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Part of the reason[1] I have not started reading Killing Commendatore is an embarrassing failure to get into the required Murakami-reading mood. (And I consider myself a Murakami veteran without a hint of modesty or self deprecation. I know I can do much worse.) It isn’t a hard-to-come-by state of mind; I just need to be a little (on the fence) lost in some song—preferably away with words—on repeat for long enough and have strong black tea on the proverbial tap and an unexplained longing for something that on clearheaded review turns out to be a simple, boring, everyday thing, like a black-capped-box of 2B pencil leads. This is easy when you are on the verge of completing yet another decade around the sun and are living out of a (proverbial) backpack around people (much?) younger than your road-worn self pretending to assume you may be wiser/dumber than what your costume gives away.

I started reading Zen and the Art under an RTO office waiting on R waiting in line for taking a Learner’s License test. This (not the RT office, the book) was the one with the pseudopsychedelic cover and neat typesetting (over cheap paperback pages, so it wasn’t all that bad). It made complete sense as I overheard the to-be-drivers of heavy metal objects talking about machine parts the way art-school-dropouts talk about a seventy course meal. I don’t even know enough art school dropouts and the closest I have come to a three-plus-course meal was by accident and was promptly asked to leave for not wearing the right kind of shoes.[2]

I read the Structure-Culture Document first under a sleepless night-sky sandwiched between the Exhibition- and Product-Design studios in Paldi. The Chocolate-Seeng-Sev-Maska-Bun[3] (I am impervious to that kind of judgement) after the event tasted more chalk-like than chocolatey and no amount of post-allnighter banter—with the screwed up intensity that shows its ugly face after hours of out-kerning otherwise perfectly kerned type—could make a chink in my newfound armour of solitude. I’d read the word of HKV and couldn’t help but look at the manual-kerning proletariat in thinly veiled disdain. My glasses were tinted primary colours and misted over by tea fumes.

It was over an ‘all-chocolate’ Chocolate Tart[4] at Baker’s Inn that I bit into Moveable Feast (finishing it over a bottle of flavoured milk under the ANU’s OpenAirTheatre). The point is that each book demands you reenact its making in some tiny simple significant way even when that means lugging around a tome for six weeks and not opening it the tiniest crack. Sometimes this means holding on to a grab-rail in an otherwise packed bus with one hand with two bags in the other and sometimes it means ignoring mosquito bites under a muddy sky off a dimly lit road across a paddy field. (Wear shorts.) The point is that the book rewards you when the tableau is finally set and the first paragraph turns out to be better, sweeter, less strained than the way you have always imagined it, which it always has a way of turning out to be.

1: The other part of the reason is that I’m lazy and reading pocket-penguins marathon-style to put off reading the M till I get back to the hardback. The other other part of the reason is that M is—because I am gullible to cathartic hero-identification—unputdownable and would interfere with the guiding of the already somewhat lost generation of 4th year students I am supposedly helping out of their design education.

2: I consider that a major league affront as a person not used to wearing any kind of shoes till then. But then it turned out to be a life lesson in disguise (the Clark-kent kind, not the MI-X kind), waiting for some (…) hours in a bus shelter along Africa Avenue (near Connaught Place, not Capetown) in peak winter. I know what you are thinking. Winter. No shoes. Yet, the bus shelter was obviously not the coldest thing I encountered that night. Had no book for company either.

3: The ChocolateSeengSevMaska-Bun is a cultural artefact the way Kathakali or a ShajiKailas-Mohanlal movie is. It is the simplest way to describe a microculture, which is a shamefully shallow way of shying away from saying it is a major statement about a bigger demographic unit. It is unapologetic in its diversity and calorific value. In other words, it is the metric unit for measuring unadulterated jouissance. A chocolate tart is a solid 3 CSSMBs. The Baker’s Inn version is 0.4 CSSMBs at its crest.

4: This one had a piece of cake taking up the bulk of the tart. It was more like 10% of the tart, but I get to exaggerate. A 60-rupee tart has no business hiding a piece of bread (brown kek) to save on artificial chocolate. I consider dishing out a longwinded piece of advice on brand values and honesty and optimum fake chocolate amounts to the lady behind the counter in the sweetest way possible inside of a bakery. Then I remember the staff had thus far been unnecessarily nice to me and had not thrown me out even after badly timed chuckles from behind cheap-looking paperbacks and dried-up coffee cups. Then I smile a polite thankyou smile and quietly crawl back behind the coffee cups. I have a feeling they all knew about the bread-in-tart situation and were instructed to be nice to people ordering it anyway.

We begin to think we know what the water feels like to the fishes. But it’s not always like fur and ash and the cleanest tooth. At night, they say, the water can be different. At night, when it’s very cold, it can be like the tongue of a cat. At night, when it’s very very cold, it’s like cracked glass. Or honey. Or forgiveness, they say, ha ha.

