To John Ashbery

John Askbery photo by Lynn Davis
Photograph by LYNN DAVIS

Poetry is ash, Ashbery—your dust has already scattered in the wind, been the breath of many who have turned into ashes and joined the dust, wind, fire, water and the sky. I don’t know where you came from, Ashbery, but I think you return where you came from, like all of us. We are ashes for a while and we fly and scatter when the home-bound wind comes.

John Ashbery, the beloved Ashbery, your death has let the hell loose in me again, and a sadist or joyist (who can tell them apart, if they aren’t one and the same thing?), I love it because there is a pleasure in all this. You are like me—guilt tasted pleasing, and it made you a poet, for which you have become the beloved.

Surviving the death of a loved one always accompanies a subtle (often acute) feeling of guilt. Life wants to live and death wants to go on, and unfortunately love cannot bridge the two, to our chagrin. If not bridge, love should be able to keep us together in life, through life, or in death, we petulantly demand. But we the warlike humans, who just don’t let it go without a fight but wage wars against and kill each other for whatever petty thing there can be, can’t possibly put ourselves into any action when death wrests our loved ones from our arms invisibly even as we see it, which is stabbingly painful. And life is such that in most of the cases we drag on (just out of nature, but for nothing obvious to live for—it really feels rather empty, unbearably heavily empty, and you just don’t commit suicide), feeling the fading pang of guilt—the survivor’s guilt fading into general sadness or general weakness that pervades the rest of our life, which gravitates toward and finally empties itself into death. Life with its apparent injustice ends well in ash, so it all seems well. Maybe, there will be a lingering after-life feeling of anger at having put through it that badly.

Ashbery, you go on. Your ash, a berry to home—it sucks you back. All the world is ash. I loved you. I love you. I love myself. Life and death. Living and dying. I don’t put myself to a final death maybe because that would deprive me of the (extended) pleasure of continual dying, the pleasure of hating life that in turn breeds love of life, the pleasure of feeling angry at being wronged or done out of something good. The sadism or joy of all this.

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Physical Environment and Human Behavior #1

I found it chocking and claustrophobic when I recently (24-26 July 2017) saw an unfinished building oddly jutting out of the main locus of the JNIMS (Porompat, Imphal) buildings, squatted across the Pong Lambi. I had not noticed it in my two other visits to the hospital earlier this year—one in mid-March and the other a bit earlier.

Twenty-one years ago in early 1996, when I, as a young boy, came first to the hospital (it was called the JN Hospital—Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital—until it was raised to the status of a medical science institute a few years ago and renamed the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS)) to attend to my maternal grandfather who was getting intensive care in a separate room at a private ward, the road had quite a busy traffic flow because of Mahindra Jeep commuters, besides others, especially between the MG Memorial Hall (Imphal West) and Sangomsang (Imphal East) long before the cheaper if irritatingly-too-noisy means of transports—the first and second generations of three-wheelers—became popular in these parts of the state, Manipur. Honestly, irrespective of their undeniable socio-economic and historical importance to the country, I hate auto-rickshaws for their inconsiderate noise and terribly ugly looks and color. When grandfather was sleeping and I had an hour or so to myself, I walked far south-east along the road to see the vacant fields and wetlands edging away far into the distance on both sides at most points of the road that tapered apparently into the faraway greenery of the Nongmaijing Hill. The air was cold and fresh, and being there instilled a liberating feeling in me.

When I saw it in my recent visit, the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS was more like a seldom-swept, asphalted backyard parking lot of some affluent minister with visitors from all over the country—the road brown in the July heat looked old and to have stopped losing aggregate and ageing; the dust that had gathered in the dips in the rough surface texture had turned into dry mud and the layer of new dust seemed to have been there not disturbed enough to drift in the air to change place, and the uniformly brown asphalt surface bore almost no sign of darkening by tires visible on roads in regular use. No new signs of wear and tear. It was not difficult for any visitor driving for the hospital along this part of the road to sense that the vehicles coming from the opposite direction started not long before—the vehicles felt to have just swerved and not all vehicles in the middle of a long drive would not come at the same slow speed which characterized almost all of those vehicles I saw there. My suspicion about something possibly having happened there to the once familiar place was later confirmed by the cul-de-sac the jutting, unfinished building had made of the road.

