Where do thoughts come from asked the child
from the abyss within said the man. they rise slowly from the bottom. like wisps of smoke from a fire. crackling with sparks. like soot from a snuffed candle. like a ping- pong ball machine. often they climb up the walls and carefully looking to the left and the right shyly announce their presence. these are the thoughts that arrive disguised. like dreams. some force their way in as nightmares. often the toy trains adorning your shelf trample thoughts beneath their tiny red wheels. or the paper boats you made and crushed and threw away. did they not have thoughts to share? or last night’s discarded underclothes brimming with stale thoughts. and let us not forget the dolls and the shadow puppets you played with while standing in the corner as punishment. did they not share their thoughts with you? there are times when for the sake of a different view you choose to lie back against the blue of the sky and look down into the abyss. a different sky. dark and without stars to guide the way. you find thoughts settled at the bottom like shells on a seabed. ornaments buried in bits of sand. reflecting the colours of the fish and the corals. like beams from a lighthouse. inviting you to safety or to certain death. i knew a thought that was shipwrecked. and rescued. and went on to fill an entire book. and another that was stillborn. never learning to breathe.
There are no full stops. Period. Nothing that helps you punctuate your thoughts except your breath which is increasingly tempted to let you down as are those that sense smell taste suspect a certain dependency like dogs it is said are known to sense smell taste suspect fear in people who attempt to overcome these emotions of fear and nervousness and approach them in what is clearly a shot at friendliness and clearly these people think that you are powerless and without moorings enough to make your own way chart your own course and I think this may be what happens with breath when it chooses to call upon its evil double breathlessness to ease into slip into worm its way into the discussion and send a clear signal that you are not in control that the thoughts you are thinking are like a runaway train and that any form of breath control or ability to emphasize the odd feeling or emotion or idea by judiciously placed and cleverly crafted punctuation is no longer possible or in your hands as the writer author poet and scribbler of all that is wise and wonderful because after all what is writing but an ability to swim in stormy and choppy seas for long lengths of time and to be able to hold your breath underwater for even longer lengths of time and come up only for air and dive again for you know this as well as I do that inspiration lies hidden under the sea as do the many demons that writers novelists poets have to befriend in order to sustain the finest of writing because we all know that there is very little of worth left on the surface and the deeper you dive and the longer you are able to stay under the sharper your insights will be after all it is only when you are brushing past death which is what you do when in the midst of a trance miles and miles under the sea when you are concentrating on taking down every word that your muse your breathless instinct is dictating and nothing not even immanent breathlessness is going to let you stop midstream not even the fear of losing your breath and watching it drift away in slow motion while your eyes register the first bubbles that begin to escape your mouth and how with increasing speed you begin to lose consciousness and your body begins to get lighter and like a feather begins to float this way and that at the mercy of the waters before you slowly sink to the bed of the ocean with no curious onlookers except the fish and the sea life that goes about its dailyness and is not interested in you or what may be happening to you or the fact that you will no longer ever write another word for all that is meaningful in your writing will have died with you and your breath will have won out in the end though why this should give it any pleasure is beyond my understanding and therefore there may no longer be any need for punctuations for your life will have come to a full stop. Period.
I don’t want it to be yet another conversation with someone used to it . . . I want introspection . . . the kind that suggests your life passing by you in a slow gliding moment even as you reflect . . . look it in the eye, as it were . . . in confidence . . . or defiance . . . or simply duck for cover . . . avoid . . . ignore . . . change the subject . . . the stopping to think when faced with a thought provoking comments . . . as against the swift repartee borne of experience . . . not insincere or glib . . . just practiced . . out of repetition and hurriedly put together encounters at literary festivals and book readings perhaps . . .
