Imagine, for a moment, that you are overhearing a male neurotic narrator talking about his steamroller overconfidence. You are the listener and observer. Feel free at any time to interrupt him, to offer him advice, or, if you are willing, to identify with him. Be patient with him; he does manage to offer himself some gentle alternatives.
When I am overconfident and manically attached to an idea, a process, a value, or an opinion, I often don’t expend any time on allowing myself to settle back and let the world in. I am on a mission. I know what I’m about. I am convinced that a mere stream of ideas will purge the demons, settle the dust of my confusion. Continue reading
The White Tiger
“Sweet-maker…that’s my caste, my destiny,” says the protagonist, Balram Halwai, in Aravind Adiga’s novel, “White Tiger.” Another character in the novel asks the question, “Do you think sweet-makers can manage fourth gear?”
Western readers are not used to reading about castes, an historically rigid class system in India for centuries. Historians tell us, however, that in urban India, the caste system is breaking down, even though it remains entrenched in rural India. Continue reading
India, the Interior Life and the Renunciation of the Material World
Before I began reading “White Tiger” and V.S. Naipul’s “India: A Wounded Civilization,” I had developed several stark stereotypes of the country.
As Buddha’s birthplace, India had become mythologized for me as a culture steeped in self-examination, the interior life, meditation, and the renunciation of the material world.
Gandhi was the other part of the jig-saw puzzle; he fit quite naturally into my notion of India as the golden land of serenity, inner peace, and wise teachers. Although he raised consciousness to more political, social-justice levels, I continue to imagine Gandhi as this austere, simple, reflective man who never raised his voice, meditated daily, and led quiet passive-resistance demonstrations for social equality, Indian independence, the end of English colonial rule, and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. Continue reading
The mottled crowd
Had refused to interrupt
My slowly raised head,
Feeling, as I did,
Like a dazed bird
Rushing from an
I crawled up the stairs,
Stopping to rest
My right arm on
The damp concrete
As I lifted the strands
Of my hair,
Imagining, for a moment,
Prince leaning over
My shoulder with his
Soft cottony breath,
And long fingers.
“Sorry,” I paused,
“I’m not here.”
He left without
Woody Allen once said that whenever he was somewhere, he always wanted to be somewhere else.
We are never satisfied, it seems, to be where we are. There is always some other goal to attain, some other fantasy to fulfill, some other dessert we haven’t tried.
I say that to all my twitter friends because right now I would rather be conversing with all of you. But today I must engage myself in the beautiful discipline of expression, to dip my feet into the pool of some thoughts I have been having about my own addiction (alcohol was the addiction of my choice). Continue reading
I am not willing to go far as to say freedom is the last refuge of the scoundrel. But Tea Party patriots often make me feel as if my own patriotism can never possibly match the depths of their own brand of flag-waving and highly demonstrative calls for pledges of allegiance. I am not and have never been a flag-waving patriot constantly in need of some kind of pre-game national anthem ringing in my ears. And, in all honesty, I have never liked parades ushered in by all of our veterans, an iconic display that continues to narrow the frame of patriotism to war and a physical defense of our country.
My love of this country, however, comes from a different source—its artists, its writers, its musicians, its thinkers. When our country was attacked on September 11, 2001, my soul sank. Here was a country of Walt Whitman, August Wilson, Benjamin Franklin, and Aaron Copland that had been knocked on its ass by a group of religious fanatics who had no clue of the range and depth of America’s soul. Continue reading
Reading theorists have told us many times that readers take an active part in creating the very narratives they’re reading. A text is not static, no matter what the intention of the writer. Once the story goes out there, we, as readers, begin a kind of paint-by-numbers process of reinventing the narrative to fit our psyches. The broad outline of the story is there, but we color in the personal textures to suit ourselves.
Louise Erdrich’s novel, Shadow Tag, certainly opened up my own politically-correct notions of what I want to read or see in a fictional work about another culture. It continues to be difficult for me to shift out of a rather rigid belief that indigenous cultures should exist in this rarified world of innocence, that they should not accomodate themselves, in any way, to a dominant, sometimes oppressive culture—Japanese art should be pure “Japanese”; Chinese literature should be untainted by Western values; Indian film should always be driven by the country’s Hindu heritage.
Although I have evolved to having made my own accomodations, I find myself sometimes becoming a kind of politically-correct tourist who doesn’t want any ancient culture to change. I am sometimes particularly hard on writers and artists who produce assimilationist works, hybrids that have their sensibilities in two cultures. Continue reading
Poverty of Spirit
I grew up in a religion that preached “poverty of spirit.” It was a high-church Christian religion with lots of rituals, pomp, icons, and incense. As a child and an adolescent, I was told that poverty existed on a higher, more spiritual plain than wealth because, if I were poor, I would not be distracted by the material world.
I was taught, in no uncertain terms, that just as it would be impossible for a camel to thread its way through the eye of a needle, that it would be a cold day in hell before a wealthy person would ever enjoy eternal bliss. From that small kernel of a moral presumption, I learned to be suspicious of wealth and to pursue “higher,” more spiritual goals. I saw no contradiction between the poverty message and the comfortable, sometimes extravagant lives of the male messengers. Continue reading
Demonizing the Enemy, the Old Battle Between East and West
Those of us who are cultural-diversity followers continue to be intrigued by the global verbal battle going on between the conservatives on both sides of the “which-culture-is-superior” topic.
In the West, the Berlusconi followers continue to rant and rave about the superiority of Western Civilization. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalists and militant jihadists believe that the infidel West is going to hell in a hand basket. Both sides have reduced their enemies to demonized objects. Continue reading
Too Much Happiness
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
Alice Munro is one of those rare literary icons who has the distinct reputation as a crossover writer. She is admired by academics for her literary sensibilities, the mainstream for her easy-to-identify-with characters, and fiction writers who continue to be amazed at her ability to construct a strong story out of what Hollywood would consider to be the uneventful and ordinary—an impossible judgment to be made after reading “Free Radicals” and “Dimensions” in Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness. Continue reading