I had no personal feelings associated with the place but seeing the building inconsiderately squatting there cutting off the road quite apparently social instinctively shocked me. What immediately flashed in my mind the moment I saw the obstruction (or objectively speaking, the erection of huge physical structure across the road) was the Berlin Wall. Later, when I had found out the name of the road was Pong Lambi, another wholly different thing struck my mind, triggered by the word Pong, a term (it is perhaps a chance sound similarity) the Manipuri’s knew the Burmese by, without actually knowing the status of the road’s historical association with the Meitei-Burmese trade relations before the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891.

The change in the physical structure of the place due to the protrusion, something like an unnatural outgrowth of the earth right across the road, nudged my mind to have a different attitude toward the place and to physically behave differently to it than I would have twenty-one years ago or any time without that structure. Later I walked and casually surveyed the place and discovered that the addition of that building in that particular way in the physical environment of the place had nudged the people there also to behave in a certain way that would not have been the case in the absence of the building across the road. The way the built environment emerged ensuing from this odd building’s stopping the traffic rendering redundant the rest of the road south-east of the building (red-circled in the picture) is the physical proof of how people’s settling behavior has been influenced by this building on its south-east. Due to encroachment by human settlement (the legality of which is beyond the purview of the task at hand), the road on the south-east of the building has shrunk into an alley in stark contrast to the width and health of the part of the road on the opposite side of the building. Irrespective of the legal status of the JNIMS claim over the piece of land across the road (yes, the government is the owner of the land and for larger public causes such as the JNIMS, it can make adjustment reshuffling to the patterns of settlement at least of limited areas), nobody would have dared to do anything that would lead to the shrinking of a road in full use. Later on, while researching for this series, I came to know that the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS has now been renamed JNIMS Road.

The movement of people east of the new JNIMS building in question has changed, the settlers closer to the hospital, in the absence of a artery, taking to the small alleys leading to the Porompat DC road while the people of further-away places such as Sangomsang having to take the Khongnang Makhong Lambi on the Iril river and then the Porompat DC road. This shift in movement is quite phenomenal.

Our concern in this series is not to judge the merits and demerits of the physical environment but to study the psychological influences of the physical environment including built structures on how humans behave.

 

Cold Stone Womb

This black cave, the only space
carved out in the whole rock-solid world.
A black stone womb. Cold.
A single impossible hole. Blinding bright.
Time. Endless. It flows in.
Licking tongues of smoke in a shaft of light
straight as a freight train in full speed
into the jaws of the darkness.
Spiraling. The hooks of an arrow.
Never ending. It flows in. Time flows in
like from an oxygen tank. Keeping me alive.
Giving me time in this black stone womb.
Time stretched thin out to eternity.
To feel every single bite of pain
every single tear in the tissue
in the world where nothing else exists.
Nothing else. Nothing. Just live.
An immortal. A god in torment.

Edge of Humanity

Legs splayed out carefree in a care-wearied world, he was beautiful seated on the dusty pavement between a highway and the Kangla outer moat one late afternoon in mid-January. He became conscious of me when I had taken a few shots of him—he shifted uncomfortably where he sat and took up a balled-up towel behind him, unrolled and unfurled it before him with both hands. I felt guilty to have invaded him. That boldly, too.

I approached him and asked in Hindi if I could photograph him. Suddenly a calm smile spread across hitherto blank face and his lips flickered wordlessly with excitement. That was beautiful. I interpreted that as a gesture of willingness. I took a couple of portraits. When he sensed I had done with the last shot, his gesture of willingness changed to one of curiosity, the desire to see the photographs taken. I immediately connected it with his initial discomfort with my photographing him. I wondered if he was mad at all.

He took a few diffident and tentative steps toward me when he read the willingness in my face. I also approached him and showed the pictures. His smile broadened. The portraits were good.

“Where are you from?” I asked him.

“Assam,” said he.

I could not but wonder if he was mad at all.

“Buy something and eat. You must be tired.” I said as I took a ten rupees note out from my wallet and gave it to him.

