On How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

June 28, 2008 at 3:36 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

The title of this book is, to my mind, misleading. What in the original French was posed as a question (Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?) becomes, in it’s English translation, a statement, and that too, one that seems to slot the book into a category I abhor – namely ‘How to…’ manuals. Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is anything but a dummies guide to talking intelligently about books you haven’t read. It is not, as a quote on the back cover says, “A survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes” (though it could be, if that’s all you wanted out of it!), but rather a meditation on what it might mean to read or not-read. It brought to my mind the following exchange from Godard’s Liberte et Patrie:

 

– Father, what’s the best way of knowing if someone is trustworthy?

– You ask him, “What have you read?” If he answers, “Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac,” then he is not trustworthy. But if he answers, “Depends what you mean by ‘reading’,” then there’s hope. 

 

Bayard, who could have simply entertained us with clever tips on how to conduct witty, erudite conversations, instead employs both wit and erudition to talk about this taboo subject. It is bad form to admit you haven’t read the books that everyone is talking about; it is worse form to talk about them as if you had actually read them. Cultural constraints, he feels, are behind this taboo. The “obligation to read”, “the obligation to read thoroughly”, and “the tacit understanding … that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision”. The result, he says, “of this repressive system of obligations and prohibitions” is “widespread hypocrisy”, comparable only to the mendacity with which we talk about sex and personal finance. Because reading is seen as a virtue, lies abound, especially among specialists – academics, critics, lecturers. Lies, Bayard says, are “a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading” and he claims that this book will analyze the unconscious guilt that non-reading can bring about. But, most interestingly, he says he will “consider just what is meant by reading” and the ways in which we interact with books – unknown, skimmed through, heard of but not read, and lastly, books we have read and then forgotten.

 

The most ‘radical’ non-reader is the one who hasn’t even opened the book in question. Before this makes the reader of this book (and this review) gasp with horror – Bayard provides the perfect example of such a non-reader, a character from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities (a book I have been planning to, yearning to, and failing to read over the last nine years). The genius of his strategy is impeccable. Rather than provide examples from social life or chaterati, Bayard accesses the high temple of literature, and plunders it for the riches that will make his thesis grow out of the very same hallowed ground that makes non-reading such a sacrilegious act. Laughing at his audacity, and wondering how he plans to use his loot, one reads on.

 

The character is the librarian of the imperial library of Kakania, who is paid a visit by a General Stumm. General Stumm wishes to raid the library for the big “redemptive idea” that the patriots are seeking. Faced with three and a half million books, the General is stumped, especially when he realises that even if he reads one book a day it will take him ten thousand years to read them all. And here is when Bayard makes an important point, namely, “Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.” And just when General Stumm (and this passionate lifelong reader) is ready to despair, the librarian provides hope in the form of his own personal method of dealing with the “infinity of available books”. He says he knows about every one of the three and a half million books in his library simply because he has never read them. The General is horrified. “You never read a single book?” he asks. “Never,” the librarian answers. “Only the catalogs.”  And he leads the General into the catalog room, where he feels like he’s “inside an enormous brain … the concentrate of all knowledge … and not one sensible book to read, only books about books.”

 

The point – made by Musil’s librarian, and by appropriation, Bayard – is the importance of maintaining perspective, of not losing oneself in the labyrinth of books, to be able to locate a book, rather than necessarily know its contents. “As cultivated people know,” Bayard says, mischievously, “culture is above all a matter of orientation.” To understand where a book stands within a cultural system is possible by understanding its relations with other books. This is, according to Bayard, not a passive attitude, but an active one. If a person who has actively decided not to read a particular book does so with the awareness, love and respect of Musil’s librarian, he is adopting a stance that will help him “grasp the essence of the book, which is how it fits into the library as a whole.”

 

And so Bayard proceeds, quoting in his second chapter Paul Valéry, “that master of non-reading” who, after Proust’s death in 1923, began his tribute with the words, “Although I have scarcely read a single volume of Marcel Proust’s great work … I am nevertheless well aware … what an exceptionally heavy loss literature has just suffered.” And instead of being ashamed of not having read Proust,  Valéry cleverly makes a case for reading Proust in fragments, opening In Search of Lost Time at random, and making this approach seem to emerge directly from the author’s intention. This way of non-reading, he suggests, is “the greatest compliment he can give him” and is in keeping with his “poetics of distance”, where a work is best perceived not through the details of a text, but the idea of it. And this idea may best be gleaned “by a critic who closes his eyes in the presence of the work and thinks, instead, about what it may be.” And thus, Bayard suggests, Valéry provides “rational grounds for one of our most common ways of interacting with books: skimming.” If Musil’s librarian offered us a way of situating ourselves vis-à-vis the “collective library”, Valéry’s method enables one to situate oneself vis-à-vis a particular book.

