Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Since I have posted poems from two Nobel laureates, I thought it would be a bit unjust to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska not to mention her. Wislawa is someone I discovered while surfing the Nobel website. I am yet to find a hard copy of her book in Mumbai stores. But, the poem that I read on the Nobel website completely floored me. Wislawa won the 1996 Nobel prize for Literature and has 16 (!!) poetry collections to her credit.

Born in western Poland in July 1923, Wislawa wrote her first published poem "I am looking for a word" in the local Polish daily in 1945. She worked as a poetry editor and columnist in a Krakow literary weekly.

After reading her poem, I now dream of meeting her in a Polish coffee house and chatting with her.

Here's the poem. Tell me how you like it and which of Wislawa's "preferences" do you like. My favourite is - I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems!

I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love's concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimms' fairy tales to the newspapers' front pages.
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven't mentioned here
to many things I've also left unsaid.
I prefer zeroes on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.

From "Nothing Twice", 1997
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Tonight I Can Write The Saddest Lines

A lot of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's poetry is deeply political, but I largely like his love poetry. Though Neruda got the Nobel prize literature in 1971, much earlier than Octavio Paz, both are towering figures of Latin American literature who have global following.

Like their poetry, their Nobel speeches also convey their distinct identities and spaces in the annals of literature. Do read Neruda's Nobel lecture

Here's my favourite Neruda poem.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

translated by W.S. Merwin

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Great Purges

Photographs as historical records are invaluable. But, much before Adobe gave us Photoshop, political establishments have been liberally airbrushing people out of photographs, to suit their version of history. I came across this extremely interesting photo-gallery created by Time Magazine which shows how doctoring of photographs has been around since early years of photography.

Particularly interesting in these is the picture of Vladimir Lenin addressing the Russian troops before they left for Poland in 1920. During the Stalin era, two principal rivals of Stalin, Trotsky and Kramenev, were airbrushed from this widely published archival picture. This doctored picture was printed and reprinted right up to Gorbachev's time!

Another one is of Hitler, and the missing Gobbels who was evaporated awkwardly by the regime. Even weirder are instances of ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper eliminating women cabinet members of Benjamin Netanhyu, and Paul McCartney losing his cigarette in the famous Beatles quartet walking down the Abbey Road picture.

Found another doctoring gem from Stalin era on Wikipedia. One moment you see Yezhov and another you don't.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

True photojournalism

James Nachtwey's photo agency VII Photos is one of my favourite websites for many reasons. Not just for the amazing pictures they shoot, but the commitment the group has to global issues, and keeping the flag of true photojournalism flying. Each time you visit the website, there is a new photo gallery which brings you head on with a new issue and forces you to think.
Next month, Marcus Bleasdale's second book on the Democratic Republic of Congo, titled The Rape of a Nation, will be released. The book has 105 powerful pictures taken during several visits in last seven years which cover the complex Congo conflict that has ravaged the country since 1998.
Bleasdale's first book on Congo, One Hundred Years of Darkness, was released in 2002 and was immediately voted best photojournalistic book of the year by American Photo District News. Done entirely in black and white, John Le Carre has written a foreword to Rape of a Nation.
To see a selection of the work, please click here: http://www.viiphoto.com/showstory.php?nID=974

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

bun-maska-chai and a smoke

Talking about Irani restaurants, I am really really glad that some good ones still exist. Bastani's honourable neighbour, Kyani & Co still stands proudly at the corner of Metro cinema. And yes those ropes still hang from the ceiling at the entrance to help you climb in!

I have to regrettably report that Kyani management has chosen to follow the smoking ban imposed by Ambumani Ramadoss (yes the same guy who had serious objections to Shahrukh Khan's smoking on and off screen), but most of what you got there -- crispy khari biscuits, the watery pani-kum chai, the bun-maska, and other bakery products -- is still served sincerely.

