son of a witch | part 3: slip

There was a point in history when people couldn’t ever imagine an airport being decrepit. Airports were meant to be plastered down and matte where necessary and glossy where necessary and to do with coffee and warm, brown plates with cinnamon rolls slowly and sugarily melting and clean white cardpaper.

The man in the brown shirt wonders what it took for an airport to become like this. The place is dark, even in the early hours of the morning, just past sunrise. He can see the dried green of whatever foliage managed to survive the ravages of airport-making through murky panel-windows. It smells of accumulated cigarette-grease, staleness and trapped human heat. It tastes of dried sweat.

He stands in line, big and lumbering in his post-sleep. He is jostled gently by a very impatient man from behind him and he doesn’t turn to investigate the motivations fueling his burning desire to get ahead and past customs. That reason is very probably legitimate. This is home, after all.

He is next. He walks forwards, scratching the back of his neck as his eyes flicker back and forth from the makeshift security camera (an early 2000s webcam mounted on top of a stick) to the customs agent. The customs agent is a fat man, white hair flecked across his face like sprinkles on eclairs by a bad chef. The man hands his passport over.

“Markus of the Orenin Woods.”

“That’s me.” Markus shrugs.

The customs agent flips through the passport with the sort of casualness Markus has always found amusing. Is this how mass-manufacturers of machine-gun rounds feel on the assembly line? Can you do something over and over so much that the thing you do looses all semblance of weight and value?

“French, yes? This is a French passport.”

“Yes sir.”

The customs agent nods slowly, looking through his entry and exit stamps. “You don’t come home very often, Markus of the Woods.”

“Tickets cost money, sir.” Markus realises he isn’t being very careful. That was a step removed from ‘who’ll pay for it, your da?

The customs agent seems to have realised the same thing. He looks up to him, a sausage-like finger stuffed between two pages of his wrinkled passport, the rest of his hand bending it around them, changing its shape. “Funny boy, huh?”

“I’m sorry sir, I wasn’t trying anything. I’m just very tired.”

“What’re you here for now, then? BP or SocTel snatched you up for something? What’re you studying? Engineering? Management?”

There were two people left in the line behind him and Markus supposes that meant the agent has the time and the option to screw with him. Probably the end of his shift. People do things like this at the ends of their shifts.

“Law, sir.”

“Law,” the customs agent says, stamping his passport. “Old gift?”

Markus hits that question like a miscalculated dive into a swimming pool. It jolts him painfully awake and aware of things he is entirely uncomfortable with. “I’m sorry, sir?”

“The old gift. Orenin Woods and all that. You know what I’m talking about, yes? The old pocus?”

“I wasn’t aware this was information I had to disclose here, sir.” Markus speaks slowly, letting the customs agent know he is choosing his words very carefully. They are staring into each others eyes in a necessary way. The last time Markus did this, he was in love, as far as he can recall.

“It isn’t. Not officially. I’m assuming you don’t, though.”

“Sir, if it isn’t legally compulsory, I have no reason to say, do I?”

“I suppose not.” The agent looks at him and then at the camera and back at him. He winks. Markus is let through.

The airport gets more decrepit the closer he gets to the exit, till he is out and greeted by a foggy, mulchy winter morning with a vague tease of rain. And throngs of tuk-tuks, little green Toyotas and bigger vehicles. Students in t-shirts and hats at a  large Uber station beckon vigorously towards him.

He drops his bag on the ground and pulls out a large, worn leather jacket, zipping it unfashionably high and stuffing his large hands into the frayed, widened out pockets. He moves left, down into the more deserted quarter of the airport’s front, past a few lazily guarded military-police stations and down the road to where he assumes the bus-stop still is. His earbuds are still on and he doesn’t hear a strange, familiar call it is far too close upon him.

Una hits him like a car crash. She is nearly as tall as him an poky in exactly the way she was five years ago. Her elbows pierce into his back as she hugs him, lifting her feet of the ground. She pulls back to lock eyes with him. “You really, honestly thought nobody’d show up? A bus, Markus?”

Markus tugs at her neatly braided, now very long hair. “I really, honestly thought nobody would show up. Who told you when I was coming, Auntie Ore?”

“Yeah, I’m glad you told her. It…would’ve been a shock. There’s a lot of people in the house, Markus.” She bites her lip, cocking her head and looking at him. “Well, how does it feel?”

Markus closes his eyes for a while. A petrel of some kind is flying way up in the clouds. A little lower, pigeons take roost in clusters and alone, shitting and mating in concrete nooks and make-do nests. There is a little enclosed topiary back in the middle of the airport and new little leaves are beginning to make their way out, defying the shapes they were sliced down into. Lizards and rat scurry and patter around each other through the pipes.

“Okay,” Markus said. “Feels okay. Feels weird. Do you miss her?”

“To be honest, a little bit. I mean…I know what she did to you and all and I know some things you can’t account for but you know. I do. She was sweet towards the end.”

“Did she remember who you were?”

“I think she forgot who I was years ago.” Una smiles . “Years before the dementia or anything. I don’t think she really cared ever.”

Markus nods. “Where’s your car?”

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

son of a witch | part two: song

Koka Kandy was the taste of childhood. He was vaguely aware as he was walking back home from school that he was now old enough to be nostalgic.

The walk home from school was like the suntan pattern on Aunty Ore’s back when she asked him to put sunscreen on for her at the beach. At some point, pavement slowly transitioned to leaves and then eventually brush but he couldn’t really draw a line where the change concretely happened. He’d know when he was in the forest and he’d know when he wasn’t but there were always a few minutes of flux in between.

