Random Encounters in the City (4): The Odd One

Imam was giving a brief sermon on death. A friend’s mother died last night and we were lining up for the funeral prayer.

“And now the last thing brothers,” Imam wrapped it up, “not that it’s obligatory, but better to stand in odd number of files; Allah is odd and likes it.”

“Why does He like it odd at only funeral prayers!”, I thought as the prayer started and finished. Majority got dispersed. A small minority moved to the burial site. Gravediggers were occupied when a bunch of us old mates sat beside an old grave under a shady tree to have a reunion.

“What’s with the odd numbers?”, the Ismaili history-buff from Hunza, and a childhood classmate, asked me.

“I reckon it must be a misunderstood figure of speech from classical Arabic. I’m not sure though; originally a Pythagorean myth but I don’t know the Arabian roots. There is an ambiguous reference to even and odd in the Quran as well, but it has nothing to do with God’s disposition towards oddness,” I said, “the Hadith though is different; it says He’s odd and likes it.”

“But why you call it a myth?”, said a piety-minded friend.

“Because a myth isn’t something ridiculous or profane; it belongs to the same cultural pool which constitutes sacred texts, rituals and hardened attitudes of following traditions without raising eyebrows,” I hesitated to put my thoughts into words in order to avoid the debate that could have gone south.

Couldn’t tell him that Virgil said it way before!

These triple threads of threefold color first
I twine about thee, and three times withal
Around these altars do thine image bear:
Uneven numbers are the are the god’s delight.

…and that’s the beauty of mythic meme chains; they transform and become original in all the cultures they move.

 

Divinity of the Capsule Critic

Second to speculative philosophy, literary criticism is perhaps one of the most conflict ridden discipline of all theory. The conflicting claims are often paradoxical but the role of critic itself being a contentious thread of controversy is perhaps the most interesting paradox. After lot of circuitous rounds, the debate always boils down to a more general question regarding the ultimate purpose of criticism. An obvious aspect that usually comes to the fore is that this function is necessarily impersonal. Not that any critic can claim to have absolute objectivity, impersonal nature of criticism simply means that a critic must portray herself as a restrained bystander, always illuminating general and particular aspect of the text, and the underlying diverse relationships whose subtlety might not be as obvious to the reader; the reader, on the other hand, is the agent who is always approaching the text with her necessary biases.

However, like most other isms, criticism too usually fails to stand up tall to its own expectations of a supreme objective portrayal. Reasons are multifarious but the most interesting ones are psychological. The knowledge that critical enterprise is essentially subservient to the creative enterprise is dreadful for a critic, to say the least. “They are like cuckolded husbands,” the ingenious Serbian novelist Milorad Pavic introduces essayists and critics while addressing reader of his unique novel, “always the last to find out.”[1] This is indeed true by none other than critics’ own modern standards where death of the author has not only reduced the triadic relationship of author, text and reader to a dyad but also raised questions on the dyad itself by grabbing meaning from the reduced reader-text relationship and deferring it inevitably and infinitely.

But this is not an essay about semiotic complexities, a subject we can easily defer indefinitely to scholars and experts. This is about a more urgent business: of social media chambers occupied by capsule critics.

A capsule review is one where the reader, at some point of her reading curve, decides to replace hats and assume the role of critic. Needless to say that the capsule reviews shape quick opinions of uninitiated readers as no one is able to keep up with everything coming out in today’s fast publishing world. The usual traversable forms are star ratings or short opinion pieces; the more riotous engagements where tunneled reader-critics indulge in vociferous mudslinging and outright mockery of texts and authors.

The capsule critic thus becomes the goddess of her own little quasi-moral reading universe; her divinity represented in the emphatic, usually moral or sociopolitical godly judgment; at times served as a warning note to the followers from a higher pedestal, at times issued as an imperative moral statement. The power is manifested in cataclysmic proportions, where faithful of a critic-demigod resort to various fatwas against authors, calls for book banning and at times lynching. Quite predictably, as in most moral judgments, the proof of the pudding doesn’t lie in eating but in the warning tag. Texts are no more presented to be experienced by diverse audience but to be mechanically compartmentalized according to binary decision rules. Salman Rushdie becomes profane regardless of the variety of his literary oeuvre, Nabokov becomes a pedophile, Manto and Lawrence are generally tagged as obscene and vulgar, Vonnegut and Gordimer are pretty much established as anti-state; the trend also extends to nonfiction, for instance, Fazlur Rahman’s seminal book on Islamic tradition being declared blasphemous in 60s. In recent times, vituperative capsule critics like Orya Maqbool Jan have proved immensely successful in shaping large public opinions of Malala’s book.

