Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sacred and Profane

It's Halloween and for a superstitious being like me, it's exciting, though not exactly fun, unless reflected in retrospect, in the light of tomorrow's sun.

But it's only 11pm right now and the sun is a long way away. As I await the midnight hour that promises to transform the profane into sacred, I wonder about the nature of the sacred and the profane. It seems to be an assumption universally accepted that these two are diametric opposites, yet I wonder how that can be. Popular belief also indicates that the sacred is abstract while the profane is concrete; however, I am no closer to defining the exact nature of either than I was at 10, though I like to believe I'd recognize them and understand the difference, should the occasion ever arise.

Since I don't want to take chances with forces I don't really comprehend, I believe one must acknowledge the profane as an integral part of the universe, as deserving of celebration as the sacred.

In honor of the most profane evening of the year, I buy very good candy, and remember to set aside a budget for my child's costume. My daughter and I spend hours selecting the choicest chocolates, peanut butter cups, and tootsie rolls. My child cannot believe that I spend more money on the sweets for this holiday than I do on Christmas or even Valentine's Day, but she, being wise, asks no questions. I also encourage her to explore parts of her repressed self and tell her to choose "really original, interesting" costumes. So we set aside at least a couple of afternoons chasing pieces of a repressed self through the aisles of Party City and Micheals; this year, she is going as a Jabberwaukie (I am sure I've misspelled that, so a thousand apologies!); consequently, we aggressively hunted down a scarlet tutu, red gloves, white masks, and feathers amidst the curious glances who wondered at our shopping cart as much as they wondered if I, in my salwaar-kameez, was in some kind of a Bollywood costume.

On this most unholiest of nights, I do not like to leave home. I light a votive in my home temple before it is properly twilight; if I have to be out, I keep salt in a Ziploc in my purse and try to be unobtrusive as I throw pinches of it over my left shoulder any time someone gives me what I think is an odd look, and those are aplenty on this night. Understandably, then, my daughter prefers to spend her Halloween away from this strange self that surfaces only for a day!

I don't DARE not celebrate this day; after all, like I tell everyone who'd listen, one never knows who or what might come knocking when the veil between realities, dimensions, worlds is at its thinnest. And I really would not want any imps resorting to tricks in absence of treats.

In the face of the undefined, then, I prefer not to take chances. Profane might just be a matter of perspective; to our species, this could be that which threatens humanity's well-being, as a lot of our apocalypse stories and movie monsters would insist. However, I am willing to bet the book I am in the middle of, that a cockroach and a cat would hold really different views from those of the neighbor's grandchild dressed up like a nightmare.

So it would seem that the ideas of sacred and profane are not universal constants; and yes, I'll say it since the occasion seems to call for it: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in philosophies!

Regardless of its cosmic relevance, though, this day should be celebrated as an important part of being human. Halloween celebrates our darkest faces and forces us to own the uncomfortable selves we deny. It forces us to stare into the heart of darkness, reflect on the ubiquitous Mistah Kurtz, for a while refrain from paying hypocritical lip service to ideals of peace our species claims to uphold, and conquer shadow selves by embracing them.

And then there is the comfort of the idea that the profane gives in to the sacred, and that's just a matter of a midnight passing; no sacrifices need to be made, no gods appeased. The light is as inevitable as the darkness and it is all a matter of time, which continues to lumber on, unaware, uncaring of its nature.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Previously, On This Episode . . .

I now get television because for the first time in my life, I am paying for it. Long ago, I did watch a lot of television as a fresh immigrant, drinking in the accents, the jokes, and the horrors. But that didn't last long and I found very little to interest me on the small screen, and so gave it up and returned to voracious devouring of the written word, a comfortable hobby that afforded the much-needed quiet time from the hectic cacophony of my routine.

However, now, my routine seems not so cacophonous; actually, it seems that the only noise I hear for long hours is the one I make. My days also demand that I translate everything I say to almost everyone, into English, which often exhausts me; at any rate, I crave the flowing vowels and soft consonants of, from Des, easy voices that demand no translations, musical scores as familiar to me as rickshaw horns, blaring to move complacent, lowing cattle away from traffic junctions. As the theme from the serial spills out, it rushes into my silent corners and fills them with soothing warmth, like a painful knot easing away to a hot compress. I confess I crave noise from a different world than the one I inhabit.

What has especially caught my fancy are Hindi soap shows, predictable, cliched, exotic. The sets are ostentatious; palaces are rented to shoot these episodes that depict joint families occupying spatial mansions. Sitting rooms have ten-feet fountains, sparkling algae-free, although no one ever seems to tend to them; windows are higher than chandeliers that sketch exclamation points exactly half way between winding staircases wide enough for five people to walk abreast; the room itself has split levels, with interesting alcoves and inviting sitting arrangements.