They stopped making Koka Kandy. He realised he was sucking at nothing, the center of his tongue mindlessly scraping his palette. His mother never bought him a lot of it. He’d never really been shopping with his mother in any distinct sense he could remember. The idea of his mother buying things for him, treats and nice things, was a foreign idea but not an entirely alien one. He could conceive of how it would pan out but he didn’t think it had ever happened to him.

“Markus, wait!” Una was running up to him, her feet kicking up wet, fallen leaves and grainy mud. “You’re supposed to wait for me at the end of the road!”

“You mean the beginning of the forest?” Markus asked.

“Not this again.” She caught up with him and sighed before meeting his eyes and smiling. “So guess what.”

“What?” They began to walk, significantly slower than he could’ve managed alone. “Is this about the boy?”

“No….well, yeah….yes and no.”

Markus turned to look at her, lips crooked downwards. “Sounds right complicated, eh? Unnecessary.” Una’s ongoing entanglement with ‘the boy’ was something Markus had been hearing about ever since the new term started. They were in different schools, so Markus had no way of seeing for himself or confirming if any of it was true. Not that he’d be interested in doing that, even if he could.

“Like you’d know about what is or isn’t necessary, Markus, you have no life.” This was something she had been trying to get him to accept for a couple of years now. ‘I am your only friend and that isn’t okay,’ was a sort of catchphrase for their relationship and Markus never really had the courage to say that that wasn’t really true. That he didn’t really consider even her a friend.

“Fair enough,” he said.

“Anyway, we talked today.” She turned to him, her big, artfully-lined eyes looking at his face closely and pensively. He wondered why his opinion on this whole thing mattered so much today. It never had before.

“Oh yeah? What’d you talk about?”

“About? Oh…just you know…family and things like that.”

Oh. His hands went up to his cheeks and he massaged them hard into the row of teeth on either side. This was one of his many ‘nasty habits’: things that were absolutely fine to do unless Mama was watching. “Family like Aunty Sion and Aunty Ore and like your mother?”

“Yeah…and family like you.” She was dead quiet and it seemed the forest had decided to mimic her. It felt like the whole bloody universe had gathered itself around him and was waiting for him to fume.

“You know what this is about, Una.”

“It isn’t like that. He’s-he’s…we were just talking to each other. He told me about my family and I told me about his.”

Markus was trying as hard as he could to ease his feverish mind. He could feel birds alight on branches in a circle around him. Squirrels had stopped their foraging to watch. He could feel the roots under the earth gently twist and shift through the rubber soles of his black shoes. He felt lighting and thunder between his fingers and though he knew he was miles away from the edge where all of this could slip out of his control, the quickness with which nature, and he, came to this point terrified him a little.

“You know why the white boys come here, Una. You know why they come here to this empty, hot little place instead of all the other places in the world they can go.”

“Markus, it isn’t like that. He’s been here most of his life.”

“His father, then. His mother. His older brother. They’re all here for me. And eventually for mother.”

As they moved in silence, the forest moved with them.

“What did you tell him, anyway?” Markus asked.

“Your school. And your name.”

He chuckled. “He’ll come and see me after the weekend, I’m sure. I’m also sure he’s not going to have a lot to say to you after that.”

Una opened her bag and took a sip of water from a canteen before handing it to him. He shook his head. “Mother says that’s what’s wrong with your whole end of the family. You think everyone’s evil.”

There was a lot Markus wanted to tell her then. He wanted to tell her magic came as easy to him as breathing or taking a shit. It wasn’t something he and his mother had to conjure. It was just there, like every other biological process. He wanted to rail about how callous it was for her to consider his life of suppression to be somehow, in some skewed way, his fault.

They were quiet again for a while. “I’m sorry,” she blurted out eventually. “Wasn’t thinking straight.”

Markus said nothing. But nature seemed to loosen around them. The birds sang again and a light breeze disrupted the claustrophobic clamping the trees had been doing for the past five minutes.

“What does childhood taste like to you?” Markus asked. They were past the final bend and he could see smoke rise gently from his chimney. Una’s house was further ahead, very close to the village.

“It tastes like this. Because I’m fifteen, Markus, I’m still a child. And you’re a year older so so are you, okay?”

He laughed. “I don’t know…I don’t think I am.”

“When did you stop being one, then?”

“Whenever they stopped making Koka Kandy,” he said.

She nodded sagely. “Yeah, I suppose that is the taste of childhood. If they ever bring it back, they should use that as their tagline. We’d be old then.”

“Old Una.” He laughed and she laughed too and they laughed till a dark sound cut them both off. The voice making it belonged to his mother and she was singing the old song. The healing song.

Markus tensed and the forest tensed with him.

 

son of a witch | part one – home

I remember writing something ages ago called Son of a Witch but I can’t remember where or if anyone saw it or if it was any good. I remember these strange disconnected bits from it but nothing tying the vignettes together. Perhaps I remember some semblance of a plot but I don’t remember a conclusion. Maybe it was a dream. 

As soon as the man in the brown t-shirt is past security, he takes off his shoulder bag and fumbles for a button-clip folder. He is strangely aware of the importance of the documents in his hand as he is aware of everything. The airport is suffused for him with this gross, unnecessary awareness of his body and what it is doing.  He carefully places his government pass, his passport, his student ID and his boarding pass into the file and zips it back up. He straightens his hitched up shirt and pulls his nondescript black jeans up, checking to make sure he still had his wallet and cellphone after security divested him of everything.

