Thursday, December 5, 2013

Forced perspective

Having been exposed to so much material on the adult immigrant/emigrant experience in popular literature and now being myself an unwitting participant on the same odyssey, I suppose I should present my own jaundiced views on the peculiar trauma concomitant with having to view yourself from without, absent the known markers of a life half-lived.

First of all, you look different from the general population - there is no escaping this fact even if you tell yourself that this difference is what you have always experienced even in the society you grew up in. There is a marked difference in having the luxury of choosing to feel the way you do, and having the feeling of otherness thrust upon you from people courteous enough to look away when you notice them noticing you for longer than is a natural by-product of curiosity.

Cringe-worthy television shows on a culture left behind leaves you wondering for the first time exactly what it is you are cringing about. Is it the magnified lens of voyeurism focused on what you always knew to be universally shameful sights and sounds, or is it your natural defensiveness of ways of life that you believe you know more about than the presenters and/or producers of the show you are about to change the channel on, as a reaction to their reinforcement of stereotypes that you are sure they very well could have dug deeper into and exposed for what they are not.

The counter-assault on your sense of privacy and seclusion is something that nobody warns you about. Sure, the air is cleaner and the roads quieter and the parks emptier and the birds do sound somehow happier, but when there is no newspaper man come to collect at the end of the month, or a rarely-sighted neighbour dropping in to drop off a portion of a dish or a gift for your child, or the ubiquitous hawker or garbage collector taking time off from under the shade of the tree that stands within your compound to espouse forth on his/her philosophy of life to no one in their immediate vicinity as far as you can see from the vantage point of your hidden window, you begin to hear the tinny sounds in your head telling you that that surely cannot be an ant crawling up the inside of your cupboard door.

Lastly, the preoccupation with the drama of your own family life and domestic circumstances in relation to those of your neighbours and others you come in contact with cannot in any way condone what you very quickly realize is a result of your own frustrations unrelated in any way to how others behave within their own closed doors. Large living rooms leading on to larger open plan kitchens and massive landscaped backyards can only hide the muffled sounds of rage and remorse in so far as the current direction of wind decides to favour the source of those sounds. Man wasn't born to live alone and he has to learn to live with that. This applies to all men.

I'm sure I've only highlighted the immediately apparent and terribly mundane psychological mise en scène(s) that every recent migrant has to face up to along with the associated assaults of self-doubt at having perhaps made the most important decision of his/her life so far in a wretchedly frivolous state of mind. There is more to come, I'm sure.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Desperately Seeking Situations

Times are tough... Reality bites... Hang in there... It's the economy, stupid... A little struggle is good for the soul... The only way from here is up... Dig deep... Desperate times call for desperate measures... It'll happen soon...

I really don't know what's worse - taking comfort in the mantraic repetition of well-worn cliché or stumbling along day by day in a horrifyingly obtuse optimism dependent on your conjuring up employment via the bare and useless hands that you wring and wring and wring in front of you to little avail.
If I have to be cloyingly honest, I should admit (at least to myself) that I have never been good at finding work. Times past, employment has magically appeared as of a misty morning clearing up to reveal a beautiful day ahead. Of course, I have been aware of the many personalities working behind the scenes to make that timely employment happen, but the act of conjuring up something from nothing, when I have heard it expressed in biographical accounts of successful and not-so-successful people, has always escaped my understanding at the fundamental level of cause and effect. What exactly do I need to do to make work happen so that life in a new country can begin for us, instead of counting down the days till our meager savings run out? How do I go about looking into my beautiful daughter's eyes and listen to her begin to express herself so imaginatively in so disarming a voice and know that the means to allow the fulfillment of the promise of that amazing future standing right in front of me is nowhere on the horizon? What else do I need to do besides constantly revising a hateful and suffocatingly inadequate-looking résumé hoping it will catch the eye of a compassionate recruiter sufficiently impressed by a, likewise, much edited cover letter for application after application posted on site after site? Do I need to solicit my services door-by-door in the neighbourhood and, if so, what services can this overweight and overwrought, wrong-skin-coloured, diffident visage offer kindly souls without? Should I practice a pleading, subservient, wholly desperate put-on air in front of the mirror before I go out for the umpteen time to meet host after host who after listening patiently to our tales of woe promises to do nothing more than take our dirty plates at the end of another useless dinner in the pursuit of that mystifying art of networking?