Cities press their poor out into the streets, under the bridges and into the gutters. Once homeless, your sense comes across as nothing different than insanity and you fall on the edge of humanity with little or no chance of getting back to where you really belong. Once out in the street, you are a nameless part of the city most pathetic landscapes–dust, pieces of paper and other litters, scavenging birds and animals.

I walked on, looking back at the man every now and then, and he looked stiff as if he was trying to resist the temptation to look toward me. When I took the turn I saw him bending to sit where he had been.

Ways of Dying (“Died” in the passive voice)

One of the most emotionally fragile day. I consider myself as one of the simplest, naivest persons in the world. Perhaps verging on stupidity, if not stupidity exactly. A caveman. I am exactly a caveman, and this world is not for the types of me. Not about good or bad–I am just a misfit here, and my world often caves in and I get buried in the rubble heap. I just feel like dying. Especifically, death coming to me, to do his own job. I don’t want to do his job because I trust no place. Bad trust everywhere.

When my death comes, I die. I is the grammatical subject doing the action of dying. The dier. The doer of the action of death. But thematically, I is not an agent; it is an experiencer. I experiences death. I undergoes death. Something I has to. Something I cannot escape. Something like emposed on I.

This dying that happens when death comes is different from the kind of death that happens when the subject is the agent of the act of dying. That is in committing suicide. In death, the responsibility of the transfer of being (if being continues) from one state to another or from one plane to another or from one place to another is with what causes death–nature or God, just for the lack of term and undrstanding. When the subject takes their own life, nobody else is responsible for the transfer and I personally don’t know where I can put what I have snatched from this uncomfortable life. There may not be any place. There may be places, good or better, bad or worse than the ones known here. I just don’t want to do other people’s job. I am lazy. On my own. I don’t even want to be the fucker when having sex. I wanna be fucked. (By the way, I hate bed hopping, and I am not a guy to drink from a greasy cup. My life in this regard is clean and smooth–if a fly happens to setyle on me (=my morality), it, with all its six (or eight?) legs will slip and break all its legs on the floor. I ain’t being funny. Serious.) There is just one thing where I hate to be passive–if I am a gay, I will always be the giver and never the receiver. That is it. Otherwise, I don’t want to do anything, let alone committing suicide, which also involves pain and things like that. I once hanged myself from the ceiling and that painfully bruised my neck–I looked myself in the mirror after my father and brother hijacked my flight to death.

I would love it if death comes to me like I got lucky in a lottery. Somebody picks up my number and the other the winner’s what-do-you-call-it. Like a heart attack. Unfortunately I am damn healthy. I pump iron in the gym everyday–exerting all my angry and frustrated energy in pumping iron. I wish I die in a nightmare–an anaconda or something swallowing me whole in a dream and me dying. 😀. Unfortunately, I am an insomniac. And if I sleep, I almost never dream. I wish somebody just kills me. Unfortunately, nearly everybody seems to love me, except a girl (but she won’t kill me to be a murderer–so kind), and a politician or two, but they don’t want to incur trouble killing me. So sad. I have got to do a heavy-weight thinking about ways to get “died,” dying in the passive voice. I am serious. Though smilingly.

Silence. Wordless. My language now.

Gathering the Remains of Dusts

In a slow response to the pull of silence
the dusts of sound have settled down
to the abandoned life spread across the floor–
preserved in layers the creases of pains
painted in fragile smiles for the show,
spirals of despair deyed spry for the show.

Slowly the dusts of life have settled
on the photographs of dead people
and people memory has let go of,
those blurry visitors in grainy dreams
you have once or twice in a lifetime
gathered from a long forgotten past,
part of the mistakes you made in learning life.

But a bearded storm keeps coming with a broom
dragging along his cart of dusts and photographs
when the sun is low to the snow free of all dust.
After or before the dark? You never know.

I poetry, because in poetry, they don’t take you seriously

It’s coming up–that heavy feeling
that creeps up the chest,
slithers up the throat
and seeks so forcefully
to force damply out through your eyes,
loudly out through your mouth

I feel like crying.

