Sunday, May 8, 2011

Taking the pen


Somebody had once said that the pen is mightier than the sword. It is well considered, even now, that if war is a mark of decisive human failure then the pen is the sign of magnificent achievement. Man, Homo Pollex, the modern Prometheus, curved the narrative of boundless human civilization using this instrument. The fowl’s pride on papyrus was perhaps the precursor to the ever expanding creative genius of human beings. The great works of literature, starting from epic to our modern day fiction, were written using the pen; and yet, now, in the face of such impressive adversaries as the i-pad and the netbook, the quintessential pen has fallen in desuetude. The instrument that once shaped what we hold precious—the jewels of English literature—is dying, with little or no hope of recuperating and starting afresh. As contemporary d├ęcor discards all the old-fashioned touches in a living space, modern civilization with its ever-increasing scientific fruits finds it impossible to assign a room to an ailing ancient gadget, however vital its contribution might have once been.

As I was reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary when troubling thought came to me that possibly we are in the madness of the new mindlessly doing away with the old; that to us the word Retro connotes weightless nostalgia and nothing else. Being an unequivocal preteriest, I couldn’t say if I wasn’t peeved by the idea. The thought remained throughout the day and deep into the night. And then logic dawned on me. It occurred to me that neglect of this once mighty instrument is due in part to the difficulty once faces in attempting to establish a communication through pen and paper in the old-fashioned way. Say a person writes a well meaning letter with the instrument in question, what will happen next? The receiver of such a communication may look askance at the correspondent and would either laugh at her effort, or simply take her as a puritan holding on to an obsolete tradition. Also, let’s face it, fountain pens are messy, and quills and inkpots rarely available commercially. Still, like one attempting to run on a slushy cobblestone street, my mind toyed with the idea of writing with a fountain pen despite the terrible contingencies that lay in front.

The following morning I went to a local stationary shop and questioned the shopkeeper about the status of fountain pens in India. He agreed that the tradition is dying, but added that several schools in Gurgaon are trying to revive the convention by making it customary for children at school to write with fountain pens. “It builds penmanship, you know,” he said as he brought out one of these instruments. Strangely the pen I got is a nice fusion of old and new, it has a refillable barrel where once the ink is finished you can just inject the needful using an ingenious plastic injector from the tiny ink barrels which came with it. The shopkeeper provided me with full and detailed information about fountain pens and even said that he would specially order a couple of Sheffields for me. I thanked him and came back home all the while wondering when I could sit at my desk and start writing.

Have you seen the movie Julie and Julia? Do you remember how Julie felt about cooking? Well, I almost felt like her, overwhelmed by my art, that is. Although it is not at all advisable to day-dream while crossing streets in India, on my way home I was deep in contemplation, and even remember vowing that I would never quit the writing habit.

I generally write my journal in the morning, one hour every day, but that day I decided to sit in the afternoon. The first few pages were written with curious long hand; several blue blotches made themselves visible on the exercise book, and I had to flick the instrument at least five times when after two absurdly written lines the ink dried. The thought engine that had been sprouting thousand ideas all day long suddenly came to a standstill; the brain seemed halted in the presence of the alien instrument and it took me sometime to overcome the idea of jettisoning the disastrous object and getting back to gel pens and felt-tipped smoothies. I realized that indeed it is pretty difficult in a modern age to be a troglodyte. People who say that they are old-fashioned seldom realize that their lived are constantly being instinctively modified by technology and principles of contemporary living. There is nothing as a modern old-fashioned man.  We are all children of technology; and even though I thought of revolting against the ceaseless expansion of modernity, in the face of old-fashion, I too fumbled for a while.

It took me two solid days and two hours of constant journal writing each day to break the fear of writing with a fountain pen. During this phase the ink barrel exhausted twice and I had to refill, pardon my expression, the damned object and flick it over a thousand times to get the ink rolling. After the expiration of this period, I realized that the human spirit of adaptability has worked wonders and unknowingly I have developed the habit of writing with a fountain pen.

