Blogger’s Block

It must be clear by now that Collected Thoughts is no longer a weekly blog, as it was in the first six months of its life. It is no longer even a fortnightly blog, as it was in August. The best I can write right now is a monthly post. I’ll try not to do so on the last day of the month, but I can’t make any promises.

Calvin Hobbes writers block

Many years ago, I was spending a weekend with an aunt when I came across a book on her shelves that was a collection of magazine columns by a writer whose name I recognized but whom I had not read. With the first line of “Do-Re-Mi” in mind, I started at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start (especially a book). In the foreword (which was really a preface, since it was written by the author), the author says that he always wrote the column on the day it was due. I remember shuddering with awe as I read that. It meant that he was more than a good writer; it meant that he was a fearless writer. I was in the throes of writer’s block at the time, and I wondered if I would ever write again, let alone write with such panache. I ended up spending the weekend with the book, perhaps to the disappointment of my chatty aunt.

I have since realized that writer’s block is mostly imaginary, but the fear of writer’s block is a very real thing. Technology has changed our metaphors. I no longer fear the blank page; I only fear the blank screen. But it’s the same thing. And it will keep plaguing me unless I do something to conquer it. That may take years, but I am going to attempt the feat today, by writing this post even though I have no idea what it is about. If I die trying, tell them I’d like my tombstone to say something more eloquent than “Uh.” And they should make it sound happy, not grave. I’d write my own epitaph if I weren’t at a loss for words. Although, as a writer, being at a loss for words is writing my own epitaph.

Writers block

One day last week I came across a YouTube video on the Kargil War, which was fought between India and its neighbor to the west between May and July of 1999, just months after I had relocated to Los Angeles. Kargil, a district in the remote windswept region of Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is not far from the Line of Control.

The LOC, which is considered Asia’s Berlin Wall, demarcates that disputed territory known in India as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and in its neighbor to the west as Azad Kashmir (azad meaning free). As one who was born in India I do not love my former neighbor to the west’s definition of freedom, but this post is not about loving my former neighbor’s definition of freedom. It is about gaining my own freedom.

The video I stumbled upon last week is an interview between NDTV’s Barkha Dutt and certain Indian soldiers, held in a bunker in Kargil. The video has an eerie quality – and I’m not referring to the visual quality. That is superior considering the circumstances. The eerieness stems from knowing that these men may not live to see daylight. Barkha, we know, survives (and long may she live), but while watching the video I tried putting myself in each person’s shoes and imagining how it must feel to be this close to a very violent death. I’m always close to a very violent death while driving the LA freeways, but war is played on a different stage. (“War is played” is ironic, so please don’t tell me I know nothing about war. I don’t have firsthand experience, but that’s not why I am using the stage metaphor. If I didn’t have writer’s block, I’d have been more creative.)

While watching the Kargil interview I thought constantly about the fear the men were facing even as the camera was rolling. They were in the midst of war; the interview might be abruptly terminated by enemy fire or the command to get up, get out, and fight. When Barkha Dutt asked how the soldiers dealt with fear, young Capt. Vishal Thapa, with a perspicacity beyond his years, said this:

Fear is something that is natural because we’re all humans. But then . . . the . . . reason why we’re here is to overcome that.

Thapa is a Gurkha. For him to admit fear is significant. As the legendary Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw famously said, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha.” Happily, Thapa survived Kargil, and the video ends with another interview with Barkha Dutt, ten years later. He had attained the rank of major by this time, and no doubt he has received other promotions since.

Vishal Thapa Kargil

What does Vishal Thapa’s insightful comment in 1999 have to do with my writer’s block today? A lot. The young captain was attempting to overcome the fear of losing his life that night in Kargil, and I am writing this post in an attempt to overcome my lesser, but no less real fear of losing my writing ability. Or losing touch with the place from where writing originates. Some writers call this the well, which I think is an apt metaphor.

There’s something both terrifying and comforting about wells. I’ve always been a little afraid of them, perhaps because they’re so gloomy – dark and deep like Robert Frost’s woods, and not as lovely. But wells also have something cheerful about them. One of the merriest sounds I’ve ever heard is the clink of the bucket as it hits the water and then gets filled to gurgles that echo all the way up to the well’s mouth. I heard this sound years ago, in a village near Hyderabad where I was spending a couple months, and I haven’t forgotten it.

Sometimes a well is so dark that you can’t tell if it has any water. You will find out only when you let down your bucket. When I wrote the first sentence of this post, I was lowering my bucket into a well that may have run dry – but at some point my bucket hit the water!

So I have overcome the fear of writer’s block this time. I’ll probably face it again, and when that happens I hope I’ll lower my bucket again. If you’re facing a fear of any kind, I hope you’ll do the same. Here’s wishing us well.