The kitchens are enviable to anyone who remembers or fantasizes about conjuring up, brewing faultless chai, sheera, and parathas. These kitchens are occupied by several women of the household, yet manage to remain uncrowded. The tasks themselves seem cleaned up for television: the fenugreek or methi never leaves smudges of black earth on characters' fingers; the cream of wheat or sooji never sticks, brown and useless, to the stirring utensil, even when the flame under the vessel can be seen merrily dancing blue and orange; not a single hair from well-coiffed heads strays as these characters stir indubitably perfect crushed rice or poha concoctions, so perfect that one can almost taste the lemon redolent with fresh coriander and crushed ginger.

The costumes and furnishings are opulent and colorful. Deep cobalts and parrot-greens, dancing oranges and sparkling reds gracefully drape characters, hiding all bodily flaws beneath fabric folds, or coyly suggesting mysteries. Often, the motifs on these sarees seem to echo the normal sarees one can actually spend days in, but these patterns, coupled with the rich textures, only serve to highlight how removed these sarees are from the recognizable, real, everyday fabrics. The accessories do not look like the paste they must be obviously constructed out of, but sway heavily, convincingly along the characters' temples, ears, throats, arms, waists, feet. As though to reinforce the incongruity between the real and fictional, these characters often sleep in these costumes, their pillows un-dented by their undisturbed, heavy and bejeweled hairdos.

What these serials channel, then, are stylized fantasies of a collective, and the nostalgia they evoke is for things that could never happen, never did happen. How, then, can they remind us of home when the world they depict is so unrealistic?

For the answer, one must re-visit the Rasa Theory and Natya Shastra, attend some folk theatre and festivals, watch old Hindi movies, and re-live the undying songs from those movies. What is evoked in these serials are feelings, values, fables, and guiding metaphors peculiar to those that belong to both, the Indian subcontinent, as well as the adopted countries they now call home. They remind us of what our languages sound like, make us feel clued in to the latest trends and slang of "back home," and provide us with navigational tools for our psyche.

When I visit India, I don't want to seem like a visitor incapable of sharing any jokes or horrors. So I watch these Hindi serials avidly, very much like the fresh immigrant watching local and national television shows to familiarize herself with her home, so she won't be left out, so she'd fit in gracefully.

Friday, October 9, 2009

On Not Writing

It has been quite a few weeks since I've written anything of significance, that is new. I've been tinkering a lot, but unfortunately for me, nothing surfaces that I care to talk about. This is the main problem with writing: so much happens that it all overwhelms me and I tend to crumple up the words and trash them like so much used tissue.

Whenever some substantial time passes before I write, I am fascinated to observe myself to see if my reaction to this not-writing is any different, any more or less intense; it never wavers, however. There is a whole cycle of emotions that regularly and dutifully cross my emotional landscape, like predictible monsoon clouds.

The gamut of guilt, chagrin, humility, frustration, and finally loss follow each other with such organized motions, as though I were a choreographer and these my students that I'd taught dance moves to aeons ago, and they go through them with precision and meticulousness that my ambitious daughter would envy.

The Rasa Theory tells us that if certain gestures, colors, musical notes, harmonies, and myths are enacted during specific times, this enactment inevitably results in evocation of a mood; the audience, historical & social settings, geographical locations, even languages may change, but like a chemistry formula, the resulting Bhava is always conjured.

I wonder if all our emotions are predictible and controllable like this. If I can put myself through the same cycle of emotions just by refraining from my writing for a span, does it not imply that ultimately, I have complete control over my emotional responses, irrespective of my age and circumstances?

This might seem like the perfect solution to all that is unmanageable and chaotic in my life. However, I know I am not in control, not really. Like the Universe of Greek mythology, my inner self is the one with all power, a self that is inaccessible to my conscious mind, which, like the Olympians, remains but a manager granted intermittent, limited control for purposes it doesn't always understand or realize.

After all, I cannot keep away from writing for too long, and the cycle of my feelings is not complete until I feel the cosmic relief that comes with seeing a word on a blank page, knowing I thought it up and put it there.

I tell my students that there is no magic greater than language; I feel renewed everytime I realize this after a span of being deprived of creating in it. After such a dry spell as I've just had, I feel so rewarded at being able to just write, that I need no other reward or acknowledgement.

My very good friend has a specific imagined audience: a future graduate student reading her work; I find I have a specific audience too: a future not-writing self reading her own words with thirsty eyes, a Wasteland dull and static behind her, the harsh, clear sky above devoid of clouds.
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