He realises he is hungry. He hasn’t eaten for a day.  He thinks about this bad habit as he follows the signs that lead to the food-court. He stops eating the day before an exam and doesn’t eat again till the exam is over. This was something his mother had taught him. After yesterday’s exam was over he had to catch a couple of trains to the city and ride a bus to the airport. There hadn’t been time for food.

After a cursory glace and a quick estimate of what he has left in his account, he settles for McDonald’s. The girl behind the counter sounds Dutch. She has very blue eyes, freckles and not a lot of hair under her yellow hat but she doesn’t have a name tag on. He assumes she’s just started her shift because the lethargy and emotional death anything more than an hour behind a McDonald’s counter entails doesn’t seem to have hit her yet. He has worked at a McDonald’s too, once.

He’s made some sort of attempt at rationalising her peppiness but it is difficult to match up with the dourness of the airport and with how he feels. Her eyes follow him as he pulls his scratched debit-card out of his wallet very carefully. She turns the card reader back to him and he hovers over it, his fingers wiggling. He waits long enough for it to be peculiar. “Shit…” he mutters.

“Long day, sir?” she asks in a lilting English. He must’ve fumbled his Dutch while ordering. He was fairly confident with it after three years, or so he had thought.

“Er…yeah. Hold on, I think I’ve got it.” he keys in the last four digits of his old phone number. This was his pin-number at some point, he’s sure of that. He’s not sure if he’d changed it. The reader beeps and the receipt slowly prints out.

“I think you’ve got it too.” She smiles, revealing a crooked tooth. “stand over there and we shall serve you soon?”

He smiles back, nods and does what he’s told. Another man comes and orders a very elaborate Hunger-Value meal. He is brown, paunchy and in a tight sports shirt and shorts.  He ambles next to him with his receipt.

“Damn, you’re a big fellow, aren’t you.” American. Or at least, he wants to be.

“I suppose,” the man mumbles.

“D’you play basketball? I coach the school basketball team on the side sometimes and we could sure use a big fellow like you.”

“I box.”

The basketball coach chuckles. “You box? Short man can box. You have to use what God has given you.” He points emphatically. His accent breaks down when he says God. Gode.

He has things to say about autonomy and the importance of his own desires. He smiles, tilts his head and doesn’t.

“So where you headed?” the basketball-coach asks.

The man tells him.

“Oh. Let me think…um….” He says the name of the capital and his eyes light up when the man nods. “Nice beaches, civil-war and a hunger crisis, yes?”

The man was in the middle of massaging his eyes and he continues, pausing for a while to take that in.

“Assisted regime-change, British Petroleum. Forests and waterfalls and…and magic. And all that.”

The basketball-coach (on the side) takes his loaded plastic tray, arms and movements very stiff and walks quickly away.

The girl behind the counter is looking at him with her wide blue eyes, picking at her lower lip with her hand. He is aware of himself even more than before. He knows he is capable of this, of becoming very powerful very suddenly. His voice and his height and his breadth all flaring out like a peacock. What Gode gave him.

She watches him and he watches her back, too weary to do anything else.

“Here’s your…um…your sandwich and smoothie.”

He nods. “Thank you. Have a nice day, now,” he says in the best Dutch he can muster, given the circumstances.

She smiles  and goes back to the counter, now gradually starting to grow crowded. He walks to the circular courtyard around which the gates and everything else are arranged like rays. He looks up to see the sky past the glass roof slowly turn into a light blue. He finds this significant for a second – the last time he will see this sunrise for a while. Then he grunts out a laugh. Airports make him so gorgeously dramatic.

He goes past a mirror on the way to his gate and looks at himself for a second. His beard was always patchy but now it is grown out and curled. His hair is a dry, frizzy mess. His eyes seem to peer out from sunken, deep potholes, not even uniform. His clothes are clean but that is because they are new. He always buys new clothes when he goes to the airport. Eliminating reasons for uniformed men to pull him out of the queue was something he was taught early.  When he thinks about it he realises he didn’t even have to be taught. He just knew.

He falls asleep at the gate and only wakes up when there iss a crowd of people, everyone from home, standing in a line in front of it. He stands as well, pulling his boarding pass out of the file. He gets the window seat as usual and a woman possibly in her sixties sits next to him clutching a big, overstuffed handbag carried in addition to the large box she stowed overhead. They do not make conversation.

He is bemused to see that some of the stewardesses were foreign. None of them are white (yet) but there are two or three from the Philippines. He went out with a Filipino girl in his second year and he can identify them talking to each other in Tagalog as they breeze past.

He doesn’t feel himself falling asleep. When he wakes up, the woman next to him opens his table and places a tray on it. “I assume you will eat fish,” she says, not in English.

“Fish is good, thank you,” he says and as he tucks in, he wonders why speaking in the mother-tongue again after two years isn’t as much of an event as he assumed it would be. He woke up and answered the question. He feels guilty for wanting to be more alienated from home than he is. He doesn’t want to but he is saddened the past four years haven’t impacted his consciousness enough to keep the old language even a little further back from the tip of his tongue.

He is halfway into his dessert when the woman next to him, who had been absently clutching at her chest for a while, suddenly vomits and lolls her head back. He, and a couple of other passengers from the next aisle shout for help. The stewardesses glide towards the area in practiced formation. Two of them call for medical professionals on board the flight. The man helps the other two lay the woman down on the aisle and as they run to fetch the first-aid kit, the man starts chest-compressions.

At some point in the middle of this, he begins to sing the old song. He is only conscious of this when a man from the next row joins him. There are a couple of other voices he can hear from the immediate vicinity. It is not a moment of unity. The whole flight does not join in.