A few yards away, Sasanian Boulangerie located near Gol Masjid is still functional, and serves a mean kheema-pav. I often visit the New Excelsior Cafe opposite Excelsior Cinema which has survived over the years, and offers all the Iranian delights. They have recently added Lebanese food to the menu. Chicken Salli is a curious dish in their menu. A chicken patty soaked in a lipsmacking sauce, with fried potato crispies sprinkled on top with pav.

 Also intact is Cafe Olympia near Churchgate railway station. It never had any particular decor, but still serves the popular kheema-pav it is known for. Cafe Military, tucked away in the tiny lane that links Fountain to Bombay Stock Exchange, is there too. You have to wait for a table during the lunch hour when the office crowd throngs the place.

 Koolar & Co at King's Circle still retains its charm. A framed photo of New York Times front page announcing the sinking of the Titanic hangs above the counter. Though the watery, milk tea came to be identified with Iranian restaurants, Koolar offers the authentic Iranian tea which is without milk, and is kept separately at the counter. Do try that one if you go. Irani restaurants symbolise unhurried time for me, and I can sit there for hours just gazing at the world outside go by. I really miss them in Thane where I live.

If you know of some interesting Irani restaurants I should visit, do drop me a line.

Monday, September 14, 2009

An ode to Irani restaurants

No talking to cashier
No smoking
No fighting
No credit
No outside food
No sitting long
No talking loud
No spitting
No bargaining
No water to outsiders
No change
No telephone
No match sticks
No discussing gambling
No newspaper
No combing
No beef
No leg on chair
No hard liquor allowed
No address enquiry
— By order.

This was a notice board hung at the entrance of Bastani & Co, one of Mumbai's Irani restaurants which closed down some time ago. I regret that I couldn't go there for one last bun-muska-chai-smoke before it downed shutters. Located diagonally opposite Metro Cinema (now Big Cinemas after Reliance bought it), Bastani served some lovely bun-maskas, mawa cakes, rum cakes, biscuits, scrambled eggs on toast, and had a delightful owner with whom I had the pleasure of a long chat. Bastani also had a mezzanine floor which used to serve draught beer some 15 years ago before airconditioned bars hit Mumbai like an awful storm. Though the floor was nothing more than a storage space to dump furniture and other stuff, from the looks of it, it appeared as if the mezzanine floor must have been a rocking place once upon a time. Perhaps in the golden days of Fities and Sixties when Mumbai still had that genteel charm about it.

Losing Bastani broke my heart. It was the fourth Irani restaurant to close down or change. One near my college in Matunga suddenly embraced uber-coolness one fine day, and started selling combo meals of burger, and cola, and softie icecreams. The decor and the patrons frequenting the place changed overnight. Another one right outside the Dadar East railway station, which had a lovely mezzanine too, sold out to an Udipi and transformed into an idli-wada sambar place. Cafe New Empire opposite CST sold out to McDonalds in late 1990s. After these catastrophes, I made it a point to frequent Bastani whenever I could. But, when bastani downed shutters, I wasn't around. I had the oppostunity to write a piece about it. You can read it here http://www.telegraphindia.com/1040815/asp/look/story_3611577.asp
The piece ends with Nissim Ezekiel's tribute to Irani restaurants:

Do not spit
Do not sit more
Pay promptly, time is invaluable
Do not write letter
Without order refreshment
Do not comb
Hair is spoiling floor
Do not make mischiefs in cabin
Our waiter is reporting
Come again
All are welcome whatever caste
If not satisfied tell us
Otherwise tell others


