Amit Chaudhuri: Finding the Raga

A note that aches to resolve on the semitone next to it is called a leading-tone in Western music theory. While it comes closest to what a shruti is in Indian classical music, they are not equals; and although shruti literally translates to “what is heard” in Sanskrit, it has another meaning in Hindu sacred literature. Shruti in Indian classical music is the smallest gradation of pitch discernible by a human ear and the tiniest interval of pitch that a singer or musical instrument can produce.

But it is not my intention to bore non-musician friends with more of that. Finding the Raga is a poetic and accessible introduction to Indian classical music. It imparts an ample amount of artistic insight to share in future discussions. Aside from suggesting that our understanding of music enhances our appreciation of literature, language, and the world, it is an enlightening reminder that there are other lenses in which to view the world and other modes of music through which we can listen to the world aside from the Western.

It was, however, the idea of shruti that made itself heard to me more resoundingly, and exactly what I needed to read and learn on the first day of the year; because while leading-tones in music to which I am accustomed communicate a certain unease and a longing to resolve, in the raga, “Shruti has to do with the note’s anticipation of the next note, as well as its refusal to be immediately transformed into it. It’s to do with sometimes preferring a state of becoming, of being transformed…”

Once again, this in-betweenness. The last book I read in 2022 was Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a coming-of-age novel set in Jerusalem after the Second World War that seemed to me about the state of in-betweenness. It made me ponder on the truth that life itself is an entire in-betweenness and that, perhaps, the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty.

And now, this whole concept of shruti, a coming to terms with, and even a relishing of, this in-betweenness.

Finding the Raga has set the tone for my year. Here’s to making the in-betweenness both the journey and the home, the way sadhana does not differentiate between labour and its fruit or between preparation and performance, the way a khayal does not demand the listener to distinguish between process and finished product; and here’s to fine-tuning life for this interval of in-betweenness that can be made beautiful.

Truman Capote: A Christmas Memory

“But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries… Instead I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on  several million occasions: ‘If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.’ …Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite…”

Truman and his dearest childhood friend did end up giving each other a kite for Christmas and they had a good laugh about it before enjoying a wonderful kite-flying day. The kind of day that makes one say, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

In one of the many gatherings this season, an acquaintance confessed matter-of-factly that he doesn’t give Christmas too much thought or he’d feel sad about what was missing. I felt that wholeheartedly. It turned my thoughts toward loved ones who have lost so much this year and what Christmas would be like for them. Indeed, “What gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.”

This book, so deceptively simple, had me sobbing by page thirty. It is heart-warming and heart-rending at the same time. Although the accompanying stories lend a surprising glimpse into the author’s emotional traumas from his early years, it is beautiful enough to be considered one of the best Christmas books and, perhaps, deserving of an annual rereading — if only to remind us of the gifts of true friendship, and to nudge us to rummage through our own chests of Christmas memories and realize what treasures we keep within.

“That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching for the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

Thad Carhart: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Not the West Bank this time, just the Left Bank. The thing about my Silk Route | Fertile Crescent reading project is that — despite being a source of enlightenment through discovering underrated but astounding literature — novels from this route in question are usually emotionally taxing.

Although I have sensed that I am drawn to writings from places of conflict for the reason that they have a sensitivity to beauty commensurate with their heightened awareness of the fragility of life; once in a while, I need a breather, and that’s when I turn to books related to other interests. In this case, not merely an interest, but a love.

But as love would have it, we oftentimes become accustomed to a beloved’s presence and we slowly take its magic for granted. 

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier refreshed me about the intricate workings of a piano; of how extraordinary this instrument is; of the alchemy and difficulty involved in piano-making and music-making; and how beautiful tone production relies so much on the precision of piano makers, the skill of piano technicians, and the heart and hands of a pianist. This rekindled a fire that led me straight to the piano after turning the last page.

But this book is not just about pianos and trivia from the music world. (Although, while we’re at it: Did you know that when the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the first thing to be hauled to the rooms at the top was a piano?) It is also about the Paris that is inaccessible to the tourist. In fact, this would make a lovely pair to Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.

Surely, these books did not intend to rival Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or the aching poignancy of Truong’s Book of Salt, but at times, lesser-known books are beautiful for the simplicity that they lead us to find something that draws out music from within.

David Plante: Difficult Women, A Memoir of Three

Difficult Women. Difficult reader. This book and I did not mix well.

I found no satisfaction or pleasure in reading this, although I did not feel arrogant enough to consider it a bad book deserving to be consigned to the DNF pile. There must be something to be learned here.