Now almost two weeks have elapsed since I started the experiment, and even though my writing hasn’t undergone a metamorphosis, — thanks to constant emailing and incessant Facebook-ing— I face no difficulty in writing with a fountain pen any longer. The experiment that was fueled by a sentimental wish of holding in my palms the sand grains of an aged civilization has taught me a few truths of life: that indeed, if we wish, we can introduce well-meaning combination of old and new elements in our lives; that endearing the basic equipments used in the developmental process of any art from (vintage utensils in case of cooking, old pens in case of writing, antique laboratory apparatuses in case of science, etc.) would ultimately endear you to your art, I now feel more attached to my writing than ever; and finally, habit like evolution is a solid truth, you get used to a thing if you use it over and over again, and it doesn’t matter if it’s exolete or presently in vogue. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Sounds of India

Picture from the web
Imagine a day when you wake up and find yourself in the lap of silence with nothing except the terrible quopping of your heart reminding you that you are in some extraordinary domain, that something around you is seriously amiss. For people living in India silence is probably as intimidating as a bad dream. To them silence is supererogatory, an artificial bubble in the presence of which people’s lives cease to function; the vehicle of their constantly moving lives halts, and the driver looks around and begins to check if there is a problem with the machinery, the physical process of movement in this case, that is. So extreme is the idea of silence in India is that not a second passes without you being reminded that in this world the mortal millions do not live alone, thus proving that the erudite irrealist Matthew Arnold was totally wrong in supposing the contrary being the truth of human existence.

Shortly after I relocated to India, it occurred to me that probably I would be able to scoop out a spoonful or two of silence for me. But no sooner had I had that thought in my nut than India laughed a mocking laugh. For only after a fortnight of my stay in the country, I realized that silence is the last thing you could expect in a nation so thickly peopled with the creatures of God. And having jettisoned the hope of silence, I am now finally at bliss with the sounds of the country — the thousand vibrations, the innumerable resonations, the honks and the shouts, the hammerings in the morning, the loud television noises in the evening, the noisy ringtones on the streets, and the list goes on. The incessant prattling of life in India that hugged me soon after my return to the country — a compliment I could have well have excused — has of late become such an intrinsic part of my life that now I have started to feel anxious in the wee hours when for a brief period the constant drumming stops and all seems to be at peace. For it is strange, rather unbearably strange, to devour great chunks of noise throughout the day and denied even a morsel around midnight!

For a person who stayed for half a decade in a foreign land whose salad green leas are but the opposites to the land in which she currently dwells, I have well acclimated myself to the changed circs. I remember before my return to India how nervous I had been about giving up my long relished quiet. But now even the idea of that long relished quiet gives the impression of a thing of the past; something that happened a long time ago and is no more available, except in museums, a relic, if you will. But I am not saddened by the sudden lack of noiselessness; I am, on the other hand, quite enjoying this overactive livelihood. I get up every morning and I am greeted by the guttural noises of a hundred pigeon that hang around the building, and then the day unfolds itself one noise following another, reaching its crescendo just before twelve and then continuing on the bemolle till four-thirty, in the meanwhile loudening once or twice for a brief period of time only to drop with a discordant bang at the close of the day. If you listen carefully you can actually quantify the sounds — collect, organize and interpret the various noises that reach you throughout the day.

These discordant jingles and crashes are the life giving sparks that fuel our huge nation and to turn a deliberate deaf ear to them — not that it is possible to take that action; still, by some ingenuity say you could do it — is correspondent to turning away from life itself. India and its colors and sounds are the atoms that bind the system. Several nations may pride themselves on their glum quietness. They may take it as a mark of sobriety to inhabit with their classical monotones; but then where is variety in their method? Where is life? Life is where the clatter is, and India is filled to the brim with life; rather it’s over-brimming with its myriad sounds, it is bursting with life.