Thursday, January 28, 2016

Very Good Lives - JK Rowling's Speech at Harvard

'The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination'

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world's largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can't remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country's regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people's lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children's godparents, the people to whom I've been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank-you very much.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

poetic overtures

Mock Orange

BY LOUISE GLÜCK
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.

I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man's mouth
sealing my mouth, the man's
paralyzing body—

and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union—

In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.

How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?

"Mock Orange" by Louise Glück, from The First Four Books of Poems

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

On a loop


Song: AlvidaMusic: Ehsaan Noorani, Loy Mendonsa, Shankar MahadevanLyrics: Niranjan IyengarSingers: Loy Mendonsa, Nikhil D'Souza, Shruti Haasan, Sukhwinder SinghFilm: D-Day

Jaane Kaise Toote Rishton SeBikhre Hain Yeh PalMaano Jaise Gham Ki Palkon SeChhalke Hain Yeh PalKyun Adhoori Yeh KahaniKyun Adhoora Yeh FasanaKyun Lakeeron Mein Iske..Alvida…
Umra Bhar Ka Saath De JoKyun Wohi Pyaar Ho..Kyun Na Mitt Ke Jo Fanaa HoWoh Bhi Pyaar Ho..Na Adhoori Yeh KahaniNa Adhoora Yeh FasanaMar Ke Bhi Na Hum Kahenge..Alvida…
Bairiya Mere RabbaKyun Hua Mere RabbaYun Na DhaaviYun Na DhaaviDo Dilaan Di Yeh Kahani
Mitt Bhi Jaaoon, Na MitteinYeh Kaisi Pyaas HaiDooriyon Mein Bhi Kho Ke Tu,Mere Paas HaiKyun Ki Tu Meri KahaniKyun Ki Tu Mera FasanaAb Kabhi Phir Na Hai Kehna..Alvida..
Teri Yaadon Ko Sehlata Hoon Yaad Kitna..Pal Mein Ban Ke Bikharta Hoon Hmm…Jis Jahaan Mein Kho Gayi Ho Tum Alvida…Kya Nahi Hai WahaanTooti Tanhaaiyon Ka Gham
Bairiya Mere RabbaKyun Hua Mere RabbaYun Na DhaaviYun Na DhaaviDo Dilaan Di Yeh Kahani
Jaane Kaise Toote Rishton SeBikhre Hain Yeh Pal Na Kehna..Maano Jaise Gham Ki Palkon SeChhalke Hain Yeh Pal Alvida…Kyun Adhoori Yeh KahaniO..O…O…Alvida..

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Settling in or Is this my forever?

I used to scoff, once upon a time, when people asked me how I would "adjust" and if I was willing to "compromise" and "change" after marriage.
I now see why they did that - I am not sure how well I am doing or if I need to try harder. Surprisingly, some things are different for women coming in to another home - it has not been as seamless as I had hoped. Expectations play a major role. Of course, things which the son can get by with (doing or more importantly, not doing) are not the same things for his wife. 
I should mention at the outset, people have been more than nice to me. They have done more than their fair share of making space and allowing a foreign object to come and settle in their midst. I guess there is only so much that's possible without totally compromising your comfort zone. And change is never easy. It is not for me at least. I am sure some of the things I do appear as eccentric to them as well! 
Here, things do not revolve around me. Not that I was the sun at my home either - I was away most of the time at work or travelling - especially during the last few years - but at least some days Ma would cook the fish the way I like or she would avoid making the dal I hated or hug me when I went to sleep.
Here, they think I like something because it's about the only thing (okay, that's an exaggeration) I can eat without throwing up. Here, they barely suppress their exasperation when I want to photograph the food (okay, that was the way at home too). Here, no one cooks my way. Or asks if I would like something special for a weekend lunch or if I would want to go out somewhere for trying the phuchka there.
A lot is assumed, because frankly, they don't know me as yet. I don't know if I am worth knowing at all. What if they are not interested at all?
I have had a couple of meltdowns already. The only person I can really hurt or be rude to is my husband. Sometimes, he takes things in stride and sometimes, he strikes back. Sometimes, he is exasperating as hell.
I miss home. A lot. I miss my mess. My corners. My bed.
I miss the fact that I can't watch TV the way I used to. I am not comfortable with the tone or direction of the conversations always - the surprising right wingism is bewildering. Also, the fact that most conversations are about movies... but then that's okay I guess.
People are very comfortable talking about bodily functions in front of a roomful of people! I guess at home we are politer.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Ghost of Heaven


Sleep to sleep through thirty years of night,
a child herself with child,
for whom we searched

through here, or there, amidst
bones still sleeved and trousered,
a spine picked clean, a paint can,
a skull with hair


Sewn into the hem of memory:
Fire.
God of AbrahamGod of IsaacGod of Jacob,
God not
of philosophers or scholars. God not of poets.


Night to night:
child walking toward me through burning maize
over the clean bones of those whose flesh
was lifted by zopilotes into heaven.

So that is how we ascend!
In the clawed feet of fallen angels.
To be assembled again
in the work rooms of clouds.