Bucket and Well

My Favorite Speech

The title refers to one of my own speeches. My favorite speech by someone else is the one Jawaharlal Nehru gave to the Indian Constituent Assembly shortly before independent India’s flag was unfurled for the first time on August 15, 1947. The speech has come to be known as “Tryst with Destiny,” because of the phrase in that famous first line:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

My favorite part is in that last sentence: “when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” India couldn’t have found a more eloquent utterance for its long suppressed soul. But while August 15, 1947 was indeed the day when an age ended, I am not sure that the land of my birth awoke to freedom that day, because I believe that freedom is much more than independence. Given how many of India’s most vulnerable citizens – women, children, the poor, the aged, the lower castes – are still being treated tells me that freedom is a ways away. 

My favorite of my own speeches is far less eloquent, but I agree with everything I’ve said! The following is an excerpt from that speech, which I gave at a Diwali function last November. (Even though the most recent Indian festival was Holi, the festival of color, I was telling friends about the Diwali event last night so I decided to publish this speech today instead of waiting until my birthday, which will be the eve of Diwali 2014.) 

Diwali is the most important holiday in the Indian calendar – and indeed, it is the start of the Indian calendar, the Indian new year. India is a country that enjoys celebrating festivals, and with so many religions represented, there is always a festival round the corner. Diwali is the most widely observed of all Indian festivals, celebrated even by non-Hindus.

Different regions of India have different stories associated with the origin of the festival, and for me, as a North Indian, the story that always comes to mind when I think of Diwali is Rama’s defeat of Ravana and his subsequent return to Ayodhya. According to this tradition, the festival gets its name from the rows of lamps that were lit to celebrate the return of the kingdom’s rightful ruler after 14 years in exile. The light in these lamps symbolizes not only joy and rejoicing, but also the victory of good over evil. And this victory of good over evil is at the heart of Diwali. It might a while for good to triumph over evil, just as it took 14 years for Rama to return from exile, but it is worth waiting for. It is worth hoping for, worth believing in.

As Indians we are very familiar with the adventures of Rama, but I wonder if the people who had seen Rama leave Ayodhya for exile believed that he would ever return? As the years went by, did they give up hope? There was no way of telling what might have happened to Rama or the two people who were with him: his wife Sita and his younger brother Lakshmana. There were no cell phones back then. I am old enough to remember a world without cells phones, and an India with black-and-white TV. But there was no TV in Rama and Sita’s day, and no computers. Which meant no emails and – good heavens! – no Facebook! Rama could not post a status update for the friends back in Ayodhya, adding photos that they could like, comment about, and share with their friends. . . No, when you saw someone leave for exile in a forest, it might be the last time you’d see them.

Perhaps many of the Ayodhyans were disappointed when the months turned into years with no sign of Rama’s return. Did they begin to doubt that he would come back? Had he found a better country? Had he been killed? But for light to shine in darkness there must be faith. There must be hope. Those who steadfastly believed that Rama would return must have felt doubly joyful when they saw him: joyful because he was back, and joyful because they had not doubted. The return of Rama and Sita, when seen through the perspective of the Ayodhyans who had waited for this for 14 years, believing against all odds, represents the triumph of faith over doubt, of hope over despair.

If there is one request I can make this Diwali, I would encourage anyone who finds themselves in a difficult situation not to give in to despair. I urge you to continue to hope and believe that good will triumph over evil in the end – assuming, of course, that you don’t succumb to evil yourself. And evil often manifests itself in the unseen forms of despair, doubt, depression, and the like. I would also encourage you to see the situation as an opportunity. Rama’s exile into the forest for 14 years was not in itself a good thing, but he accepted it to honor his father, which was the right thing to do. He had probably never heard of the Ten Commandments, but he was instinctively following the one that says “Honor your father and mother that it may go well with you.” He honored his father, and it did go well with him. But for the people who had been left behind in Ayodhya, the long wait for Rama’s return was an opportunity to grow. I hope that many of them had good things to show him for the 14 years – new homes, thriving businesses, children who were doing well at school, at university.

Light is an apt metaphor for both these victories: of good over evil, and of hope over despair. Diwali, the festival of lights, is that time of year when all of India becomes bright with light: from the rows of diyas on the ground, to the lanterns hanging from ceilings and doorways, to the fireworks illuminating the night sky. Light represents joy and hope – and indeed it is a metaphor for God Himself, for God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all.

Diwali Diyas

Since eating plays such an important role in Indian culture even at non-festive times, food obviously has a place of prominence during Diwali. Last week I posted a message on Facebook asking my friends what they like best about Diwali, and from the first response (“I love the sweets”), which came from one of my dearest childhood friends, Neeraja, it was pretty much all about food.

My only contribution to the list of goodies was boondi laddoo. I like boondi laddoo so much that I couldn’t resist making it the favorite sweet of Niteshbhai, one of the two protagonists of the title story of my book, Pioneer Boulevard: Los Angeles Stories.

“Pioneer Boulevard” has a special place in my heart for various reasons. For one thing, the word pioneer is a metaphor: the book is about immigrants, and immigrants are pioneers. The story is also special because it is set during India’s biggest festival, the one we are here to celebrate this evening.

Indians like to ring in the new year with the purchase of gold, but in “Pioneer Boulevard” Rhoda has come to Hema Jewelers to sell her wedding necklace because she needs the money. What follows is an exchange between her and Niteshbhai, the jeweler. It ends with Rhoda telling Niteshbhai, “I hope this new year is very prosperous for your family.”

I wish each of you the same. And I pray that the joy and hope that Diwali represents will remain in your hearts, not just during this season, but all year long.

Diwali Sweets

Dark Enlightenment

John Morley, whose first term as Secretary of State for India began two months after the partition of Bengal took effect in October 1905, seems to have quickly perceived that the partition sounded a death knell for the British Raj. “Reforms may not save the Raj,” he told the viceroy, “but if they don’t, nothing else will.” The Earl of Minto, whose great-grandpa had served as Governor-General of India a century before, was naturally dismissive of such unpatriotic sentiments. “The Raj will not disappear in India as long as the British race remains what it is,” he retorted. 

Minto died in March 1914, with his notions of the superiority of the British race and the permanence of the Raj intact. He never knew that the man who made the Raj disappear would return to India the following January, but Morley lived long enough to see Gandhi successfully establish the non-cooperation movement he had launched in South Africa, and perhaps when he died in 1923 he had an inkling that the Raj would soon be consigned to history. But for all his perspicacity about India, Morley made an error of judgment about Diderot, about whom he knew much more (having written a book called Diderot and the Encyclopædists).  

Encyclopedie

The French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot (1713–1784) is best known for co-founding and serving as chief editor of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The encyclopedia, published in France between 1751 and 1772, is significant not only as a work of reference but especially because it embodied Enlightenment thought. In an article of the same name, Diderot said that the aim of the Encyclopédie was to “change the way people think.” Which, for Enlightenment philosophers, primarily meant replacing religion with reason.

I won’t apologize for saying that I think enlightenment is the wrong word for the Age of Reason. Like everyone else, I have a set of beliefs and experiences and personality traits through which I respond to the world, and my cultural heritage is also part of the mix. I am from India, where enlightenment refers to spiritual revelation, not the acquisition of knowledge by reason and logic. And if you think I should then be speaking an Indian language, please take the matter up with whoever came to India for tea and left three hundred and forty-seven years later, leaving behind a language that has such disparate words as reason and enlightenment

Wrong religious practices needed to be reformed in the eighteenth century, as they must be reformed today – in established religion and especially in our individual lives –but doing away with traditional religion and replacing it with reason cannot be called enlightenmentDismissing as irrelevant something that had been held as true by so many for so long, something so many had been willing to become martyrs for, shows a blindness about an important dimension of human existence. In fact, the spiritual is the most important dimension of human existence, because it deals with the apprehension of truth. Knowledge is temporal – what was “the latest technology” a decade ago is now obsolete, and la dernière in the Age of Reason might well have belonged to the Dark Ages where we’re concerned – but truth is eternal. To seek to rid humanity of that which endures forever is both arrogance and folly.  

The Encyclopédie, being an encyclopedia, aimed to cover all branches of knowledge, and therefore the Encyclopedists should have done away with all traditional knowledge and started from scratch in every field, not just religion. But they didn’t. They picked and chose as they pleased. Religion was chosen to be unchosen because they had a reason for wanting to reject it. But what if we did away with all traditional knowledge? If we in the 21st century decided to take Enlightenment philosophy to its logical conclusion by rejecting all that is traditional, we would have to discard their views on everything, including their views on religion! Enlightenment philosophy is ultimately self-defeating. So much for Reason

Diderot PrankMorley’s error about Diderot has spawned so many thoughts on art and life that it deserves a post of its own on Collected Thoughts. And I think it is fitting to conclude this post with photos of Diderot statues in the places where he was born (Langres) and died (Paris). In both he is shown in his dressing gown, made famous by the whimsical essay, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune.” In the old garment he says he was “picturesque and handsome;” its long lines announced the litterateur, the man who worked. The starchy new robe, by contrast, lent him “the air of a rich good for nothing,” and it made everything in his study look humble, so he replaced each item at considerable expense. The cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken has based his theory of upward mobility, the Diderot effect, on this essay.

