The Vale of Tears: From Babe to Adult – II

A year or so ago, I wrote a post on how my infant daughter’s crying sometimes provoked, in me, thoughts that seemed considerably weightier than those one might have imagined as being occasioned then. On Monday, a spell of night-time crying triggered a chain of reflection that felt similarly cosmic.

A little background: my daughter is quite well sleep-trained; she follows  a reasonably structured nap schedule at day-care and at home; her evening routine is pretty much set in stone–dinner, bath, bedtime reading, followed by sleep-time. She does not cry when we put her down for the night, and is only occasionally disturbed enough to call out to us by wailing. On those occasions, she soothes herself back to sleep quite soon. But: she is vulnerable to disruptions of these schedules, and can take a little while to get back to normal.

On Monday night, my wife and I found ourselves facing just such an occasion. We had traveled recently to California, where my daughter had come down a viral fever. The jet-lag, the illness, the disturbed sleep at night–these had all contributed to a radical perturbation of her sleeping hours and required a great deal of intervention from–and co-sleeping with–her mother. Over a week or two, our daughter’s sleeping routines slowly unraveled. As seemingly, did my wife’s equanimity, as she grew progressively more exhausted. Our daughter was now becoming dependent on the night-time feed, and on being comforted by her mother. Her alone; my ministrations were neither sought nor welcome. This condition persisted even after she had recovered from her illness; she liked the new set-up and cared little whether it kept her mother awake and depleted.

So, that night, we decided we would not visit our daughter when she called, and would try to get her back to her normal sleeping habits. We knew it was going to be hard; our daughter’s lungs are well-developed and she can belt out high-decibel wails without breaking a sweat.

Sometime after midnight, it began. The crying was piercing enough to begin with and all too quickly it became louder and more insistent, tinged with a distinctive irritation and pique: why am I not being picked up? Next door, in our bedroom, my wife and I lay awake, desperately riding out the storm. It did not abate; the cries grew louder, and then, most painfully, I heard sobs and whimpers. I thrust my face deeper into the pillow, trying to cover my ears, to blot out the shrieks and wails that were now progressively more desperate. As I began muttering about this ‘torture’ my wife reminded me of our decision, made earlier that night, to not go to her; she might even have asked me to ‘snap out of it.’

And as I tossed and turned, as I realized there was no relief forthcoming, it occurred to me my daughter’s crying and our situation seemed to instantiate some abstract facts about the human condition. My daughter was not going to be comforted that night;  my wife could not dare take the chance of perpetuating a system that was destroying everyone’s sleep and sanity; my daughter wanted only one kind of relief, her mother’s company and thus, would not be assuaged by my going to her; indeed, had I gone to her and tried to comfort her, she would have wailed even louder. There was no way out for her but through; and it was too, in some twisted way, a situation of her own making: had she ever indicated she would respond favorably to my cooing and rocking, I would have gone to her that night, over-riding my earlier determination to get her sleep-trained again.

It was, in short, the sort of gigantic clusterfuck that the universe seems to specialize in putting on for our benefit–just to remind us of the existence of the all too common no-win situation.

From Santa Barbara to Badaun: Misogyny and Masculinity

It’s been a bad week for women. They found out, in sunny California, that when they do not dispense sexual indulgences to those who seek (or demand) them, they can provoke murderous rages; they also found out, in India’s central provinces, that their bodies remain to be taken by others, used, and then finally, strung up like broken rag dolls. Elliott Rodger and the as-yet-convicted rapists and killers of two teenage girls–separated by time and space–had this in common: they disliked women intensely. They hated them enough to kill them.

Elliott Rodger begs for cruel mockery about what goes terribly wrong when you don’t get laid. But the killers of Badaun weren’t sexually deprived; they had had their fill of the girls before they tossed them aside. Indeed, if Rodger had gotten his way and been dispensed the favors he seemed to be so desperately seeking, there is no guarantee he wouldn’t have killed anyway. Perhaps he would have channeled his rage against women some other way; perhaps he would have chosen to have gotten angry because one of his sexual partners wanted to break things off and just move on. The kind of anger so clearly visible in his disturbing video is not so easily assuaged as might be imagined; its roots lie far deeper. And the killers of Badaun made this rage manifest; it was not enough for them that they raped the girls they had abducted, they also hung them from a tree to strike fear into the hearts of anyone–especially other young women–who saw their limp, lifeless bodies. Women should know their place in this world: keep shut, spread your legs. (It is an additional complicating factor in the Indian case that the young women were Dalits, and their killers were probably members of an ‘upper-caste.’)