Except the occasional life-threatening poisonous proportions of the far right, it is difficult to differentiate the nature of respective divinities on both sides of socio-political spectrum. One recent left-leaning example is the twitter tirade of short critical outbursts lumping complete literary oeuvre of Qudrutullah Shahab, Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia and Mumtaz Mufti in one basket and emphatically tagging it as rationally regressive, politically placated in favor of authoritarianism and socially dogmatic. These capsule critiques, even if one ignores the platitudes and rampant ad hominem, are very difficult to access as constructively literary. At the most, they sounds like stubborn angry children wanting a group of writers to come up to their hazy desires. Employing vague categories to verbalize obscure points of view, these critics hardly seems to have a clue what they should actually contend in order to present a meaningful critique intended to ultimately evolve into a dialogue with texts and their readers.

The issue here is not the medium. It is, in fact, the lack of awareness regarding the critical tradition which puts these pop critiques outside the folds of useful literary engagement. Otherwise, the devices of satire, mockery and scathing rebuttal are not foreign to serious literary criticism. In this case too, there is a lot to criticize in the whole body of work of these four horsemen of romanticist mysticism; however, each work demands a separate engagement and we are hardly dealing with a monolith here. If done right, even ten to fifteen minutes of a blog can supply enough breadth to an uninitiated interested reader. Their incredible metaphysical adventures and fiction packaged as a fact can provide a chapter length material for a book written on the topic of how not to do magical realism. It has been related, for instance, that parts of Shahabnama were originally narrated by the author in private gatherings as his new novel. The young protagonist roaming about the streets of Alipur and growing up to be an old man in the magical lands of Alakh Nagri may indeed be a walking paradox or a literary opportunist furnishing apologies for state-sanctioned narratives, but the fact cannot warrant a claim of complete exhaustion of Mufti’s literary uses [2]

Sending these works to oblivion — the proverbial dustbin of history — may indeed be a valid goal of a disagreeing hateful critic. Hate is a weird sentiment in relation to texts but every once in a while in our complex reading lives, it isn’t so rare to end up disliking a text strongly. Intizar Hussain, when asked about whether he has read Umera Ahmed in one of his last interviews, replied that he doesn’t want to increase her readership any further. Silence and unconcern are indeed two strong critical weapons when used intelligently so as to impart enough sense of their usage to the community of readers. However, looking down upon readers’ sensibilities and shaming them explicitly for their psychological leanings is not criticism or opinion. It is what it is: shaming and bullying.

To the degree it is possible to psychoanalyze capsule critics from their short audiovisual outbursts, there seems to be an impulsive inclination to merge writers with the allegedly detestable worldviews presented in their literature. This indeed is an interesting critical challenge on its own since writers, after all, can be seen just as close to their literary worlds as a painter can morph into his own canvas.

The question inevitably boils down to how life and art conjoin in the overall weltanschauung of various societies!

While trying to distinctly characterize Russian attitudes to life and art as opposed to French ones, Isaiah Berlin once enquired [3] whether it would upset the French people if someone proves that Honoré de Balzac was serving as a spy for French government or Stendhal indulged in illegal operations at stock exchange?

According to Berlin’s characterization, there are at least two diametrically opposite attitudes to life and art, that is, 1) to primarily understand writers as individuals responsible for all their fictitious, public or private utterances, or 2) to understand them instead as ‘purveyors’ with a foremost duty to provide as good an object as possible.

In this backdrop, isn’t it too obvious even to a cursory reader that all these popular writers ultimately explored opportunities to provide the best possible product in most captivating ways, according to their respective degrees of creativity?

Therefore, for instance, Mumtaz Mufti’s passionate adventures sometimes on the boundaries of eroticism to his later platonic romanticism with higher-truths, Qudrutullah Shahab’s hyperbolic sketches relating relationships with politicians, dictators and his alleged supernatural mentors, or Ashfaq Ahmed’s conversations on radio or TV are merely products of some really good purveyors. All of them were creative craftsmen who experimented with various literary art-forms, exploited opportunities and arouse readership interest like any other popular writer.

How critically reasonable is it to shame the reader who is unable to enjoy Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum but readily believe in every fictional conspiracy theory of Dan Brown? How many young readers would fall instantly in love with Chesterton’s Father Brown instead of Marvel’s comic heroes? How many would prefer Tolkien’s classical imaginary world over George Martin’s epic frenzy packaged with cheesy elements of modern popular taste?