Diderot

The traffic cone and wineglass in the hand of the Paris statue are obviously the work of pranksters, but the ribbon on the Langres statue might be a coded message between gangsters or perhaps clandestine lovers. Or it might be an allusion to the dressing gown, which Diderot had described in his essay as “the scarlet intruder.” But the ribbon was not the first thing I noticed in this picture. What first drew my attention was the chimney in the background, which brought to mind a couple couplets from the dirge in Cymbeline:

      Golden lads and girls all must,
      As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
             The scepter, learning, physic, must,
             All follow this, and come to dust.

Morley, Morley, and More

The title might make it seem like this post is no more than more wordplay, but there’s more to it than wordplay. One Morley will lead to another, and he will lead to someone associated with the beginning of the end of the British Raj. And he will lead to someone associated with the end of the British Raj. 

But let me begin with the ones who started it all: the Brothers Fowler. In the Fowlers Howlers post on trite quotations, I had quoted them quoting Morley quoting Hamlet.

If Diderot had visited . . . Rome, even the mighty painter of the Last Judgment . . . would have found an interpreter worthy of him. But it was not to be.— MORLEY. 

In thus rebuking the writer for rebuking the reader’s ignorance, the Fowlers inadvertently made the same mistake themselves. When they attributed a “trivial quotation” to Morley, they assumed that everyone would know who they meant and therefore did not feel the need to add a first name. No doubt the early readers of The King’s English would have known who Morley was, but Henry Watson and Francis George didn’t count on the ignorance of certain future readers.

Since I didn’t recognize the name, I typed “writer morley” into my search engine and the first result was Christopher Morley, the American journalist, novelist, anessayist whose penchant for quotations is apparent from the fact that he served as editor on two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1937 and 1948). But halfway through the Wikipedia entry I knew this was not the Morley I was looking for. How did I figure this out? Elementary, my dear Henry Watson.  

Christopher Morley is the author of Kitty Foyle, the 1939 novel that had critics debating about his “sexual sensationalism.” So even though he was a writer with a penchant for quotations, and he had the right surname, I knew that a man who had written about the exploits of a white-collar girl when he was 49 could not have written about Diderot in his teens. (The Morley example appears in the second edition of The King’s English, published in 1908, and Christopher Morley was born in 1890.)

Morley-John-Viscount (2)

So I returned to my search engine and, more sensibly, typed “morley diderot.” This time I had my man: John Morley, the British Liberal statesman who would have become a clergyman had he not quarreled with his father over religion and opted for law. He was called to the bar but refused to drink. Instead, he chose a career in journalism and eventually joined politics. But this comes later in the Wikipedia article (as does the Diderot connection). When I read in the third line that Morley had served as Secretary of State for India between 1905 and 1910, I remembered him from history. This was the Morley of the Minto-Morley Reforms!

I read history as a minor for my BA so I am supposed to know this and a whole lot more, but even a high school student in India could tell you that 1905 is one of the most significant dates in British Indian history. It is next in importance only to 1757, 1857, and 1947 because it’s the year the first bell tolled for the British Raj, the bell being Curzon’s partition of Bengal. (An Indian historian would have added the adjective “infamous,” but as a writer I must remain above clichés, true though they be.)     

George_Curzon (2)The viceroy had mandated the partition ostensibly to make the administration of that large province more manageable, but that it was done along religious lines proves that the real reason was to Divide and Rule, the policy adopted not long after the Revolt of 1857. Curzon concludes the proclamation of partition on a curiously casual note: “The outcry will be loud and very fierce, but as a native gentleman said to me – ‘my countrymen always howl until a thing is settled; then they accept it’.” It sounds as though he might be ending a letter to a friend, not the viceregal proclamation that set in motion the chain of events that would cause the sun to set on the British Empire. 

Contrary to what the native gentleman had told the viceroy, the hue and cry did not die down and a month after the partition took effect, Curzon was replaced by the Earl of Minto. My man Morley followed weeks later, as Secretary of State. M & M were the architects of the Indian Councils Act 1909, which came to be known as the Minto-Morley Reforms. The partition of Bengal was revoked in 1911, but by then the damage had been done. It had thrown India into the kind of turmoil that fueled the rising national movement as a less radical political act would not have done, sounding the first death knell for the British Raj.

And that knell reverberated from Calcutta – now in its final years as India’s capital – all the way to South Africa, where an expatriate barrister heard it and began preparing to take on the case of a lifetime. Or, as his future colleague might have put it, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had begun preparing for a tryst with destiny.

Gandhi_S_Africa (2)

———————
H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), 321.