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A problem that has teased me since long has probably teased a number of people before me, namely the problem of commencement. What comes first, language or thought? Character or Plot? Form or Content?

The human mind is a storehouse of weirdly mystifying activity. It is too deep to be fathomed and too abstract to be given shape. It churns out mysterious questions that defy clear-cut answers. Yet the writer must try to attend to some of these. I would love to get the views of readers on these, on my blog.

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes--"

 

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren

 

["After great pain, a formal feeling comes"] is obviously an attempt to communicate to the reader the nature of the experience which comes "after great pain." The poet is using the imagery for this purpose, and the first line of the poem, which states the subject of the poem, is the only abstract statement in the poem. The pain is obviously not a physical pain; it is some great sorrow or mental pain which leaves the mind numbed. The nerves, she says, "sit ceremonious like tombs." The word sit is very important here. The nerves, it is implied, are like a group of people after a funeral sitting in the parlor in a formal hush. Then the poet changes the image slightly by adding "like tombs." The nerves are thus compared to two different things, but each of the comparisons contributes to the same effect, and indeed are closely related: people dressed in black sitting around a room after a funeral may be said to be like tombs. And why does the reference to "tombs " seem such a good symbol for a person who has just suffered great pain (whether it be a real person or the nerves of such a person personified)? Because a tomb has to a supreme degree the qualities of deadness (quietness, stillness) and of formality (ceremony, stiffness).

 

Notice that the imagery (through the first line of the last stanza) is characterized by the possession of a common quality, the quality of stiff lifelessness. For instance, the heart is "stiff," the feet walk a "wooden" way, the contentment is a "quartz" contentment, the hour is that of "lead." The insistence on this type of imagery is very important in confirming the sense of numbed consciousness which is made more explicit by the statement that the feet move mechanically and are "regardless" of where they go. Notice too that the lines are bound together, not only by the constant reference of the imagery to the result of grief, but also by the fact that the poet is stating in series what happens to the parts of the body: nerves, heart, feet.

 

Two special passages in the first two stanzas deserve additional /469/ comment before we pass on to the third stanza. The capital letter in the word He tells us that Christ is meant. The heart, obsessed with pain and having lost the sense of time and place, asks whether it was Christ who bore the cross. The question is abrupt and elliptic as though uttered at a moment of pain. And the heart asks whether it is not experiencing His pain, and—having lost hold of the real world—whether the crucifixion took place yesterday or centuries before. And behind these questions lies the implication that pain is a constant part of the human lot. The implied figure of a funeral makes the heart's question about the crucifixion come as an appropriate one, and the quality of the suffering makes the connection implied between its own sufferings and that on the cross not violently farfetched.

 

The line, "A quartz contentment like a stone," is particularly interesting. The comparison involves two things. First, we see an extension of the common association of stoniness with the numbness of grief, as in such phrases as "stony-eyed" or "heart like a stone," etc. But why does the poet use "quartz"? There are several reasons. The name of the stone helps to particularize the figure and prevent the effect of a cliché. Moreover, quartz is a very hard stone. And, for one who knows that quartz is a crystal, a "quartz contentment" is a contentment crystallized, as it were, out of the pain. This brings us to the second general aspect involved by the comparison. This aspect is ironical. The contentment arising after the shock of great pain is a contentment because of the inability to respond any longer, rather than the ability to respond satisfactorily and agreeably.

 

To summarize for a moment, the poet has developed an effect of inanimate lifelessness, a stony, or wooden, or leaden stiffness; now, she proceeds to use a new figure, that of the freezing person, which epitomizes the effect of those which have preceded it, but which also gives a fresh and powerful statement.

 

The line, "Remembered if outlived," is particularly forceful. The implication is that few outlive the experience to be able to remember and recount it to others. This experience of grief is like a death by freezing: there is the chill, then the stupor as the body becomes numbed, and then the last state in which the body finally gives up the fight against the cold, and relaxes and /470/ dies. The correspondence of the stages of death by freezing to the effect of the shock of deep grief on the mind is close enough to make the passage very powerful. But there is another reason for the effect which this last figure has on us. The imagery of the first two stanzas corresponds to the "stupor." The last line carries a new twist of idea, one which supplies a context for the preceding imagery and which by explaining it, makes it more meaningful. The formality, the stiffness, the numbness of the first two stanzas is accounted for: it is an attempt to hold in, the fight of the mind against letting go; it is a defense of the mind. /471/

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 Become a Perfect Devil

 

It happens daily; let it happen fully. Happen it’ll eventually.