To be appreciated, these sketches of Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer through David Plante’s personal encounters with them in the 70s, should probably be read as a literary specimen: a study on the microscopic boundaries between honesty and invasion of privacy; a rare sample that lays bare the characters of these women at particular points in their lives; an excision of the writer’s intentions, for scrutiny; and the final diagnosis that literary figures are just as human and as difficult as the rest of us. And perhaps, that’s what makes this… well… difficult.

Françoise Gilot | Carlton Lake: Life with Picasso

“When I met Pablo, I knew that here was something larger than life,
something to match myself against…”

“People always ask very bizarre questions like, ‘Why did Picasso like you?’ or ‘Why did Jonas Salk like you?’ So I said, ‘Well, usually, lions do not mate with mice!’”

I took an instant liking to this fascinating woman upon hearing her utter this line with a laugh in a documentary that my best friend shared years ago. Right then and there, I was determined to read Life with Picasso one day.

And here it is. The engaging conversationalist comes out in Gilot’s writing. With a clear and strong voice and nary a narcissistic hint, she does not make the book about her, but brings about an unsurpassed portrait of the man that was Pablo Picasso with all the contrasts of light and darkness. She does not play the victim of an eccentric genius, although the book tells us of how she draws the line not only on canvas but also in life.

I doubt if there can be a more intimate and honest account of how Picasso created, his thought process, his private life, and his artistic and political beliefs. As a rippling consequence, Gilot also paints a profound portrait of an extraordinary era that had a surfeit of literary and artistic personages that shaped history.

Stimulating discussions on Modern Art and its dilemmas, on artistic movements, on technique, color, composition; this account is nothing short of enlightening! There is no shortage of lessons on art, on living, on relationships, and on woman. 

Introductions to Françoise Gilot usually begin in 1943 when she met Pablo Picasso with whom she lived for ten years and with whom she had two children; and continues on the same thread that in 1970, she married Jonas Salk who was famous for developing the polio vaccine.

What I find remarkable about this woman is how, despite the monumental names to which her name was attached, she remained her own person as an artist, and as a woman — who, apparently, just refused to mate with mice!

I am sure she was, above all, referring to an intellectual symbiosis.

Joseph Brodsky: Watermark

“In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence…
we didn’t know yet that style could be purchased wholesale, that beauty could just be a commodity.”

Venice, through the pen of a mediocre writer, can easily become cliché.

But this is Joseph Brodsky. 

If you, like me, have read Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and thought it was alone in its indefinable sub-genre or sur-genre (if there’s such a thing), we can rejoice! Venezia’s Watermark is the worthy soulmate of Corfu’s Prospero’s Cell.

Meditative with a sensual rhythm but not without intelligent humor, here is travel literature that casts an enchanting haze on the borders between poetry and prose, a place and the self.

I would slip this in my handbag in a heartbeat on a return trip to the best city to get lost in.

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark

If it were not Rebecca Solnit who wrote this, I would have dismissed the title as another one of those inspirational books that I do not gravitate towards so much. But having experienced four Solnits this year prior to this, which all proved to be books I needed at the exact time I read them, I seized this as soon as it arrived. And once again, she delivered.

I felt it was written for me, who, upon returning from an exhilarating trip, returned to my country with a new president whom I did not vote for. Solnit’s books are extremely political, but she wrote this to make the case for hope, especially for those who, on the surface, seemingly lost:

To point out that just because my side did not win the election, does not mean we are not victorious in many things. To challenge myself to live the same way with the leadership I did not choose as I would have had my candidate won, and to continue being a responsible citizen and human being — because being victorious and seemingly right is small comfort when, around the world, and around the country, there is still injustice and there are still people dying and living horribly.

“Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”

“The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.”

Consider reading this if you, like me, paid your taxes dutifully and was called “self-righteous” when you pointed out that our new president failed to pay his; if you campaigned for your candidate without insulting anyone but the many enjoyed branding everyone on your side as toxic, even though poisonous ones were actually present on both sides if we care to admit (I have screenshots); if you were maligned and called names because of who you supported while the same people demanded respect but has been disrespecting your candidate for six years; if you, hopefully, like some of them, just wished for a better country. Consider reading this if you are frustrated and you think hope is lost, because it just made me realize that it isn’t.

This book reminded me that hope and action feed each other, and that every action and inaction have more impact than we know; to not merely demand change but to embody it. 

Hope, above all, is action; and as long as we do our part and, if possible, do more than what’s required of us, there is hope. 

John Berger: Confabulations

There is something therapeutic and enlightening about these essays that are of diverse scope but which are bound with a single string. That string is language — and not just the spoken, but also the unspoken; the pre-verbal, the danced, the hidden, the sung, the articulate, the inarticulate, the visual.

