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No longer mist and magic

`Ever since September 11, images on television and every word in the newspapers upset him. Just the way everyone else felt, it all appeared senseless to him ... ' Does this sound familiar? As living beings who live by language and the word and wish to verbalise dreams and the universe, how do we shield our eyes from this kind of reality; a reality hardly distinguishable from simulacra? An essay by poet and writer KEKI N. DARUWALLA.

An Afghan child at a refugee camp in Pakistan ... a present that is harsh and relived every moment in the media.

OVER the last month, the television had upset him, ever since September 11, to be precise. Like a million others he did not know what to make of it. He had an aversion to horror movies, but he would have preferred one to what he had seen on the screen. He wished his Brigadier friend had not rung him up that evening asking him to switch on his TV. Others too were flummoxed about what was happening. But that was neither here nor there. He was not just one of the "others". He prided himself on being a "thinking" man, a bit of a writer, a failed poet no doubt, but a "poet" nonetheless. Better a failed versifier than a failed vendor of prose!

For a month he had not slept well. He had to grapple with an inner disquiet. A year back it had been worse. Lately the sorrow had thinned into this uneasy feeling of not knowing where he stood with himself, his soul, his solitudes. But the extraneous had suddenly become more obstreperous. Now he was worried about where he stood in relation to the world around him. The TV screen started haunting him. The newspapers were the same — haunted by ghostly terrorists. Only their beards seemed real. And there was all that talk of war, war against an invisible enemy, an unseen speck on a parched landscape. And then the bombings went on like a never ending rain.

Every now and then he would revert to the fact that like others he could not make sense of what had happened. He indulged continuously in a dialogue with himself, and he carried it on loudly. If his wife had been around, what would she have said? She would have thought he was going nuts. She would have been scared. How would he have covered up? Try and understand, Love, I am not speaking to anybody. This is an interior monologue. That bit about conversation would have been a bit difficult to explain, though. But he would have carried on in the same vein till she would have made him promise never to do that again. No self-chatter. And none of these monologues, phonologues. For my sake.

But the monologues went on. We who live by language and the word, we who are so to say, bricks in the tower of Babel, what do we make of this? (He was not happy with "brick" or "Babel", but then like a bad poet, he compromised even with what he did not care for.) When we heard this roar through the TV screen, saw this bloom of fire erupting from the towers, we found it hard to separate simulacra from reality. We who live by language and the word, and wish to verbalise dream and the universe, matter, and energy black as matter, and those ravenous black holes, how do we shield our eyes from this kind of reality? Retinas could start smoking, faced with this glare. A time seems to have come, heaven forbid, when we have to move away from lucidity and light.

Mist and magic have suddenly disappeared. When the present is so harsh, (and is being re-lived every moment on the TV and in newspapers), and the future so irredeemable, the spell-binder forgets his spell and incantations are stunned into amnesia. Even the future is being re-lived in front of our eyes. We can see it coming, bombings in the arid lands, children turning amputees. That we can still think of wringing out a song from all this is worse than heresy, blasphemy, sacrilege. It is subversive of poetry itself.

Martyrdoms are always blood and not martyrdoms. They are glass and the glazed eye, shards and shrapnel. Martyrdom is murder. Killing disrupts the great chain of being, the chain that started with amoeba and jellyfish and plankton.

We who have wasted a lifetime trying to crystallise experience, to turn to substance the shadowy forms of life, and found reality an elusive eel and words always bereft of hands, tongs, pincers (anything to hold reality with) what are we to do now with this chunk of reality dropping from the skies, that ball of fire looking for a window, and fighting its way through steel. Things have turned on their head — all accuracies are chimera now, all water is mirage. The real is perhaps that which is filtered by language. We who feel that the real is unattainable, or at least ungraspable, for us does salvation lie only in seclusion, in retreat, like a star abandoning its constellation?

And now that one is so into reality, one may as well come out with a few throw away lines. Where else will a bad poet get a chance like this unless he is writing prose? We need to rework things. The evening is not defined by dusk but through note-by-cicada-note. Now how is that for a definition? A line like that makes me feel pleased as punch. Do not try and define night. Tricky business, that. All nights become night shifts if you take your dreams seriously. Dreams are a meditation crying out in the wilderness. Dreams stand on columns of mist you need to identify. Dreams have allegorical surrogates. And dreams are a cave of seclusion. Here you conspire with no one but yourself.

The only register of consciousness is seclusion. And if you allot space to seclusion, then it is the one place where idea moves into form, where the abstract and the body meet.

The monologue had gone on so long that he was breathless. And his logic had now narrowed into a defile that led him to an overwhelming set of definitions. The mind: seclusion; the soul: seclusion; sanity: seclusion. Here opposites could merge, the timid and the brash, anonymity and newsprint, bleakness and light, the soul and death.

He was looking forward to a night where he could catch some sleep. A little nervousness crept in before he even switched off the light — a sure symptom of insomnia. But he fell into a sleep light as gossamer, and a dream that seemed equally light. He dreamt that his wife had gone out shopping. He saw her going out in the morning, saw her frail back moving out of the front door which she quietly closed. He would wait for her at lunch. But it was a long wait. The clock struck one, then two and still there was no sign of her. As he started laying the table, he woke up. She was not coming back for lunch or tea or anything. She was dead. That is what the dream was telling him in such simple terms. Light may have gone out of his life, and it was not going to return, not with her in any case. He might as well start dealing with the dark. He went to the kitchen, opened the fridge and drank some water. Then he slept and he slept till it was noon next day.

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