This is a fresco from a temple in India. The temple is in Varsana, in the Vrindavana area, the place where the goddess Srimati Radhika is said to have grown up, during her pastimes in this world. Yesterday I spent some time with a group of friends, there in the temple, discussing this piece of art. The intriguing aspects of this fresco are so many, the discussion it provoked so lively, that I am compelled to present my perspective, for posterity. I will try my best to do this in language resembling that found in art history books, with a few weird breaks from that form.
Firstly, and overview of what is occurring. This painting shows Vasudeva Maharaja carrying the child Krishna across the Yamuna, from Mathura to Vrindavana. He did this to bring Krishna beyond the reach of the cruel Kamsa, lest that tyrannical king should smash the baby, as he did many others before. In the upper right, Krishna is appearing to Vasudeva and his wife Devaki. He manifested initially in the form of four-handed Narayana, before transforming into Baby Krishna, at the request of Devaki. It’s a deep and intricate pastimes, and here we (I?) am just touching on it. Below that, Kamsa is shown smashing one of Vasudeva and Devaki’s previous children. On the left are Vasudeva and Devaki praying, or possibly Nanda Maharaja and Mother Yashoda awaiting the arrival of Krishna, as one local sadhu asserted.
First of all, the relative size of the people and things in the painting is completely relative to their importance to this instance of the pastime. Western figurative art tends to mimic the camera (well, the laws of perspective preceded the camera). Western abstract art is, in this author’s humble opinion, mostly terrible, and not worth writing about.
But what we see in this painting is different. Compared to what a camera sees, it is completely wonky. Vasudeva is taller than a building. A palace isn’t much taller than Nanda Baba would be if he were standing. But the entirety of the pastime could not be conveyed in one frame if the artist limited themselves by imitating a camera’s view. Instead, the size of the elements is relative to their importance. Vasudeva carrying Krishna is what this picture is mainly about, therefore they are the largest. The palaces are just there to give context, so they’re small. The personalities inside the castles are important (but not as important as Vasudeva Maharaja) so they are quite large. The trees and so on are also there for context, so they’re small, whereas the jackal upstream from Vasudeva is large (it showed him where he could cross). This is all absurd from the point of view of visual perspective, but that’s what’s so great about it.
Temporal dispersion within a single instance (not a bad section title, eh?)
Furthermore, not all the events in this painting took place at the same time. Kamsa is shown killing a baby on the right, something he did previous to Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna river. Narayana is shown appearing to Vasudeva and Devaki, which happened earlier that night. On the left hand side, one local sadhu told us, Vasudeva and Devaki are shown praying, before the birth. I’ve seen a picture of Lord Rama where He crosses the Ganges River. In one picture, He is shown there with Sita and Lakshan on one bank, and on a boat in the middle, and offering respects to a sage on the far side. It was a bit like if someone shot pictures with a camera for an hour or, then put everything they capture into one frame. Except very different from what a camera sees, but that we covered.
So in this one picture of Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna River, we have events happening at different times, and size relative to importance.
Intriguing stuff. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
It’s tough getting old.
A friend of mine who’s pushing 70 told me that his body’s like an old car. First this bit goes, then that bit goes… It’s tougher still when you’re surrounded by images glorifying youth. On the media we see oily muscly men with practically no body hair, women who’s proportions have been photoshoped so that they resemble barbies.
But there are advantages.
If it’s a life well lived, old age can be one of the best times. You can reap the material fruits of working hard and saving money, can enjoy friendships which have deepened over time, and can act with deeper self-knowledge than before. Whatever we gather–be it knowledge, wisdom or stuff, we’ll likely have a store of it to relish and share later in life.
So what I’m thinking about today is, how to age with grace?
Some people really hit their stride in their later years, but in what? There are some things we can’t take with us into old age: the smooth skin, endurance and strength of youth. Oh, we can age more slowly or more quickly, depending on how we live. But age we must. Some of us are dragged into older age while desperately clinging to the things that only youth allows: tons of energy, lots of sex, unstoppable immune systems, parties… Of course if you watch your diet and do yoga, you can stretch your life out (hardy har har), but we’re all getting older. Or our bodies are, anyway.
Where are the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, New Kids on the Block?
Or where are any host of young actors and actresses who moved from A-list to B-list, then to C, then off into the oblivion of non-famousness, Sinéad O’Connor’s letter to Miley Cyrus (language warning) sums up the music industry, and really most entertainment industries. They’re factories which churn in the young, pretty and talented, then churn out the washed up. (It’s better to burn out than to fade away) Rock stars, movie stars and models have it easy in youth and hard in old age. In the media, women have it harder than men. The window of being suitable for the uses of those industries is small. The body will change.