Even as a bleary eyed doctor makes his way to the gaggle and begins to administer asprin and nitrolglycerin and whatever else, some people are still singing. And he started it.

His mother would’ve been proud. He didn’t think it was possible to hate himself any more than he already did but somehow, he found a way.

 

News Cycle

being reflections on the media and also writing-as-therapy or something

I suppose everyone has some deep rooted insecurity they wrestle with when sleep doesn’t come and which they only tell one or maybe two people and then regret immediately because saying it in some way solidifies it. I have one of those. I’m afraid everyone will eventually be bored of me.

II

We can be subtle about this. But, as you read this, one or two stories will come to the fore past the hazy murk that is the evening news in your busy craniums (crania?). And that is fair. In fact, even when stories simmer past the boiling point and bubble and effervesce, even in their heat, I am afraid of the month after when everyone is bored. The graph surrounding someone’s interest in a news story is not particularly complex. The event (or the discovery of a past event) occurs and as it occurs, our interest in it begins to burgeon and swell and we find out more and more. Then we develop some sort of opinion. Then we find material that supports our opinion. And then we are bored.

And the people who are employed to supply these stories to us know this. They study us very carefully.

III

 

You have a very fussy dog. You have been adding some side-market spice mix to its rice and chicken to get it to eat without a fuss. It eats without a fuss. Now, you’ve been told by your veterinarian to stop doing this to your pet. So you stop adding Magic Masala. Now your dog does not want to eat.

Is this the dog’s fault?

IV 

At a NATO Seminar in Sarajevo in 1998 aimed at fostering democratic practices in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dr. J.P. Shea delivered a lecture on the role of the media in a democracy. Which does not reveal any information which you, being the well read and literate individual you are, can’t already guess. The media is meant to:

  • inform the public on what is going on: inform democratic choices through the clarification of complex issues, particularly in an age when information is the driving force of economic advancement and international events impact on people’s daily lives as never before;
  • provoke public debates leading to greater public participation in important decisions;
  • uncover abuses, pressure for their rectification;
  • alert and mobilize public opinion to humanitarian causes/injustices;
  • allow political pluralism to express itself by advertising different views/ ideological approaches to certain issues;
  • keep politicians attuned to public opinion while offering politicians a medium to explain policies/decisions to public opinion and build the necessary support.

Why is this so obvious to you? Because you understand what a democracy is. A democracy is rule by the people. That is, rule by you. Your participation in decision making is based on your awareness of the context surrounding these decisions. You can’t be in every boardroom and battlefield so there are people with press badges there for you to tell you everything you need to know and you march forth to your polling booths equipped with more than enough information to make your choice. Ideally.

So where exactly does entertainment find its place in all this?

My father started telling me to read the newspaper everyday when I was thirteen years old. I never did because it was too boring.

VI 

Welcome to the News Cycle, of which you are a product. In the News Cycle, decisions on what sort of criminal deserves the death penalty, how much attention we should pay to our judiciary, whether the government has the right to breach our privacy and even whether strange, rabid populist figures can rule over us all are made and broken on the basis of how bored you are. Just how long can this one event float on your precious interest before we jump to the next event?

Between the arson story and the rape story is the ice-cream advertisement. Between the rape story and the embezzlement story is the LED-lamp advertisement. These slots probably don’t cost the same.

VII 

This problem of mine is beyond a first-world problem. It may even be a millennial problem, if that is what I am. Could anyone from any other generation be existentially terrified of being boring to the people around them? Was my grandfather afraid of this when he was eighteen?

Is this just me?

VIII 

Have I commodified myself?

My existence and interaction with you is not a tool for your entertainment. It is alright if I bore you. I do not live for you. My purpose can be beyond that or even separate from that. Does your doctor have to be interesting? Does your barber? No? Does your teacher have to be interesting? Does your author? Does your filmmaker?

Does your friend?

What about your newspaperman and your reporter and your TV host?

What does permeation in consumerism mean? What does consumer-culture mean? Do we look at everything in those terms, now? Is the news supposed to be a gripping, interesting read? If a person loves you, does it really only mean they are interested in you?

IX

Entertainers like to seem complicated
But we’re not complicated
I can explain it pretty easily
Have you ever been to a birthday party for children
And one of the children won’t stop screaming
Cuz he’s just a little attention attractor
When he grows up to be a comic or actor
He’ll be rewarded for never maturing
For never understanding or learning
That every day can’t be about him
There’s other people, you selfish asshole!

I must be psychotic
I must be demented
To think that I’m worthy of all this attention
Of all of this money you worked really hard for
I slept in late while you worked at the drug store
My drug’s attention
I am an addict
But I get paid to indulge in my habit
It’s all an illusion

Bo Burnham – Art is Dead

Here we are now, entertain us

you know who…

X

I hope all the people like this blog post and enjoy it and stuff. I hope it wasn’t boring.

I Miss Old Taylor

Kanye West’s a heck of a guy. To blame the downward-spiral of the very talented Taylor Swift’s career and her degeneration to whatever one calls Reputation (‘selling out’ makes you wonder who she’s really selling out to and change-of-direction implies individual taste and preference that went into this which is just ugh) on Kanye West’s now hilarious and rather adorable interruption of her VMA acceptance speech and the chain reaction that that event triggered is to perhaps give West as much credit as he wants (which, as a rule of thumb, is always much more than necessary). But it makes me deeply uncomfortable to blame anyone other than Swift herself for this. Even Kanye West.