Many years ago, in a documentary on Mike Tyson, when speaking of his rape conviction, Joyce Carol Oates had noted that the modern man–in his sexual interactions with women–is animated by a rage qualitiatively and quantitatively distinct from that which tormented his predecessors earlier. Then, when a woman declined to sleep with you, you could convince yourself it was because she wanted to be a ‘good girl.’ Now, that same rejection has a personal sting: she is choosing someone else, not you, not now. Rodger had internalized this resentment for sure, but he had also inculcated in himself a corrosive Whore-Madonna complex of sorts: women wouldn’t stop being ‘sluts’ just because they had slept with Rodger. Perhaps they’d sink even lower in his eyes. Perhaps because, despite his protestations, Rodger didn’t think very much himself, he might have regarded them as especially contemptible for having slept with him.

Among masculinity’s worst contributions to our culture–and it has many terrible achievements–has been its degradation of sexual relations, its notion of sexual ‘accomplishment’ where men succeed via promiscuity and women fail. Over time, women have ceased to be persons and have merely become prickly, uncooperative owners of bodies, who refuse to play the game. As defined by men.

The teenage girls of Badaun, it’s ‘strange fruit‘, learned that the hard way: once their bodies had been used by those who wanted them, they weren’t needed any more. And no one else could have them. Not even they, themselves.

It’s no country, or world, for women (old or otherwise).

Keep Marijuana Illegal; It Might Be Used to Aid Sick Children

This is how morally depraved the anti-marijuana legalization debate has become.

The New York Times reports:

For the fifth time in seven years, the State Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana, backing a measure that would far surpass a program Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced this year.

But with less than four weeks left in the legislative session, the prospects for passage in the State Senate remained uncertain.

The bill allows the possession and use of up to two and a half ounces of marijuana by seriously ill patients whom doctors, physician assistants or nurse practitioners have certified.

“There are tens of thousands of New Yorkers with serious, debilitating, life-threatening conditions whose lives could be made more tolerable and longer by enacting this legislation,” said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan who heads the Health Committee and sponsored the bill.

But enacting any bill on medical marijuana may be difficult. The Assembly, where Democrats are a majority, has passed such bills as far back as 2007, but Republicans in the Senate have been chilly to the concept.


In the Assembly on Tuesday, the debate was less about the bill’s fate and more about potential ramifications.

Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, a Republican from the Buffalo area, suggested hypothetically that a drug kingpin, if certified as a caregiver, might be allowed to give marijuana to his sick child.

Mr. Gottfried, seemingly bewildered, offered a grudging yes and said, “I would hope that we would not prevent that child from having his or her life saved because of the sins of the child’s father.”

So there you have it. We should prevent the passage of a bill that would facilitate the use of a palliative, a pain-killer, which would help the residents of this state who suffer from “serious, debilitating, life-threatening conditions” because doing so might help a drug dealer provide comfort to his “sick child.”

We should, in short, keep this drug illegal because otherwise sick children might benefit from it.

My Mother’s Books: Symbols of Resistance

Among the many old books on my shelves are a couple of dozen especially battered ones. Some belong to my father’s collection (I will write on these on another occasion); some belong to my uncle’s. And then there are another two, especially fragile, their pages browned and brittle, also brought back from India, just like those previously mentioned, one missing a cover, the other about to lose it.

The former is: Herbert Schneider, A History of American Philosophy (Forum Books, Columbia University Press, 1946; republished by Forum Books); the latter, Albert D. Van Nostrand (ed.), Literary Criticism in America, Liberal Arts Press, 1957. Their former owner’s name is visible inside the Nostrand book, along with a note indicating her program of study at the time: Satish Sabharwal, MA Final.

Satish Sabharwal was my mother. She would change her names–first and last both–after her marriage to my father, after she had completed that final year, the ‘MA Final’ of her master’s degree in English Literature (with a specialization in American Literature).

It is an enduring legend about my mother, in my mind, that she resisted two attempts by my grandfather to get her married off before she had finished her graduate studies. He had first attempted to do once she had finished high school; then, she had indicated she wanted to attend university and obtain her BA in English Literature. My grandmother was suitably supportive then; later, when my grandfather again attempted to marry her off after her BA, she agreed to back my mother up when she rejected a suitor for her arranged marriage, claiming that she wanted to keep studying and earn her MA next. (That young man, recently returned from the US with a graduate degree in engineering would instead marry her younger sister and return with her to that distant land.) Finally, after she had finished her MA, she agreed to her father’s suggestions that she meet a young man, a dashing air force pilot, who seemed like a good ‘match’ for her.  She liked her potential groom, even though she thought he was a little stuck-up and distant; he, for his part, expecting a small-town girl to be considerably unsophisticated, was pleasantly surprised by her keen interest in his flying and his European travels. That pilot, of course, was my father.

