, of the genre formations of 'utopia' and 'dystopia', and the post-Enlightenment, er, reaction, er, to the notion, er, of technocratic, er, progress— a cellphone rang. A kid stood up with an apologetic smile and said: "Dada, please, can I attend to it?" Lost in the corridors of no-place (ui+topos, to be precise), I was blank for a moment. "Switch it off, you're crossing your limits," I said in a cold voice, well remembered from other spaces and times. Limits? Ha, ha, listen who's talking of limits. But voila, it still worked— I had perfect attention for the rest of the class which ended, let's say in considerate terms, rather miserably but slightly better than yesterday.

Kids, big brother (dada) is watching you, but believe me, his vigil is mostly symbolic. There are ghosts, shapes and mental structures that you've inherited from the past, and as long as you seriously believe in them, you cannot dream of alternate worlds, or even have serious negative visions.

In search of answers: A Visit to the Oracle

Pythia, the old Oracle of Delphi is no more. But there is another oracular namesake that gives you supposedly intelligent answers. Troubled with life as it is, I went looking for enlightenment. You can go there too, if you know where to search for, and importantly, the questions to ask. I'll be providing you with the address, but if you care to, go through the questions that I asked and the Oracle's philosophical replies:

What is the meaning of life?
The Oracle replied: To live in peace with oneself.

Why does the cigarette burn?
The Oracle replied: If you want to find the root cause, look in the mirror.

Why does the sky appear blue?
The Oracle replied: The causes of this incident are rooted deep inside the human mind.

Where do I find peace?
The Oracle replied: In Afghanistan.

How to understand Derrida?
The Oracle replied: With unlimited money.

What is the most surprising thing about the universe?
The Oracle replied: Hate. This is sensitive information and you must keep it to yourself. Got it?

The most confusing question?
The Oracle replied: Hmm. You could ask me any question in the world and you come up with this?

Understanding my limits, I was rather confused. So I asked:What would you like to ask?
The Oracle replied: "Why is there no cat food which tastes like mouse?”

This answer made me angry. The next question appeared instantaneously:
Why are you so stupid?
The Oracle replied: The cause is insignificant. You must focus on the consequences.

This made me suspicious. And like all sensible people walking the streets of Kolkata, I asked the most sensible question we ask strangers when they make us angry. And it left the Oracle, I believe, in eternal confusion.

Tumi ki bangla bojho? (Do You understand Bengali?)
The Oracle replied: My Artificial Intelligence failed to parse what you said.

Ha! Guessed it at the beginning! But here's the link, if you're interested...

Liver of the Dead

It's a strange tale and it goes like this:

In the village of Hammer near Czernikowo many years ago there lived a young married couple. The wife loved to eat liver and could not live if she didn't eat a liver every day. One day she sent her husband once again to town to fetch a liver. However, in Czernikowo the husband met a group of young merrymakers and went with them to a tavern, where he drank away all his money.

Sad, and without the liver, he made his way homeward. It was late. On his way he had to go through a great forest. Here he met a hunter, who asked him why he was so sad. The man told him everything, upon which the hunter said, "In the middle of the forest there is a clearing with a gallows, upon which a number of dead bodies are hanging. Take one of them down, cut out his liver, and give it to your wife. Tell her it is beef liver."

The man did just that.

When he arrived home his wife was at first angry because he had been away so long, but she calmed down as soon as she saw the liver, and began frying it. The man lay down and went to sleep.

Suddenly a white figure appeared at the window, and it cried into the room, "Everyone is asleep. The dogs are keeping watch in the yard. And you are standing there frying my liver."

The man was terrified, and in his fear he cried out to his wife that she should come to bed. But the wife wanted first to dip a little piece of bread into the gravy and taste it.

Meanwhile, the phantom, a white skeleton, had already entered the house, always calling out the same words again and again. The woman was not afraid, but asked the ghost, "Now, my little fellow, what happened to your flesh?"
The ghost replied, "The ravens ate it, and the wind blew it away."

Then the woman asked, "Now, my little fellow, what happened to your eyes and ears?"
And the ghost answered, "The ravens ate them, and the wind blew them away."

The woman asked, "Now, my little fellow, what happened to your liver?"
Then the ghost cried out, "You have it!" And with that he seized the woman and strangled her to death.

End of tale.

But why did the ghost strangle the woman? It was the man who was to blame, surely. And going by the ghost's pattern of logic, his fetish for lost body parts, a number of ravens should have also been strangled, not to mention worms, insects and bacterial life forms. I think the meaning of this runs deeper than the folk-practices that suggest not to meddle with the physical remains of the dead.

[A Polish folktale compiled by Otto Knoop in 1909, and translated by D. L. Ashliman.]

Who believes in Harvey Dent?

The face of the beautiful psychopathic Joker can make you forget all. But try hard, you’ve got to remember Harvey Dent. For there's a confusing question.