— Dave Eggers, What The Water Feels Like To The Fishes

And somehow, we as a culture may have stopped or are afraid to teach ourselves that pleasure is dangerous and that some kinds of pleasure are better than others and that part of being a human being means deciding how much of active participation do we want to have in our own lives. … It is a really (sort of) exciting opportunity to decide whether our relationship to the world is going to be fundamentally passive and infantile or one that is (sort of) active and hard and takes more work.

— DFW, in conversation with Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” program, 1996.

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I’ve been bringing back flowers—dried, dead, fallen, plucked prematurely, tread-on with sports shoes and bare feet and by the monkey-on-the-bicycle, slightly wilted overnight—to the apartment and stacking them in a glass tumbler ceremoniously for the past two weeks. A less than disingenuous archaeologist (or a flowers-in-jars version of a taphonomist) would be able to chart mood swings with a casual sideways glance at the now almost-full tumbler. (Note to self: scan before the contents of said jar hit the waste bin.)

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The habit cemented itself in place during the Diwali week when there was no one else in the rooms (or outside of the rooms, I think) and the flowers helped fill the empty flat with other dead things. The setup: a prodigious loneliness post a botched morning run (because the air is too chilly in an unexpected, sneaky way air can be—somewhat perverse for Vijayawada—in November and because I under-slept after a regular late-blooming allnighter); the sun in neat geometric patterns across the quilted lawn; abandoned patches of termite-churned earth; almost-dandelions, dry and anticipating a wind kind enough to put an end to their lo(u)nging, etc.

Then on the seventh day, I enter the room flower-laden and exhausted and sweating through layers of running shorts, and the lady[1] is all smiles and eyeing the tumbler. She’s decided it will be nicer to have some out-of-the syllabus flowers in there. (The housing society has an efficient, predictable flowering plant pattern in place. Take the same route everyday and you end up with the same dead plant parts in nearly the same stages of decay filling your table-top glass tumblers. It is no fun. Not when you realise the effort-v/s-effect imbalance is skewed obviously towards the former.) She’s decided it is time for a change from the timetable-esque tableau in the tumbler. A small, kind act of adventure perhaps. She’s decided on a hibiscus in light orange turning a deep crimson towards the inside, and a light pink one I can’t hang a name onto, with a stamen that resembles a regular wick (not John-) deep in the middle of the whorl. She says the Chembarathi (H-biscuit, Hibiscus) is a Mandaaram. I nod a satisfied/surprised/acknowledging nod and don’t betray my small-ish internal outrage. Then I realise an orange Chembarathi is as “Chem-” (red) as a non-white Mandaaram that is indistinguishable in terms of all etymological minutiae from an orange Chembarathi.[2]

I’m outraged at my internal outrage now.

1: She is from Namburu, “that side.” She helps clean the utensils and the bed-sheets and the room and makes a mean dal curry given the chance. We are past the ‘have you seen the pickle-jar’ phase, without having been through the ‘mynameiskeyaar-whatisyourname’ phase; so it is somewhat weird to be around when she is. The scene is domestic but it is a furniture-showroom-with-ordinary-lighting type of situation.

2: Later (three days later, today) post a long-ish (short) conversation with S on the appropriated names of flowers I realise this would mean a wildly different kind of nostalgia out of context. Maybe not in the original greyscale so much. Yet.

I was twenty years old. When you are twenty years old, and twenty-one, and twenty-two, and twenty-three, and twenty-four, what you want from people is that they tell you about you. When you are twenty years old, and twenty-one, and twenty-two, and twenty-three, you watch the world for the way it watches you. Do people laugh when you make a joke, do they kiss you when you lean into them at a party? Yes? Aha—so that’s who you are. But these people themselves, laughing, kissing and not-kissing, they themselves are young, and so then you begin to think, if you’re twenty or twenty-one, when you are young, that these people are not to be trusted, your contemporaries, your screwed-up friends and girlfriends—that it’s not because of you that they kissed you, but because of them, something about them, those narcissists, whereas you were asking about you, what did they think of you? Now you have no idea. This is why it’s so important to meet your heroes while you are young, so they can tell you.

— Keith Gessen, All The Sad Young Literary Men

In The Last free Generation, Austin Waters writes:

When we don’t know what’s real — everything loses meaning. This is the death of freedom of information; poisoning the well, so-to-speak. Worse than propaganda, because we can no longer distinguish what is real. Eventually, we will all lose faith in “facts.”

I find it increasingly uncomfortable speaking in the vicinity of mobile devices with un(non?)-taped-over-microphones and -cameras and working internet connections. (Which is—now that I think of it—almost always.) The (sad) thing is that I am aware of this. And that it forces a tiny uncomfortable amount of self-censorship. Does this mean an end to honest conversation? What do we do with classes? (Immediate dilemma.) Life?