Why must we judge artists rather than the pieces of art, especially when the former judgment is not likely to transform into an objective discourse, since the artist is rarely there to rejoin? Even if he is there to participate, is it critically essential, rather fruitful, that an artist must be projected as a public property to testify for his self-deceptions, allegedly wicked twists and turns or ascribed versions of truths? Are all the artists, and other individuals in general, fully aware of all the historical forces of their times, or are they primarily on the mercy of the flow?

Would it be a fair critique, for instance, if Ghalib is reduced to an opportunist toady of British Raj for composing panegyrics eulogizing Queen Victoria? Even as an interesting fictional experiment, how might he respond to postcolonial sensibility of a capsule critic?

Must we ridicule diverse sensibilities, desecrate cherished ideals and respective world-views of individual readers rather than intricacies of the text and how it shapes those worldviews? Criticism must not inadvertently portray itself as making implied cases for burning books and effigies.

Criticism, instead, is about empathetic, dispassionate understanding and objective disentanglement of various layers of art and how each of these layers interact with life to supply essential humanistic truths. There is even more to it in other more subtle dimensions related to collective conscience of various imagined communities. And as it is meaningful — with usual allowances for exceptions — to talk about Russian, French, German or Chinese attitudes to life and art, is it also meaningful to speak about a Pakistani conscience in a more or less same fashion?

Coming back to Russian attitudes, our capsule critics may benefit immensely from Belinsky’s celebrated letter to Gogol criticizing publication of a treatise in which the latter called back Russian people to ancient patriarchal ways and find spiritual awakening in serfdom. Belinsky’s letter, besides being a literary masterpiece, is a marvel of social critique challenging the truth supplied by Gogol’s literary tract. While describing the nomenclature of Russian individual, Belinsky writes:

Take a closer look and you will see that it is by nature a profoundly atheistic people. It still retains a good deal of superstition, but not a trace of religiousness. Superstition passes with the advances of civilization, but religiousness often keeps company with them too; we have a living example of this in France, where even today there are many sincere Catholics among enlightened and educated men, and where many people who have rejected Christianity still cling stubbornly to some sort of god. The Russian people is different; mystic exaltation is not in its nature; it has too much common sense, a too lucid and positive mind, and therein, perhaps, lies the vastness of its historic destinies in the future. Religiousness has not even taken root among the clergy in it, since a few isolated and exceptional personalities distinguished for such cold ascetic contemplation prove nothing. But the majority of our clergy has always been distinguished for their fat bellies, scholastic pedantry, and savage ignorance. It is a shame to accuse it of religious intolerance and fanaticism; instead it could be praised for exemplary indifference in matters of faith. Religiosity among us appeared only in the schismatic sects who formed such a contrast in spirit to the mass of the people and who were numerically so insignificant in comparison with it. [4]

The purpose, of course, is not to extend social commentary on our particular attitudes to life, art, religion and truth, and whether there are any possible comparisons or contrasts with the 19th century Russians, but just to showcase the essential literary traits of incisive, albeit objective criticism. Let it be a dummy’s guide for capsule critics who are supposedly content in throwing away terms like ‘rational attitudes‘ and ‘progressive thinking‘ without trying to describe an iota of what these categories actually entail and how they can shape up an alternative world-view in contrast to an allegedly misplaced religious and spiritual outlook. A critique cannot insist to speak from an alternative, even if equally romantic point of view where an artist is ultimately judged in terms of degree of conformance to a superficial integrity and a kind of commitment to some vague moral ideals which only exist in the mind of a particular critic with an ambiguous bent.

Unfortunately in the end, when we cannot even begin to portray a prototype Pakistani individual in any social or philosophical sense at this point of our brief social history of art, so called progressive products of critique can neither be understood as objective social commentary nor an erudite literary critique. The angry diatribes always following capsule critiques on both sides of the spectrum — the so-called liberal progressive and conservative orthodox — suggest that if Pakistani conservatives ascribe to a religiously romantic and narcissist world-view, the malady of Pakistani liberalism lies in lazy and simplistic habits of thought. If we want to ascribe to an ideal of compassion and progress, we have to create community spaces which allow diversity to flourish. Rather than absurd claptrap, there have to be dispassionate critiques based on accurate archetypal characterization from contrasting standpoints. The most creative critic would be the one who can always resort to passionate devices of satire and parody, rather than shaming.

Lastly, if some progressive voices only approve literature charting worldviews based on extreme scientific materialism, ridiculing metaphysical sensibilities of a particular readership through twaddle is certainly not the best course to invite them to realism. Like that remarkable decade in Russia from 1838 to 1848, we desperately need the rebirth of an indigenous and diverse intelligentsia, which can invent new and fresh forms of objective criticism and evolve productive discourses.

