Friday, May 26, 2006

The Story of Ramo Samee, the Indian Juggler

I was browsing William Makepeace Thackeray's wonderful and strange The Book of Snobs (1848), and I came across the following odd passage in the midst of a rant about a lady-friend's poor table manners:

I have seen, I say, the Hereditary Princess of Potztausend-Donnerwetter (that serenely-beautiful woman) use her knife in lieu of a fork or spoon; I have seen her almost swallow it, by Jove! like Ramo Samee, the Indian juggler. And did I blench? Did my estimation for the Princess diminish? No, lovely Amalia!

But my dear fellow, who precisely is "Ramo Samee, the Indian juggler"? It turns out he was a real person, who came to England around 1819, and lived there with his wife (identified only as "Mrs. Samee") until his death in 1851. The juggling history website I looked at also speculates he may have gone to the U.S. and performed as "Sena Sama," in 1817, though that's only speculation. Ramo Samee is considered by some the first modern professional juggler in England, and he was far and away the most famous practitioner of the art in his era. He inspired royalty, journalists, and famous essayists like William Hazlitt. And yet, when Ramo Samee died he was so poor that his wife needed to advertise for financial assistance just to have him buried (cremation, I suspect, was probably not an option). Today he is, aside from the appreciation he receives from a handful of juggling history websites, completely forgotten.

Needless to say, I am pretty ambivalent about Ramo Samee (or "Ramaswamy," probably the more accurate spelling), just as I am about Sabu, Dean Mahomed, and scores of other Indian artists and hustling "Gurus" who work "exotic" stereotypes for western applause. In the African-American tradition this type of performance is called minstrelsy, and it is seen as a shameful kind of pandering to other people's stereotypes.

But Ramo Samee might be a slightly different case at least in the sense that the kind of sword-swallowing and juggling he did is in fact a real historical profession in India, and goes back hundreds of years. So while clearly part of Ramo Samee's appeal was his exotic otherness, he was doing what he did best -- what he had been raised to do. And observers like Hazlitt really did find him to be a performer of astonishing skill. So even if I can't exactly celebrate Ramo Samee's life as a triumph, he is nevertheless an interesting figure to learn about and consider.

* * *

A brief side-note on juggling, which as I said has a long tradition in India. In Hindi street performers like Ramo Samee are often called Jholewale (Jholewallas), perhaps after the bags of tricks they carry with them. The word "juggle" sounds like it might come from Hindi, but it actually comes from Latin -- joculare, the root of the English word "jocular" and "joke." Earlier in European history, a "juggler," I gather, would have been any jester or clown. The word "juggle" only came to refer specifically to tossing balls in the air sometime after Ramo Samee. (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "juggle" didn't take on that specific meaning until around 1897; here Wikipedia may be off).

Besides Thackeray's Book of Snobs Ramo Samee's name also shows up briefly in Thomas Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851), with reference to street performers (though Ramo Samee was, at his peak, well above a street performer). And Ramo Samee's name also appears in theater notices here and here.

* * *

But far and away the most interesting and detailed reference I've seen (to a performer who isn't named, but must be Ramo Samee) is in William Hazlitt's essay "The Indian Jugglers" (from Table Talk, 1828). Hazlitt was impressed by Ramo Samee's juggling (I presume) not in the casual, "oh, go check out that Indian juggler; he's pretty good" kind of way, but in the astonished, "holy crap! what am I doing with my life?!?!" kind of way:

Is it then a trifling power we see at work, or is it not something next to miraculous! It is the utmost stretch of human ingenuity, which nothing but the bending the faculties of body and mind to it from the tenderest infancy with incessant, ever-anxious application up to manhood, can accomplish or make even a slight approach to. Man, thou art a wonderful animal, and thy ways past finding out! Thou canst do strange things, but thou turnest them to little account! -- To conceive of this effort of extraordinary dexterity distracts the imagination and makes admiration breathless. . . . [T]he precision of the movements must be like a mathematical truth, their rapidity is like lightning. To catch four balls in succession in less than a second of time, and deliver them back so as to return with seeming consciousness to the hand again, to make them revolve round him at certain intervals, like the planets in their spheres, to make them chase one another like sparkles of fire, or shoot up like flowers or meteors, to throw them behind his back and twine them round his neck like ribbons or like serpents, to do what appears an impossibility, and to do it with all the ease, the grace, the carelessness imaginable, to laugh at, to play with the glittering mockeries, to follow them with his eye as if he could fascinate them with its lambent fire, or as if he had only to see that they kept time with the music on the stage -- there is something in all this which he who does not admire may be quite sure he never really admired any thing in the whole course of his life. (link)


In short, "hot damn!" In fact, seeing the Indian juggler do his thing pushes Hazlitt the rhetorical equivalent of a life-crisis:

As to the swallowing of the sword, the police ought to interfere to prevent it. When I saw the Indian Juggler do the same things before, his feet were bare, and he had large rings on the toes, which kept turning round all the time of the performance, as if they moved of themselves. -- The hearing a speech in Parliament, . . . stirs me not a jot, shakes not my good opinion of myself: but the seeing the Indian Jugglers does. It makes me ashamed of myself. I ask what there is that I can do as well as this! Nothing. What have I been doing all my life! (link)

Screw Parliament, and forget the writing life, let's go see juggling! To continue:

Have I been idle, or have I nothing to shew for all my labour and pains! Or have I passed my time in pouring words like water into empty sieves, rolling a stone up a hill and then down again, trying to prove an argument in the teeth of facts, and looking for causes in the dark, and not finding them? (link)

I often ask myself the same questions. And finally:

Is there no one thing in which I can challenge competition, that I can bring as an instance of exact perfection, in which others cannot find a flaw? The utmost I can pretend to is to write a description of what this fellow can do. I can write a book: so can many others who have not even learned to spell. What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do. (link)


You have to wonder whether Hazlitt wasn't himself on the verge of giving up writing to moving to Tamil Nadu to learn the art of Indian juggling.

* * *
Here is an image of Ramo Samee at the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1822, probably at the peak of his game. It's a huge theater, with hundreds of people in the audience. It supports the sense one gets from Hazlitt that Ramo Samee was kind of a big deal.