Just a few books ago, Rica Bolipata – Santos beautifully expressed that writing is, “An added gift to the love of reading.”

For John Berger, writing is, “An offshoot of something deeper… our relationship with language.” Language, to him, is a creature, “A quivering almost wordless ‘thing’.”

Language is that which acquires a body when it is sung, or played, or danced, as in music; it is el duende of which Federico Garcia Llorca wrote, the spirit, the gestures, “Gestures that are the mothers of all the dances of the ages”!

But these string of thoughts also hint at the things that distract us from it, the diversions from what is “true, essential, and urgent.” More than that other book of his, this one will somehow recalibrate our ways of seeing, and if we allow it further, our ways of living. 

The pre-verbal, the danced, the hidden, the sung, the articulate, the inarticulate, the visual, the musical… all at once, there is a sudden inspiration to live in every language I know.

Rebecca Solnit: Orwell’s Roses

When you turn to a book for solace and get chills instead.

Yes, this has got to be the most beautiful literary criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four: It rethinks the man that was George Orwell, it guides us to reassess beauty, and it reviews Nineteen Eighty-Four in a light that is distinctly hers. But with Rebecca Solnit, you never know where she will take you next; it is only guaranteed to be a place of startling insight and perspective.

Written and published amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it surprisingly mentions and describes Putin as an admirer and rehabilitator of Stalin’s reputation; even calling to mind the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, recognized by 16 nations as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government that killed 3-5 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933… and it seems like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will not be the only prescient book in question here.

What is chilling is the reminder that, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to be in a totalitarian country.” Orwell set Nineteen Eighty-Four in England, “To emphasize that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.”

And what buttresses totalitarianism? Lies. “Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect… Lies are integral to totalitarianism… demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes. The first victim of war is truth.”

And yet, despite these ominous warnings for which Orwell is known, Solnit asks us to reconsider the word “Orwellian” and look at the man who, in the spring of 1936, planted roses. Beautiful is far from the first word that comes to mind when confronted with his writings, but there is a definition of beauty, Solnit emphasizes, that does not have to do with prettiness. “Another kind of beauty, of a toughness that is life…” The beauty to which Orwell was most committed and for which he strove was “this beauty in which ethics and aesthetics are inseparable, this linguistic beauty of truth and of integrity as a kind of wholeness and connectedness, between language and what it describes, between one person and another, or between members of a community or society.”

What was beautiful to him was truth, clarity, honesty — and roses. “Orwell was passionate about the beauty and gestures and intentions, ideals and idealism when he encountered them, and it was to defend them that he spent much of his life facing their opposites.” 

“Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.”

There is, after all, solace through the roses telling us that stopping to smell them does not necessarily distract us from the seemingly more important things in life, but strengthens us instead. Through Rebecca Solnit, and through the man who made my birth year significant in literary history, we are spurred to recalibrate what we deem beautiful, to acknowledge our need for beauty, and to always strive to pursue it.

Rebecca Solnit: The Faraway Nearby

The sound of sirens woke me up. Whose witty idea was it to celebrate Women’s Month with Fire Prevention Month in the Philippines? Woman is a fire you cannot prevent. Sirens are also women.

These were my tangled thoughts as I got up on the first day of March, a month I look forward to as a reading woman. It’s when I devote most of my reading time to women authors.

Rebecca had to be the first choice, because maybe my mind treats literature like medicine and it cyclically hankers for a more potent dose to achieve efficacy, and she lives up to this promise — this sort of writing that painfully confronts the hurts and pinpoints the ills but becomes the balm through impeccable information-giving and matchless storytelling, all administered with strength and grace.

The title is an acknowledgement to how the artist Georgia O’Keefe signed her letters for the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.” A way to measure physical and psychic geography together, Rebecca observes. “We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate… emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby…” We can be distant from the person next to us but be hopelessly attached to another who is hundreds of miles away. Was it Ondaatje who asked, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” It seems Rebecca understands and she holds your hand through this sadness.

But that is only one of the myriads of things meaningful to me that she weaves artfully into this narrative. The curious format of this book is a nod to the Arabian Nights. It was only recently when I remarked how Latin American and Eastern European literature are under Scheherazade’s spell, but this book makes me ask, “Who isn’t?”

“The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day… By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.”

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them…” This is the line with which Rebecca opens this book.

And this is how she ends. “Who drinks your tears? Who has your wings? Who hears your story?”

“Who has your wings?” Who else can ask such a poignant question? 

This mastery is, indeed, feminine. Happy Women’s Month!