_________________________________________

  1. Pavic, Milorad. Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 words. Vintage, 1989.
  2. For an encompassing critique on Mumtaz Mufti’s Alakh Nagri see Kamal, Ajmal. Dunyadari Ki Ma’ba’ul-Tibiyyat” in Achi Urdu Bhi Kya Buri Shey Hey. City Press, 2012
  3. Berlin, Isaiah, The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia” in Russian thinkers. Penguin UK, 2013.
  4. Vissarion G. Belinsky, Letter to Nikolai V. Gogol” in Selected Philosophical Works. Moscow, 1948. It is the same letter, reading which in a circle of Petrashevsky adherents, Dostoyevsky was condemned to death, a punishment which was later commuted to penal servitude.

Random Encounters in the City (3): The Butcher

Slicing meat into small cubes, he was speaking to himself in undertones. We were facing him on the other side of the raised platform. Every other minute or so, he used to raise his chin, eyeball something in the air a little above our heads, twitch his lips, roll his simpering eyes and utter something inaudible.

“I bet he is talking to an imaginary friend,” I said to my son in English who was sitting besides the butcher-shelf on nearby bench. Both of us leaned a little forward and tried to pick a little of that seemingly inaudible murmur.

Mein tumhein bhee doon ga, ruko bhee acha bas bhee karo, hee hee, deta hoon na,” was all I could decipher. Then he looked at the wall right beside his wood-block, said something as if he was apologizing and started removing the peeled off skins which were stuck there.

I felt goosebumps.

I was about to ask something when the master butcher arrived. Trying to exchange a friendly smile, I asked about the man. “He is a little psycho?”, he said. Yes, that is exactly the word he used.

But the guy displayed an excellent workmanship, his hand movements had a unique finesse. Looked perfectly OK to me except that he was talking to someone we couldn’t see.

“Do you think a little dwarf might be sitting besides the wall where he accidentally threw skins,” I asked my son as we walked back to our car.

“I listened something about a house; murmuring that ‘they‘ are already here to see the house and ‘you‘ can come later,” he speculated.

“Ah, is that so?”

“Jee Baba, I could exactly make out that.”

“Hmm, I guess he was stuck up somewhere in a passing moment; reliving it again and again.”

The Letters of Khizr

UntitledIf it is possible to reduce him to a single tendency, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar comes out as a humanist in these Ghalibesque letters which are cheeky literary devices to say what wouldn’t have been possible otherwise on this scale. His scathing literary criticism, the atoxic irony, friendly affection, ethical humanism and amazing linguistic creativity make this collection a colorful mosaic which can be read and reread.

Through these letters, Khalid Akhtar laughs on others; but he uses them more to laughs on himself.

Some of them are timeless classics such as the one written to a young boy Yaqoob, his daughter Sara and Baba Ghulam Muhammad; others such as the ones written to Mahirul Qadri and Mukhtar Masood could have been classical critical reviews if expanded further.

Then there are those which are simply hilarious and may serve as great correctives for young and old wanderers of the literary universe. I couldn’t stop laughing at my old young self who was in love with the paranormal adventures of Raees Amrohvi in college days of end 80s, for instance.

How silly we were in our gullibility to misconstrue every written word as a fact!

In one of the letters, Khalid Akhtar Sahab amusingly predicts the date of his death. I am so happy he was off by a margin of decade. I am no critic but he is perhaps one of those rare Urdu voices who are truly cosmopolitan in their literary breadth.

Rather it is more apt to say that he is; after all, he still continues to speak.

Random Encounters in the City (2): Work is Love Made Visible

The guy at the car mechanic’s shop was innocence at its best.

He spoke through his hands, listened through his eyes, a perfect lip-reader; the glitter in his eyes took one straight to the illuminating depths of his soul, it would rather be said that he was less body and more soul.

Both his impairments seemed to give him a boost; a kind of glazing superiority over the immediate neighborhood; he smiled like a child as if well aware of the artificiality of humanity’s sense-datum discretization.

The eyes seemed to ask if there are really five senses and he was short of two?

I was the last customer in that mechanized modern workshop. He was the last to close down his mechanical-lift operated, hydraulic workstation. Mumbling something partially audible, he hurriedly showed me how to fill up the radiator coolant, told me through hand-movements that I can easily do it later myself; then using the same informal sign language, he asked me twice whether I am satisfied, to which I replied with a smile.

Driving back while thinking about the zen and art of car maintenance, a motorbike overtook my car and there on the back seat I saw him again. He was doing a thumbs up as if asking me yet again if I am happy with the work he done!

Or was he asking if I’m happy anyway?

Random Encounters in the City (1) – The Survivor

A dynamic young man taught me a thing or two about young men like him as I stopped my car to gave him lift near Islamabad club this afternoon. Being from a Malakand village, he did his diploma from Rawalpindi and was now doing B-Tech.

“The real barrier for us is English which is a language but we have turned it into ‘knowledge'”, a criteria of measuring knowledge he probably meant.

“Urdu is like my mother tongue now as I studied in Rawalpindi till matriculation; I couldn’t get good grades later in F.Sc due to change of medium. English medium ‘Baray Log‘ ain’t ‘better‘ than ‘us‘ but we simply cannot compete; I then secured a German scholarship but didn’t have 8,500 Euros to show as bank security. Finally, I had to settle that I cannot go above a certain level.”

As we drove on Murree road, I asked him what does he mean by repeated use of ‘us‘?

“This is not one Muashara (society) but societies within a society, sir. I now work in construction sector; there are a lot of Chinese; I practice my English with them; I have learnt good Chinese by enrolling in a course; eventually English will be replaced by Chinese as the language of market and business.”

I asked him how did he achieve such lucidity?

“I attend most of the free seminars in twin cities; sitting on rear benches finding myself awkwardly out of place; all western educated people who are looking into western ways to solve our problems; I go there to get the taste of education they have got from west. I need to revisit my goals all the time. People like us don’t have objectives like those people,” –[“inherited, bequeathed, designed goals“, I thought]– “we embark on the train going to Karachi and keep praying that it may reach Lahore. How can we hope for an impossible destination?”

He remained with me long after I dropped him near Saddar; his class consciousness; his tamed frustrations mysteriously transformed into energies; his perplexities surrounding culture, knowledge and modernity; a little mix of ambivalence and hope; and what an absolute lack of cosmic fear!

Ten Random Pointers for Amateur Translators

  1. Translation is a unique creative skills. Drawing analogy with painting, translation is not drawing from memory but sketching something already placed in front of you. It is reproduction finally taking its own independent ‘original’ form, yet not too distant from The Original.
  2. There is very little one-to-one correspondence in source and target languages. Do not try to achieve that. Lexicon just serves as a reference knowledge-base. Many readers misconstrue translation as simply finding the right word, but the core skill here is creating a sentence.
  3. The foremost prerequisite of translation is, therefore, skillful reading to grasp the authorial intent and not letting it damped by the noise. No two translations of the same text will be similar because of varying construction of sentences, and not mere choice of words.
  4. This is not to undervalue the choice of words. Word is the container of reality. Choices necessarily impart a cultural transformation. If a word or term can be reduced to a cultural equivalent, simply go for that reduction rather than simplistic orthographic transformation.
  5. However, if there is a precedence for this adoption, then prefer precedence rather than a new choice (or coinage). Two principles here: 1) In reduction vs orthographic rendering, go for the former; 2) but if that rendering has already happened, go with the precedence.
  6. More on choice of words: whenever there’s a deadlock between being faithful to originally intended meaning vs one of your ‘interpretations’ of the text component, try to choose a word which is probabilistically closer to original intention. Control the urge to damp the original.
  7. Often there’s a deadlock between accuracy of rendering vs aesthetical pleasure of reading. Always go with the latter. Readers of translations are not likely to pick the original unless they are critics. Expand the original (a little) rather than coming out bland in translation.
  8. Expansion doesn’t mean transforming the actual flavor. Remember that you are invisible yet visible. Do not take over the text from the author and hand it over to reader as your own. Key is to keep it as ambiguous as the original. Leave the reader with his beloved struggles.
  9. Take liberty to deviate from literal renderings. After two iterations, just read it without referencing original. Remove jumps, pointed corners. Sentences might break into two from original constructions, but smoothness of reading must not be compromised in target language.
  10. A usual compliment that the work does not look like translation might not be such a great feedback. It means you are invisible to the extent of becoming extinct. Do not let the author take you over as well. Translation must come like a translation and should be read as such.

Language Games in the Hyper-plane and Willful Human Suffering

If cyber-sphere is modeled as a hyper-plane, social media is essentially the hyper-reality. Our familiar, phenomenally well understood, mentally well characterized real world where we normally interact in variety of complex ways reduces itself to text and images in this hyper-plane. It can be mathematically understood as a unidirectional mapping where inverse transformation is never possible. Once joining the hyper-plane, each one of us is liable to undergo a reduction. Twitter reduces us to tweety, chirpy, usually shrill, spontaneous outburst; we are reduced to 140+ characters. Facebook works differently but still a reduction of sorts; for instance, you have to essentially model your liking as a binary choice; it is not possible to put forth an emotional response between a ‘like’ and a ‘ha ha’. No, you can’t just smile or pose as peeping and finally looking away after reading with approval or disapproval.