 

And then Umberto Eco enters the picture to help Bayard tell us about our relationship to books we have heard of, but perhaps never even encountered, except through what other people have told us about it, or written about it (much as I am doing by writing about How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read!). Bayard uses the hidden book in Eco’s The Name of the Rose to do so. The book that the monk-detective Baskerville realises (or maybe falsely deduces) is the reason for the murder of several monks by Jorge, the blind librarian, is none other than the second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics. In this book, Baskerville surmises – based on his knowledge of the first volume of Aristotle’s Poetics which talks about tragedy – Aristotle defends the virtue of comedy, laughter, which, to Jorge, is antithetical enough to Christian doctrine to justify killing the monks who want to read it.  Both Jorge (who is blind and mad) and Baskerville, while ostensibly talking of the same book, have created what Bayard calls two different “screen books”, projecting on an imaginary object – the book in question – “his own personal agenda”. So books then, are “all reconstructions of originals that lie … deeply buried beneath our words and the words of others”.

 

It is the fourth category of books we have read and forgotten that is most poignantly illustrated through Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne, who says in his essay on reading, “if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retentiveness.” The problem of memory is so real and so painful that Montaigne apparently made notes at the end of each book he had read, marking the date on which he finished it and what his “judgement” on the book was. “I leaf through books,” he writes, “I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgement has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.” Oddly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, Montaigne remembered books that he disliked more than those he liked. But for him the anguish of forgetting extended to the books he himself had written, an amnesia which led to the terror of repeating himself. As Bayard says, “While reading is enriching in the moment it occurs, it is at the same time a source of depersonalization, since, in our inability to stabilize the smallest snippet of text, it leaves us incapable of coinciding with ourselves.”

 

Is a book that we have forgotten one we have read? Is it a form of not-reading or rather “unreading”? If all the books we have read are indeed “no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion”, why persist?

 

Bayard does not answer this question. Instead he moves his argument into the territory of social behaviour – interactions, confrontations, misunderstandings around books we have not read. An interesting concept is that of the “inner library” – books that have made us who we are. It is when two different inner libraries confront each other that conflict and misinterpretation arises.  Often, and this is so true, “the books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.” Wanting a person we love to have read (or non-read) the same books is a way of coming close to the loved one, of  “making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.” And though it rarely happens, “perhaps an ideal and deeply shared love should indeed give each lover access to the secret texts of which the other is composed.”

 

From the “collective library” to the “inner library” to the “virtual library” which Bayard defines as “a mobile sector of every culture’s collective library … located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion.” The virtual library exists in the “realm of communication about books”. It is in this realm that shame enters, and a concomitant violence if our non-reading is expressed in a way not congruent with the rules of what is essentially a game. When one’s image (particularly in intellectual circles) depends on the books we have read, telling the truth may expose that facet of our image we would rather keep hidden. To do this without shame, with flair and self-belief and a truthfulness to ourselves rather than others’ expectations of us, is an art Bayard believes well worth honing. 

 

There is much more in the book one could talk about, but I’d like to end with what Oscar Wilde says in ‘The Critic as Artist’:

 

“Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.”

[…]

“This is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul.”

 

To not be tied down by the content of the book or work of art, to use it merely as a starting point for creating another work of beauty, of subtlety, to see the critical text as a text that is “no more about the work than the novel, according to Flaubert, is about reality” – how refreshing that sounds in the context of dull summarisations that most critical writing tends towards. Just as this approach to criticism restores it “to its solitude” and “its capacity for invention”, so too, Bayard holds, non-reading enables the “reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, (to) find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.”

 

As this book already slides towards oblivion, perhaps I should see that as a blessing. Out of the fragments that remain, detached from the specificity of the book now in my hand, I may be able to come up with a parallel text that is truly creative, where Bayard’s text will be, simply, a pre-text for mine. I look forward to that moment, if it should come.

 

– Sampurna Chattarji

 

[How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, translated from the French by Jeffrey Mehlman, Granta Books, London, 2008. With thanks to Pauline for lending it to me!]