I brought these two books back from India several years ago. Occasionally, I take them down from the shelves and glance through their contents. The Schneider book has chapters–among others–on ‘Platonism and Empiricism in Colonial America,’ ‘The American Enlightenment,’ ‘Nationalism and Democracy,’ ‘The Transcendental Temper,’ ‘Radical Empiricism,’ ‘A New Naturalism and Realism.’ The Nostrand book includes essays by–among others–Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, George Santayana, H. L. Mencken, Robert Frost, Edmund Wilson.

I do not know why I still have not read these books. They seem very fragile and I fear they will fall apart in my hands as I read them. My wife has often urged me to bind them and I suppose that if I want to own them for much longer, I will have to do so soon. But I resist; binding will shape their form, turn them into something else. As they are, they maintain a certain kind of continuity with their past, and thus, with their former owner. By doing so, they continue to remind me of very particular and distinctive acts of resistance, conducted many years ago, against someone who would have been surprised to have seen his directives so withstood.

These books aren’t just historical narratives of intellectual traditions; they are also testimonials to a life sought to be conducted on its own terms.

Saba Naqvi on A Supposed Crisis of Indian Secularism

Saba Naqvi has offered an interesting critique of Indian secularism; in it, she writes of the need to:
[C]onfront the great crisis of Indian secularism, that is now so hollowed out that it makes it easy for communal forces to grow….Indian secularism is not about some utterance of the soul as a Jawaharlal Nehru may have once imagined it. It appears to be mostly about electoral management by secular parties that involves first seeing Muslims as a herd and then trying to keep that herd together.

And goes on:

Beyond that, there is nothing much that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except perhaps to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum that displays our secularism. That museum is full of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics as representative of the community, those men with long beards, and women in burqa. Despite being so all-pervasive, the stereotypes are so flat they at times look like caricatures.

Since Inde­pendence, sec­ular parties in India have approached the Muslim community through clerics and in the process given them legitimacy. The maulanas, in turn, have used the cover of “secularism” to keep retrograde personal laws in place and thereby their own relevance intact till presumably they land in paradise. They rarely talk of jobs, employment, modernity. The result now is that having been given “secularism” to eat and a vote to brandish, the Muslims of India have been left in their ghettos with many “sole spokesmen” of the community. It is these clerics who promise the deliverance of that herd during election time. Their projection of their own clout is often a fraudulent exercise.
Naqvi’s observations are acute but I do not know if I agree with her diagnosis. To wit, it is not clear to me if the situation at hand indicates a crisis of secularism–the Indian one in particular, which seeks to cater to all religions equally as opposed to finding a rigid separation between church and state–as much as it it is an indicator that bad things happen when the pandering almost invariably associated with electoral democracies meets organized religion, or a community in which the pronouncements of clergy are taken seriously as a guide to social action. Political parties approaching communities (read: voting blocs) through clerics alone do not give the clergy legitimacy; that standing is dependent on the social structures within which the priestly order finds a space within which to exert power. I wonder if Naqvi is putting the cart before the horse here.
On an intemperate side note: Many are the times when I wonder if organized religion–with its almost inevitable machinery of interpretive authorities, doctrinal mavens, and holy men–is, everywhere, all the time, a pernicious burden on society. Perhaps Diderot had it right: Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Gary Wills has written what seems like an excellent book about how the Catholic religion could and should get rid of its priests; it’s a model worth emulating elsewhere. (I am well aware that Islam is not similar to Catholicism in this matter.) 

Waiting for Jury Duty: Crowd Observation Notes

A curious fact about the crowd enduring the interminably long wait to be called for jury duty selection  at Brooklyn’s State Supreme Court building today was how its interactions slowly began to resemble those of passengers on an airliner stranded on an airport tarmac.

Before lunch, some folks had already dozed off (I had taken a nap myself thanks to a 0530 AM rising induced by my daughter’s wails); many others sported the ubiquitous pair of headphones (tinny notes of hip-hop, metal and dance music could be heard issuing from these);  some had laptops open on their, er, laps, and indulged in either entertainment or work; some played cards; and yet others read newspapers, books, and magazines.