These and other existential problems take up my days these days.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Parallel worlds

I suppose everyone has had a certain experience of life wherein the primary occurrence of the moment is so weighed down by monumental and paradigm-shifting cataclysmic import, built up over months and years to hysterical levels... that almost every other important incident that happened at the time is over-shadowed so completely that, except in the dark recesses of an old-age memory, all traces disappear leaving one feeling the loss of an intimacy never remembered but which nonetheless did occur. That is not the case with me and 'The Wire', thankfully.

Introduced to it by the same close friend who once introduced me to Facebook, it did take some time before I found the time and the inclination to download all five seasons of the show in an area of the world where I can't imagine it appealing to a wide audience that would justify the television syndication. Hence the jugaad in access, though I doubt that David Simon or Ed Burns would mind. It is a piece of online piracy that has least affected my sense of propriety, and for a show that thrives on the depiction of an almost elemental face-off between the forces of an enervated Jekyll and a resplendent Hyde in the human condition, I admit that a sense of ironic vindication does assault me when I do care to think about it.

'The Wire' is everything filmed fiction should aspire to be. It is omniscient, omnipresent and fantastically layered within the universe of tortured souls it creates, and it is a story told through the eyes of the uninitiated, wide-eyed, uncool, wannabe, opaque, sentimental, foolishly naive and dangerously earnest characters that all of us might very well have been in a parallel universe. There have been reviews of the show where the writers warn the viewer that one must be prepared to invest oneself psychologically and emotionally in the fiction, forgetting the clock and leaving one's fast-food television habits behind, but I suspect that advice appeals to a certain audience that will never understand how crucial fiction is to the lives we lead. There are other reviews I have read where the writers elevate a particular season over another and discuss the historical and enigmatic significance of a particular episode or character portrayal, but all that amounts to, I believe, is a grasping at straws in the aftermath of a forest fire. There is nothing in The Wire that is superfluous (except some of the sex scenes) and how that reality accommodates such complex explorations into the dreams and hopes of an entire city both at an individual and societal level is a mystery best savored when the rest of the world is asleep and you are alone in a dark space in absolute silence pondering the depths of human nature.

I moved countries during 'The Wire'. I left my extended family, my culture and a fair few significant graves behind in my migration from the third to the first world during the second half of the third season. I set up home all over again in a continent where the only thing standing between oblivion and despair is a plethora of walkways and children's playgrounds and the anguish of a girl not yet three at being forced to leave them when it gets too dark to be out, as I relished the fourth season. I can't wait to see the fifth.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mea Culpa

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa... I am Guilty. Guilty of turning my back on a society that has given me life and liberty, and the aspiration to believe that I can change the circumstances of my own life, if not the lives of other people. Guilty of disregarding countless millions of poverty-stricken lives in cities, towns and villages across the country whose misery has been compounded by my geometrically progressive consumption of products and services over the three decades since I was born. Guilty of imagining a world where my daughter doesn't have to excuse herself for thoughts, feelings and/or practicing a lifestyle that are at odds with culturally accepted norms. Guilty of being ashamed of representative local municipal councils or state legislatures or national parliaments that are constituted of members who celebrate having hit the jackpot, both figuratively and literally, upon being elected. Guilty of worrying about disease when unintentionally touched or handling cash or using a public toilet or looking at the garbage piling up at the side of the road to which I have made my own personal inarguable contribution. Guilty of being continually and unconsciously class and caste conscious when dealing with everyone from teachers to public servants to blue collar workers to waiters to the domestic help at home. Guilty of believing that I could escape this life along with my family to a chimeric state of geographic and psychological well-being where equal-opportunity, fairness and dignity are not just hollow jokes being lasciviously perpetrated on you by an idol or symbol resident in a holy place whose pedantic tenets are so far removed from your experience of life that it becomes incumbent upon you to lose your faith lest you insult your own intelligence.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Once upon a time, I was a smoker