Advertisements

Permalink Leave a Comment

Silver Springs

June 23, 2008 at 8:23 am (Mary McQueary, Soliloquy)

 

Although Sadie’s wish was to see dolphins and manatees, her arrival was too late in the year for her to do so. The manatees had already departed for the ocean and although seeing a dolphin was possible it was not always likely. Often I see dolphins frolicking near the Gulf’s shore but only once has a dolphin leaped out of the water mere feet from our boat, an indescribable kinetic beauty against the blue sky. We opted instead to take her to see the wildlife at Silver River. 

 

The staging area was full of kayakers not wanting to leave a footprint.  Considering we were plunking in a 17 ft. boat, a big boy’s version of a bath tub toy, ours would leave an impression but not a deep one.  Sadie climbed aboard donning a straw hat atop her white braided pigtails.

 

The canal that led to the river was lined with lily pads. Tight fisted yellow buds atop angled stems shot out of the water resembling the various gear positions of a stick shift.  “This reminds me of the scene in Apocalyse Now when they go up river”, Sadie remarked while her eye scanned the forest.  It did indeed, although the Charlie we were expecting to encounter were in the form of alligators instead of guerilla soldiers.

Spotting alligators is like searching for seashells.  When the sand is nearly the same color as the shell, you learn to search by shape.  As soon as you spot one lettered olive seashell you suddenly can see along the shell bed a hundred more. We spot an alligator lying on a log that lays half in half out of the water. He remains napping in the sun as we motor by. We spot a baby gator a few yards farther, his little body stretched out long and skinny, he could easily been mistaken for a twig.

 

We were heading upriver to Silver Springs which is where the largest artesian formation in the world is found.  At practically every bend is a deep, minimum of 20 ft., spring. Tiny bubbles stream toward the surface from fissures as turtles and fish perform acrobatics in the deep bowls.  I search for any indication there are cave formations but see none. The water runs calm on the surface belying the strong current below. We peer over the side of the boat and see 4 ft. gar swimming but not advancing upriver.  On the water’s surface large clusters of water bugs congregate in the shade. Once disturbed they chase the boat, spreading out into an attack formation but are unable to overcome us.  Large black birds perch on fallen trees stripped of bark and bleached white by the sun that jut from the center of the straight segments of the river. The birds spread their large wings wide and high in worship of the blazing ball.

 

The water is clear and pure and cold but I dare not get in. I’ve seen 2 alligators already, hard to say how many I didn’t notice but soon it’s so hot that my skin is frying, I swear the fat under my skin is sizzling. I dangle one leg into the water to find relief. No alligator attempts to chomp off my toes.

 

It’s difficult to know whether to look up or look down for there is activity everywhere and of course I’m busy looking down into the water while everyone else is busy looking up into the trees and spots a colony of wild rhesus monkeys. A small troop was near the water climbing across the cypress knees. The knees weave a knotted natural fence between water and land, with land being a relative term for here is where Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed.  I spot a mother monkey with her baby but there are too many other boaters to get a clear picture. We continue upriver and vow to look for them on the way back for it is our firm belief that too many humans viewing wildlife is a form of harassment, a deed far worse than feeding them in my book.

The monkeys are not indigenous. They were brought in as a tourist attraction and placed on an island. The man that did so did not realize how great swimmers the monkeys were. He dropped them off and returned later to find that they had swam away and run off into the woods.  They’ve flourished and have not become enough of a nuisance to warrant removal. Most of the debate about plucking them out revolves around the working definition of the term ‘indigenous’.

 

At what point in time does something become indigenous? Only when a man notes that since before he arrived one has existed? An island may contain no palm trees when a man first arrives, but how would he know of the island’s past palm trees if a hurricane had swept them all out to sea before the man arrived? If a coconut washes ashore and roots after the man arrived, suddenly the coconut is a foreigner to the soil, no longer considered a son returning to the bosom of his mother. The man would consider him a bastard and not give him the surname of indigenous. Few would argue man has been on earth longer than a plant or an animal. It is man who is non-indigenous, invasive, a weed, and needs removal from certain areas.  As of this writing the monkeys are allowed to stay and so are we.

 

We discover two remaining monkeys when returning from dead-ending in the amusement park. For almost a century this area has been exploited by man. Glass bottom boats, wildlife exhibits (basically a zoo containing bears and alligators), and basic theme park entertainment surround the beginning of the river.