I wanna go somewhere noisy and rainy
and cry.
I want to rest.
I want to feel sleepy,
sleep at least in fragments
or rest at least in small change
found stuck in cosy pocket corners
or one here another there
in unswept rooms
and in the shade under the bed.

I wanna pour all of me out
somewhere far away
and come back free and empty
to my silence
and rest.

This was not meant to be a poem, if it ever is now. It was like a creature in the wilderness of my mind moving around and practicing wild cartography there. Not restrained by culture that the civilization called poetry usually demands.

It just happened to be this way, the way a lone tree in the middle of an open savannah just grows up untamed by its emptiness. Yes, I broke the run-on sentences into lines, to time them to the beat of the emotion running through them.

Failed Man

Failure is a beautiful thing–
the most beautiful but the hardest to live.
A beauty you avoid, an art you fear,
one you like only from a distance
as your negative space.
The best men in the world
are failed men.
They keep failing. Beautiful men.
Hopes crumble down in their laps,
brick by brick–those they laid one by one–
into shapeless rubble heaps,
formless grains of dust and mass of wastes,
in sounds from the mute fall of airborne dust
to the soundless noise
following the crashing of towers
and skyscrappers onto the dust
where the sky begins.
Meaningless until you hear them on a tape
meaningless until you rub
and feel their roughness on the canvas.
Failed men breathe through the wreck,
speak in nonsense–
a tongue of a different frequency range
where sound and matter merge.

Un/real Like a Nightmare

All cyan and pale blue. Horror. And horror-tinted pupils. Un/real like a nightmare.

A river. Water thick and mucuous with dirt. Foul. Putrid. Dirt dangling and floating like hair in the wind from the skeleton of a bridge, banks, and leafless trees on the banks, branches skinned like animal rib-cage with the rotten remainder of flesh reeking in the wind. The jig-a-jig of the deep bass buzzes of acousmêtre flies ubiquitous and enveloping. Garbage chocking the flow–upriver, the water-belley beginning to distend, bending upward.

Garbage on the banks. Dirt flowing on the narrow paths on the banks snaking along with the river. Mumbling dirt, speaking dirt, coughing dirt, sneezing dirt–dirt walking in mass like in an exodus, pale-blue humans short of zombie eyes, that horrible skin, that horrible gait, that horrible raspy voice, those hungry hands reaching out impatiently in emptiness. More a spectacular river than the slow river.

Winged trams flying past over across the river, alarmed passengers covering their nose, the silent horror in their face streaming out through the glass windows into the river.

All cyan and blue. Horror.

Macroscopic View of Madness: Insanity in the Heart of Sanity?

Is it obtainable for a person to be mad and is still aware that he or she is mad? This question, while it hits one of our core assumptions as to madness, is deliberately worded as it is so that we face a conundrum born of our way of thinking making us ask this question as we have asked.

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Self-portrait by Thoithoi O’Cottage

Our core assumption about madness is that “mad people” are different from us because they do not think or are not capable of thinking like us; i.e., to be self-conscious. Let us not be distracted from the issue by “self-conscious,” because the issue with our core assumption is about “difference,” the health of which is determined by the “standard.” Yes, for better or worse, we need standards for us to live in organized ways, no matter how we organize these “ways,” though the standard should not be so fixed to stifle any forces of change (which can never be justly judged beyong wild conjecturing before they have actually transpired into real artifacts). The need for standards seems to be more important in some areas than others; for example, standards of health readings (say, the range of healthy values in a complete blood count test) and health-care procedures (say, the best way known of treating a disease) are more critical than dressing standards of hospitals and the institutions of the police and the army. Our health is more of a primary concern to us than other non-physical (or moral) values (such as the question of wearing sindur or mangalsutra among married women in most of India) because the condition of health directly and immediately affects us (the body) first and our other concerns (which are secondary) are at the mercy of our health. In this sense, some standards are more fundamental than others to the extent of the relatively less basic ones being negotiably compromised for better adjustment in the more primary areas.