Earn, earn, earn, and churn out a materialistic turn

Of mind. Let earning cut out unprofitable learning.

Let grace seem a disgrace, cultivate a painted face.

Be the flower on top; the underneath you better drop.

Let clothes alone adorn, forget why we are born.

Kill peace. Use bombs and crackers, increase loud speakers.

For self, learn to live; they are fools that can forgive.

Show how misused you are; abused with eternal scar.

Take revenge, retaliate, gather power and confiscate.

Seek authority, flatter, bribe, serve on silver platter.

Praise yourself and others quite condemn. Respect smothers

The ego, let it go to dogs. Live like frogs in wells, under logs.

Keep this up, let it be so. Your Devil’s horns will then begin to grow.

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When the Soul is in Shatters

 

Seas of grief, trees of joy;

Ships of goods, whips of fate;

Mountains of flesh, fountains of hope;

Miles of travel, smiles of beauties;

 

Nothing really matters when the soul is in shatters.

 

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 Difficult Moments

 

Every now and again, like the wind and the rain,

Come difficult moments, fraught with grief full of pain.

They punctuate life, like commas and stops. Stop the flow.

Making all slow. Taking out from life its glitter, its glow.

Till some time things are prime, then these moments come,

And whatever went smoothly stands still, glum and dumb.

Why can’t life run on like a bullet train without accidents,

No need for a crane, as for a flattened up car or a taxi with dents?

Why is joy dotted with sorrow; today end in tomorrow?

Why must money get spent, why do we need to borrow?

Why do our plans often fail, and all our efforts entail

Disappointment? Why do our schemes just derail?

Before you realize you are old, lost your eyes.

Even the best of us all are soon cut to size.

There are few answers; but questions are many.

Problems, queries, issues without solutions any.

Difficult moments in life give it depth and wisdom.

Help us see what relief is, what is hope, what is freedom.

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 The Tailor’s Needle: How Dickens Helped

In India in the 1960s and 70s Charles Dickens was one of the best loved novelists in English for school children like me. Thomas Hardy was popular and so were Jane Austen and George Eliot, but these did not match up to Dickens then. We loved his sentimental situations, his humour and his pathos that he drove home with the help of his exaggeration. His crime worlds and his mysteries blended well for the young mind in search of classics.

When I began to write The Tailor’s Needle, I had no idea that Dickens would guide me on at the subconscious level. I was all the time trying to measure up to his novels and his style without quite knowing it, and that when Dickens had now been reduced to just a name in my life. I never ever discussed him or his art, nor did I think of him.

Some of my characters became Dickensian, then some situations followed suit and when I reached the middle of my novel, I was suddenly gripped by the fear that the novel may have become uninteresting for the reader. I then thought of Dickens’s Bleak House which became a murder mystery somewhere in the middle even though it began as a simple literary novel. Even Great Expectations had this sense of mystery running through itThis helped me to decide what I was to do. I changed Part II of The Tailor’s Needle, making it a murder mystery with the backing of Dickens behind me. The strategy worked and this novel was first published in the UK and then in India by Penguin. Thank you Charles Dickens!

 

Now I know how many Indian novelists writing now have consciously or unconsciously imbibed from Dickens – R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Manu Joseph, Vikram Chandra, and others.

 

 

 

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 Fighting the Tsunami

 

Life like devastating waves goes down or up; to peace or the other way.

Like swings it moves with force yet not unhinged; there’s no escape.

You must return to face what you leave behind; cruel or kind.

People, refined, those who can smile sitting on needles, hoodwink.

Defending everything, validating all; pretending, talking tall, sugary stuff.

Continuing to keep edifices standing, cementing the wall, blocking chinks.

They know how to look the other side when love bleeds or folks ditch.

‘I fight my battle, you fight yours. We’ll meet when storms have gone astray.’

‘Don’t mix matters personal and social. Learn to take the stab calmly.’