* * *

While the numerous mentions in the work of serious writers like Hazlitt, Thackeray, and Mayhew suggest that Ramo Samee was an impressive and respected figure in his prime, his obituary, published in a London paper in 1851, tells a rather different story:

THE LATE RAMO SAMEE AND HIS WIDOW

Sir: Your early insertion of the widow's appeal, under the above head, in last week's paper, reflects the highest credit on you, and in remembrance of the plesure I experienced in the early days at his performance, I beg to hand you 10s from ten friends, collected in the neighbourhood of High Holborn, towards alleviating the sufferings of the poor widow and family . . .
[Surely the managers of theatres and other establishments who have derived so much advantage from the talents of the deceased, ought to contribute to lift his widow, a most respectable woman, from the severe grip of absolute poverty. Poor Ramo is to be buried today, and his funeral expenses have to be defrayed by instalments. The trifle obtained has been handed to Mrs. Samee. --ED] (link)

And that, I'm afraid, is where it ended for Ramo Samee, the Indian juggler.

Monday, May 22, 2006

SAWCC Conference Highlights and Links

Last weekend's SAWCC conference ended up being a lot of fun. One thing that really stands out at a conference like this is the way the South Asian writers and artists in the U.S. across a number of different media are using the internet. So instead of writing a gossip-columnish summary, for this post I've collected links to sites by people who were on panels, or who were involved in the conference in some way.

First off, photos! Preston Merchant is, we established, definitely no relation to Ismail Merchant, but he did take lots of beautiful pictures of the conference here. He's also working on a book of photography of the South Asian diaspora.

Amba, who I don't think I've met in person, blogged about Friday night's event with Amitav Ghosh and Vijay Seshadri (Sara Suleri Goodyear couldn't make it); it's a pretty detailed and accurate description of the conversation. Also check out Mitali Perkins' report here. The highlight might be this sentence: "And in ten years, Pooja Makhijani and Anna John of Sepia Mutiny will both be famous." Incidentally, Mitali has written a couple of young adult novels that look like they might be fun: The Not-So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen just came out last year on Little, Brown & Co.

On the young adult novel tip, I was also quite impressed by the excerpt Marina Budhos read from her new book Ask Me No Questions. Given the fluffiness of Opal Mehta (and most of the books KV plagiarized from), it's refreshing to see a work of young adult fiction that makes a serious political point about the experience of South Asian immigrants in the U.S. This novel addresses the ‘dark’ turn for civil liberties since 9/11, and is partly based on Budhos’ own firsthand experience talking to undocumented (or “overstayed”) Bangladeshis in the U.S. (Manish profiled Marina Budhos here)

While we're on young adult literature Monika Jain, the editor of the spiffy desi-oriented children’s magazine Kahani, mentioned a couple of times that they actually sometimes have trouble getting short stories submitted that have boy protagonists. So if anyone out there writes children’s stories about desi boys -– either abroad or in India –- you know where to submit it. (Incidentally, Pooja Makhijani maintains a pretty thorough bibliography of South Asia-oriented Young Adult literature.)

On two different panels, Ravi Shankar is a poet and the editor of DrunkenBoat.com. You can see a number of his poems on the web. At DrunkenBoat, check out the poems and prose (some by desi writers), audio clips, video, and web-based interactive art. See, for instance, Prema Murthy's "Mythic Hybrid" project.

From the same "new media" panel, Sepia Mutiny’s own priestess of blog Anna John represented— -- no surprise there. She had the room riveted with one of her most moving early posts (pre-SM) about the death of her father.

Yesha Naik podcasts at PodBazaar. She is going to put up podcasts of the SAWCC panels at some point soon. She also read part of a spoken word monologue Saturday evening, which I thought had some quite funny bits.

As they say in hip hop, Amitava Kumar brings the ruckus. He added some brilliant insights and a lot of ‘presence’ to the panel on SA Lit and New Media, all the while claiming that he had no right to be there! Amitava is too modest; his own blog is quite charming. If there had been time enough, I would have asked him about his documentary film projects.

It was fun chatting about literature and politics with the highly knowledgeable Mahmud Rahman (who I’ve linked to before on my personal blog). Mahmud has published a number of things in recent months, including "War Stories," in India Currents. He also has a blog. Go check him out.

Sejal Kukadia.
She plays traditional tabla something fierce. She studies at the Taalim School of Indian Music in New Jersey, and has been studying and performing in the U.S. and India for more than nine years. Some of her stuff has been released on a CD called Tabla Upaj, which I am thinking of ordering.

At the same performance Saturday evening, I was also impressed by George Mathew’s western classical piano. It’s not every day that you get to have pizza with a Malayalee piano virtuoso who has conducted Beethoven’s Ninth in Carnegie Hall.

Hippocrene Books had two editors in the house. They do a number of books oriented to South Asia, including dictionaries (Telegu/English and Tamil/English coming soon!), cookbooks, phrasebooks, and travel guides.

I was sorry I wasn't able to stay to hear Sejal Shah read Sunday night, but I was happy to find this personal memoir by her at the Massachusetts Review this morning. There are some formatting problems on the site, but it's worth checking out.

[X-Posted on Sepia Mutiny]

Saturday, May 20, 2006

In Which the Head Meets the Body

Via an anonymous tip, I read this article in the Independent about a strange happening at the Musée Guimet in Paris involving a statue of one of Shiva's wives (whose name is unspecified). The headless statue, which had been recovered from the Bakong temple in Cambodia in 1935, was reunited with its head after nearly six hundred years.

The temple was built in 881, during the Khmer dynasty, and is one of many ancient Hindu temples scattered around Southeast Asia (today, the vast majority of Cambodians are Buddhists). The statue was decapitated in 1431, though exactly why or who did it I do not know. The body of the statue came to Paris in 1935, and the head remained in the museum affixed to the nearby Angkor Wat, Cambodia's most famous tourist attraction.

The reunification of head and body happened completely by accident. John Gunther Dean, an ambassador to Cambodia in the 1970s, known for protecting Cambodian art from the Khmer Rouge, decided to give the museum a present from his personal collection:

To thank the museum, Mr Dean, now 80, offered a gift from his own collection of ancient Khmer artefacts. Last month, the gift arrived, the sculpted head of a woman found at the Bakong temple site in 1939.

"I asked him for a Khmer head because we only had headless statues but I didn't think for a moment about a possible match," said Pierre Baptiste, the museum's curator for south-east Asian art.

"I brought the head into our [Cambodian] hall looking for a place that it could be exhibited," said M. Baptiste. "I had a sudden notion the two pieces resembled each other but then thought, 'no, things never happen that way'.

"I put the head on the statue's shoulders. It shifted a few millimetres. I heard the little click that you get when two stones fit together and the head fell perfectly into place. It was as if it had put itself together. I still get goose-bumps thinking about it." (link)


It's a great story, but it gives me goosebumps for a slightly different reason from the one curator Pierre Baptist experienced, as it reminds me that so many priceless ancient artifacts from from Asia are in westen museums. Indeed, the most likely place where the head of this statue could re-find its body is in one of the big 'Oriental' museums in Paris, London, or New York -- not Cambodia itself.