But, old Kanye-new Kanye. Old Taylor-new Taylor. Kanye’s new epoch is a nebulous thing. Post Pablo? Post Yeezus? Who knows. Who’s supposed to know. But with Taylor, this is where her discography shall now be cleft into two. The bisection starts here. The Old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Because she’s dead.

She seemed like such a fascinating artist, though. I was just listening to Speak Now. What a great album. Happier times, for sure. Until you realize they sorta weren’t. This was 2010.

2010. The year of Ke$ha’s Tik Tok. The Black Eyed Peas were a thing. Pitbull was a thing. Jason Derulo was a thing. Owl City’s Fire ‘The Whitest Song on Earth’ Flies was a thing. The DJ got us falling in love again, that year. This was not a year of quality music all around the board. If you look at what most publications considered the best albums of the year, the only properly big, commercial record on that list would be, ironically enough, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which was apparently his attempt to get to grips with the bad PR the VMA incident generated. Which is not to say that BDTF isn’t a great album. It is. But we didn’t really have Kendrick Lamar and 2017 Beyonce back then. We had The Black Eyed Peas and Owl City on one side and Vampire Weekend, Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and LCD Soundsystem (who?) on the other.

In this commercially bleak, mostly indie world, Taylor Swift made a mostly excellent record everyone seems to have overlooked.

I shall also remind you that if you were a kid, this was the general era of Disney Channel. You listened to Hannah Montana and early Justin Beiber. Ooh, and the Jonas Brothers. All of them grudgingly or otherwise. Taylor Swift wanted to leave the club around then, I think. But she did her break in a far more subtle, graceful fashion than her contemporaries. At least, up till Reputation. Speak Now in some ways reflects the start of that break. It’s delightfully unsure of itself. Is it piano-pop? Is it pop-rock? Is it guitar pop? How much country should it be? Can she ditch the country altogether? The answer to everything is yes.

The countryest song is probably that powerful liberation anthem Mean which is so clever because it’s about how she’ll eventually outgrow the ‘limitations of her roots’ and be ‘livin’ in a big ‘ole city’. And the bumpkin who wanted to hold her back is none other than Kanye West. Dressing this song about Kanye West (who probably embodies big city better than anyone else could) not letting a poor little country-girl enjoy her big break as a country banjo-rollicker about some uncouth alcoholic degenerate holding her back from the big city is deliberate genius.

There’s a lot of strings which is interesting because the other big album that experimented with orchestral instrumentation that year was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Sometimes the strings are a bit much, like in Back To December where the pared down acoustic version is much better than the official recording.

But sometimes she’s very subtle with the strings like in Enchanted. This is a great song for several reasons (please don’t be in love with someone else) but I will point out a specifically great part. If you listen to the song, at around 1:55, when she’s launching into the first chorus and she sings ‘meet’, you can hear what is either a slide along a single string on a distorted electric guitar or a synthesizer with the pitch bent forwards on that single note in the background. Whatever it is, that is the sound of Disney Channel pop, distilled. Later, around 5:08, the same sound is played, but this time along with a violin. Nothing could represent a transition from kiddy-pop to grown up music better than that.

Dear John is interesting, given who the target of her ire is. The ethics of addressing these songs to specific people by almost spelling out who they are so as to essentially drop fuel into the fires of the press aside, if you’re going to write a breakup song about John Mayer, this is how you do it. I have never appreciated production in a pop-album more than Dear John. Just listen to Slow Dancing in a Burning Room . Dear John mimics sappy John Mayer better than he can mimic himself while being a perfectly credible Taylor Swift song at the same time. That little slide-bottle guitar between the verses. The electric guitar riffs that threaten to choke out the words, the way Mayer…er…yeah. The conclusion to the song is gorgeously anthemic.

She wrote all these songs herself. Which is amazing. No Ed Sheeran. No features from Future. Nathan Chapman, who produced all her previous albums, doesn’t return on Reputation and his loss is felt. There was a folk-beauty to every one of those albums, however pop they became.

I think that had something to do with the writing. The little things nobody else would even think to include in a song meant a lot in a Taylor Swift song. There’s that ‘you wish it was me, don’t you?’ in the eponymous Speak Now which reveals so much about how tongue-in-cheek the whole song is. Red isn’t nearly as good as Speak Now, but even there, you have moments like ‘indie-record that’s much cooler than mine’ from We Are Never Getting Back Together.Then there’s 1989′s ‘I’ve been there too a few times’.

I hope Old Taylor really isn’t dead. New Kanye’s weird but he’s still interesting. New Taylor isn’t. I wanted to do a solid comparison with Reputation but that would involve listening to it more than once and I don’t think I can. Its music is grating and without any of the grace that seemed to come so easy to Swift in the past. Other than hardcore fans, who is this record for? Disney Channel kids don’t exits anymore. Fourteen year-olds are weaned on Khalid and Halsey and other indie-pop/neo-R&B artists or at the very least, Sheeran. Those people from 2010 aren’t things anymore. So why did she make an album that seems to belong to 2010 better than Speak Now ever did? Is Reputation some sick, dark way of getting back at the world for some sort of artistic neglect? Is this payback for caring more about whose bed Swift shared than the quality of her music?

If it is, I truly am very sorry. I think the world could use some ‘hey Stephen I can give you fifty reasons why I should be the one you choose. Well, those other girls, they’re beautiful. But would they write a song for you?

On Blue Whales, The Internet and Hysteria

Don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about? After a while, a masterfully crafted Christopher Nolan movie, maybe. But first, elephants. Don’t think about blue whales. No, seriously. Don’t.