Different parts of us age differently
Now the way I understand it, (based largely on the teachings of Bhagavad Gita and other spiritual books) we’ve got three aspects: our self (soul, spirit, atma), our mind and our body.
Our bodies are aging constantly, starting at the moment of inception. I’ve heard a body hits its peak at around eighteen years, then slowly deteriorates from there.
Pursuits of the mind, on the other hand, often really kick off later in life. Many authors are published for the first time in their fifties or sixties. Professors hit their stride after much life experience. In their later years, scientists mine jewels from decades of research. Musicians become masters.
Yet the mind also fades later in life. Also death is ever approaching… what to do?
How to age with grace: spiritual life
I know many people entering into old age who really inspire me. They all share certain things in common: they’re engaged in spiritual practices. They identify themselves as being spiritual beings who continue after the body and mind fail. They know that their spirit doesn’t die, and they’re identifying with their spirit. They’re not holding onto something impermanent, and so they’re no afraid of entering old age and, eventually, dying.
I don’t believe in the moon
Now if you don’t believe in any kind of spiritual life whatsoever, that’s fine. I personally choose not to believe in the moon. Seriously though, I reckon if we spend our lives cultivating awareness of our immortal selves, old age and death won’t come as a shock. Death will just be the shedding of skin.
As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. (Bhagavad Gita 2.22)
If you disagree with me, please say so in the comments! If you agree with me, you can debate respectfully with those who don’t. You can subscribe by clicking ‘follow’ in the lower right hand corner of the screen, or click facebook or twitter to share this around.
I’ll be publishing once every two weeks. I was doing once a week, but I want to put more time into each post, and also into getting them out there 🙂
With the recent successes of such films as Batman, Spiderman and various other stuff, the movie-going world is eager for super-heroes, but recent polls have shown that everyone’s tired of them being so plausible.
Therefore I submit the following very serious proposal to whom it may concern for a new kind of superhero: one who is at once everyday and fantastic, a homebody and an intergalactic adventurer.
There is a simple man who likes folding origami animals, knitting and making those picture-stitching things on round hoops, with flowers and trees and stuff. His name is Abducere Unum.
He is quite content until one day his large sewing scissors slip and cut his right index finger. It’s not a bad cut so he doesn’t think much of it. He bandages it up and takes break from sewing for the day.
But that night Abducere has strange dreams. He’s running though rolling fields of trees made of stuffed fabric… even the sun is just yellow felt in a blue felt sky. It’s wonderful and he prances merrily about for a good while, until he touches something. He reaches his hands out to a lovely yellow rose, to gently seize without breaking it, and inhale its robust fragrance, but is horrified as the flower slices apart at his touch.
He sits down in frustration and his hands turn the smooth grass to cut-up burlap chunks.
“Nooooooo!!!” he cries.
He wakes up with a start, thankful that it was just a dream.
Until he sees his darling paisley bed sheets have been cut to ribbons! It’s then that he realizes that the accident with the scissors has changed him forever.
He’s no longer Abducere Unum, but SCISSOR MAN!!
It’s really hard for him to lead his practical life. He wonders why the powers that be would let this happen to him.
Then he hears about some strange goings-on. Something or someone is fastening stuff together which simply shouldn’t be joined. Skyscrapers merged, all leaning-over-like. People shaking hands and getting stuck, fruits not coming from trees like!!
The world’s top scientists confer to figure out the problem, but even though their brains are really big and there are a lot of them, they still don’t come up with a solution.
By this time Scissor Man is living on the street. He can’t hold a job, literally can’t hold anything. His girlfriend’s left him, his t-shirts are all in tatters. He feels he has no purpose in the world.
Then he hears of the weird joining force, that what’s joining stuff, and he feels that God’s given him a mission. Tentatively, he tries to unjoin some white daisies that got stuck together along the river where he’s been camping.
He goes on to unjoin houses and people, until he’s prancing around the city unjoining stuff, merrily chuckling and composing little ditties right and left.
When the government notices his success, they give him help. On a huge crane, he unjoins skyscrapers, makes a mountain range like a real range again, and not just a single massive clump of rock.
Humanity’s nemesis behind the joining makes an anonymous announcement on all TV and radio stations: in response to all this undoing of his work, he is going to join the earth to the moon.
Everyone is horror struck. Some look to Scissors Man with abhorrence. Others say he was just trying to help.