Most of our so-called quasi-ideological diatribes in this hyper-real world are merely childish indulgences because we are reduced to little bellicose automata by virtue of our simple presence in this hyper-plane. We froth and fulminate through text and emojis; arm-wrestle with words and phrases; use wordy arms to hug each other, wordy swords to cut through each other’s heart and wordy dark holes to throw each other in the dark depths of no return.

The key is in keep reminding ourselves that this is not the reality but a reduced hyper-plane; an inadvertent technological ploy to give us a semblance of extension, whereas, it is in fact a compromised reduction.

The so-called ‘impolite’, politically incorrect do not undergo much suffering since their ability to bluntly vent out is further enhanced in the hyper-plane, owing to reduced proximity and increased social disengagement with the real world objects of their critique.

Unfortunately, those coming here with their real worldly politically correct, always euphemising, normally-hypocritical otherwise ‘decent’ mannerism suffer more. They seldom loud-think in the real world; always psychologically aware of social bounds, always keeping thought a little inward, usually afraid of state’s tools of oppression against various kinds of dissent, trying hard not to loose their genteel demeanor, generally men and women donning various pretty masks. Hyper-reality forces them to remove their masks, their salesmanship demeanor, their bank manager smile, their one-window problem-solving agent’s to-the-point demand of concreteness, or their judicial or martial authoritativeness.

Although hyper-reality is a reduced language game, even if you belong to the latter group, you can play enjoyably by realizing that it is essentially a reduction where lots and lots of textual blocks can help you survive without existential suffering of no one paying heed to your genteel real-world pep talk. This meliorative frill borrowed from the real world becomes hogwash in hyper-plane if not supplied with exact amounts cut from or added into, thereby self-inducing a necessary transformation of your whole communicative self. The key is never to judge your interlocutor too much, too soon, and beyond the necessity of the immediate hyper-real social engagement.

Practically speaking, it is all about cognitive thresholds and skills to control ourselves in not reading too much or writing too obtusely. Both have serious implications in any conversation because interlocutors are not face to face as in the real world, there are no moderators, and there are not always and equally valid discernible points of argument. Discussions go round and round and automatically derail if one immediately calls something ‘uncivilized’ in the midst of an argument because then it is obvious that a definition of civilization is being implied by a belligerently disagreeing psychology speaking supposedly from a higher pedestal. The other equally belligerent automaton-like interlocutor is liable to wonder whether a discussion on verbiage and idiom is being invited. Hence, another derailleur, more cycling, incessant pedaling.

In a nutshell, ideology-laden adjectives or labels, unless supplied with lots of supporting textual chunks, prove too loaded for the hyper-plane.

Therefore, while coming across the psychologically uninitiated in the mannerism of language games, it is basically a service to use more direct, unambiguous, light and off-loaded genteel terms such as ‘ridiculous’, ‘delusional’, or simply ‘nonsense’. The uninitiated would cry ‘foul’, call it unjust, indecent, or over-intellectualizing snobbery without realizing that this is in fact a service to both parties. Everyone cannot participate equally well in potentially infinite language games and after all, hyper-plane does not come with infinite time anyway.

If these men and women with lovely masks are not fanatics, they would know when to disengage and move on to some other useless conversation taking place in cyber-nook somewhere else.

Always remember that here in this hyper-real language game, in this macro-cosmic psychological universe, in this microcosmic egoist cocoon, we are not forced with the liability of real engagement, the agony of actually seeing each other in real, personal spaces.

Blood, Tears and Silence: The Infinite Loop

It is at the time of devastating existential tragedies that the question about the true nature of sympathy and empathy always comes up, and the emotional triggers that evoke responses based on them; the question of national cohesion and societal being, the communal, racial, geographical ‘other’; the question whether national boundaries do or do not overlap the ancient sociological boundaries.

In times such as these, this ‘other’ no more lurks in the timeworn verbal tunnels of sociological vocabularies but personifies itself, stands up and stare in your face.

What is wrong when you realize that the mere knowledge of the loss of two hundred odd lives is not enough to spark off the plumbing apparatus that produces the lachrymal secretions we otherwise call tears in the tradition of our remnant poetic state? Or has the relation between social events and wholesale collective emotive been permanently broken? The collective psychology no more drives the collective biology, or vice versa.

What is the mystery of feeling — or not-feeling — the extreme, heart-breaking pain in the suffering of ‘others’? Is it just another unsolved Darwinian riddle waiting for new anthropological paradigms, the paradigms of pain and suffering which only work in classrooms?