I really don’t know where to begin with this. Structuring these sorts of texts is something I usually enjoy doing but here, it’s a little difficult. Factors alarmingly bleed into each other. Subtopics avoid me. It’s all a little terrifying.

So let’s begin with where I chose to begin. Don’t think about blue whales. Sensationalism and Indian media is a long and complex story which deals with stylistic and, more importantly, commercial factors far beyond the scope of this article. The Indian news channel is aesthetically garish and choked for space, headlines pared down to sometimes two-word phrases hitting your flatscreens and iPhones in big, bold, capital letters. The people behind the desks are more showmen than newsreaders. We criticize Arnab all we want. Who else is significantly better? Here we are now. Entertain us. Okay, so long as you pay us. Or at least watch this Ujala advertisement.

This becomes pertinent when we look at the way news articles on the Blue Whale challenge are written and captioned and the images used to present them. ”

Blue Whale challenge: A journey into dark side of internet”

Or so The Indian Express tells us. Sounds more like pulp horror than a news article. The pictures used are no better. A pale arm jutting out of a folded hoodie sleeve. A blue whale painted on it in chocolate syrup. Or blood, who knows? All that matters is that it does what any image so cryptic, so violent and yet so controlled, so very intriguing does to you. Which just happens to be exactly what that headline does to you. And I think the media can’t help doing this. How can one change the way they’ve been writing for most of this century just for one story? I don’t think journalists hunker down into their cubicles with their hipster-glasses on and Macbooks at the ready saying “how do we capitalize off the suicides of very vulnerable adolescents across our country?”. It’s a matter of practice. Of vocabulary.

It is unfair to accuse all media establishments uniformly of crimes so heinous. There are a number of very careful, very measured, very logical analyses of this matter in reputed newspapers. But those newspapers are printed on dead trees and slipped through people’s doors early in the morning. They are read by old people. The sensational stuff is all on the internet. Which leads to our second problem.

The Blue Whale Challenge is not the dark side of the internet. The internet goes much deeper. And much much darker. The internet is a scary place. This isn’t shocking stuff. Go to any debating/speaking society in any school, wait for the inevitable “Is the internet evil?” topic to come up and listen to smartly dressed little boys and girls tell you about how the information superhighway, despite being an instant repository for all information you will ever need about anything, is not the safest territory for young explorers to roam unsupervised. The very old bitch and moan about this and their cries go unheeded. Nine year olds play Farmville and their fingers hover uncertainly over strange new friend-requests and message-requests. The motor skills required to play Subway Surfers often overtake those required to walk. Kids are curious about kooky stuff. But in a world where Peppa Pig episodes come at you in a rapid clip with ad-breaks you can skip after a mere five seconds, The Hardy Boys, weird encyclopedias and true-crime TV shows don’t quite cut it.

We’ve talked about the very old and the very young. Those in the middle are the ones we need to talk about. But to cast blame here is to be callous. Raising a child in this environment is not an easy thing to do. To deny access to to this wonderland of education is to amputate your athlete before the race. To restrict just the right amount is a complex thing to manage, entailing a familiarity with the technology involved that is superior to the child’s (like that’s ever going to happen except in the rarest of cases) and a lot of time. Which nobody quite has now, let’s be very honest. To relent is the only possible solution. He’s scoring okay, not hurting his eyes and not getting into any trouble. Watch the news, eat dinner, go to bed.

Let’s talk about those very logical articles that academics write in those newspapers that old people read. The statistics angle is usually brought up. And rightly so. 17% of all global suicides come from India. 34% of suicides in India occur in the 15-29 age bracket. This is scary stuff and people have been doing a lot of interesting research about this and trying to sound the alarm for a long time. The nation wants to know only just now.

Why are these children killing themselves? Because of facebook messages asking them to wake up at night to watch scary movies or to climb on to the roof? No. If that triggers one to take her own life, there had to have been a problem before that. There have been problems before that for years, though and we’re perfectly happy pretending they don’t exist. Because mental illness isn’t like regular illness. Paracetamol doesn’t really fix it. It doesn’t make your forehead warm and your eyes bleary. It’s hard to diagnose and even harder to treat. So you’re just feeling sad. That’s okay. That’s normal. Everyone feels sad. Go watch some Peppa Pig. Play some Farmville. Make friends. Read the news. Online? Sure, read it online.

So now, perhaps you can understand my predicament when it comes to structuring this. There is no beginning, middle and end. It is not a cycle or a wheel. It is not linear. It doesn’t progress. It is muck, mixing and coagulating. There is news on the internet, written to make you read more. There are children reading up on this news and then beyond the news. Some of these children aren’t okay but they aren’t running temperatures and they aren’t coughing up phlegm so they must be fine.

But that isn’t what’s sad about this whole thing. What’s sad is that it’s something as ridiculous as the Blue Whale Challenge which finally made us sit up and take notice. A story which makes for interesting Whatsapp forwards. Because who wants to read about stress and hostile home environments? Let’s read about chocolate syrup whale patterns on pale hands instead. Let’s go on loving our hysteria.

Don’t think about blue whales. Think about the little one. Think about how he’s doing. How he’s really doing. Think about the news you love watching so much. Think about how it shapes the way you think without you even knowing. Think about statistics. Think about depression. Don’t think about blue whales. Don’t think about elephants.

 

 

 

The Sunflower Epoch: Definitions of Dalit Before and After Ambedkar

This was meant to be submitted as a writing assignment at a place I attended for a while. That submission never happened but I rather like this, warts and all. 