My own local Philadelphia Museum of Art has an entire Hindu temple (ca. 1550) from Tamil Nadu installed in a permanent exhibition (see here). It's a beautiful exhibit with amazing stone sculptures, and I'm not at all sure it would be preserved as nicely in India itself -- but it's still a little sad to visit it in this context, right next to the similarly-dislocated authentic 19th century Japanese tea-house.

Despite the absence of some major components, these temples are of course still major tourist attractions in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is world-famous, as is, more recently, Ta Prohm (where portions of Tomb Raider were filmed a few years ago). But imagine what they would be like if all the statues and friezes that are currently sitting in western museums were returned to their source!

Of course, this is hopelessly idealistic. The majority of the artifacts in the big European and American museums were acquired legally at the time they entered these museums' collections. And it's hardly likely those museums would agree to give back artifacts worth countless millions merely out of the goodness of their hearts.

Since restoration of the stolen relocated artifacts is impossible, I might propose a conceptual art project to draw attention to the incongruity. Careful replicas of statues like the recently fixed Bakong wife of Shiva should be made, and installed at the sites where they were found. Then a sign should be placed out front that reads as follows: "Welcome to Bakong. You are now entering a replica of the Hindu temple at Bakong. Everything of value from this site has been dismantled and relocated to Paris, London, and New York. Enjoy your visit!"

[X-Posted at SM]

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Singing Revolutionary

A couple of western media sources recently profiled a Maoist revolutionary from Andhra Pradesh, who calls himself "Gaddar," after the anti-Imperialist revolutionary movement from the 1910s. Through his powerful folk songs about poverty and political repression, Gaddar has become the police's biggest nightmare as they attempt to squelch the seemingly bottomless (or at least very deep) well of sympathy for the Maoists in India's impoverished rural areas.

gaddar2.jpg Maoists have been engaged in a longstanding civil war in rural areas in eastern and southern India, which stands as a stark rejoinder to recent upbeat developments in the cities. It started as "Naxalbari" in the late 1960s, but it has been reborn in the 2000s as the People's War. It has, by any measure, been an extremely bloody insurgency, which has left thousands of people dead in the past few years. PM Manmohan Singh recently described the movement as the current greatest threat to India's internal security.

You can hear Gaddar singing in this NPR segment. You should really give it a listen; the guy has a voice. And there is a print version of the article with many of the same details and background at the VOA.

It's not clear to me whether Gaddar is himself an active "soldier" in the People's War, or simply a Maoist sympathizer; most articles on him describe him as the latter. What to do about him? On the one hand, his singing ought to be protected as freedom of speech, and the lyrics of the songs in the NPR piece are all about suffering, not incitement to war. On the other hand, isn't he indirectly inciting people to commit acts of violence simply by supporting the Maoist movement?

[X-Posted at SM]

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

If you're reading this

If you’re reading this, you are reading a poem, and you are worried it will be one of those poems, the kind that is confusing, precious, and obscure. The kind someone makes you read.

If you're reading this, you're choosing to do so, probably wondering whether poetry is worth your time and energy, since "normal" writing is much more rewarding, and the weekend is coming up. It is a good question to ask while you're reading this.

If you’re reading this at work, you are thinking about your boss discovering that you spent the whole afternoon dawdling on the internet. But your timepass is our business, so please keep dawdling. Your boss needs to read this too.

If you’re reading this, and I hope you are, you may be waiting for me to get to the point.

If you’re reading this, I’m thrilled. I thought I’d lost you at the Capitol steps years ago, on a day when everything ended too soon, and no one had any knowledge at all of the hard road ahead. But you disappeared that day into a mosh pit, and it’s really quite unlikely that you’re reading this.

If you’re reading this in a beautiful room with a view of the ocean, I am probably envious of your life. I am resigned to rocking the suburbs.

If you’re reading this, I want to impress you this time around. I know the last thing I wrote wasn’t so hot, though it had some good bits, if I do say so myself. I know you’re busy, and you’re probably just skimming anyways, so I’ll keep it short.

If you’re reading this, are we friends again? I’m sorry for what I did, and I take back what I said.

If you’re reading this in China, you may be breaking the law, but it’s a stupid law, so I’m glad you’re reading this.

If you’re reading this in Delhi, Bombay, Chennai, or indeed, Taiwan, either I’m asleep right now, or you’re up very late at night, or we’re both awake, but in rather different moods. Consider the gap in time and space. How can we connect?

If you’re reading this looking for lyrical precision and poetic wisdom that is hard and clean and perfect like a diamond, sorry to disappoint you yet again. This poem is only a dusty mirror hanging under the buzz of fluorescent lights in a hallway someone may or may not reach.

If you’re reading this in a toilet stall, try coming back here tomorrow around the same time. You know what to do.

If you're reading this in a literary magazine, then clearly it must be pretty good.

If you’re still reading this, thank you for reading this.

[X-Posted at SM]

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Where Women Rule And Mirrors Are Weapons

After my recent post on early Bengali science fiction, Desiknitter suggested in a comment that Sultana's Dream (1905) by Rokeya Hosain ought to be on the list. And she was right: Sultana's Dream is an intriguing example of a feminist utopia -- an imagined world where women are socially and politically dominant over men, and that dominance is seen as natural. Other examples of it include Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1917). Rokeya Hosain led a fascinating, activist life, which bears some looking into. Oh, and the story alludes to a fascinating problem in optics -- parabolic mirrors used as weapons -- which I'll talk about a little at the end.

Rokeya Hosain wrote Sultana's Dream only a short while after learning English. She and her sister showed a remarkable early proclivity for books and ideas even though, as girls, they weren't actually allowed to learn how to read (eventually, Rokeya's sister was forced to give up the habit by embarrassed family members). Hosain was married in a 'love match' at the age of sixteen to a progressive Bengali Muslim, who fortunately supported women's education and taught her English. Rokeya wrote Sultana's Dream, the story goes, when he was away on business. Her goal was to impress him with her skill in English, and by all accounts she more than succeeded. The biographical note in the Feminist Press edition of Sultana's Dream describes his reaction to the story: he read the whole thing standing up, and uttered, "A splendid revenge!" The story was soon published in a Madras journal.