When the history of the contemporary world is studied by future wide-eyed eccentrics who for some reason choose to focus on an era when humanity's sense of itself was arguably the most conflicted, there will undoubtedly be a collective gasp of breath at the sheer indiscretion with which so many people chose to poison themselves with a small white paper tube stuffed with all manner of vegetable and chemical matter known to cause prolonged and painful deaths.
But what these poor students will never know is the fleeting sense of unalloyed abandon implicit in the act of actually putting paper to lip and drawing on a heady whiff of freedom that flew in the face of reason, individual responsibility and a sense of communion with a discredited wider world made up of bleeding heart evangelicals who nobody in their right minds would want in any way to be associated with, anyway.
I was a smoker for fifteen years, and I remember the exact ambiance when I had my first cigarette as, I suspect, I will remember the exact circumstances in which I smoked my last cigarette recently. People choose to start and stop smoking for a variety of reasons, most of which are interesting only to themselves, but the emotions surrounding the severing of ties with a hitherto lifelong and loyal companion that made relatively few demands on time, money and thought compared to a lot of other less lethal vices, are, I'm sure, common to all ex-smokers. There is first a keen sense of loss, followed by a steeling of the will, followed by a morose nostalgia for the once-intimate taste, and eventually gratification - at escaping an addiction that you once thought you would take to the grave with you.
That the time has come to ban a 7000-year old unhealthy custom is self-evident. What is not self-evident is that when that time comes there will be a sudden explosion of goodwill, health and prosperity across classes of people who have for long been so disenfranchised, disenchanted and dispirited that they once relied on a product that guaranteed one a minute of quiet self-absorbed reflection that no one could take away from them.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A critic after my own heart

I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different 
T.S. Eliot in 'The Journey of the Magi' (1930)

It has been more than eight years now since I first encountered Roger Ebert's writing on his movie review website and there are some reviews of his that I still continually go back to even though the interest in re-watching the movie in question has waned. Visits to his (more recently begun) blog drew me in only marginally less magnetically, and to think that there will never be another post: describing an obscure (to me) pub in Chicago and the myriad colourful characters inhabiting it, or a passionate denunciation of what he believed were denialist beliefs on evolution and gun-control laws in the country he was from and loved deeply, or an insight on alcoholism or addiction or love... is depressing and disorienting. He was my first stop after seeing a movie, and (if the movie was not being released in the cinema locally and unavailable for download) before seeing one, after hearing it described in some other internet forum. IMDB's profiles of movies saw me scrolling down furiously to the small link to the External Reviews section and then, the Roger Ebert link which was usually the first in a long list. When his name was absent from a list, there was invariably a pause to reflect on whether the movie was actually worth the watch if Roger didn't take the time to review it. The essence of his writing was, in a word, humane and his humaneness tempered everything he wrote on anything. In an insular  world that seems increasingly distant from the idea that we actually share it with seven billion other souls, his writing was a compass - unerringly pointing to the standards that we once collectively held ourselves to; in our art and in the consumption of that art.

Reproduced below is a poem written by Roger Ebert about what he believed should be done with the World Trade Center site, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks that have now come to define my generation, and, in some ways, implicate his:

"If there is to be a memorial, let it not be of stone and steel. Fly no flag above it, for it is not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world.

Let it be a green field, with trees and flowers. Let there be paths that wind through the shade. Put out park benches where old people can sun in the summertime, and a pond where children can skate in the winter. 

Beneath this field will lie entombed forever some of the victims of September 11. It is not where they thought to end their lives. Like the sailors of the battleship Arizona, they rest where they fell.

Let this field stretch from one end of the destruction to the other. Let this open space among the towers mark the emptiness in our hearts. But do not make it a sad place.

Give it no name. Let people think of it as the green field. Every living thing that is planted there will show faith in the future.

Let students take a corner of the field and plant a crop there. Perhaps corn,  our native grain. Let the harvest be shared all over the world, with friends and enemies, because that is the teaching of our religions, and we must show that we practice them. 

Let the harvest show that life prevails over death, and let the gifts show that we love our neighbors.

Do not build again on this place. No building can stand there. No building, no statue, no column, no arch, no symbol, no name, no date, no statement. Just the comfort of the earth we share, to remind us that we share it."

Thank you Roger Ebert. You will be greatly missed.