True that images and words, elegies and panegyrics can work wonders with collective emotional states since times immemorial but are these the necessary conditions to experience suffering? Why must we need images of pain and stories of suffering to evoke allegedly empathetic emotional outbursts? Isn’t the perennial discussion about priorities of media already become trite with repeated overuse? Why can’t we just reach out to the nearest person in the street and find a shoulder to cry on; or for that matter offer ours?

Can the difference between true absolute empathy and artificially induced one can be quantified concretely?

Doesn’t weeping just need solitude with oneself in the memory of those distant ones whom one has never met and there is no chance to meet? Isn’t it just enough to see the face of one’s own child and feel the pain of the one in a distant land who has just lost his parent?

So you look up and see a little innocent face who is super excited for the football match that is going to be telecast in a little more than 24 hours, while another leviathan going by the name of ISIS continues to knock the door outside, and would presumably keep doing so for the next decade. You ask yourself whether you are any different than this child and feel unable to gauge the exact degree of your nonchalance with respect to his innocence. Listlessly switching on the television, you scroll through social media in search of images of suffering and solemness, but instead find battlegrounds where factions of society are engaged in self-defeating duels and endless diatribes, labs where the ideals of virtue and justice are transformed into vengeance and nemesis, and markets where sociopolitical hatred is bought and sold as a civic passion.

You look around and ultimately realize that despite all the taxonomic transformations, there is still a hint of sorrow lurking deep inside many of your animal-kind; but then you skeptically revisit and wonder if it is really pain, that is, the heartache, the true primordial grief that binds us in what it means to be human, and at least reduces the distance of ‘this-self’ and the ‘other’, if not diminishes it completely?

You reflect on, go on round after round, and neither the ambivalence, nor the listlessness and nonchalance give the slightest hint to go away. Dreadfully, you ask yourself if you are still human and there is a deafening silence; not as much as a driblet drops inside you.

Borges and I, and Quite Possibly You

Reading Borges is a very strange loopy business; loopy in the sense of running over on an Escherian stairwell; over and over again.

The thing is that if you somehow share his dreamer’s soul, his magic would inevitably possess your imagination. Here is how it happens.

You start reading him as any other ordinary reader and your very first experience would be sheer amazement; it is not any ordinary sense of wonder which is usual with mystical, magical realism; it is rather an utterly  life-size astonishment, a sense of everything being taken up to another imaginative frame of reference. In other words, right from the onset, he overpowers you by drawing you into an imaginative labyrinth, a maze so to speak.

You immediately realize that he is unlike Gabriel Garcia; in a different league than Julio Cartazar; not like Philip Dick, jorge-luis-borges.jpgNeil Gaiman, Paul Auster either; not even Umberto Eco or Ryunosuke Akutagawa. But you can’t stop asking  yourself what kind of a writer he is?

Your reader’s proclivity for tagging desperately try to compartmentalize him in various traditions; you ask yourself if he is modern, post-modern, mystic-metaphysical, magical realist, detective classical, satirist and so on, but you miserably fail.

The question arises whether he is a writer at all, that is, writer in the sense of formally communicating authorial intention to a reader’s mind through a written word?

alephAt this point, you have to make an important decision, that is, do you want to find your way through this maze or turn back? The problem is that before even starting, right at the first step into the maze, your reader’s hunch tells you that it is probably a life-long journey. But if you are a constant-reader, you would brush aside this hunch; after all, you have seen many writers, your constant wayfaring has taken you through many other fantastic la la lands.

So you decide to stick with him and because of very short nature of his literary pieces, you would inevitably imbibe him not as a whole lot but in a more or less scattered fashion, just as if you are a cave-trooper or bird-watcher.

A little time passes and you finally realize that you are deep down into the maze; you look at your feet and wonder about that moment in the distant past when you have stopped walking and started running.

You would realize this eerie fact only if you are his soul-mate: all this time you are not craft of versereading a Writer, per se; you are, in fact, literally, reading a Reader. Can you ever finish reading a reader?

A reader, unlike a writer, has nothing to do with the so-called authorial landscapes of semiotics; the whole pragmatics are not only turned upside down, it is essentially transformed; or is it disfigured, in the popular literary sense? Not if you are his soul-mate, that is, you are truly a Borgesian reader. And that is what all this maze-running, path-finding, is about: it is all about finding our whether you are a true Borgesian reader, whether you belong to the Borgesian universe.

And herein lies the key question: are you a Borgesian reader? It is not about being ‘true’ Borgesian reader. There is no semblance to being a semi, pseudo or incomplete Borgesian reader. You simply are or you are not.