Here is what you must remember. Everything that I write has to do with memory and thought and emotion. That which is felt. So that it leaves an ‘indent’ upon what we often call ‘the soul’. That unexplained and uncharted part of our ‘within’ that lives entirely on a diet of the senses. That which is not always sufficient in itself as either memorythoughtemotion and so needs the help of something more, or less, to free it from its ‘imprisoned’ state. The urge, even desperation to ‘release’ language from its perceived or appointed task and make it soar above the clouds or beneath the seas hovering often inches above the ocean-beds is what one must strive for. Think of the heart of light and you will see a shadow. It is the need to free this ‘shadow’ from the clasp of brightness that must be our essential task. Truth as an elusive reality that the poet conjures up through the powers of the imagination. More powerful than the one that we enact daily.
Or to put it in the words of our dear friend and poet Yves Bonnefoy ‘a truth more imagined than truly lived . . . ‘
I am often asked about where my sense of the ‘aesthetic’ came from. And when. As if to suggest that it was a recognizable moment. One marked by time. Like waking up with an idea of the aesthetic and proceeding to practice it. Nothing like that. I think like life it had its beginning moments. Then it grew into adolescence with my years in the theatre; later, the art and the photography and the books gave it a tangible form. One that continues to mature.
Here are a few ‘beginning moments’:
Watching my father spend his Tuesday off-days in our tiny kitchen in Ripon street. The one with a long narrow window at the end. Making fish kababs. He would begin his meditation with cleaning the kitchen; setting out the tools of the trade down to the last possible ingredient he might need; and utensils; the fish had to be bathed and made ready for the sacrifice; the scaling, washing, anointing in an orange-red masala, a formula that was a closely guarded secret from his days at the Oberoi Flatty’s in Lahore, a mixture that would give the finely cut pieces of fish their colour and taste; the reverence with which the fish would be marinaded in a round stainless-steel thali; no extraneous bits of colouring accidentally hanging on for dear life to the edges of the thali or the marble slab on which it lay; clean and tidy; an aerial view would show a pattern akin to a shoal of gleaming orange fish swimming in formation; only in this case it was a still photograph; no lagging truants hurrying to catch up; then would come the moment of reckoning when each chunk of fish would be lifted affectionately and gently slid down the curved walls of a deep round frying pan with circular earing-shaped handles; one after the other; the whole pool of simmering oil slowly coming alive with fish; like boats on a moonlit night making their way to sea for a bout of deep-sea fishing; or a bonsai flotilla about to engage the enemy.
In happier times, he enjoyed dressing up. In the more formal styles of the day. I know this because I inherited sharkskin trousers in what was called the ‘cigar cut’. His suits and jackets. His tie collection. His cuff links. I remember the ones with the head of Socrates. What I enjoyed most was he set out the clothes every morning and evening before his bath. And often, not just his own. He would also select my mother’s saris. With blouses to match. Especially for special occasions. He would lay these out with immense courtesy. After having taken great pains to iron them. There were no ironing boards in those days. So the dining table for four would double-up. Suitably covered with a thick maroon bedcover folded into quarter its size for thickness. On this he would spread a white bedsheet. Also folded. And on this freshly created ‘surface’ he would iron the six-yard chiffon or silk sari or whatever the weather suggested as appropriate. So on the large double bed their festive wear would be laid out in neat combinations. His and Hers. Alongside, socks and a silk kerchief. Freshly polished black or brown leather shoes for him. Appropriate bangles, earrings, a necklace and sandals for her.
Every wedding in the family had to have my father in charge of the food and the buffet tables. And of what was then called ‘decoration’. He was known for creating table displays that were unmatched in their sense of drama, elegance and visual delight. I remember many but there is one that I remember most. A three-tier table. The tiers starting at my waist and going up to my head. Three levels of potential display space. The venue was also split into manicured lawns at different levels. He chose to place his buffet marvel at the lowest one, which was surrounded by steps that went down to a large flagstone quadrangle which in turn opened on to a vast lawn. So if you were at the highest level where the wedding was taking place, you could look down and get an amazing aerial view of the table. Like being in an amphitheatre watching a performance unfold. The levels of the table were split into the main courses on ring-burners with blue flames; the dishes wore silver-coated metal; round, with braided edges and rings; the next tier had the salads in cut-glass bowls; also round; interspersed with baskets crafted out of burnt sugar; spilling over with fruit; both fresh and candied; a riot of colour; and finally the upper layer, with every kind of dessert and cheese. Or so it seemed to a nine-year-old. As if this was not enough, he had placed grape-like bunches of blue fairy lights on the white tablecloth on all three levels, so that it seemed as if the entire repast was set on a bed of glittering blue diamonds. The icing on the cake were the garlands of white fairy lights that hung from the sides of the table in a mesmerizing cascade. On all four sides. Strangely enough, the overall effect was not ostentatious but of quiet elegance and beauty.