In the silence of the multiplex that grew illegally atop a marsh to the south of this mad city, and in the middle of popcorn-munching SAYTMDHMs (Smart-Ass-Young-Things-Made-Dumber-by-Hollywood-Movies), your mind fidgets uncomfortably as the arch-villain to the Dark Knight whispers across space to Harvey Dent, the injured district attorney sprawling in Gotham Hospital. Your ears prickle as the Joker edges closer and says:
Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It's fair.

The words sink in as Dent flips his coin, and he has begun to show two faces. I mean officially. For everyone in the movie has two faces, irreconcilable and mutually incompatible. And you’re alone in the dark with your grimace, your realization of this stereotypical double-facedness that pervades the silver-screen glare and gives you strange stomach aches. Burp! Oops, the last one was a stretched metaphor.

But consider the Joker.

On the one hand, he’s almost the stereotypical embodiment of a bomb-gun-and-scheming Guy Fawkes type anarchist social crusader (“This town deserves a better class of criminals...It's not about money,” says he as he kills a stereotypical Chechen goon of Hollywood stock and burns the heap of bank notes saying, “it's about... sending a message.” “Everything burns”, that’s his message.) On the other, he’s the stereotypical cold-blooded murderer, who plans but refuses to acknowledge his planning, displaying a spontaneous but stereotypical professionalism which masks his stereotypical smile that refuses to do anything without being paid in monetary or symbolic terms (“If you're good at something, never do it for free”).

Or Lucius Fox.
The man has no objections to his using a device to map and record everything of the private spaces of the stereotypical scheming Chinese gangster Lau (and the violation of international airspace in Hong Kong, eh?) but then offers to resign when Bruce Wayne eavesdrops on every telephonic conversation in the American city of 30 million damned souls. Ah, numerical and geographical morality once again, the same good old Patriot!

Or consider James Gordon, the Bat-friendly cop, who believes in the stereotypical principles of law while arresting Joker (he calls him “son of a bitch” though, I distinctly remember) and even consents to hound the Batman at the end (“and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it”).
But always believing in the deux ex machina extra-judicial legal apparatus consisting of a caped millionaire in a spandex costume beating cleaning up the streets with “his bare hands” (the improbability of this, even in movie-time, is testified by Lucius Fox before his junior staff), Gordon lights the lamp to his deity.

And even Bruce Wayne, with or without his spandex suit, has two stereotypical faces. As Wayne, his concern is restricted to the undefined betterment of Gotham, may the world outside Gotham and America rot and burn. Consider his conversation with Alfred Pennyworth:
Bruce: That man in Burma, did you ever catch him?
Alfred: Oh yes.
Bruce: How?

Alfred: We burned the forest down.

Bruce nods and passes on without a comment. Follow the thread of logic here: you support the burning down of an entire forest to catch a fugitive. Now, did you ever hear of bombing down an entire country to catch a person, a tyrannical president maybe? You didn’t?

The answer comes from the man in the suit that could give you muscular cramps if you tried it for real. Much later in the movie, the Batman says: “Sometimes, truth isn't good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” (Remember you had willingly bought your way into the hall, indeed, you deserve to be stereotypically rewarded, no matter what that is). It's a matter of faith, you've got to believe!

The scene where Batman beats up Joker inside the police lock-up is the best naturalised justification of extra-judicial torture witnessed in movie space in recent times. With the audience cheering, that's where the new Batman beats good old Rambo outside Guantanamo.

And after surviving all that stereotypical double-facedness, I know it will be really hard to remember what sort of values the official Two-Face Harvey Dent stood for in the movie. I am still so confused 'bout it all.

The man was sort of goody-but-stern replacement to the Dark Knight, if you go by his appearances in the movie as the district attorney to bloody Gotham, stars and stripes ablaze. In the comic books, he was twenty-six, a smart and handsome district attorney, the youngest ever to serve, and nicknamed "Apollo" for his good looks. 40-year-old Aaron Eckhart is too old for that, but never mind. Also forget the question of choice between love and commitment to Battick principles in the movie, it’s so stereotypically Hollywood. You had watched that in the Spiderman movie, you watched in The Incredibles, and even in Scooby-Doo.

Harvey Dent plays Ron Paul to Gotham (if you again excuse the confusing metaphor), and lives up to his quote as Two-Face: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” (Mind it, it’s a Dent-ed quote). But at least, he’s an admittedly confused White Knight who gets a hard push from the caped crusader and thrown off the board. And with no moralizing words of closure.

But did you ever, inside or outside the movie, believe in the values embodied in the confused attorney’s character?
(The quotes used above are from IMDB and can be found here)

dreaming of dragons

In China there was once a man who liked pictures of dragons, and his clothing and furnishings were all designed accordingly.

His deep affection for dragons was brought to the attention of the dragon god, and one day a real dragon appeared before his window.

It is said that he died of fright.
(from Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo)