Saturday, May 14, 2011

Do not go gentle...

In June, last year, Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to talk at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge MA about his memoir 'Hitch-22' which had been published a few months before. I was excited. This was my chance to get listen to one of the so called "four horsemen" in person. We went to the theatre in the evening only to be told that the event was cancelled. I was disappointed. The announcement was a bit cryptic because no reason other than 'unforeseen circumstances' was given for the cancellation. In the weeks after this, news came out that Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Perhaps that was the reason why he decided to cancel his talk, who knows? What we do know is Christopher Hitchens is dying. We all are really, but in his case the process is being accelerated by cancer. In the year since the world has known about his ailment, Christopher Hitchens has exemplified not only how to face looming death with grace but also how NOT to give up on life.
Here is Hitchens, talking about cancer and mortality with CNNs Anderson Cooper, talking about his diagnosis, prognosis and his thoughts on prayer and belief:
"I had been knowingly burning the candle at both ends... and it gave a lovely light" quintessentially Hitchens! Of all the people I have read, no one can match Hitchens in their mastery over the English language. He can speak as eloquently and forcefully as he can write. When deployed against an opponent in a debate, his masterfully crafted words have the resemblance of an artillery barrage or a surgical missile strike targeted to demolish his opponents arguments. His latest article - 'Unspoken Truths' in Vanity Fair, about losing his voice to cancer, therefore touched a chord:
Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I “was” my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now, if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening “sympathetically.” At least they don’t have to pay attention for long: I can’t keep it up and anyway can’t stand to.
He goes on to discuss how other famous writers and poets have grappled with the loss of their voice. The whole article is worth reading, so go read it.

I must say that watching Hitchens combat cancer, death and mortality, more importantly watching him live - truly live - and fight the good fight; and continue fighting it even when the odds are stacked against him, serves as a great example for the rest of us. It reminds me of the poem by Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Hoping you get better Hitch!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Earth Day poem

Well! The weekend is almost over but Earth Day was two days ago on Thursday, April 22, so here is a poem on that theme. I stumbled upon it because of a link posted by a friend in a comment on a previous 'poem for the weeekend' post. This one is called "Earth Song" and is actually a part of a larger poem called "Hamatreya" by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Earth Song
By Ralph Waldo Emerson

...Hear what the Earth says:--
'Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours, Earth endures;
Stars abide--
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.
'The lawyer's deed
Ran sure,
In tail,
To them, and to their heirs
Who shall succeed,
Without fail,

'Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound and flood.
"But the heritors?--
Fled like the flood's foam.
The lawyer, and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.

'They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?'
When I heard the Earth-song,
I was no longer brave;
My avarice cooled
Like lust in the chill of the grave.
This is why I love poems - they have a whole lot of meaning packed into them. Here are four short verses which simultaneously remind us of our mortality and in comparison to the scale of a human life, the near perpetuity of Earth. It reminds us of the real nature of our relationship to our planet (How am I theirs, if they cannot hold me?). It ends on a note which I think is the right message for Earth Day - "Cool thy avarice". I won't harp on. Read it and meditate on it. The full poem "Hamatreya" is here.

[Image: Photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft at a distance of about 45,000 kilometres (28,000 mi). Popularly known as "The Blue Marble"]

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

A poem for the weekend

I stumbled upon Taylor Mali's poetry because of a link to one of his poems posted by a friend on Facebook. For this weekend, I am posting one of his poems that I liked a lot.

This one appealed to me because it's about a topic that I have strong feelings about. Are you irked by people who frequently use "like" and "you know?" and "ya'know what I mean?" while speaking? R u mad @ ppl who wrt lke dis? (Especially when there is no 140 character limit?). Well, then you will like this poem:
Totally like whatever, you know?
By Taylor Mali

In case you hadn't noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you're talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you're saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)'s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren't, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences - so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not -
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don't think I'm uncool just because I've noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It's like what I've heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I'm just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we've just gotten to the point where it's just, like . . .

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we've become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.
Taylor Mali is a poet who emerged from the Poetry Slam movement. The Wikipedia article on Poetry Slam introduces the concept as:
A poetry slam is a competition at which poets read or recite original work (or, more rarely, that of others). These performances are then judged on a numeric scale by previously selected members of the audience.
Typically, poetry slam is highly politicized, speaking on many issues including current social and economic issues, gendered injustices, and racial issues. Poets are judged not only on the content of their slam but the manner of delivery and passion behind their words.
It seems to me that because of this background Mali's poems are more akin to "performing arts" than literature. To truly enjoy one of his poems, you have to see it being performed. So here is a video of Taylor Mali performing his poem "Totally like whatever, you know?".

Another hilarious one by Mali - "The impotence of proofreading":

More videos of Taylor reading his own poems can be found here. Some of his poems here

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Prayer

Man prayingNo! This is not a rant about those who pray or those who exhort others to pray or even about the one(s) to whom people pray to. These are my thoughts about prayer, how they have evolved over time, what prayer means to me and why I pray sometimes. That's right, I am an atheist and I do pray sometimes.

I grew up in a moderately religious family. My parents taught me to pray. We had a very beautiful 'Devaghar' (देवघर), a traditional altar where all the idols and photos of idols of gods are kept, one made out of sandalwood, which if I remember correctly was later mistakenly painted over with oil paint by an uncle. Every evening after dark and before dinner, mother lights the oil lamp and incense sticks in the Devaghar. Then she would make us (me and my sister) sit there and pray. It was during these evening prayers that I learned the most commonly known Sankrit shlokas (श्लोक), mantras (मंत्र) and stotras (स्तोत्र). I learned to recite by heart the Ramrakshaa (रामरक्षा), the adhyayas from Bhagwad Geeta, the Atharvasheersha (अथर्वशीर्ष) and the Maruti (Hanuman) stotra. We also learned to recite "Shubham Karoti Kalyanam" (शुभं करोति कल्याणं) a hymn to the lamp and the Manache Shloka (मनाचे श्लोक) composed by Sant Ramdas. We learned to recite all the Aartis - devotional songs sung after the pooja ritual.

We prayed in the school too. Before the classes started, everyone would gather on the school grounds. We would stand in a line, ranked by height, an arms length behind each other. I was one of the shorter guys and would always be near the front of the line. One of the teachers in our school played the harmonium beautifully and would lead the prayers. We had a prayer assigned for every day of the week and they were all printed in our individual 'diary' (a small book to record exam results and other progress) for reference. Even though the official language of instruction in our school was English, all the prayers were in Sanskrit or Marathi. The only English prayer, a little one that we recited at the end of the school day everyday before rushing out of the class, went something like:
"We give thee thanks, almighty God, for all the gifts, we have received, this day."
After my Upanayan Sanskar or Munja (मुंज) ceremony as it is commonly known in Marathi, my grandfather taught me the Sandhya Vandana ritual. The Gayatri mantra, one of the oldest of all mantras is taught during the Upanayan. I used to perform the Sandhya ritual until the 10th grade. For some reason I gave it up later on but I still used to pray every evening. I used to visit the local temple fairly regularly too.

During my undergraduate studies in Pune, I read a lot about Indian philosophy. I read "Geeta Pravachanay" (गीता प्रवचने) a commentary on Bhagwad Geeta by Vinoba Bhave. I read Swami Vivekanand's writings on Raj Yoga (The Patanjali Sutras) and Karma Yoga. I read the "Geetai" (गीताई) - Vinoba's beautiful rendering of the Bhagwad Geeta into Marathi. I read an anthology of Vedic hymns. I read some of the Upanishads and their translation. I read parts of the Bhagwad Geeta in Sanskrit. I still have my copy of Bhagwad Geeta with Marathi translation published by the Ramkrishna Math. My mother bought it in a book fair for me. In those days too, I regularly recited my prayers in the evening, though not quite everyday .

So what did all this mean to me. Well, earlier on it was a ritual drilled into me though not a boring one by any measure. The stotras and mantras are quite melodious and it is fair bit of a delight to recite them in the right tone and rhythm. The Bhagwad Geeta is supremely mellifluous and a joy to recite once you learn to read and split the words at the right places and use the right 'chanda' (Vedic meter) for each shloka. Later on as I read more of the philosophy behind it all I was more inclined towards the Bhagwad Geeta and the Upanishads and used to recite them instead of the prayers. Over the course of time my outlook has changed. I really used to believe that there is someone or something out there that you can pray to, that can respond. I don't anymore. But I still pray sometimes and I wish to explain why and to what (if anything) do I pray.

Prayers come in many different flavors. The stotras are typically poems expounding the qualities of and singing the praises of a particular deity. They also are often full of exhortations such as "one who recites this stotra everyday is bestowed with knowledge and wealth". Then there are some prayers which are sort of a direct demand to a particular deity (often Lord Vishnu or Goddess Laxmi) for health, wealth and happiness. The prayers from the Bhakti tradition are more or less devotional songs praising the deity. The shlokas from Bhagwad Geeta or the Updanishads expound their particular philosophies. The Vedic hymns come in a lot of different varieties too, falling in one or the other categories above.

In my opinion, in its most basic form, a prayer is a way of wish-thinking and thanks-giving. Life is a random draw. Everything around us (including our own body and mind) is governed by a complex web of causes and conditions. I don't mean to say that nothing is predictable. We have certainly come a long way in understanding natural phenomena and the functioning of our own bodies in accordance with the natural laws. However, in the course of each individual life there is enough randomness, sufficient unpredictability, a fair number of 'chance' events that can have significant influence on the course of that life. Compound this with the fact that we have evolved as agency seeking organisms. We are constantly looking for a causal agent behind events, even when there is none. This is reflected in the fact that most cultures have deities associated with natural forces of wind, water, air etc.

I think prayer is a mechanism to cope with this dual reality of the seemingly random courses of individual lives on the one hand and our desire to seek out someone or something as the 'cause' of events in our lives. Most commonly that something or someone is supposed to be a god or gods. But does it have to be that way? Do we really need to pray 'to' someone? I think prayer serves to fulfill one of our basic needs. We are social beings. When we a friend, relative, companion or a complete stranger provides us aid and comfort in times of need, we thank them. It is a bonding mechanism. The need to express gratitude or seek help is a result of our evolution as organism living in family groups. When 'life' deals you a tough hand, you wish for a better one. When you suddenly draw a winning ticket out of the blue, you wish to thank someone. But think of what 'life' means here. There is no single entity called 'life' out there which is determining the course of individual lives, although a lot of us wish and believe there is. 'Life' is a metaphor for the complex web of causes and conditions that lead to a particular event. There is no single 'agent' called 'life' there that can accept our thanks or fulfill our wishes. It is an artifact of language, a convenient label for the thousands of unseen causes. Nevertheless our desire for expressing our thanks or wishes for whatever 'life' deals us is a fact our existence, our humanity.

For me, reciting a prayer is an outlet for this desire. It is solution for a completely natural and human condition. I am fully aware and convinced that there is no one on the other end of the line. I do not, therefore, want to sing praises of a deity or demand fulfillment of my wishes and desires from a deity. I do however wish to express my thanks for the small and large gifts of life. I also wish to express my desire that things get better for my loved ones and for everyone else. I am not expressing my gratitude 'to' someone but I am expressing it quite sincerely nevertheless. I am not demanding a better deal 'from' someone, I am simply making a wish that things be better - an empty one if you will, but a heart-felt one just the same. I expect no returns other than the solace that this bring to my own self. I harbor no delusions that someone is recording my prayer in a universal database and will reward me if I am good and punish me if I am bad.

That is why some of my favorite prayers now are the simple ones. They are the ones which don't overtly appeal to a deity or if they do it is in a playful jolly spirit rather than a beseeching tone. I don't pray everyday, partly out of a fear that a daily treatment may end up reducing the remedial effect I seek from it. I may be wrong on that count, who knows!

So there it is! That is why I pray. In due course I will post some of my favorite prayers most of which are Sanskrit shlokas. I posted two of them earlier which are one of the playful ones. Share your prayers with me if you will.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A poem for the weekend

This one is an excerpt from Philip Appleman's poem titled "Five Easy Prayers for Pagans".

O Karma, Dharma, pudding & pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will and wit,
purity, probity, pluck and grit.
Trustworthy, helpful, friendly, kind,
gimme great abs and a steel-trap mind.
And forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice -
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good
and the good people nice,
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.

I like all the five prayers from the poem, especially the one to Shiva:
O Shiva, relentless Spirit of Outrage:
in this vale of tearful True Believers,
teach us to repeat again and again:
No, your Reverences, we will not serve
your Gross National Voodoo, your Church
Militant – we will not flatter the double faces
of those who pray in the Temple of
Incendiary Salvation.
Gentle Preserver, preserve the pure irreverence
of our stubborn minds.
Target the priests, Implacable Destroyer –
and hire a lawyer.