 

The larger of the two monkeys walks atop the cypress knees, his walk a combination of wild cat and human. He sees us and sits atop a large stump to stare.  Above him perched precariously in a live oak tree, sits a smaller monkey. He strips new fresh green leaves from the tree, munching them down as we would a handful of Doritos chips. The smaller one is approximately the same size as my yorkie-poodle puppy, Little Dog. Little Dog met their stares but did not bark or growl. 

 

I asked to have the boat move in closer. I’m not stupid and know better than to put my hand into the cage of the bear at the zoo and out in the wild I was using caution but quickly I was feverish by the promise of some potentially awesome photos. The world fell away from me. I only saw the color of their fur, two toned, half gray, half a reddish brown. I only saw their expressive faces, contemplative, innocent.  I only saw how cute the little monkey as he sat curled in a little hunch delicately on a branch that stretched over the river and bent ever slightly towards the water was. It was this that made me fearless and careless and forget they were wild.

 

Switching from still photos to the video feature of my camera I caught them shimming down the tree, eating, climbing and jumping. It was late in the afternoon and the shadows were growing deeper and the automatic features of my camera indicated flash was needed. In quick moves, desperate to not miss any great shots, my fingers stabbed frantically at the tiny buttons on my camera to turn off the flash option. I snapped more shots. Little Dog stood still by my side and did not bark. I switched one last time from capturing action to stills but forgot to turn off the flash. In an instant response to the flash the large monkey on the ground lunged but his feet remained fastened to the tree stump he balanced on.

 

 

“Ix-nay the ash-flay”, Sadie says in a loud whisper.

 

Nodding, I switch the camera to video with my thumb securing there would be no other accidental flash. In my LCD screen I see the monkey on the ground look up into the trees. I follow his gaze up the trunk across the branch into the leaves with my camera.

Before reaching sight of what he was glancing up at, Sadie exclaimed, “Oh, Mary!” The small monkey’s face appeared across the screen, a little angry monkey.  His arms are braced, a skydiver about to drop into the void.  Pounce. He is ready to pounce directly upon my head for we had drifted directly underneath him.  I shriek not knowing what else to do to make him stop.

 

My shriek catches him mid-launch and he swings back to sit and ponder the meaning of the sound. I shrieked not because I was afraid for myself, I had shrieked over the thought of the mad little monkey jumping into my boat and making off with my puppy like the flying monkeys do in the Wizard of Oz with Toto. We made a quick getaway while the two monkeys contemplate our intent.

 

Later we laugh. We laugh with thanks that we were not harmed. We laugh over the thought of monkeys understanding English but not Pig Latin. I laugh, glad I was never hired on by National Geographic, for I would have certainly been gored by a rhinoceros on the Serengeti years ago.

 

– Mary McQueary.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Raiding the Memory Box

June 15, 2008 at 9:05 pm (Dominic Alapat, Personal Essay)

 

 

Four boys run across the street to Sterling theatre in white uniforms. It is afternoon and it is raining. The boys have no umbrellas and they are wet. They have come after school to watch a film. It is difficult to find corollaries for some experiences in life. The first morning of summer vacation smells different. One notices more things as though one had suddenly woken up. The birds chirp as dawn slowly breaks, one breathes in the freshness in the air, one notices the yellow flowers. The memory box keeps streaming pages; precious images, snatches of conversation start playing.

 

So much of one’s environment adds to one’s life. For me, the city is an endless source of sustenance. Artistically, I find it fascinating beyond words. Yet, so much of it lies in the unknown. Dark, looming buildings against the sea. The hundreds of windows staring empty, with whatever life you can invest in them. The traffic on the roads moving endlessly, the horns; a mad, recognisable music plays. So much emotion is invested in certain scenes. A long empty road at night. Travelling by in a taxi in the rains, the trees by the roadside, the flashing of the headlights on the road, the droplets of water hitting the tar. Or the two and three storeyed buildings of Central Bombay seen from the top of a double-decker bus. Women in nighties standing in the balconies. Their faces with expressions you cannot tell.

 

The past is constantly with us. It has a life of its own. Glimpses of scene, of sound can lead to emotion of the most sublime and nourishing kind. Sometimes the light or words uttered in a certain way can set the movie rolling. The past hangs circling with a scene or a phrase keeps playing. Faces connect with voices, the time of the day is clear, and the place builds up street by street, building by building, window by window. A certain smell wafts on your tongue and here a market opens with its vegetable sellers, colour and fruit setting off a riot of moods and words.