He meant, of course, "revenge" on men for the repressive system of gender-segregated Zenana (aka 'Purdah'). For Rokeya Hosain's Sultana's Dream is set in a realm where women rule and men are kept away in segregated quarters: the Mardana. This is Hosain's coinage; it comes from the Urdu word 'Mard', meaning 'man'.

The full text of Sultana's Dream is available here, if you have a few minutes. It's about 15 pages long.

A brief summary: Sultana wakes from a nap and finds her friend Sara inviting her to take a walk. But as they walk Sara turns into a strange woman, and it appears they are in 'Ladyland', a world where women rule and men are locked away. It turns out this world is superior in many respects to the real India (there is no crime, for instance), and Sultana and her Guide have a discussion where they compare India's gender segregation to Ladyland's:

"As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?"

"We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master, he has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana."

"Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?"

"Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women."

"A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests."

Here, Hosain is playing with conventional religious and cultural justifications for the seclusion of women (the paradox of locking up someone for their protection from yourself; shouldn't you be the one who's locked up?). She's also alluding to a conundrum that all feminist utopias that have any men in the picture at all have to address: the "brute strength" problem.

In Sultana's Dream, the Guide tells us, there was once a Zenana system, which remained in place until the kingdom was invaded. After the kingdom's (male) soldiers had been defeated, the women scientists offered a proposal, with one stipulation:

"The Lady Principal rose again and said, 'before we go out the men must enter the zenanas. I make this prayer for the sake of purdah.' 'Yes, of course,' replied Her Royal Highness.

"On the following day the Queen called upon all men to retire into zenanas for the sake of honour and liberty.

"Wounded and tired as they were, they took that order rather for a boon! They bowed low and entered the zenanas without uttering a single word of protest. They were sure that there was no hope for this country at all.

"Then the Lady Principal with her two thousand students marched to the battle field, and arriving there directed all the rays of the concentrated sunlight and heat towards the enemy.

"The heat and light were too much for them to bear. They all ran away panic-stricken, not knowing in their bewilderment how to counteract that scorching heat. When they fled away leaving their guns and other ammunitions of war, they were burnt down by means of the same sun heat.

So the men went into the Zenana to protect the women's modesty! After the battle was won, the men voluntarily agreed to stay in seclusion in the 'Zenana', while women ruled the Kingdom, which came to be known as Ladyland.

Using parabolic mirrors in a military battle is a great way to get around the brute strength problem. It's clever, it's not too hippy-dippy (the women didn't simply "charm" the enemies to go away), and it's actually sort of scientifically plausible.

Brief scientific digression: As I recently learned from the television show MythBusters, rumors about mirrors being used as weapons go back to Archimedes' time, where people say such weapons may have been used in the Siege of Syracuse (215 BCE). Mirrors shaped into a parabola can focus the sun's rays on a single point, setting even thick pieces of wood aflame. Conditions have to be right, and the mirrors have to be focused just so, but it does work.

The MythBusters tried to make their own fire-starting mirror a year ago, and concluded that the story about the mirrors being used as weapons must be false. But physics class at MIT designed a version of it that worked, even using bronze mirrors (the ancient Greeks didn't have flat-pane glass, obviously, so glass can't be used as a material). Even so, the myth of Archimedes' burning mirrors is probably false, since the first few generations of historians who wrote about the siege of Syracuse never mentioned it. The first mentions of the phenomenon only started appearing almost 800 years later.

/End Scientific Digression (Thanks for bearing with me.)

* * *

The counterpart to Sultana's Dream is The Secluded Ones, Hosain's direct consideration of how the Purdah system worked in the real world of her Bengali Muslim society. It's a pretty angry account, and certainly less imaginative than Sultana's Dream. But it's the product of a lifetime of struggle with her society. Her husband, who died early, left her a considerable sum meant specifically to enable her to start a school for girls, but she was forced to shut down the school she opened in the town of Bhagalpur because her husband's family didn't approve. Hosain had better luck in Calcutta, where she was able to find a space, two other teachers, and plenty of students. But overall, the Bengali Muslim community of her era really didn't encourage education for girls, and she was, in a very real way, alone in her struggle. And though she wrote forthright feminist stories like Sultana's Dream and polemical works like The Secluded Ones criticizing the treatment of women, Hosain herself wore a version of a Burqa throughout her life (see the photo above).

Incidentally, the school Rokeya Hosain founded apparently still operates in Calcutta. In Bangladesh, December 9 is "Rokeya Hosein day."

Friday, May 12, 2006

Atul Gawande's ‘Complications’

[X-Posted at SM]


I recently picked up Atul Gawande's Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science in a bookstore in Philly. While I thought I already had a favorite Indian doctor-writer in Abraham Verghese, Gawande gives him a run for his money here.

Complications is essentially a warts-and-all portrait of the field of medicine in the U.S. for lay readers. It's built on extensive research and interviews as well as Gawande's own experience as a surgeon at Harvard. Gawande's overarching interest is in what can be done to improve and reform the practice of medicine from within. It's fitting that Malcolm Gladwell has a blurb on the back of the book, since Gladwell's detail-oriented, problem-solving method closely resesmbles Gawande's in many ways.

Complications has been a success -- it was a National Book Award Finalist. In 2003, Gawande was invited to do the commencement address at the Yale School of Medicine, which is a pretty remarkable honor for a young doctor. He's also published a number of times in the New Yorker (try here and here), as well as the New England Journal of Medicine, where he published an influential article about casualty rates in the ongoing Iraq war.

Professional humility is the starting point for many of Gawande's examples. He writes, with nail-biting fluidity, about a potentially catastrophic mistake he himself made as a young surgical resident (he masks some details, presumably to protect himself from liability). It turns out that another doctor was able to save the situtation, but one sees that it easily could have gone the other way. Gawande mentions it to illustrate one of his central points -- that all doctors inevitably make mistakes:


There is . . . a central truth about medicine that complicates this tidy vision of misdeeds and misdoers: all doctors make terrible mistakes. . . . If error were due to a subset of dangerous doctors, you might expect malpractice cases to be concentrated among a small group, but in fact they follow a uniform, bell-shaped distribution. Most surgeons are sued at least once in the course of their careers. Studies of specific types of error, too, have found that repeat offenders are not the problem. The fact is that virtually everyone who cares for hospital patients will make serious mistakes, and even commit acts of negligence, every year. For this reason, doctors are seldom outraged when th epress reports yet another medical horror story. They usually have a different reaction: That could be me. The important question isn't how to keep bad physicians from harming patients; it's how to keep good physicians from harming patients.

