Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Neighbourhood snapshots

(Note: Was experimenting with spacing structures on this piece but cannot seem to reproduce them here. Anyone who wants to see what this piece originally looked like, and perhaps tell me how to achieve the same effect here, please drop a comment)

6 AM

The park is full
of the very old
with their walking sticks
and the young
with their iPods
Nervous squirrels start at the sudden sound
of the laughter club
loosening up with a few experimental chuckles
The sun wakes reluctantly

9 AM

The parking lot starts clearing out
It’s a weekday and the cars receive little love
just a quick brush and they are done
The rising star of the beverages department steals a look at his hair in the mirror before pulling out
The harried market researcher absently fingers his stubble
The ad executive marks an unsteady path home


The vegetable seller yells at the top of her voice
scaring the pigeons
and waking the ad executive
Ignoring the glares of the three men who always seem to be sitting there
she yells again but is interrupted
dhan ta na
ta na ta na ta na
her cell phone rings
and an order is placed
for two kilos of potatoes
one kilo of bitter gourd on the express condition that it be fresh
five unripe bananas
and a handful of green chillies

4 PM

The presence of cumulous clouds
in blue skies
depresses those expecting rain
and causes them to curse the power shortage and the embargo it imposes on their ACs
The Japanese school practices
very loudly
for its annual Sports Day
happy as usual
to remain self-contained
and strange to the local population

7 PM

The park empties out
and the parking lot fills up
Frantic calls
of ‘last over’ are heard
just before the ball gets lost in the hedge
Couples walk discreetly towards the leafier areas
Worker bees drive their economy segment cars back to the hive
murmuring a prayer
as they cross the temple on their way down the slope

10 PM

Sounds from five very different TV channels
struggle to coexist
Dogs congregate to sleep
as they do every night
on the temple steps
Policemen stand by
looking at the dark hedges
looking at their lathis
and thinking quis custodiet ipsoes custodes
The hopeful young man asks that eternal question
can you come out for some time?

1 AM

The watchman blows his whistle
reassuring the old pensioner
irritating the market researcher with a big presentation the next day
A car
with four friends
and some sad song on the radio
passes him by
It stops
near the parking lot
One of them gets off
Looks at the car for a moment
as if considering
whether to thank someone
but at any rate
decides against it
and just turns and goes home

Sunday, August 16, 2009

California Dreamin'

Can you actually tell anything about a person depending on what parts of ‘California Dreamin’ they sing along to? Whether they take the high notes or the low ones. Whether they try and match the desperation in John Phillips’ voice when he sings ‘Waalll I got down on my knees…and I pretend to pray”. Whether they like to be the voices singing those wintry lines first, or the haunting echo that tails them like unforgiving fate. Do these sonic choices say something about the kind of people they are? Was my friend a lead singer because he sang the solo bits? Or did the fact that he was a lead singer predispose him to taking up those lines? And what about that over-enthusiastic (and inevitably untuneful) quorum who insist on singing all the lines? What would one slot them as? Enthusiasts? Go-getters? Schmucks?


It’s a measure of this song’s resilience to easy interpretation that the ultimate California group, The Beach Boys tried their hand at it, and failed badly. Granted they were a couple of decades past their prime, but they would have made a mess of it even in 1966. There’s something unforgiving about the song, something resigned and devoid of hope. To inhabit it properly, you have to live in it – except this song is no place to live in, that much is clear from the time the singer starts his story, if not from the first notes of the guitar. The only hint of the California warmth the singer so desperately wants to get back to is in the answering vocals - and heard a certain way, even these can sound sympathetic but non-committal, like a good stern priest. Or that preacher, the one who likes the cold.

What links ‘Like a rolling stone’, ‘I want to hold your hand’, ‘This year’s love’ but does not necessarily apply to ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘Stairway to heaven’? Great songs all, but only the first three have that rare ability to convey to listeners at large exactly what they are about, without their having to be explained or translated. ‘California Dreamin’ also belongs in this club. Wong-kar Wai knew this when he used it again and again in his 2001 feature ‘Chungking Express’. Faye Wong’s waitress was given no back story, her motives were never explained. Instead, we were invited to understand her through her actions, the most common of which was playing ‘California Dreamin’. A remarkable cultural transplant, with all that longing and dislocation skipping a few decades, crossing an ocean and landing up in modern-day Hong Kong. What’s more, it sounds like it belongs there, more in tune with the characters in this movie and their complex emotions than with the quintessentially American Beach Boys. Come to think of it, the wind may have started carrying the seeds over earlier. Freddie Aguilar of the Philippines had a hit a few years ago with ‘Anak’; I don’t understand a word of what he’s saying, but it’s that same unsettling, intimate feeling.


Man decides to take a walk. It’s a cold winter’s day, full of sleet and bitter wind. Six months ago, this kind of weather may as well have existed on Mars for all it mattered to him. Now he braves it every day. He hasn’t missed a walk in six weeks, it’s the only thing that helps him clear his mind a little. He has tried going to church but can never seem to immerse himself in the experience the way the people around him do. He likes the preacher though – tough, old guy, never shivers no matter how high or hard the wind blows. For some inexplicable reason he feels the preacher likes him as well. Which is strange, because he hasn’t gone anywhere near confession, and is pretty sure it’s written all over his face that he has no intention to.


…maybe he understands that I am not the same as the others, the ones who walk in here to give thanks, those who complain, ask for things, betray the fact that they are human with their every greedy breath.. That I have a darkness which I carry around inside me, a void his church will never fill. That I have sacrificed, just like he has probably sacrificed. Or maybe he’s just interested because I’m from out of town. We tend to forget that priests come from humans, as do gods, and were probably human once themselves.

The lines echo in my head until they stop making sense. If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today. If I hadn’t told her, I never would have left. If life were that simple, we would all be in LA.

In all honesty, I don’t see myself leaving this place any time soon. The people are sterner here, more rugged, but also more rooted. There are fewer cars, quieter bars. No orders cocktails, they all drink beer. I am slowly learning to accept, if not embrace, the present…which is not to say the past is behind me. I still have difficulty thinking of California as a place; right now, for me, California is a person. She appears in my dreams, the one time when I have no control over what I am seeing or hearing. It’s warm while it lasts but I wake up that much colder for the experience.

Thinking of trying out some prescription meds. You know any good ones?

Yours, in fond remembrance of times past…

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


There’s this one shot in a Wim Wender’s film called ‘Wings of Desire’. It shows an angel standing on the roof of a tall building. He’s on the edge and leaning forward ever so slightly. You can see the skyline in the background, but it is blurred and indistinct. Everything looks slightly grimy, as if a dust storm is brewing. The wings, however, retain their delicacy - they are white, almost transparent.

Whenever I see this image I feel a strange kinship. I keep getting this feeling that he and I are in some way similar. We are both in purgatory. He is condemned to saving souls, but instead wants to live a normal life. I am stuck with a shatteringly normal life, when I’d rather be saving souls.

He’s on the edge. So am I.

He’s leaning forward. I am too.