0

The time is the 1970s. The fresh-faced idealism that came up with the Republican Party of India has now dissipated into a fizz of factionalism and insularity. The hope of coexistence, recognition and perhaps most important of all, the idea that it is possible for all sides to put the past behind them that was stirred in the hearts of all harijans or shudras or outcastes as the firecrackers of 1947 turned our newly free sky into a Christmas tree of light is now behind them. What settles in those hearts now is jaded pessimism. And sorrow. And rage.

Little has changed for the broken man. The precious few who could break free from the tight clutches of tradition look back to their broken brothers and sisters and write tear stained songs and poems. Namdheo Dhasal is a poet. And even though he recognizes that the future of the broken lies in the hands of the broken themselves, he cannot help but look back once more to the sunflower giving fakir and all he represented. “After a thousand years, we were blessed with sunflower giving fakir. Now, now we must like sunflowers turn our faces to the sun.1

That fakir represented an epoch in the dark history of these broken men and women. That history traces a sequence of ugly blots along the greater history of India itself. It coexists with the varnas, the Buddha, the Mughals, the British, The Indian National Congress and the state of affairs we are in today. Their story is the marginalia to India’s legacy. And it is far from over.

1

We do not know when this story really begins. Early Indian society was patriarchal in structure with inheritance not only restricted to property but, in most cases, occupation. So, the son would learn his father’s trade and teach it to his son and so on ad infinitum. It is also known that at some point after 500BCE the religious elite began to codify social norms and regulations into Sanskrit texts called Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.

These texts were responsible for the classification of people into four distinct categories or varnas: The Brahmanas, The Kshatriyas, The Vaishyas and The Shudras. And then, of course, there were the untouchables. They were the scavengers, ‘savages’ and those who could not be easily classified into the existing orders. This concept emerged from the idea that the lower castes could pollute the upper ones through touch because the work done by the Brahmanas was pure and that by the Shudras or Chandalas was polluting or impure.

While we do know for a fact that this piece of dogma existed within the Shastras, it is not known how prevalent these ideas were, or whether they were universally accepted. Evidence, in fact, points to the contrary. Brahmanical mandates regarding gotras, the rules of marriage, descent, succession of the throne and even occupation were often ignored by some groups and sometimes did not reach all sections of society.

In addition, there were religious groups who reacted very openly against these classifications. The Bhakti movement in South India, the Buddhist Sanghas, the Jainas and the Lingayats are among them.

Despite this, this system of social stratification persisted through the years to come. The Deccan Sultans came and went. The Mughals arrived. Caste distinctions in the Indian village remained ever constant.

Even though agricultural land was abundant, sections of society were denigrated to performing menial labour, pushed into poverty only because of their caste. With the coming of the British, their morbid curiosity about the ways of the Orient and their extensive surveys, the caste identities of the population became all the more stark. The colonial government helped matters along by allotting administrative work to the Brahmanas and upper castes and menial labour to the lower castes.

2

The arrival of Gandhian Nationalism in the early nineteen-hundreds would mark the next major change in the popular perception and, rather more importantly, the self-perception of the Untouchables.

The Mahatma’s relationship with the untouchables was always a complicated one. In his dual role as a political leader and social reformer, the eradication of untouchability was always one of his prime concerns. During the ‘first’ Independence Day in 1930, Gandhi had explicit instructions on how to celebrate it, allotting some amount of time to the service of untouchables. His encouragement of performing menial tasks usually relegated to castes added to his appeal among them. He even went so far as to state that he wished to be reborn as an untouchable. “if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts leveled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition. I, therefore, prayed that, if I should be born again, I should do so not as a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra, but as an Atishudra.”2

Given Gandhi’s status as a messianic saviour of the colonised population, his opinion on the integration of these untouchables into mainstream society should have gone unopposed like all his other opinions. But it didn’t. And that opposition came from a very unexpected place.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an exceptional figure in 20th century British India. The son of an untouchable sepoy of the Mhow cantonment, his early education was spent segregated from the rest of the school. He recounts his experience of being unable to drink water from the common vessel unless it were to be poured down from above by an upper class peon. He sat on a dry old gunny sack he had to carry home himself after each day’s classes. Eventually, he became the only untouchable student at Bombay’s prestigious Elphinstone high school and the first untouchable to be admitted to Elphinstone College. Through a scholarship, he was able to pursue his postgraduate education at Columbia University in New York and then at Gray’s Inn and the London School of Economics. The fruit of nine years of dedicated higher education for Ambedkar was proficiency in Political Science, Economics and Law.

These were skills which put him in a position very few untouchables could even dare to achieve then. They helped him fight the broken man’s corner with the white man’s language.

And he did fight their corner, sometimes going toe to toe with the revered father of the nation. In the first Round-Table conference in 1930, he represented the Depressed Classes (or untouchables). The most iconic altercation between these two national leaders took place during the Second Round Table Conference when Gandhi vehemently opposed Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates for the Depressed Classes.

This changed things, not just for Ambedkar and Gandhi but also for the untouchables, whose reaction to Gandhi’s protest and subsequent hunger strike was less than entirely supportive. As N.S. Gehlot writes: “The intense feelings of the Dalits against Gandhi were manifested by black flag demonstrations against him on his return to Bombay.3

Eventually, Ambedkar was forced to relent to Gandhi’s plea for the safety of untouchables throughout the country.  “If Gandhi died, in villages throughout India there would be pogroms against the Dalits. They would be massacred.”4 But this acrimony between the Mahatma and Baba Saheb continued for a very long time. Ambedkar would later go on to claim that Gandhi, while maintaining a façade of being in support of abolishing untouchability in front of the English-language press, actually wrote against it in a Gujarati newspaper.