But what about Borges himself? Who is he in this reader’s universe? Does he really exist or is he — by his own standard of fiction being the ultimately precise description of reality — is a fictional by product of his own imagination? If you are a true Borgesian maze-runner, at some point of time while catching your breath, you are bound to wonder whether he exists at all. 

dream tigersHe is a magician who sees through his blindness and makes immortality as reasonable a fact as the very next moment after this one. Running hours and hours through his fictional labyrinths, you would later pass your days and nights carrying his non-fictional maps through these labyrinths. Read his fiction and you would desperately want to know the man, the illusionist supplying this sublime experience, you would wonder about the method behind this madness. Read his non-fiction and you would still want to know him; or you would ask if there is a method at all? After all, the question of method presumes an organisation, a concrete elaboration, a layout, innit?

You would wonder about this unique literary philosophy of taking innumerable metaphysical perplexities and just ordering them physically into tangible, readable, almost touchable words. Is there a name for it?

His short non-fictional pieces, like everything else he has written, are glimpses of his total library.jpginner dialogues. At times, the reader is forced to ask himself if these are monologues, mere soliloquies! But then one ultimately realizes that here is a definitive reader who is trying to speak during the gaps between his silent readings, a reader trying to write through his way into the wonderful universe of readings.

In the process, Borges would teach you a lot, and guide you towards many unknown places; places where he is almost sure that you would get lost. But then you realize that his ultimate aim is to let yourself loose into the darkness of mind and psyche, where the only illuminating lamps are those of myths.

Often he would make a subtle point by blending the world of here and now, and the world of there and then to such an extent that the blend is just enough; enough in a sense that he must not let you agree or disagree with him. At other times, you can agree or disagree but then when you are through with your own introspection, you are bound to come back to him and whisper very close to his ever-listening ear that you have finally realized; you have realized that agreements and disagreements do not matter for wayfarers of these mysterious worlds.

To pinpoint his philosophy is to try to delimit him into the same archetypal compartments which are reserved for Writers; but if it is still necessary, the only possible characterization of him would be a metaphysical trickster.  His metaphysical tricks are too diverse and complex to be understood in their totality; he refutes time, apply classical paradoxes of motion and space in amazing new ways, creates geometric and numeral puzzles, and supplies fresh perspectives to ways of questioning the objective reality. We can call him a prankster who likes to play practical jokes with the world around and within us, our spatio-temporal and atomistic conceptions of it, and finally our notions of destiny, life and death. Not a philosopher in any academic sense of the world, he seems like an idealist who finally decides to create a whole new world to play the biggest practical joke on nominalism in the history of philosophy.

All the usual border-lines belonging to our conceptual worlds eventually blur in his universe; he merges dream and reality;  he merges life and death; he merges the microcosm and macrocosm; and in the process his fiction and nonfiction. 

last interview borgesRunning through the maze, you finally reckon that the terminus is finally approaching. You almost completely finish his fictional, poetical and non fictional works, a sip at a time, not big gulps; you may take three to five years if you remain true to your wanderer’s self, belonging to many diverse textual universes at the same time. In these years, you would come across many keys to his labyrinths, his peculiar logico-mathematical indulgences, his diverse and at times, archaic sources, foreign unknown mythologies, words and terminologies whose meanings are not even turned up through wikipedia and google searches, Borgesian dictionaries patched up enthusiasts and much more. You would go through scores of movie reviews and prologues he has written, small fragments, interviews, conversations, lectures and even pick up and smell his posthumously translated course on English literature. If you are a translator, you would certainly feel compelled to translate him into your own local color and listen yourself loudly reading him in your own language.

But where do you end up after all this? Is there a way to get out of the maze with the mathematics babelintention of never looking back? To finally claim that you have finished reading Borges? The way you probably claim that you have read Kafka, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or scores of any other life-size writers for that matter!

No, you simply cannot. You must remember that this figure of language is only reserved for the writers. You can not just part with the only writing-reader in the whole world of textual adventure; you can’t just get of the maze which has pretty much become a part of you in all those years or incessant running.

You must remember that there is a reader’s universe, and there is a writer’s universe and then there is a hybrid, complexly intertwined, loopy universe where boundaries between reader and the writer blur, and finally diminish.

You must realize that all this time, you were not just running through the maze, you were, in fact, taking part in creating, procreating, extending it inwards as well as outwards.

You must realize that if you are a Borgesian reader (and there are not many), you would certainly reread, and reread, and keep on reading Borges in an infinite regression-progression; and hence, this Escherian loopy business. Remember that if you finally discover yourself as a Borgesian reader, rereading Borges is your ultimate yoga if you want to be immortal.