She rose from where they found her lying
not far from a water urn, leaving
herself behind on the ground
where they found her, holding her arms
before her as if she were asleep.

That is how she appears to me: a ghost in heaven.
Carrying her arms in her arms.


Blue smoke from corn cribs, flap of wings.
On the walls of the city streets a plague of initials.


Walking through a fire-lit river
to a burning house: dead Singer
sewing machine and piece of dress.

Outside a cashew tree wept
blackened cashews over lamina.

Outside paper fireflies rose to the stars.


Bring penicillin if you can, surgical tape, a whetstone,
mosquito repellent but not the aerosol kind.
Especially bring a syringe for sucking phlegm,
a knife, wooden sticks, a surgical clamp, and plastic bags.

You will need a bottle of cloud
for anesthesia.

Like the flight of a crane
through colorless dreams.


When a leech opens your flesh it leaves a small volcano.
Always pour turpentine over your hair before going to sleep.


Such experiences as these are forgotten
before memory intrudes.

The girl was found (don't say this)
with a man's severed head stuffed
into her where a child would have been.
No one knew who the man was.
Another of the dead.
So they had not, after all,
killed a pregnant girl.
This was a relief to them.


That sound in the brush?
A settling of wind in sorghum.

If they capture you, talk.
Talk. Please yes. You heard me
right the first time.

You will be asked who you are.
Eventually, we are all asked who we are.

All who come
All who come into the world
All who come into the world are sent.
Open your curtain of spirit.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Can you love yourself first?

All too often we are willing to believe the worst about ourselves, scarcely giving ourselves any credit. It's almost as if we are afraid to acknowledge that we are beautiful, kind, intelligent...
We love polishing up our guilt every now and then, adding an extra layer of shine feeling the worst about ourselves...
And we often most love the people who make us feel the worst about ourselves. The more they ignore us, the more you dance to entertain them. The more they disdain you, the more you throw yourself at their feet.
The more you cry into your pillow at night, the more their worth grows in your eyes. You overlook people who really care, you ignore friends, your obsession is solely with the ones who put you down.
Why are we self destructive? Why are we afraid to love ourselves?
What is the point of validation in someone else's eyes, when you cannot look at yourself clearly?
How can you expect anyone else to love you when all you feel is hatred and loathing for yourself?
Why spend your precious love on someone when all you need to do is invest it on yourself?
Look inward. Take a deep breath. Accept your wonderfulness. Say to yourself, "I love you. The most!"
Tell yourself that you are worthy of the best. And what is better than the love you have to give?
Selflessness be damned. Some more 'me' doesn't hurt... put 'we' on the backseat for some time.
Put yourself first. It's difficult at times. But try! Write yourself a poem. Take a selfie. Smile. Put on lipstick. Try a new color. Enjoy!
Say nice things about yourself. Buy yourself a flower.
You are worth more than the penny farthing you've been spending on yourself. Much more precious. Treasure your opinion. Speak for yourself. Cheer your achievements.
See yourself as amazing, because you are.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

That first night (Part 1) - Working Title

It was a dark and stormy night...

No. Wait.
This is not the way this story was to have started...

Actually, it was one of those more moderate days in August... it did rain, but there was no storm as such. The light rain cut through some of the mugginess. Mridula remembered that she kept dozing off to sleep under the lazily whirring fan, while waiting for Atulya. It had been a long day and all she wanted was to get rid of the scratchy Benarasi and the bel flower garlands which had started to wilt... 

She congratulated herself on having convinced her mother and aunts and insane cousins that it was okay if she just wore her long earrings and not the stifling gold necklace which had eaten away at a major part of her father's savings... stop! She told herself, get off the guilt trip! They had all wanted this - beyond any logic, any reason - as much their cross as hers to bear... she wasn't going to think of her mother's medicines or her brother's studies either. Not now.

She woke up with a jolt when she felt someone nudging her. Atulya's earnest face with his enormous eyes loomed over her. He looked a little concerned. And nervous.

Nervous? Why on earth? Oh hell! She did not have the energy for anything but turning over to the other side and sleeping... surely he wasn't expecting... how could she have forgotten that this was "the" night for some people? She muttered to herself "dhur shala!"... 

Atulya remembers being taken aback when he heard the "dhur shala" - was it directed at him, he wondered. He had just about managed to shut the door on a houseful of curious eyes and all he wanted was to just talk to the figure (mysteriously slumped over), who was now his better half and lifelong partner and... oh! Did he just wake her up? 

He muttered "sorry! I didn't realize you were sleeping!"

"Er... okay..."

"No, I was just wondering..."

"Uh..."

"No, no, no! I just thought we could talk... for a while... it's the first night... never been with you this way..."

"Talk? Yes. Talk is good."

"So what do you like?"

"Huh? What?"

"Like, are you okay?"

"Yes. Just sleepy. Been a long day..."

"Ah..."

"No, it's okay. I am used to staying up late..."

"Oh!"

"Yeah... my brother. He sleeps late. I stay up with him so that he studies and doesn't nod off."

"Oh!"

"So, tell me about yourself... "

Atulya had been rehearsing his introduction for over half an hour before he even came to the room... but right now words failed him.