The conundrum born of our way of thinking leading us to asking our question at the beginning is that our assumption that madness is a matter of kind but not degree and consequently that if somebody is mad he/she is mad in absolute terms has made it impossible for us to pursue the investigation which would have been initiated by the question correctly worded. The assumption stated as a problem in the preceding paragraph is actually a product of this more fundamental assumption giving birth to the conundrum we encounter now. This conundrum shows signs of us considered mentally healthy ignoring who we consider mad as a generalized mass of madness, thereby creating a binary of we/they, with there being nothing common in between. An immediate discontinuity between black and white.

Our general understanding of madness is of the kind of a uniform solid with no internal variation. If X is mad, and if Y is mad, then our view is X = Y to the extent of their distinct individual characteristics and other readily visible differences becoming irrelevant resulting in their personhood ceasing to be. This death or murder of personhood reduces them to the status of things like molecules in a drop of water or drops of water in the river where you see just the flowing continuity of uniform liquid water, not incalculably many drops or molecules of water.

This macroscopic view of madness leads us to a dangerously flawed (wrong and unjust) sweeping generalization about mad people–if X mad and if he/she cannot be self-conscious, then any other X’s cannot be self-conscious. This leads us to the conclusion that if anybody is mad, it is impossible for them to be aware that they are mad.

Is madness actually a matter of kind, not degree? If this is the case, does one immediately jumps into madness (becoming mad all of a sudden) when one becomes mad, and jumps immediately BACK OUT OF madness into sanity (becoming NORMAL) all of a sudden, and there being no continuity between the two “major” distinct states in such a way that this person was X while he was normal first, and then he jumped into being Y (stoping being X) and then jumped out (BACK) into X or (Z, a third person?).

I will dwell on this issue in my another article.

Politics of Happiness

The social sense of happiness is political, and a person’s happiness in society depends on the structure of that politics. Traditionally, happiness is constituted by a fair balance among reasonably good health, a reasonably fair amount of wealth or a fairly good source of regular income, fairly good family life (in which a fairly good upbringing, loving parents, fairly good spouse, children are included), and fairly good relations with social institutions and other individuals, etc. This yardstick is of course general and there are millions of common people who live outside of this fold, such people as orphans, the homeless, people living in perpetual poverty or in ill-health, people who are not married or all other members of their families dead (for example, many lone survivors of the Holocaust). Many of these people are deprived by fate or whatever of most or all of what are considered to make a person happy. For example, Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, survived all other members of his family–his wife and their two daughters died in German concentration camps. When he was rescued by the Allied Force, he had lost everything that was considered to constitute his happiness–family, wealth, source of income, social relations, hope, and what not? By the common, traditional standard, such people cannot be happy, because by the standarc of happiness only people with most (if not all) of these assets are recognized as happy, and in consequence, people without most (if not all) of these factors do not have the source of happiness.

The concept of happiness is thus an established, received one, and it rests on these happiness factors. This concept favors certain group of people while it disadvantages the rest. Being able to pass as being happy is important for a person’s growth of any kind in a society with an established standard concept of happiness, because one being happy presupposes one’s possession of most (if not all) of the happiness assets, which are most valued by other members of the society. A person well-endowed with these assets is more welcome everywhere in the society’s setting (be it marriage, friendship, employment, health care, recreation, and what not) than a person who has less of these, while a person who does not have nothing or nearly nothing of what is considered to consitute happiness is least welcome, if not unwelcome.

The contitution of social happiness standard as we see in every turn empowers some and disadvantages the rest. It creates a hierarchy, and tends to perpetuate the structure. People usually are cognitive misers and they, rather than spend some thought energy in thinking and critically examining apparently regular things, just receive established ideas about them and thoughtlessly follow the tradition. However rational we are, we just believe nearly everything floated in the news (be it on the Internet or through the traditional media or by word of mouth as rumors, or in all forms)–if A defames B on Facebook, most people take the first report at face value. Thus, how one looks to others (i.e., whether they look happy indicating they have the resources powering their happiness, or otherwise) matters.