Note that he's not just pointing out that "all doctors make terrible mistakes" to try and let them off the hook. Rather, he wants to acknowledge the fact and deal openly with the mistakes that are most commonly made so as to reduce their frequency.
Though Gawande doesn't come out strongly on the question of tort reform in Complications, it's clear that he doesn't think that a strictly legal response to failures and mistakes by doctors (or the system) is likely to improve how well doctors do. He states it well in this New Yorker interview:


What is the toll of malpractice on doctors?

The financial toll is under one per cent of our expenses. The real toll, I think, is in two places. One is in hindering our ability to honestly address injuries to patients from complications. There are two or three per cent of patients who will be hurt by serious complications in care; about half of those will be the result of error. And because these cases have the potential to become all-out battles in court, we often lose our human instincts to apologize, to grieve, to still be doctors for our patients. The other cost is in our ability to improve. Almost every case, when it’s settled, is sealed, and it can become hard to know what the patterns of failure in medicine are. In the airline industry, if there’s an accident, they can do an investigation and share information and figure out when there are certain patterns that suggest what things can be done to improve safety. We really haven’t been able to do that. (link)

Instead of simply turning it over to the law, Gawande is interested in expanding the processes that doctors themselves have evolved for analyzing their mistakes and fostering a sense of accountability via feedback networks and candid self-criticism (he's big on surgical "M&M" meetings, for instance).

While the first half of Complications deals more with surgery, the second half is more general -- case studies and interesting problems that have cropped up in recent years. One involves a patient suffering from chronic pain, and explores some of the recent advances in pain-psychiatry that have been made; another tells the story of a pregnant woman who had extremely severe nausea (hyper-emesis); and a third deals with a television newscaster who had a severe case of uncontrollable blushing. These case studies generally go beyond the mere "human interest" angle; in each case, Gawande uses the example to discuss some recent advances in the science.

Medical malpractice reform is a complex issue, and as an outsider I'm far from well-equipped to say "here is what should be done." So here are some starter links.

1) One recent study has questioned the claim (common among those who favor caps) that frivolous malpractice litigation has reached crisis proportions.
2) Another study has questioned whether introducing "pain and suffering" liability caps would actually significantly reduce costs.
3) And another study I came across suggests that the current system encourages doctors to be so defensive that they order lots of unnecessary tests, which increases insurance costs and makes the whole system more expensive.
4) Finally, a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate (S.22) that would put caps on Pain and Suffering (non-economic) damages; Senator Ted Kennedy has given his detailed response, which makes a number of good points. [UPDATE: The bill was defeated.]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

'Slumming' Takes on a Whole New Meaning

[X-Posted at SM]

Via Albert Krishna Ali at The Other India, a Guardian article about a new tourism phenomenon in India: slum tours. It's apparently a common enough practice in places like Soweto and Rio, but new to India. For 200 Rupees, tourists get a guided tour of the areas around Delhi's railway station, where a few thousand homeless children live:

The tour guide instructs visitors not to take pictures (although he makes an exception for the newspaper photographer). 'Sometimes the children don't like having cameras pointed at them, but mostly they are glad that people are interested in them,' Javed claims, adding that the friendly smiles of the tourists are more welcome than the railway policemen's wooden sticks and the revulsion of the train travellers. He hopes the trip will get a listing in the Lonely Planet guides. Nevertheless there is something a little uncomfortable about the experience -- cheerful visitors in bright holiday T-shirts gazing at profound misery. (link)


Really, what could possibly be uncomfortable about well-fed tourists paying to gawk at desperately poor children?

The author of the Guardian article is definitely skeptical about the whole thing too:

By the end of the walk, the group is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the smells of hot tar, urine and train oil. Have they found it interesting, Javed asks? One person admits to feeling a little disappointed that they weren't able to see more children in action -- picking up bottles, moving around in gangs. 'It's not like we want to peer at them in the zoo, like animals, but the point of the tour is to experience their lives,' she says. Javed says he will take the suggestion on board for future tours. . . .

Babloo, who thinks he is 10, has been living here for maybe three years. His hands are splashed white from the correction fluid that he's breathing in through his clenched left fist, and he pulls a dirty bag filled with bottles with his other hand. His life is unrelentingly bleak and he recognises this.'I don't know why people come and look at us,' he says. (link)


The tours are run by Salaam Baalak Trust, which is a small charity organization focused on caring for homeless children in Delhi. They administer first aid as well as more serious health care help for children who have AIDS or serious drug addiction problems. They also give them basic education and vocational training, and help their families where possible.

In short, SBT is in general a good organization narrowly focused on helping a group of children living in desperate straits. This program makes money for them, but clearly the money and publicity come at the potential cost of the children's dignity.

According to Give World, Salaam Baalak Trust was founded by Mira Nair in 1988 to rehabilitate the slum children she used as actors in Salaam Bombay (hence the name, "Salaam Baalak"). I haven't quite been able to figure out how the organization got from Bombay to Delhi, but as far as I can tell they are now based entirely in Delhi.

The story of the group's founding provides a second layer of irony: this is an organization that was founded using funds generated by western voyeurism of Indian poverty (Nair's film), which is now pioneering the effort to reproduce that voyeurism in a brand new format.

I wouldn't go on the tour in its present form, but perhaps I would try and volunteer to help out with this organization in some way instead. And if tourists want to do more than just take pictures of the Taj Mahal or dance on the beach at Goa, I don't see why that should be frowned upon (especially if the money is put to good use). Is there a way to do it that doesn't involve mere voyeurism?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Early Bengali Science Fiction

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]

I thought I might risk going out on the limb of historical obscurities and share an article by Debjani Sengupta (PDF) I came across that talks about early Bengali science fiction writing.

The article is from the journal Sarai, which is published in Delhi. Some of the articles offer some truly impenetrable jargon -– even with writing on familiar topics (Bollywood, Call Centers, and so on). But there are also a number of well-written and informative articles on things like Parsi theater in Bombay in the 1800s that I would highly recommend.

On to Bengali science fiction. Even the fact that it existed as early as the 1880s may be a little shocking, since most studies of Bengali literature tend to center around Tagore -- who was extremely doubtful about modern technology. (Read his account of flying in an airplane here.) But the effects of the industrial revolution were being felt in urban India in the 19th century just as keenly as they were in Europe and the U.S., and at least some Indian writing reflected that. Probably the best, most enduring writing in this genre came from a single family –- Sukumar Ray (in the 1910s and 20s) and his son Satyajit Ray, who was a highly accomplished writer when he wasn't making making world class art films. But according to Sengupta the people who originated the genre in the 1880s were lesser known writers. For instance, the author mentions one Hemlal Dutta Rashashya:

Asimov’s statement that “true science fiction could not really exist until people understood the rationalism of science and began to use it with respect in their stories” is actually true for the first science fiction written in Bangla. This was Hemlal Dutta’s Rahashya (“The Mystery”) that was published in two installments in 1882 in the pictorial magazine Bigyan Darpan, brought out by Jogendra Sadhu. The story revolved around the protagonist Nagendra’s visit to a friend’s house, a mansion completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes that clean suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story, and the tone is of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives.