 

The book of days and nights is always open. We read from it everyday. Certain moments stand more familiar, marking some kind of permanent residence on the psyche. They lure us in a way as though they still had their stories to complete. These memories yield to great feeling, one’s earliest sights, sounds, happiness, fear. They seem to be telling us something about ourselves. Desire, love, it is all stored there. A machine humming in the universe. The wisdom it offers is the source of our greatest joys, our transcendental experiences, the life of the soul. Its rapture keeps us ticking.

 

A scene intervenes. A boy stands outside his house looking at his window. It is night. It is time for him to go to sleep. He looks at the pattern the bulb makes on the window glass. Something like a rocket or a tower. He looks at the sky above. He notices the moon, the stars, the calm and vast sky. He is on his way to sleep, but is in raptures. He is thinking of earlier days. When he was smaller, probably not yet able to speak. A garden appears to him in his mind. Inside, a coloured fountain plays. The light changes from orange to blue to gold. Droplets of water fall on his face. His mind is singing a song. A story is passing through him.  

The memory box is everyone’s constant companion. Life’s richness is stored there. In fact, it is sustenance itself. It is our only semblance to a form, a map begun somewhere without us. It is drenched in tears and rain. It is our communion of commonalities, lending its lessons of surprise and awe, wonder and comprehension. It is water from which we drink daily.

 

– Dominic Alapat.        

  

Permalink 1 Comment

Blindekuh – World’s First Dark Restaurant

June 12, 2008 at 7:02 pm (Food)

 

Blindekuh’s reputation as a novel, concept restaurant has spread so far that I was told to book a few months in advance. Knowing that it would be a long shot, I decided to try my luck, just three weeks before travelling to Zurich. To my amazement, no sooner than I had filled up an on-line reservation request, I received a call from Blindekuh.

 

Since I had mentioned my Paris address on the booking form, the caller spoke to me in French. I was told that the requested date was not available. After some dogged persuasion, I managed to reserve a table for two on the same day we were due to arrive in Zurich.

 

At Blindekuh in Zurich, which is the world’s first dark restaurant, diners eat in absolute darkness. You may ask why.

 

The restaurant is run by Blind Liecht Foundation which is a not-for-profit organization of  visually impaired people whose mission is to help people to gain insights into the condition of blindness.

 

Blind Liecht Foundation was the brainchild a blind clergyman called Jurg Spielman. Along with Stephan Zappa (a partially blind psychologist), Andrea Blaser (a blind social worker), Jurg Fluck (a blind doctor) and Thomas Moser (a blind singer), Rev. Spielman founded this organization in 1998. Blindekuh (in German, it means ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’), the restaurant came up in Zurich one year later.

 

It didn’t take long for the concept to find takers across the continent.  London, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Moscow, Hamburg, and Cologne – they all have their dark restaurants now. Blind Liecht Foundation itself has put up one more Blindekuh in Basel.

 

We landed in Zurich on a Thursday.  Headed for Blindekuh, straight from the hotel.

 

The restaurant is housed in an elegantly renovated church building. Once inside, we were surrounded by happy voices, just like any popular restaurant. There is a difference though. We just had to figure out where the voices were coming from without using our eyes. The restaurant must have been full to its gill with all its 60 seats taken.

 

A blind waitress didn’t just stop at leading us to our table, she even guided our fingers to the plates and cutlery. Since our vegetarian dishes were pre-ordered from a set menu, the lunch was served in no time.

 

Surprisingly, eating in the dark was anything but a struggle. When one sense was put to rest, the others rose to the occasion by bringing out their fabulous reserves of whose existence we had no knowledge. Perhaps, that’s why dim lighting is de rigueur in chic restaurants. Absence of light on the gorgeous looking food doesn’t make us salivate any less as our taste buds led by  imagination help us experience  visioning of food, at some mysterious layer of  our brain.

 

My husband and I had great time playing the guessing game. We had only the texture and taste to go by. Broccoli was easy to identify. But zucchini wasn’t. With so much cream around, one can’t make a potato from a zucchini. We topped that lovely meal with a superb mousse au chocolat. The food was as good as anything I’ve had in Europe.

 

For the meat eaters, Blindekuh have even more irrestibles. Its non-vegetarian specialties include spicy fish soup with saffron, home marinated salmon, air-dried beef with olive oil and Parmesan cheese, and chopped veal with rösti (a popular Swiss accompaniment made of potato).

 

After the lunch, we were led to a dimly lit conclave where we waited for a few minutes, preparing our eyes for the daylight outside.

 

A pleasant surprise awaited us at the cash counter. The friendly cashier behind the counter was none other than Rev. Jurg Spielman, the man behind the concept of Blindekuh!

 

Thanks to Blindekuh, to me the act of eating is now a fuller sensory experience. More importantly, I now view the reality as it appears to the blind to be just a different form of the same reality as it appears to me. I no longer believe that having more or less number of sense-gates changes the reality of what lies behind those gates.

 

– Ruchi Jindal

Permalink Leave a Comment

On Standing out and Blending in

June 4, 2008 at 4:34 pm (Mary McQueary, Soliloquy)

  

 

The voices inside my head are not those of a splintered personality, they truly belong to other people. What they say is often melodious, remnants of my favorite songs. Often I sing prompted by a single word.

 

From time to time the voices quote from books I have read. Recently this quoting has been replaced by the playing of certain scenes from movies. Upon hearing of you this occurred.

 

The scene playing out on the wide screen of my mind was from The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999).  Neo has gone to meet the Oracle. He stands in her kitchen and the last thing she says to him is “…As soon as you step outside that door, you’ll start feeling better. You’ll remember you don’t believe in any of this fate crap. You’re in control of your own life, remember? Here, take a cookie. I promise, by the time you’re done eating it, you’ll feel right as rain.”

 

The scene repeated while I walked down the deserted lime rock road. Fine white dust blanketed my sandaled feet as I went, my toes soon gray, my soul soaring because fate had brought us together.  My mind ran ahead to search for a tale for you. Like a child bringing back a captured cricket clasped between two hands, it returned excited and out of breath, eager to reveal to you the here and now, about a place in Trenton…

Along the main street of this very small town sits a large brick building. In its younger years it was a Coca-Cola bottling plant, today it is a quilt shop.

Inside can be found not only beautiful bolts of fabric but also a book room and a tiny restaurant. The restaurant offers petite portions for lunch. A sliver of quiche, a strawberry half, 3 grapes, and a small dollop of potato salad are decorously presented on a small glass plate. There’s never any wish for more, for kept beneath glass covers in a cool, dark corner is dessert.  Order dessert and you receive a fourth of a double layer cake!

Only on rare occasions do I buy fabric. It puzzles my friends that I leave empty handed for they have fabric stashes in their backrooms that fuel firefighters’ nightmares. They feed their stashes like one does tropical fish. I, on the other hand, do not have such a stash, and have yet to correct their assumption.

It’s not as if I don’t want any fabric, it’s that I want all fabric. Too many ideas and choices paralyze me and more often than not I find myself talking to the parrot near the front window. His name is Sonny. With head cocked and glistening black eye unblinking, he mimics my laughter.

It takes only moments for him to unravel my reality. Wishing to put as much distance as possible between me and this feathered recording device I flee towards the back of the building. Would someone else please talk to him?  

There is only one chair in the book room, a red wingback chair. Sitting here, faintly I hear my laughter via parrot. I sit and stare at book covers. The cover photo quilts soothe and warm the eye like a fabric quilt does the skin. The smart titles are as crisp as crackers stolen and eaten in bed.

 I was caught unawares one day when a mere suggestion of a design technique shocked my muse to its senses. The book is titled ‘One-Block Wonder’.  At first glance it didn’t appear to contain any new ideas. Kaleidoscopes have become commonplace in quilting. Mention the term ‘stack and whack’ to any quilter and she’ll most likely reply, ‘Yep, made one’.  In this book the rules were the same (stack, whack), but the specifics were new to me [use one fabric for the entire project, use one shape (the equilateral triangle)].  With the fabrics currently offered?  With the way kaleidoscopes interconnected to produce mosaics?  I had found a formula for great magic!

The first fabric I selected sported a lawn of red flowers below a cluster of Russian Orthodox cupolas pinned to a clear blue sky.  By what alchemy do static triangles become gesturing hexagons? I am ignorant of which mathematical law alters cupolas into spikes of flowers, spokes of wheels. What once was a singular moment, a single image, captured and frozen, now morphed into a running river of time, of nearly infinite possible designs. I fell under the spell and chopped to pieces everything I saw. Six triangles, cut with abandon from anywhere within the repeat, produced some beautiful and some very hideous results. Every new hexagon hinted at infinity.