I remember the gasps of awe as the guests approached the table from the top of the stairs. All conversation reduced to a hush. And then how they made their way down the steps in their finery. Like moths to a flame.
In language, no word is unusable. The writer must train himself into finding the right match so that the words that first appear as useless may shine and breathe as newborns with a right to life.
For a conversation to be fresh it needs to be vulnerable. Vulnerability between the two that are in the act of engagement; between the conversationalists and their listener-reader-viewer audience; and between the ‘content’, issues, thoughts and emotions that may unravel during the course of such a conversation. This needs courage. The kind that hints at, or perhaps insists upon, entering this ring, this charmed circle of truth, without gloves or armour for one’s mind and heart. The two most vulnerable spaces of engagement between the two who are performing this ‘conversation’. No safety nets or preparation other than one’s own life and writing. I often use the word ‘performing’ as an act of doing. Simply and without forethought. Spontaneity would be a blessing. Not in its more practiced usage that implies rehearsing for hours. But having said that rehearsing is also OK. Rehearse and practice your life before the sharing with others, including yourself, may begin.
[A lifetime of ]Accumulation. Of words. Not like a consumer. Like a musician. A composer. To listen to the ‘sound’ of words. Resonance. Like a tuning fork. Words that motivate. Draw towards. Rekindle a yearning. A remembrance that ordinary memory can not arrive at. To write is to delve. Writing as a composition of hope. A journey. But no arrival. No ‘getting there’. Just the tramping. Walking. Dust tracks as signs of life. Someone has traversed this trail before. Reassurance. The comfort of friends. Words as solace. Recognition. Words that recall. Incomplete words seeking salvation. Even deliverance. Broken words in limbo. Premature ones that are spewed into the gutter even as they are uttered. Insecure words. Without moorings. Or roots. Homeless words that seek shelter from the storm. And the ones without an umbrella. Drenched in the loud rhetoric of a political wordplay that sets out to bewilder the imagination. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Words that act like an opiate. Dulling. Lullabies strung together. Unashamed words. Naked and stripped of veils. Harsh and therefore often truthful words. Songs of the people. Unheard melodies. Whispers. Words that refuse to whimper. Or die. Or be buried. Fighting words. Words with a cause. Borderline words strutting to a neutral tune. Neither here, nor there words. Our words. Their words. Words of attrition. Those that feast on anger and prejudice. Words of war. And those that want nothing but a peaceful, even happy ending.
In my desire for brevity I chiselled. I whittled. I reduced. Cut down. Cut back. I pruned and trimmed. I worked hard to slim, pare down. Every single word. Till all that was left was the core. Razor sharp.
Taking the knife I twisted it into the wound. Letting the sentences bleed.
Where do thoughts go?
I don’t know this for sure.
But I have often heard it whispered.
So there may be some truth in it.
There is a vast magnet in the sky.
Designed specially to attract thoughts.
The ones that are considered special.
Oh and there are special cloud trains to take the thoughts up.
That is if they are in a hurry.
Some simply choose to chisel steps into the air.
A spiral stairway to make their way upwards.
This is hard work.
And may take a little time.
Some thoughts simply waft up on cushions of smoke.
From fires that they light in their hearts.
Some thoughts stitch themselves into a magic cloak.
Cover themselves from head to toe.
One of these thoughts is invited to come forward.
And whisper the magic word.
As long as it has magic.
It takes them directly to the magnet in the sky.
It is said that more and more thoughts are now preferring this mode of travel.
Naveen Kishore is publisher at Seagull Books.