Gandhi, for his part, claimed that it would not be possible for the system of untouchability to be abolished if separate electorates and policies of reservations were put into place. He also spoke in favour of the caste system as a religious concept, claiming that untouchability was a mutation of something that was once good and that caste differences should not be done away with wholesale. Ambedkar was dead against that and encouraged the burning of copies of The Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text in which the varna system was codified. Eventually he even espoused that untouchables should abandon Hinduism altogether and embrace Buddhism.

Regarding the inclusion of those of the Depressed Classes into Parliament, a compromise was arrived at between the Mahatma and Ambedkar with the Poona Pact of 1932. The concept of separate electorates was done away with but a percentage of seats were to be reserved in both houses for untouchables. But this never stretched to anything beyond a compromise. Some claimed it was too little. Others claimed that it was too much.

 

4

It is in the midst of this conflict about reservations, social justice and the blotting away of past evils that issues of identity and nomenclature come to play.

Even during the early history of the fourfold varna system, the specific names and identities of the lower castes were blurry at best. While the roles of the shudras and athisudhras were relatively well defined, there were a variety of other social categories (each distinctly named) that an individual could belong to with nebulous systems of power relations connecting them to each other and to the upper castes. There were the chandalas, scavenger outcastes who Chinese Buddhist historians claim were forced to live separate from the general public, there were the nishadas, hunter-gatherers who lived in the forest and mlechchas, ‘barbarians’ from foreign lands.

There was also the complex system of jatis or sub-castes in which those practicing the same occupation would be classified into the same group. In essence, it is possible to infer that a whole host of ‘types’ of people who did not fit into the four varnas were placed into lower castes or other derogatory categories by the Brahmanas. This malign mess of categorization based on hazy family history and random theories had its impact far into the future. It became a matter of identity. And in the case of the caste-system in India, identity bleeds into language in very disturbing ways.

Gandhiji’s preferred term for the Depressed Classes was harijan, which means ‘God’s people’. This term had a mixed response among the untouchable community. Gandhiji’s own caste lay between him and the people of God he cared so much about, a schism neither side could quite manage to bridge. This, to some extent, contextualizes Gandhi’s repeated impassioned cries that he would, if he could, turn shudra.. But for a lot of the shudras he was trying to appeal to, the fact that he refused to support getting rid of the system as a whole made his status as the saviour of the untouchables questionable.

Nomenclature morphed into different forms even in the official spheres of jurisprudence and government. Depressed Classes transformed into Scheduled Castes, implying castes that were on the schedule (or list) of untouchable communities.

The new names did little to transform the situation for individual untouchables in towns, cities and most especially villages, the terminal end of India’s federal administrative system. They were still denied access to common property like pools and wells. They were ghettoized, oppressed and violated. The untouchable woman was a particularly easy target for upper caste men.

From this oppression came a new name, a name chosen not by a political scientist or a benevolent Mahatma but by the broken themselves. Dalit became a new name and a new identity: disillusioned, anguished and militant.

5

A definition of Dalit has been a contested issue among social scientists, anthropologists and lawmakers. Sunita Reddy Bharati says: “Dalit is not a caste, it is a constructed identity, which is a reality that cannot be denied.”4 This lack of specificity when it comes to the boundaries and extents of Dalit stems from the Dalit Panthers, a militant organization of Dalit students, poets and thinkers drawing inspiration from the Black Panthers of America.

The Panthers emerged from among the slum-dwelling educated class of Dalit youth in Mumbai and gave rise to an entire new genre of Marathi literature. The movement grew to encompass a variety of broken people under its umbrella but the origin of Dalit always came back to the untouchables. The mahars or shudras.

The violence of Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry represents a paradigm in the self-identity of the Dalits. That paradigm stems from an epochal moment in their history, distinct from the peace and non violence of the Mahatma. The Panthers were violent, not just in their methods but also in their poetry. Dhasal invokes not a reworking of existing upper-caste society but a destruction.

That violence originates from an intellectual violence; from a sunflower giving fakir who set fire to copies of the Manusmriti, who forced the Father of the Nation to threaten to fast to death before eventually relenting and who never for once advocated anything less than burning the entire enterprise of caste relations down.

Before the Ambedkar Epoch, there was, as there always has been and continues to be for the broken men, misery and sorrow. But Ambedkar brought a unified identity and an equally unified rage against the mechanisms that had arbitrarily forced the Dalits down for centuries.

6

The real test for India’s untouchability problem post-Ambedkar lies not only in the position of untouchables today but also in the popular perceptions of the other castes towards them.

Issues of caste based violence (especially against women) continue to happen but their frequency and social acceptability are very different from the time of the Panthers. Untouchables are gaining significant access to mainstream society and the present generation shows signs that there is hope for an abandonment of all caste distinctions in the foreseeable future.

But, sentiments towards policies of reservations, equity and special treatment get icier by the year. One side argues that continuing these measures only increases the gulf between Dalits and the rest of India. The other side argues that it is not fair to promote the employment and education of an ironically ‘arbitrary’ category of people at the cost of the employment and education of ‘hard-working’ members of the general category.

With India subtly riding the coattails of a worldwide trend of populism and nationalism, we may eventually have to deal with the Dalit being in a similar position to a black man in Trump’s America. And with fears like that baying at our doors, just how less broken is a broken man in 2017 than one in 1947? The situation is not one which either Gandhi or Ambedkar would be proud of. And we aren’t any closer to a solution than those men were.

A new generation of sunflowers try to turn their face to the sun and the rest of us watch, as uncertain as ever.