I came upon an Asian print. Armed with a hinged mirror, I glimpsed at its potential transmutations. Eagerly I bought six repeats of an orange dragon twisting in front of rain heavy clouds of purple and gray. The dragon was slain with swift slashes of my rotary cutter, a tool as sharp as any knight’s sword. Triangular segments of the creature’s body were strewn across my cutting table awaiting rebirth. Magic happens when triangles become hexagons.  Chunks of dragon flesh grafted into Celtic knots. Cloud clusters became funeral wreaths long withered on old graves. I felt a sorceress.

Not all of the hexagons made from a single cloth yielded to blend as I had wished. Some were so unique they had to stand alone. They come from the same cloth, share the same color palette, but do not disappear into each other. I had been traveling the dusty road becoming all too familiar with solitude wishing fervently to blend with others before I heard of you. Now together we are, yet set apart.

– Mary McQueary.

 

Permalink 1 Comment

China’s Diabolic Demographic Plan for Tibet

June 2, 2008 at 2:11 pm (Partha Gangopadhyay, Politics)

 

China can justifiably claim to have done a lot for the development of Tibet. Very recently it has replaced more than 17000 Tibetan household in the Qiang province of the Tibetan autonomous region to new households to rescue them for the deadly Kashin-Beck disease at a cost of about $ 157 million. All over Tibet China has spent millions to relocate rural populace to modern sanitized homes from ancient Tibetan style habitats. China can boast of having increased the average per capita income of rural Tibetans by 17.2 percent last year. Great advances have taken place in the field of communications and transport all over Tibet. The railway track connecting Beijing and Lhasa is arguably the highest railway facility in the whole world.

 

 Despite all that China has done for Tibet in the last fifty years, the aspiration of Tibetan people for freedom from Chinese rule remains undiminished. The recent clashes in Tibet over protests by Tibetan monks to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first mass protest against Chinese occupation bears testimony to the fact that fifty years of political propaganda and ‘developmental work’ have failed to crush the love and loyalty that Tibetans owe to their ancient culture and religious identity.

 

If  material progress is used as the only benchmark to justify Chinese occupation of Tibet then the British perhaps had every reason to rule India for one more century for all that they have done for this country’s infrastructure development in addition to the introduction of modern education and modern governance. In fact, the imperialist have always defended their action by showcasing the development they have brought to the country they ruled. The imperialists have, with varying degrees of success, always claimed to have rescued the colonized from the demonic rule in the past.

 

In that sense, the Chinese treatment of Tibet is no different from any other imperialist regime that the world has seen. Though some credit must be given to China for all that it has done to modernize Tibet, the political and cultural subjugation that common Tibetans face under the Chinese regime and the rampant economic exploitation of Tibet by China betrays its imperialist intentions.

 

If there is one policy that has exposed the ulterior motive of the Chinese government to the world, it is the policy of transfer of Chinese population into Tibet and controlling Tibetan population with stringent measures.

 

Since 1949, China has periodically inundated Tibet with large number of Chinese settlers. From 1983 there has been a sharp increase in the transfer of Chinese settlers to Central Tibet. In Lhasa alone, there were 50,000 to 60,000 ordinary Chinese residents in 1985. From 1985 to 1988, additional Chinese immigrants doubled the population of Lhasa.

 

In late 1992, China announced the opening of Tibet’s economy to ‘foreign investments’. In reality, that was a subterfuge to facilitate widespread Chinese settlement in Tibet.

 

 Kham and Amdo provinces in Tibet are the worst affected by this demographic policy. By 1959, when China installed its Government in the Tibetan capital, Chinese population in these eastern parts of Tibet had already reached an alarming proportion. The influx escalated from 1962 onwards when thousands of additional Chinese settlers were sent into these areas as ‘builders, workers, and technicians’.

 

In fact, in a statement to the Legal Inquiry Committee of International Commission of Jurists, way back in August 1959, the Dalai Lama said that in 1955 he had heard an important Chinese official mentioning to the Panchen Lama, “Tibet was a big country and unoccupied and that China had a big population which can be settled there”. There is clear indication of the policy of population transfer in Mao Zedong’s 1952 statement: “Tibet covers a large area but is thinly populated. Its population should be increased from the present two or three million to five or six million, and then to over ten million”. In the aftermath of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Premier Zhou Enlai observed: “The Chinese are greater in number and more developed in economy and culture but in the regions they inhabit there is not much arable land left and underground resources are not as abundant as in the regions inhabited by fraternal nationalities”.