It seems a little hard to imagine people writing about electric doorbells and burglar alarms in the 1880s in Calcutta, but there you have it. (Doorbells were actually invented in 1830, so maybe it's not that shocking.)

The genre really seems to get going with Sukumar Ray, who was by all accounts highly intellectually adventurous, even in the stories intended for children. (I did a short post on him here some time ago.) Like Lewis Carroll's "Alice" stories, Sukumar Ray’s stories are full of mind-bending puzzles and language games. And it’s quite likely that he was reading British writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and especially H.G. Wells as he was writing The Diary of Heshoram Hushiar:

Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) was probably inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World when he wrote Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary (“The Diary Of Heshoram Hushiar”). . . . It is a spoof on the genre because Sukumar is poking fun at the propensity of the scientist to name things, and that too in long-winded Latin words. He seems to be playing around the fact that names are arbitrarily conferred upon things by humans for their own convenience, and suggests that the name of a thing may somehow be intrinsically connected to its nature. So the first creature that Heshoram meets in the course of his journey through the Bandakush Mountains is a “gomratharium” (gomra in Bangla means someone of irritable temperament), a creature that sported a long woebegone face and an extremely cross expression. Soon the company comes upon another peculiar animal, not to be found in any textbook of natural sciences. They hear a terrible yowl, a sound between the cries of a “number of kites and owls” and find an animal “that was neither an alligator, nor a snake, nor a fish but resembled to a certain extent all three”. His howls make Heshoram name him “Chillanosaurus” (chillano means to shout). Although just an extract, Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary is quite unlike anything written even in Bangla.


The cross-linguistic word-play ("Gomratharium" and "Chillanosaurus") is something that experimental modernist writers like James Joyce were doing in Europe in the 1920s too. That he was doing this suggests both that Ray was using Bangla quite confidently, and that he expected that his readership would be bilingual enough to recognize Latinate English words like “aquarium” and “tyrannosaurus.”

Sukumar's son Satyajit was also quite playful with language in the short stories he wrote. His famous “Professor Shanku” (or “Shonku") stories are full of gadgets and devices with exotic names:

Satyajit Ray created Professor Shanku in 1961. The first SF featuring this eccentric hero was written for the magazine Sandesh and was called Byomjatrir Diary (“The Diary of the Space Traveller”). All thirty-eight complete and two incomplete diaries (the last one came out in 1992) narrate the fantastic world of Shanku’s adventures, inventions and travels. Most of these stories are more than science fiction. They are also travelogues, fantasy tales, tales of adventure and romance. . . . His sense of humour makes him peculiarly human and his list of inventions is impressive. Anhihiline, Miracural, Omniscope, Snuffgun, Mangorange, Camerapid, Linguagraph -– the list is long and impressive. Some are drugs, some gadgets, some machines, but they all have human purposes and use.


There is a joyful self-deprecating quality to Professor Shanku, as seen in his early attempts to build a rocket for space travel:

The first [rocket] that he had built was unsuccessful and had come down on his neighbour Abinashbabu’s radish patch. Abinashbabu had no sympathy for Shanku; science and scientists made him yawn. He would come up to Shanku and urge him to set off the rocket for Diwali so that the neighbourhood children could be suitably entertained. Shanku wants to punish this levity and drops his latest invention in his guest’s tea. This is a small pill, made after the fashion of the Jimbhranastra described in the Mahabharata. This pill does not only make one yawn, it makes one see nightmares. Before giving a dose to his neighbour, Shanku had tried a quarter bit on himself. In the morning, half of his beard had turned grey from the effect of his dreams. Shanku’s world is a real world, a human world. In his preparations for the space journey he has decided to take his cat Newton with him. For that he has invented a fish-pill. "Today I tested the fish-pill by leaving it next to a piece of fish. Newton ate the pill. No more problems! Now all I have to do is make his suit and helmet."


Ok, maybe the nightmare pill is a little bit on the darker side, but at least he tried it out on himself before dosing his neighbor. And the fish-pill that would allow him to take his cat along in outer space is a nice touch.

More Professor Shanku definitions are at the >Professor Shanku Wikipedia page:

  • Miracurall -- a drug capsule that cures any ailment except common cold
  • Annihillin -- a pistol that simply annihilates any living thing. It does not work on non living things.
  • Shankoplane -- A small plane capable of vertical take-off and landing and magnificent mileage
  • Shankolite - the alloy by which shankoplane was made
  • Omniscope - a combination of telescope and microscope
  • Air-conditioning pill - a capsule that keeps the body temperature normal in extremes of climate.
  • Somnolin - a sleeping pill that will work in any condition


  • I love the idea of a miracle pill that cures everything except the common cold. The A/C pill would probably also come in handy right about now in Delhi (where the temperature is 43.5 degrees C).

    The question that comes up for me in looking at this material is first of all surprise that it’s talked about so little with reference to modern Indian literature. The 'serious' figures like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore (in Bangla), and Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan (in English) are the names that tend to get referenced from before 1945. And after 1945, most literary critics have been interested in writers who dealt with political themes in their works -- the independence struggle, partition, wars, corruption, and so on. That Indian writers were also interested in space travel, the automation of everyday life, and robotics from an early point suggests that the literary scene was richer than most people think. Most of the Bengali science fiction in Sengupta's article is oriented to children, but it's clearly quite sophisticated -- entertaining for many adults in some of the same ways J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter is today.

    [UPDATE: See a follow-up post here]

    Friday, May 05, 2006

    Fun With The Reviewers: Deepa Mehta's Water

    You might have decided to skip this one, perhaps on the basis of Sajit's negative review on Sepia Mutiny from a couple of months ago. Or you might go with the positive reviews in half a dozen respectable newspapers (and USA Today) as well as the 88% reviewer approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and risk your $9.50 to support a highly respected Desi filmmaker. Personally, I plan to go see it.

    Meanwhile I've been surprised by some culturally clueless and simply inaccurate comments from reviewers.

    1. First, the hands-down most facile, offensive, goofy comment I've seen in any movie review this year comes from "Metromix," affiliated with the Chicago Tribune. At the tail end of an almost laughably abbreviated summary, the reviewer tries to gear up readers for the film with a fashion-oriented tagline: "Bonus: Gear up for that summer 'do: The widows all have buzz cuts."

    "The widows all have buzz cuts." Wow. That one sentence couples the triviality of the film review business with a shocking level of ignorance. I know these folks have short deadlines for copy, but could they at least look up something on the subject of Hindu mourning rituals before publishing a review of a film on Hindu widows?

    On the other hand, it might be offensive, but at least "All the widows have buzz cuts" is pithy and sharp -- the kind of outlandish thing you expect the "naughty" character in a Salman Rushdie novel to say.

    2. Fundamentalism or Tradition?

    Another oddity from some of the reviews is the abuse of the word "fundamentalist." "Fundamentalism" is pretty appropriate if you're referring to what happened in 2000, when RSS goons with the support of the UP government attacked Deepa Mehta's set in Benares, destroying her equipment. (The NDA government did nothing to punish any of the offenders; many people involved in the protests were party leaders and relatives of government ministers.) But "fundamentalist" isn't quite accurate to describe the setting of the film:

    There is a tradition within fundamentalist Hinduism that when a woman is widowed, she has three options: (1) to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, (2) to marry his brother (if he has one and it is permitted by the family), or (3) to live in poverty in a group home for widows. Although Water transpires in 1938, an endnote indicates that this practice has not been entirely abolished in India. (link)


    The reviewer flings around the word "fundamentalist" with abandon, but it's sloppy. The word doesn't fit the context of widowhood in 1930s India at all: "traditional Hinduism" or "Hindu custom" are phrases that would be more appropriate.

    3. Who said anything about Sati?>

    Check out these lines from the Washington Post review:

    The subject is the issue of "widow wastage." Possibly no term exists in English to convey the cultural tradition; it's a kind of continuation, by less fiery means, of sati, the practice of immolating a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. As writer-director Deepa Mehta dramatizes it, when a man dies, his widow is a financial burden to all. Thus she is consigned to an ashram, a kind of rooming house/prison for widows. (link)


    Huh? There is a kind of logical connection here -- widows' ashrams and Sati are both troubling, archaic practices -- but they are still two very different traditions with different symbolic meanings.

    4. Depends on what your definition of "is" is>

    The New York Times ran a somewhat unusual story about Water earlier this week, "Film Ignites The Wrath of Hindu Fundamentalists." Though the title suggests the controversy is occurring in the present, the actual article refers again to the sacking of Mehta's set in Benares in 2000. There is no current controversy over the film in India, because the film hasn't been released there.

    Water is scheduled for a limited release in India (90 screens) in July, and there may well be are more protests, riots, or theater burnings (as in Mehta's earlier film Fire, 1996). This time I hope the central government won't just stand by and let "mob censorship" take its mindless toll.

    Thursday, May 04, 2006

    Samrat Upadhyay and the Nepali Present Tense

    [Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]

    Readers interested in what has been happening in Nepal recently might find Samrat Upadhyay's The Royal Ghosts a worthwhile read.

    Upadhyay is a Nepali who teaches at a university in the U.S. He is, I think, the only Nepali publishing his fiction in the U.S. at present. Though his stories as a rule tend to focus more on personal issues and relationships than on poitics, in this latest book of stories he has for the first time tackled the effect the "Maobadis"(Maoists) have had on Nepali life. Even here the treatment of the ongoing civil war is a little bit oblique: these are middle-class, urban, Kathmandu stories, and the violence that ravages countryside is as far away from the metropolitan consciousnes as Delhi is from the tribal regions of Bihar.

    For example. Pitamber, the protagonist of "A Refugee" reminds me a little of the father-figure in Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey: a good father=figure who has, in his do-gooding, perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. He volunteers his house as a refuge for a poor woman from the country and her daughter, who had lost most of their family to Maoist violence. They are traumatized, and are somewhat of an awkward fit in Pitamber's middle class household. Pitamber has to manage his unruly teenage son and also fend off gossip that perhaps he's taken a "second wife." (As someone says in another story, "This is Nepal. It doesn't take anything for people to start talking here.")

    The climate is one of constant fear and anxiety. The Maobadis are casually cursed by nearly all the city-dwellers, but still people look around cautiously before they say anything -- in case the wrong people might be listening. Pitamber himself is barely keeping it together, and soon it's his own unexpected violence that is troubling him:

    Someone murmured in agreement, but a voice from behind Pitamber sid, 'What are you saying? Our revolution has arrived! These [Maobadis] are our heroes!.'



    'Heroes?' Pitamber swiveled around. 'Who said that?'



    Someone pointed to a boy of about nineteen,and Pitamber lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt collar. 'What did you say?' He could feel the pulse in his own throat as he slapped the boy hard on the right cheek. Encouraged by the slap, other men now crowed around the boy, shoving him, punching him, shaking him. 'I wasn't being serious,' the boy screamed. 'I didn't mean it!' He began pleading for mercy.



    His throad still pulsing, Pitamber walked away. He couldn't believe how fast his hand had flown, how thoughtlessly he'd struck the boy.

    The move from big, ominous political questions to issues close to home is a common turn in many of these stories. Ultimately, Pitamber has to deal with the consequences of his own actions (which get worse as the story goes forward), since he can do nothing about the conflict between Maoists and the Army that is tearing apart his country.

    Though "A Refugee" is the story where the engagement with the Maoist insurgency is most directly referenced, the best story in the collection might be "The Royal Ghosts," which is set immediately following the shocking murder-suicide of the Nepali royal family in June 2001. (Interestingly, it's not the first time in Nepali history that a royal family has massacred itself. As is discussed in the story, the Ranas came into power on the heels of the Kot Parba massacre in 1846.)

    In terms of writing style, I would compare Upadhyay to Rohinton Mistry: simple, straightforward storytelling.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Links: Asafoetida Attacks, Broken Toys, and Authenticity Angst

    1. Jhumpa Lahiri's latest, in the New Yorker. I know some will read this and complain that she's doing a version of what she's already done in the short stories in The Interpreter of Maladies. But I don't think her material is necessarily spent as of yet. Also, the second person address gives the story a somewhat different feel. And anyway, Lahiri's almost miraculous precision is always impressive to me.