He withdraws from them all, sits and thinks in a real good thinking spot, down by the river he lived by when he was homeless.
Who could be behind this? Who would have the power?
Eventually, he remembers a fierce rival in his sewing competitions. Coniunctio Mulier was her name. Brilliant but vicious, many suspected that she had arranged the apparent accident which crippled her opponent’s lead hand, which made her the default winner of the Great Western Sew-off of 1965.
It must be her! thinks Scissors Man.
He works to track her down, but she’s gone from her ancestral home in the woods with a bunch of crazy people. Only her father remains there, knitting and cackling fiercely. Scissors Man wonders if all the others have been killed.
Leaving that place, he looks fearfully to the sky.
The moon is already closer!!
He sprints to the Pentagon and petitions the president for a space ship. The president reluctantly agrees, but refuses to send anyone to help Scissors Man drive it.
“Fine!” barks Scissors Man.
He goes anyway, somehow figuring out the controls on the fly, mostly using his mouth and feet. Up in space, he sees a great web of finger-knitting connecting the moon to the earth. The net is getting thicker even as he watches.
It’s almost too late!
Nudging the controls with his nose, his cutting hands ready, he edges closer. When he’s near, he dawns his specially-fitted space suit and exits the craft. Out in space, he begins cutting the web.
He’s making decent progress when Coniunctio Mulier shows up, riding in a ‘borrowed’ alien spacecraft which looks like a turnip. Her hands are swollen from all that knitting, yet her fierce visage shows that she’ll do whatever it takes to make good on her threat.
A fierce fight ensues, with Coniunctio Mulier trying to join Scissors Man’s hands together, while he tries to cut the bonds apart and attack her for good.
Finally he cuts the tether which ties her to her space ship. She joins herself back! He cuts it again, but she joins back again! And again!! He cuts her again, but she rejoins herself again!!!
Seeing no other recourse, Scissors Man gets some distance, goes behind a nearby asteroid. He enters into deep meditation.
Peering out with his special spiritual vision, he sees Coniunctio Mulier’s astral body. Some special power, looking like ball lightning or something, is connected to her with these fibrous light-thread things!
Reaching out with his own astral body, he cuts the tie between her and her power. Coming out of meditation, he goes to battle her again.
Yay! She can no longer join things! He defeats her easily at that point.
The UN bars her entrance back on earth. Needing fuel, she is forced out into space to deal with the aliens who’s ship she ‘borrowed.’
Scissors Man returns a hero. Science develops a metal strong enough to withstand his hands and he is fitted with special gloves so he can function pretty normally. He meets a girl with incredibly heavy feet and they really hit it off.
They live happily together, being sure never to go on ships or up into flimsy buildings, lest her weight crash through the floors, killing them and people beneath them.
(Paintings by the lovely and talented Jayanti dasi)
There is a question that’s been debated since people began debating things, more than six years ago. It’s disagreement on this question which led to the fall of Atlantis, but also to the first explorations of space. The “Greek Miracle” in architecture, mathematics and so on came from considering this question, but so too did the fall of the Roman Empire and the death of Farmer Servius Cominius’ dog.
What is the most narrative vegetable?
Some might say the humble potato, for it fits into so many types of preparations, just like a good plotting tool (for example the try-fail cycle) fits into many a story. Others might say, “NO!! It is the chili, which injects heat into a meal, just like dramatic conflict is the heart of every story.” Others say, “The chili is not technically a vegetable!”
Without causing any more cataclysms, I submit herewith that the most narrative of all vegetables is the artichoke. Why you ask?
Here is a standard plot diagrams. 99.9 percent of films and novels follow this basic structure.
Now behold the subjective artichoke eating experience. Notice that the stages of eating an artichoke correspond more closely with the classic plot diagram than those of any other vegetable.
I hope this conclusion will lay to rest this ancient conundrum so that humanity can get on with doing other stuff.
Fantasy writing can be a huge allegory where all the races, places, people and events correlate to equivalents in our world. You could also look at fantasy worlds as being like alternate dimensions of our world, where all the qualities, places and events have been kinda mixed around and matched differently.
Of course this could be heavy-handed: “This guy’s obviously speaking about the cold war. The gnomes are the Americans, the dwarves the Russians, and the super-mushrooms are nuclear weapons. But why does he hate Russia so much?” or “Hey! This is really about the clash between baseball teams, not dragons and elves! This guy’s got an agenda! I want an objective story!!”
Now the way I see it, there are some great advantages to this one-step-removed-from-reality-approach. If an author stays away from blunt and simplistic expositions of one point of view, he or she can say a great deal about this world we’re in, without getting caught up in specifics of race, country and history which people feel really personal about. The moment I say Egypt, or France, or India, or Muslims or Africans or women, people with experience knowing or being those places and races will have a host of preconceived ideas. It’s harder for me to start fresh. But if I make a world and races up, drawing inspiration from this world, I might be able to show you a fresh take on things here.
On the other hand, if an author sets fiction set in this world, he or she can draw from readers’ experiences more directly. If you’ve been to London, if I just write a few lines about walking into Leicester Square on a sunny day, a whole picture replete with scents and sounds will come to your mind.
An author writing fantasy will generally try to have the best of both worlds: setting their story in an alternate world, but drawing many things from this one. A lot of the flora and fauna may be the same, as well as the laws of physics and ways that people interact, express emotions and so on. You can really only go so far from this world without losing your readers.
If you don’t believe this, please read the following poem I wrote in my own, newly invented language. It’s not in the boring Roman Alphabet.
Today I’m presenting a short story which I wrote some time ago. It takes the form of a letter from a brother to a sister. The only thing is, the brother remembers her from his past life, but he’s not sure if she remembers him.
Here’s the text version:
Dear Manjot (light of the heart),
I hope you and Kirandeep are well.
I want to remind you of our relationship, before you were born. Before I was born. I hope you don’t think I’m deluded.
You were so skinny that you slid through tiny hoops. I remember your bony shoulders poking through a blue sequined dress, which sparkled when you first found it. Your black, dreaded hair flopped around like a mop as you flipped and did handstands in train aisles or dangled with your knees hooked over sleeping-bunks. People clapped or pretended we weren’t there. Some gave money. I stood behind you in the aisles, a felt-tip moustache on my face, a man’s suit draped on me like a tent, pinned up around my bare calves.
I was your older brother and you my sister. Your name was Roma. Mine was Raj, though I was hardly a king. Do you remember?
I could play the ektara somewhat –the one-stringed instrument given us by our father. I wasn’t much for melody but the trains taught me rhythm: click-a-de clack, da-dunk, click-a-de clack, da-dunk. I twanged the ektara to the same rhythm which jostled the people back and forth. I think they liked that.
They said to me, “Boy! Sing Jaya Jagadish Hare!”
Or to you, “Can you pass through three hoops at once?”
And if we could do what they asked, they’d sing along and clap and would surely give us something. At first I didn’t know the popular Bengali and Oriya songs but I learned them as people sang for me what they wanted to hear. “Like this…”
You said to me when we were stopped at a country station, “I’ll learn how to balance on my mouth!” You’d seen a girl do this in a marketplace once, chest facing the ground and legs bending behind her head. “People will give rupees like a rain,” you said, nodding with raised eyebrows.
You dreamed of being a super-flexible yogi. I imagined I’d become a master musician. Such ideas kept us hopeful.
I remember when we switched trains, you waited on the old one until it started moving. I ordered you to join me on the platform but you leaned out the door and made a funny, defiant face. Finally you jumped off and ran along the platform, slowing to a stop. That made me angry, and I think that’s why you did it, because you liked me protecting you.
Do you have these memories? You died in between. So did I, but by God’s desire I recall the journey.
Evenings on the trains were best, when people hadn’t pulled their bunks down to sleep but were relaxed. They played cards, ate or entertained their kids. They’d give us a few rupees then. Big fat people, some of them. What they must have spent on food! The toilets’ stench was overpowered by the smell of hot rice, rotis and dahl.
I remember the day you died. We were curled against the train door. People sprayed us with water as they used the sink above us. The friction between the linked cars sounded like metal thunder. We stopped at a station where the train was cleaned.
I was thirsty. I jumped onto the platform as workers in orange overalls mounted the train. I went looking for drinkable water. People slept on benches under rows of fluorescent lights cutting the night. Shiva’s crescent moon hung amid dark clouds and a wind blew from arid hills.
While I was drinking, men in expensive shirts offered me potato-pea samosas with coconut chutney. I ate some and wanted to bring some back for you, but they got me talking about where I was from and what I did on the trains. They saw my ektara and asked me to sing. I sang a short tune, still thinking of you. They complimented me, said I should enroll in a music academy. They’d help me get in. “Sing another!”
I was caught by their attention and was singing so loudly that I didn’t hear the train leaving.
Finally I heard the click-a-de clack of the wheels rolling over joints in the track. I turned. The train was accelerating out of the station, doors and windows passing into the night. You were leaning out a door, searching the platform. I dropped my ektara with a crack-twang and ran to you, calling your name, “ROMA!” between sharp breaths. You looked at me and screamed, “RAJ!” I clawed at door handles and window latches locked from the inside. Far ahead you hung out an open door. I ran faster. Maybe I should have grabbed some window-bars but it was already going so fast. I had no idea where the train was going. Windows and doors fell ahead of me into darkness. I ran harder and you reached out your hand, but half the station lay between us. Your strained smile broke as you realized I wouldn’t catch up.
There’ll be dried teardrops on this paper, if you look closely.
Then your face changed. You got your funny defiant look. You jumped, clutching your colored hoops, you hit the ground and lost your footing. You crumpled then rolled and slid. You stopped against a column which kept the station’s roof up. Your hoops rolled along the platform and onto the tracks behind the caboose.
For a full year I kept thinking you’d show up again. People don’t really believe in death. Maybe because the soul is eternal. Death’s all around us: people, plants, animals dying, but does anyone think they’ll die? We know it intellectually but do we believe we’ll actually stop existing? Just the body dies; that I know now.
The men who’d given me samosas caught me from behind.
I spent almost two years with them. They didn’t bring me to music school but sent me begging. They weren’t kind men, but they provided a sort of shelter, and maybe that was my bad karma mixing with God’s protection of me.
You might be thinking that all this explains your strange dreams about trains. I’m laughing now. In this life, you’d rather walk from Ottawa to Whitehorse than get on a train.
The men sent me all over Eastern India, always with one other child. In pairs we’d beg on trains, perform or steal to make our quota. We were like cows wandering a city, eating whatever we could find then coming home to get milked. The men didn’t keep us in pairs long enough to get close; we might have run away together.
After a year I understood you were gone. With no close friends, I didn’t much want to live. I got sick and the men found me medicine but they didn’t know what they were doing. I fell ill at the beginning of the rainy season and left before its end. When I died, I was thinking of my little sister, of you.
It’s hard to describe how I knew it was you. You looked very different: twenty years old, not seven; tall and beautiful and of course in a completely different body. You were well-fed but slender with fine brown hair. I recognized you through a combination of many many small things. Your laughing-dove-chuckle was almost the same. So was the way you folded plastic packages while you talked. You used to jump when you were excited; now you roll up on your toes grinning unabashedly. The way your nose wrinkles when you smell something you don’t like, the way your ears rise when you’re annoyed, the way you move gracefully through a crowd like you’re gliding on ice… so many things.
Maybe you can see why I hesitated to tell you. It’s inappropriate I suppose. Your husband might get jealous. It seems strange, my trying to rekindle something from another life.
You’re my sister. These last thirty years, serving in the school together, I’ve had it confirmed who you are – or were – a million times in a million little ways. When I think of you in that other life, roaming around performing on trains, I see your face as it is now. Maybe you know too, and you just don’t know what to make of it.
You can speak about all this with me if you’d like, but you don’t have to. If you just give me a nod of recognition, I’ll be satisfied. Or if none of this makes sense, you can pretend you never read it and just consider me a fellow naturalized Indian, as we are in this life. I’m planning a trip to India soon. I want to visit the holy places before this body gets too old for the journey. I might stay there until I die. I’m quite sick already, as you know. So whatever awkwardness this letter might cause won’t last long. I’m laughing. Each life is so short, isn’t it!
In any case, please think of me as an old friend.
Who owns the Earth? We humans come and go. So do animals and plants. Who can claim ownership of even a square centimeter of territory? I remember learning in school when I was about 14 that the Queen of England owns Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.
I remember thinking, ‘This is ridiculous!’ Not just that the queen of a northern isle could own a place in Africa, but that any human being could own something existing for millions or billions of years before and after their brief lifespan. I might as well point out a patch of stars, name it after myself and tell everybody, ‘That is is the Bevis constellation.
But this is not a rant about ownership, or rather the next bit won’t be.
This is about unwanted places. A position or place not coveted by others is a great thing. A secret place in the woods, a room in an abandoned house. No international fights are going on for the rights to it, stealing your peace of mind. In such a place one can be at peace. In some countries, the wealthy are targeted by kidnappers. In business, a CEO’s job is coveted by many. The posts of national leaders are prized, but that little path in the woods, that simple house–you can be there without worry. Probably. It is a pretty mad world.
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I’ll be publishing once a week.