 

The fact that this demographic ploy is a part of the Chinese policy to suppress Tibet can be understood from the incentive the Chinese government provides to the settlers in Tibet. In fact all housing, health-care, cultural and educational facilities that China claims to have built in Tibet are all part of an enormously expensive plan to provide for the Chinese in Tibet. To encourage Chinese population to settle in Tibet other costly subsidies like high-altitude allowance, and transporting wheat and rice by truck to Tibet are provided to them.

 

Annual wages for Chinese personnel are 87 per cent higher in Tibet than in China. The longer they stay in Tibet, the higher the benefits. Vacations for Chinese personnel in Tibet are far longer than those in China. For every 18 months of work in Tibet, they receive a three-month leave back to China, and all the expenses are paid by their Government.

 

The Chinese entrepreneurs receive special tax exemptions and loans at low-rate interest in Tibet, whereas for Tibetans to start an enterprise in their own homeland is extremely difficult. In Kham and Amdo, most of the fertile lands in the valleys have been given to Chinese settlers, driving the Tibetans to barren lands. Almost all key administrative positions in Tibet are held by the Chinese. Furthermore, Chinese settlers are given preference over Tibetans in jobs created by forestry and mineral exploitation in Tibet.

 

The general economic impact of the Chinese settlers on Tibetans may be gauged from the following example: Of the 12,827 shops and restaurants in Lhasa city (excluding Barkhor), only 300 are owned by Tibetans. In Tsawa Pashö, southern Kham, Chinese own 133 business enterprises whereas Tibetans own only 15. The ownership ratio is in other Tibetan towns: 748 to 92 in Chamdo, 229 to 3 in Powo Tramo. The situation is far worse in the urban centers of Amdo, where, according to one British journalist, Tibetans are reduced to ‘tourist curios’. A well-planned large-scale Chinese population transfer policy has marginalized Tibetans in economic, political, educational and social spheres in their own homeland. In the early 1980s, the Tibetan Government-in- Exile estimated the Chinese population in the whole of Tibet at 7.5 million. The figure today may be well in excess of this. The Chinese population transfer policy has reduced the Tibetans in Tibet to a minority. Thus even if at any future date the Tibetans manage to get their long standing demand for plebiscite for determination of their future they will be at great disadvantage.

 

Along with the policy of population transfer, China has also implemented an even more sinister policy of controlling Tibetan population by repressive measures of birth control. From 1984 China imposed its policy allowing Tibetan couples to have only two children. Heavy fines ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 Yuan or US$ 400 to 800 are imposed on Tibetan parents for the birth of a third child.

 

Extra children are denied ration cards and workers violating the rule have their pay cut to the extent of 50 per cent, or in some cases withheld altogether from work for three to six months. Such coercive measures as well as regular birth control campaigns and sterilization programs are implemented  to keep Tibetan population under control.

 

In Kham and Amdo, an even more repressive policy is being enforced. For example, in “Gansu Parig Tibetan Autonomous District” 2,415 women were sterilized in 1983 of whom 82 per cent were Tibetans. In 1987, 764 women of child-bearing age were sterilized in Zachu district in “Kanze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture” of which 660 were Tibetans. Mobile birth control teams roam the countryside and pastoral areas where they round up women for abortion and sterilization. Even women well advanced in their pregnancy are forced to undergo abortion followed by sterilization.

 

The effect of all such policies to change the demography of Tibet has put the Tibetans in very vulnerable position. Although there is no independent census report of the Tibetan population living in Tibet today, historical Tibetan sources show that their population before the Chinese invasion was at least six million. Even statistics provided by the Chinese themselves suggested that the population of Tibetans was over six million in 1959 but now they insist that the total Tibetan population is only slightly more than four million. Where have the rest two million Tibetans during last fifty years? It is ironical that China, a communist country is wreaking the Tibetans the same havoc that the capitalist Americans inflicted on the Red Indians centuries back. Imperialists, it seems, in all ages, in all cultures are no different.

 

– Partha Gangopadhyay.

Permalink 3 Comments

%d bloggers like this: