Summer, Mangoes, Birds, Bombay — Disjecta Membra

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The hot summer months of April and May allow for some indolence. Slack jawed, enervated street dogs, seem somehow to be the most suffering. If their parched tongues say it all, their blinking eyes, bereft of the sharp darting aggression of cooler nights, seem to offer urgent supplication. In part alleviation, they sleep through whole afternoons in the reasonable comfort of a shady spot, on occassion lifting up their heat-stricken heads to cast a listless, impecunious glance at the fools who walk the hot streets. Asleep

Offering vivid descriptions of city life, the hustle-bustle, street hawkers and dwellers, SM Edwardes, in By-Ways Of Bombay (1912), writes,

During the hot months of the year the closeness of the rooms and the attacks of mosquitoes force many a respectable householder to shoulder his bedding and join the great army of street-sleepers, who crowd the footpaths and open spaces like shrouded corpses. All sorts and conditions of men thus take their night's rest beneath the moon,–Rangaris, Kasais, bakers, beggars, wanderers, and artisans,–the householder taking up a small position on the flags near his house, the younger and unmarried men wandering further afield to the nearest open space, but all lying with their head towards the north for fear of the anger of the Kutb or Pole star.

In Sleepy Sketches (1877), the diarist, troubled by the ‘endless accounts’ of Englishmen of privilege and high office, which he finds to ill represent the reality of Bombay life (and life in Bombay), sets out to correct some. Asserting quite vigorously at the outset that the native has ‘no prejudice either in favour of truth or falsehood’ and that they cannot but help mixing the two, he finds issue with “hot glare of the sun and constant heat”, which to his mind “destroy the mystery of life and lead one to look on death as the end of all things” [sic]. The climate threatens the European, the writer adds, and it is so enervating for the professional man, that upon return home at the end of a hardworking day “we have little desire for recreation, and so no recreation is to be found”. The month of May, he writes on,

…brings thirty-one days of close, oppressive heat, and thirty-one nights of close, oppressive heat…when all possibility of sound sleep is gone, and we wake every hour and minute wet with perspiration; when even the crows have lost every power but that of cawing, – a power, confound them! that they never lose, – and stand desolate, with their hot wings held comically apart from their hot bodies…but still in Bombay we go to bed with the thermometer at 89°.

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Seeing Double

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Thro’ the Heaven and Earth and Hell

Thou Shalt never, never quell:

I will fly and thou pursue:

Night and morn the flight renew’.

From William Blake's My Spectre Around Me Day And Night

Once I happened to see two brothers, tennis champions, matched against one another; their strokes were totally different, and one of the two was far, far better than the other; but the general rhythm of their actions as they swept all over the court was exactly the same, so that had it been possible to draft both systems two identical designs would have appeared.

4014356308_323c6365a8In search of the derelict details of his deceased half brother, V, the narrator of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, offers these words while reflecting upon the mysterious cadences that seem to be mirrored between siblings. But here, the sibling in no mere blood brother, he is no mere adventurer who sought fortune in a distant land, reinventing himself in name, manner and consciousness, but is instead in some sense, a projected second self, a döppelganger, an adrift double of V. Sebastian Knight, the gloomy maladroit émigré, whose successful literary conquests of the English language, driven in part by his unsuccessful attempts to ‘out-England England’ as V observes, was the ‘other’ – a phantasmagoric illusion of sorts, who had walked the path before him. The path of course, is no clear or easy one; it is instead chancy and treacherous; it is at times, labyrinthine and inscrutable, but as V discovers in ‘following the bends of his life’: “I daresay Sebastian and I also had some kind of common rhythm”. A sense of déjà vu, of an ‘it-happening-before’ twinship, persistently accosts V as he journeys on to trace Sebastian’s meandering and desolate path, leading ultimately, to the circumstances of his death.

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Desire Paths: Reading, Memory and Inscription

by Daniel Rourke

The urban landscape is overrun with paths. Road-paths pulling transport, pavement-paths and architectural-paths guiding feet towards throbbing hubs of commerce, leisure and abode.Beyond the limits of urban paths, planned and set in tarmac or concrete, are perhaps the most timeless paths of all. Gaston Bachelard called them Desire Paths, physical etchings in our surroundings drawn by the thoughtless movement of human feet. In planning the layout of a city designers aim to limit the emergence of worn strips of earth that cut through the green grass. People skipping corners or connecting distinct spaces vote with their feet the paths they desire. Many of the pictures on the right (from this Flickr group) show typical design solutions to the desire path. A delimiting fence, wall or thoroughfare, a row of trees, carefully planted to ease the human flow back in line with the rigid, urban aesthetic. These control mechanisms have little effect – people merely walk around them – and the desire path continues to intend itself exactly where designers had feared it would.

The technical term for the surface of a planetary body, whether urbanised, earth covered or extra-terrestrial, is regolith. As well as the wear of feet, the regolith may be eroded by wind, rain, the path of running water or the tiny movement of a glacier down the coarse plane of a mountain. If one extends the meaning of the term regolith it becomes a valuable metaphor for the outer layer upon or through which any manner of paths may be inscribed.

The self-titled first Emperor of China, Qín Shǐhuáng, attempted, in his own extravagant way, to re-landscape the regolith of time. By building the Great Wall around his Kingdom and ordering the burning of all the books written before his birth Qín Shǐhuáng intended to isolate his Kingdom in its own mythic garden of innocence. Far from protecting his people from the marauding barbarians to the West or the corrupting knowledge of the past Qín Shǐhuáng's decision to enclose his Kingdom probably expanded his subject's capacity for desire beyond it. There is no better way to cause someone to read something than to tell them they cannot; no better way to cause someone to dream beyond some kingdom, or attempt to destroy it, than to erect a wall around it. As we demarcate paths we cause desire to erupt beyond them. The regolith, whether physical or ethereal, will never cease to degrade against our wishes.

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