One of my all time favourite poems. Sunstone is a long poem by Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Here are a few lines from it. Please also read Paz's beautiful nobel acceptance speech here http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1990/paz-lecture The word diaphanous appears in Paz's work frequently. Diaphanous means light and delicate, and almost transparent (fabric etc). I liked the word so much that I used it as an email id, and this blog takes it name from it too. Sunstone a crystal willow, a poplar of water, a tall fountain the wind arches over, a tree deep-rooted yet dancing still, a course of a river that turns, moves on, doubles back, and comes full circle, forever arriving: the calm course of the stars or an unhurried spring, water with eyes closed welling over with oracles all night long, a single presence in a surge of waves, wave after wave till it covers all, a reign of green that knows no decline, like the flash of wings unfolding in the sky... I travel your body, like the world, your belly is a plaza full of sun, your breasts two churches where blood performs its own, parallel rites, my glances cover you like ivy, you are a city the sea assaults, a stretch of ramparts split by the light in two halves the color of peaches, a domain of salt, rocks and birds, under the rule of oblivious noon, dressed in the color of my desires, you go your way naked as my thoughts, I travel your eyes, like the sea, tigers drink their dreams in those eyes, the hummingbird burns in those flames, I travel your forehead, like the moon, like the cloud that passes through your thoughts, I travel your belly, like your dreams, your skirt of corn ripples and sings, your skirt of crystal, your skirt of water, your lips, your hair, your glances rain all through the night, and all day long you open my chest with your fingers of water, you close my eyes with your mouth of water, you rain on my bones, a tree of liquid sending roots of water into my chest, I travel your length, like a river, I travel your body, like a forest, like a mountain path that ends at a cliff I travel along the edge of your thoughts, and my shadow falls from your white forehead, my shadow shatters, and I gather the pieces and go with no body, groping my way, (...) ...because two bodies, naked and entwined, leap over time, they are invulnerable, nothing can touch them, they return to the source, there is no you, no I, no tomorrow, no yesterday, no names, the truth of two in a single body, a single soul, oh total being... to love is to battle, if two kiss the world changes, desires take flesh thoughts take flesh, wings sprout on the backs of the slave, the world is real and tangible, wine is wine, bread regains its savor, water is water, to love is to battle, to open doors, to cease to be a ghost with a number forever in chains, forever condemned by a faceless master; the world changes if two look at each other and see... I follow my raving, rooms, streets, I grope my way through corridors of time, I climb and descend its stairs, I touch its walls and do not move, I go back to where I began, I search for your face, I walk through the streets of myself under an ageless sun, and by my side you walk like a tree, you walk like a river, and talk to me like the course of a river, you grow like wheat between my hands, you throb like a squirrel between my hands, you fly like a thousand birds, and your laugh is like the spray of the sea, you head is a star between my hands, the world grows green again when you smile, eating an orange, the world changes if two, dizzy and entwined, fall on the grass: the sky comes down, trees rise, space becomes nothing but light and silence, open space for the eagle of the eye, the white tribe of clouds goes by, and the body weighs anchor, the soul sets sail, and we lose our names and float adrift in the blue and green, total time where nothing happens but its own, easy crossing... —when was life ever truly ours? when are we ever what we are? we are ill-reputed, nothing more than vertigo and emptiness, a frown in the mirror, horror and vomit, life is never truly ours, it always belongs to the others, life is no one's, we all are life— bread of the sun for the others, the others that we all are— when I am I am another, my acts are more mine when they are the acts of others, in order to be I must be another, leave myself, search for myself in the others, the others that don’t exist if I don't exist, the others that give me total existence, I am not, there is no I, we are always us, life is other, always there, further off, beyond you and beyond me, always on the horizon, life which unlives us and makes us strangers, that invents our face and wears it away, hunger for being, oh death, our bread...

Friday, September 04, 2009

Munkacsi's boys

An image shot by Hungarian photographer, Martin Munkacsi, inspired French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to take up photography. Till then Cartier-Bresson was a trained painter. This was the picture that influenced Cartier-Bresson.
Their black naked bodies contrasting with the white surf of the water, the rhythm in their steps as they run into the water, the gentle splashes their feet make on the water, the abandon with which they run in, their slight shadows falling on the water...
Who indeed was Martin Munkacsi? Read this link about the man and his work www.forward.com/articles/15163/

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The magic of black and white

What is it about black and white photographs that leave an impact that colour images would perhaps not? Is it that they are much closer to our sense of memory, the sepia past? These are some pictures I spotted on a photography website. What do you think?
Pablo Picasso

Mahatma Gandhi

Marlon Brando

Ingrid Bergman