    2. Nadeem Aslam has a blistering personal essay in Granta about growing up with fundamentalists in his family. These folks were so extreme in their hatred of idolatry, they routinely broke even children's toys. Aslam also has some interesting reflections on linguistic alienation that hit close to home for me as well:

    I have read widely in Arabic literature, beginning, yes, with the Thousand Nights and A Night. I have read the Qur'an several times as an adult, and of course there are the novels of the magnificent Naguib Mahfouz; pre-Islamic pagan poetry; the fables of Kalila wa Dimna; extracts from a sorcerer's manual from eleventh-century Spain; the wounded and wounding lines of Mahmoud Darwish. But I have read them all in English, silently in my study. The aural connection was severed long ago.


    3. Asafoetida attack! Jai Arjun has a hilarious (and needless to say, negative) review of the new Aishwariya Rai film Mistress of Spices. How this pleasurable takedown relates to our discussion of negative reviewing from a couple of weeks ago, I have no idea.

    4. And I randomly came across this interesting personal reflection on "authenticity" in India Currents magazine. A young woman (an NRI) meets a Tibetan woman and a white woman in an American grocery store. While everyone (including the woman herself) assumes that she "knows" the Himalayas because she is ethnically Indian, it turns out that the Tibetan is the granddaughter of Tenzing Norgay, the first person to climb Mt. Everest.

    Monday, May 01, 2006

    The Sadhu and the Shor Birds

    [Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny, where I am on again as a regular blogger.]

    [Also, the following is part of a little series I'm doing -- postmodern Sadhu stories; see another effort here.]

    Sadhu liked to sit on the porch of his son's new house and write poetry, but lately he was finding it difficult. The problem was a group of noisy birds that lived in the trees behind their house. They gathered in the trees and bushes and seemed to do nothing but chatter, not in quiet, birdly chirps, but angry squawks. Most of the time Sadhu couldn't even see the birds, as they seemed never to move from their respective perches in the trees, so sitting on the porch was a little like diving into pit of greasy wrestlers. Sometimes this pleased the Sadhu, as it reminded him vaguely of India -- the loud voices of the street hawkers arguing with customers over a few paise in his home town of Maramari. But he had heard that type of argument rarely since leaving India fifteen years ago, and now it had begun to seem abrasive and somewhat troubling. And anyway, that type of marketplace arguing usually ended in a sale, and the restoration of good will. But these birds squawked and squawked with an endless amount of stamina, which was almost mechanical in its regularity.

    Every so often (mainly at dawn and dusk), Sadhu would see the barking birds making small movements in the trees behind the house. Some birds, he saw, had bright saffron beaks, while others had a sort of greenish hue. A few, he noticed, had little blue feather tufts on the tops of their heads and a black crop below the lower mandible that looked almost like beards. Quite a number of birds had pronounced red and blue feathers on their breasts, graced with small white flecks. Most strangely of all, some of the birds seemed to be confused, and wear different colors depending on the time of the day or month. But even with their myriad differences, as far as Sadhu could tell, the birds all emitted exactly the same type of sound: a loud, angry, and utterly tuneless squawk.

    As a young man, Sadhu had had aspirations of becoming a famous writer, like R.K. Narayan. In his school-days, he and his friends had been fiercely competitive in sending their poems and stories to literary magazines and the local newspaper, The Maramari Daily. Some had been successful, and one or two had actually tried to pursue the writing life, but in vain. Eventually, they had all grown up, gotten regular jobs, and married. Sadhu himself had worked as an Inspector (eventually Chief Inspector) for the State Government of Jagrah for nearly twenty-five years. Upon retiring, he came to live in suburban Shpilkes, Pa., with his son and his daughter-in-law. They had recently moved to a house with a porch, which Sadhu happily claimed for himself.

    Now Sadhu was an old man, and all his old writerly aspirations were gone. What remained was simply his love of language, and the pressing need -- which grew more acute as he grew older -- to record his experience of the world. He felt he wanted to write to make the life he had lived meaningful, to tell his story. He didn't think at all of publishing any of his poems, only of the pleasure of writing them.

    The first poem he wrote on the porch of this new house was the story of his childhood and the frightening death of his older sister in the famine of 1943. It was so beautiful to him, so strange and true, that he almost couldn't believe it had come from his own pen. (The birds were still relatively quiet then, and didn't impinge on his thinking.) In a strange fit of elation at his accomplishment, he tore it out of his speckled notebook, and threw it into the grass. And he was surprised to find that a bird came out of the trees almost immediately, looked at it for a moment, and then pecked at it. Then another bird came out, and another. Soon, a half dozen birds were inspecting the now tattered page, pecking it with their beaks and tearing it with their sharp little claws. Sadhu was aghast, but strangely excited at the ruckus his poem had created.

    From that day on, to spite the birds in the trees and perhaps also to challenge them, Sadhu had gotten in the habit of writing his poems and then simply reciting them to the trees in a loud voice. Though it was a relief to have a kind of audience for the poems, each of which was precious to him, the practice of reciting only seemed to excite the birds and make them more and more angry. At first it was exciting (if slightly odd), but now Sadhu felt he couldn't write at all, because of the deafening din it would almost certainly provoke.

    On one particularly frustrating Saturday morning, his grandson came out with his little video game toy to "hang out" with his "grandpa" outside (surely he had been encouraged to do so by his mother, who worried too much).

    "What's the matter, grandpa?" the boy asked.

    "It's just my 'shor' birds, beta."

    "Shore birds? Like, they're from the ocean?"

    "No, beta, shor, meaning noisy. These birds are very noisy. See, listen." He pointed to the trees, and the birds, obligingly, squawked a little louder. But the boy looked nonplussed.

    "So why don't you go inside?"

    "I can't write my poems inside."

    "So why don't you get an Ipod?"

    "What is "Ipaad"? Is that your toy, beta? I don't think..."

    "No, grandpa. An Ipod plays music so you don't have to listen to those birds! Here, Dad made me put some Indian songs on it for the car..." The boy pulled a little white toy out of the pockets of his very baggy pants. He showed Sadhu how to use the device, and fitted the earbuds in his ears.

    The mellifluous sound of Jagjit Singh's voice filled Sadhu's ears, and as he stared at the trees, containing those now barely audible birds, he exhaled in deep relief. It wasn't silence, but it was beauty, and it would be enough: he could think; he could write. This little toy (for he could not think of it as anything but a toy) would help him leave behind the pointless squabbling of the multi-colored birds in the trees.

    It was far from perfect, but Sadhu was confident he had the space he needed to write his poems, and tell the story that was his alone to tell. To whom they would be addressed he still did not know.

    [Update: Perhaps I was a little too subtle. Hint: think of blogging]