Everybody seems to be concerned about their happiness so much in almost everything they do that happiness seems to be the ultimate purpose of all human efforts. If this is the case, are those who happen to fall outside of the established happiness zone due to the faults of their own or others’ (such as lone survivors of the Holocaust or lone surviving victims of natural disasters, or other misfortunes) failed lives which are best put to an end by such means as suicide? Many did not commit suicide during the Nazi oppression in the concentration camps–they struggled to survive. The force of life is strongand tenacious. But many of them who struggled and clung to the last straws of life in the concentration camps committed suicide after their rescue. They were at the extreme end of what’s lying there opposite happiness. Other survivors did further survive that vaccuum of happiness, but it felt unbearably heavy–that broke the backs of lives. Why did these people who did not commit suicide did not commit suicide? What were they looking up to, when everything that consituted what they called life had been snatched from them? What was it that kept them living on despite they were in the depth of the abyss of extreme despair and hopelessness? Were they crazy, to continue to live when their source of happiness (thd purpose of all efforts in life) had been shattered?

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Photographer unknown

Happiness is undoubtedly political, whatever it may be in a social context. The standard is always a composite of variable values, but happiness is constantly valued in life. Most of the time it is better to be happy than not. However, we often find ourselves in situations where we better sacrifice happiness and embrace meaning in life. Meaning and happiness are not mutually exclusory, but in their wild pursuit of happiness humans more often than not mind meaning. Meaning is rich experience, and it covers the whole area of life, far beyond the four protective walls of happiness.

It seems that you don’t have to give meaning to life as if life has nothing of its own, as if life is a vaccuum. Life itself is what is alive and it is worthy on its own, without any extraneous additions. You may say bare life is not worth living, but life (because it is consciousness) itself is meaning, when when you are physically an invalid and other people in your family, despite their love for you, consider it better that you be given euthanasia, for emotional or financial or any other reasons.

Throes of (Child)birth, Smart of Taking Life

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Photographer unknown

A young, recently married woman committed suicide, the News Nation reported last evening.

It was the final rites of a neighbor yesterday–he took his own life successfully in the second attempt after the first about five years ago. His body was found hard and stiff in the rain hours after his last breath, in the dark narrow space between a barber’s shop and a big abandoned car at a small junk yard.

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Photograph by Sally Mann

His brother had tooken his own life, too. I can still hear the sounds of women crying in his family sneaking weakly and quietly into my room one quiet evening in the early 2000s–I was reading (or writing something?) in my always-quiet room which I had turned into an indoor garden with plants collected from deep forests all over Manipur besides the ones I got from professional gardeners and plant lovers including my brother’s father-in-law. His body was found hard and still in his farmhouse (bolted from inside) days after his disappearance. Before he finally could take his life, he had been often seen walking drunk with a poison bottle in his hand. One foggy late-winter morning, he was found asleep on a cremation furnace platform on the cremation ground in my neighborhood. He had a poison bottle in his hand.

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Photograph by Sally Mann

One son of the eldest brother of these suicide brothers had also put an end to his own life a few years before that. He had hanged himself by the neck from the ceiling of his bedroom, survived by his wife and two very small kids–one was just a newborn.

These three later cases are just what comes to mind when I think of suicides I know personally, actually close ones. Just convenient examples. I can make a long list of names.

About the same time, a friend of mine from my neighborhood–a good humorous person–took poison and it was too late when his family returned home that evening.

Suicide is a very regular phenomenon, and the rate is reportedly highest in Guyana (where people reportedly “die like flies” followed by Japan (Brandon Bridglal). In my state (Manipur, India), statistics says, suicide rate is highest in Kakching. I alone have many friends in my town who committed suicide. A couple of childhood friends from Wangoo, too. That village on one lake farm in which I lived my childhood.

Conversely, when I look at nature closely, I see every speck of life–even the tiniest ones–struggling to live against all sorts of odds. Under the microscope, I see microorganisms struggling to live. On the wooden wall panels of abandoned houses in the woods or on the red-brick walls at the base of the foundation of every building where the minimal conditions of life are present, there are always life forms–at least in the forms of moss and organisms so small visible only to the eyes looking for tiny lives–struggling to maintain life.

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Lichens struggling to live on a dead sliver. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage

I see both life and death around me. Struggles to live and to die. The throes of childbirth, and the first cry of the child. The act of taking life, one’s own or another person’s, negating its birth by another person, a life-giver, a mother (with a father).

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A wild creeper struggling to cling to and draw life from dry mountain-flank rocks. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage

To be continued…