It was a garden variety crowd in waiting; patient, occupied,  indulgent of the judicial system’s call on them to perform their civic duty. (The orientation video, though hokey in many ways, was also curiously moving in its sincerity.)

But after lunch, despite having sought and procured nourishment qualitatively and quantitatively better than that available on the floor’s vending machines, the mood was more disgruntled. Some, like me, wondered whether we’d be called for a second day of waiting (this query was loudly answered with indignant “No way!”s); some muttered about the wages lost for the day and refused to find solace in the news that they would be paid $40 per day of jury duty;  some veterans were telling war stories of much longer waits ‘back in the day’; one young man struck up a conversation with the young woman sitting next to him and seemed to be keeping her reasonably well entertained with his quip-a-minute manners. Little groups had started to form; boredom and exhaustion was writ large on most faces, threatening to turn at any time into full-blown irritation.

One gentleman paced about, complaining about how he had exhausted the bag of tricks he had bought with himself to keep himself entertained; his work was taken care of and he had finished reading his book. On hearing this, a young woman spoke up, “I can loan you a book to read if you want.” Our hero was suitably responsive, “Sure, what kind is it?” The young woman almost giggled, “Do you like Shakespeare? I have Romeo and Juliet if you want.” A little nonplussed, the seeker of  diversions quickly recovered, “Sure, what the heck, hand it over. I’ll give it a read.” The young woman beamed, reached into her bag, and did so.

An hour or so later, the master of ceremonies for the day walked out, pulled the microphone to her and wished everyone a good afternoon. The waiting throng answered in unison; it was like being back in grade school. When she made the announcement that we could go home, that we had fulfilled our jury duty service requirement for the next eight years, a loud cheer broke out.

A few minutes later, I had left the courthouse, my certificate of service secure in my backpack; my civic duties were done for the time being.

Childcare duties still remained, but at that moment, they seemed considerably less tedious.

Yosemite and Sequoia: Visiting John Muir’s Playgrounds

Last week, my family and I traveled to California; more precisely, to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. (We visited family in Los Angeles as well.) Superlatives for national parks are a dime-a-dozen, so most writing on them is doomed to cliche. But let me press on regardless.

The landscapes of these parks, like those of Monument Valley on which I wrote last year, have become iconic–captured innumerable times in photographs and movies.  Your first encounter with them is tinged with that familiar sense of bewilderment: you have seen this all before, many, many times. And yet, of course, it’s novel.

Consider Half-Dome, that splendid granite centerpiece of the Yosemite Valley, here viewed from Glacier Point (now, mercifully free of the hotels that once defiled it):


This is an exceedingly familiar image for most Americans (and many non-Americans too, if the amount of German, French, and Russian I heard spoken at Yosemite is any indication). Still, its ubiquity does nothing to diminish one’s sense of awe when confronted by its 4000-foot face.

Yosemite and Sequoia are justifiably famous too, as the venues of John Muir‘s epic rambles, walks which brought him into close proximity with a wilderness of staggering beauty and which he dedicated his life to studying, eulogizing, and protecting. Reading his richly poetic descriptions of these landscapes, you realize you have made contact–through time and space–with a deeply sensitive soul, someone who found in quiet and loud spaces by stream and brook and waterfall and glacier and rockface, the perfect zones for meditation and repose and a deeper understanding of himself and his place in nature. And ours, of course.

It might sound strange to say this, but the deepest impressions on me on these travels were made not just by the awe-inspiring High Sierra, the gigantic sequoias, the verdant valleys of the Merced but also by Muir’s words and recountings of his travels and experiences. This was a man who could travel alone, for weeks and months on end, among bear and mountain lion, swim down an avalanche, stand behind a waterfall and spend a night on a tree to experience its relationship to a storm. This was a man who found his most comfortable beds on the branches of fir trees, who preferred to count stars instead of sheep as he sought sleep, who found divinity not in the Bible he had been forced to memorize by a tyrannical father, but in the living, breathing, sparkling works of nature around him. Somewhere, buried in his many, many written words, must be emotions and thoughts similar to those expressed by another visionary and mystic:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Muir clearly felt himself to be one with the beauty that surrounded him; in its endless cycles and rhythms he might have detected a kind of immortality that was also his, an acknowledgment of his genesis in age-old cosmic dust, come to rest in him and the granite and bark and cold streams that were his constant companions.

We should all be grateful he was so eloquent and so passionate, that his words helped protect and preserve the visions that are ours for the viewing.