A social animal, yet man’s all alone; fighting the tsunami singlehandedly.

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Unwinding

 

There comes a time, when you unwind,

Move differently, to the other side.

When your mind is made up, youth left far far behind.

The mind is seized with things of another kind.

 

The spirit changes and your moods change too.

All that had “happened” is now just spots of time.

The final act before the curtain, to be braved by you.

An act of matchless colour; not just pink or blue.

 

You’re fighting the last battle, quite alone it is this time.

Your friends of better times are now nowhere near.

It is all a new experience, quite a new paradigm.

To some it is smooth sailing, to others short of crime.

 

Preparing for the quittance from this world it is.

One’s uncertain which way the road's to lie.

It’s your last stroke to discover what they call “bliss”.

You either hit a jackpot, or end up with a miss.

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Napoleon or Gandhi?

 

Getting and giving, is great but not always.

There are shades of grey, we are proving ourselves,

Testing our limits like Raskolnikov or Tamburlaine even.

‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends’ said Hamlet.

Does what I give or get follow my action?

Give to the one who responds not to unthinking blonds.

Give to a beggar who blesses not to one who looks back to curse.

Get from her who never grudges or him who never judges.

‘Everything is nothing’, said Lear’s Fool, then why bother?

Giving can be all a selfish affair. When Austen said, ‘It is a truth

 Universally acknowledged’, that a man with a ‘good fortune must be

In want of a wife’, she meant the opposite:

A woman in possession of five daughters is on the lookout for

Good husbands. While a Man gives, a Woman takes

And when the scene is reversed one goes through that witchly

Experience that changed Macbeth to jelly. Giving and getting

Must be left to God; man ruins all he takes firmly into his hands.

Would Napoleon win or Gandhi if they had a duel?

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The Creative Personality

 

If you are a poet or a creative person you may feel the changes around you and in your life much more than others. This is so because you are more open to experiencing things, generally, than the non-poet. The world (not the material world but just the world) matters more to you and therefore you get affected by the slightest change that may occur in it. The world keeps changing at all times. These changes are more visible to the sensitive soul. He can see or notice things more minutely. There are people who can, as Shakespeare would say, ‘sleep in spite of thunder’ or, pass through a garden without noticing a single flower.

The creative mind is more restless and therefore in need of a soothing calm or balm which his surroundings may or may not provide. His pain though of a personal nature can easily be transferred to the more general plane. He tends to see patterns in life’s schemes more easily than one who considers life to unfold mechanically, without design. The creative mind never loses sight of the universe even when it considers issues of the most personal nature. William Blake spoke of seeing a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour. This may seem an exaggeration, but to a creative mind it is quite the thing to happen.

Society is often at odds with the creative temperament. The responses of the creative person can seem peculiar and abnormal particularly to the practical though generally insensitive mind. The creative mind is a strange mixture of the highly personal and the highly impersonal. At one level it can experience virtually anything very personally and yet at another level is goes to great distances from the self, becoming part of another’s feelings, joys or pains. The highest style of an author therefore combines the very personal with the very impersonal. At the creative moment the author dies personally even as he remains keenly alive impersonally.

The poetic personality can be irritating for one who fails to see the restlessness of the creative soul. Of course this feeling can be mutual for the creative other who may wonder why the world is so insensitive to such vital matters.

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 Childhood

 

Those days fade from memory;

Every moment had a new discovery:

What came out of a mysterious snail’s shell?

What caterpillars turned into, how a yell

Could return rolling back in an echo.

What sound was emitted from a gecko.

Imaginations soared, swam, sank to where

The mind refused to reach. God was there,

More palpably; there was magic in a prayer.

Nothing was impossible; a fight with a bear,

Aladdin’s lamp was real. A story had more weight

Than gold or silver; could keep awake till late

The mind, with its hook. A song could instill

Feelings of bliss, fulfillment and excitement until

Another came in its stead. Mother and father,

Emblems of light, hope and faith, or rather

That without which nothing remains, were there.

Giving, relieving, not simply talking in the air.

 

Childhood! Why did you desert? Were you

No more than a wench that comes for a day or two

To finally ditch and depart? Why could you not stay on?

Why did you come to leave me lonely, aging and forlorn?

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