1.27.2019

A Poet in Chile (and Argentina)


Note: My wife and I participated in a Go Ahead Tours group excursion to Chile and Argentina from January 3 to January 17, 2019. What follows is my account of this journey. It consists of external and internal observations; mind is like a Möbius strip, a configuration in which the outer and inner aspects are one and the same. In other words, what I see often begins a process of thinking and feeling that sometimes leads to a culmination of that process, a poem. Nine poems are interwoven into this inner/outer travelogue.

We left a day before the tour started. After an uneventful flight to Santiago de Chile, the country’s capital, we took the convenient ground transportation to our hotel, located in a high-end section of the city. The location was good, near a large park; the disadvantage is that most of the points of interest are located about a half-hour’s taxi ride from the hotel. We made a rather bad choice for our first visit, a starred attraction in our guide book: The Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center. We thought it contained a museum, but it only offered a few exhibits of folk art. It is situated by the Catholic University of Chile, an important center of higher education. The cultural center offers many theatrical performances, one of which we were interested in attending, a performance of (Asian) Indian classical music and dance, but the logistics of getting there and back proved to be too difficult. We had a nice lunch, though; vegetarian empanadas. While we ate, we watched teenagers perform what is apparently the latest local dance craze. It consists of very rapid angular movements to popular music. Like line dancing, it is not danced with a partner; it is, as it were, a spot dance, since everyone basically remains in the same spot. It is a street-artsy form of exercise; most of the kids were really good.

We had a much better time the next day when we visited an unstarred attraction in our guidebook: El Museo Chileno de Arte Precolumbino, which contains an exhibit of artworks from Mexico to Patagonia during the long pre-conquistador period. What a different view of the world stared back at us from the many statues we saw! Their expressions seem half human, and half completely other.These beings were thought to control human destiny, to which they seem to be, sometimes, as concerned for human welfare as a supernova. They represent dangerous forces that were sometimes brutally cruel while at the same time assuming the very beautiful forms the prehistoric artists gave them. The only way to survive, it was thought, in a very precarious world where death, illness and suffering were frequent unwelcome guests, was to try to propitiate them.  After a visit to this museum one begins to understand the existential anxiety which propelled the Aztecs’ obsession for human sacrifice.




After lunch, we began a guided tour of the city, a superficial and hurried one, but for tourists like Nirmala and me, who know very little about Chile, enjoyable nevertheless. We climbed the Saint Lucia Hill, the site where Santiago was founded in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia. The top afforded a nice mirador of the city. We attempted to look at the view with sixteenth-century eyes; however, only the twenty-first century stared back. Santiago is full of high-rise commercial buildings. The “eyes” of the buildings, the glistening office windows, reminded me of some of the indifferent stares of the pre-columbian gods. Scary, but much less scary, since one can look beyond them; they can be ignored.

The next day we were off to Valparaiso, a port city about a hundred kilometers to the west of Santiago. It is smaller and hilly; it has seen better days. Once a thriving port, the creation of the Panama Canal in 1914, obviating the need for a port many kilometers to the south, was a devastating blow.We ascended by funicular to a quaint area that is a Unesco Heritage site. Brightly colored two story-houses were everywhere on the hilly streets; many of the walls covered with interesting murals:




There were also many stray dogs. It reminded me of the many stray dogs we’ve encountered in Chennai, (Madras), India, during our many visit there over the years. On one of the streets in Valparaiso, I witnessed something that impressed me. A homeless woman turned a corner and presented a scrap of food to one of the stray dogs. I got the impression that the dog and the dogged were well acquainted. Her expression, before encountering the dog, was blank. Suddenly she was looking at the dog with an expression of great affection. She was obviously mentally ill; I imagine that she would like human contact, as we all do, but her illness and low status precluded the enjoyment of human society. Her clothes, now quite raggedy and dirty, gave a hint of a well-to-do yet lost social status. I imagined that somehow she had a relationship with a stray dog in India as well; on the bus ride back to Santiago I wrote the following haiku:

One in Chennai, another stray
dog in Valparaiso,
Chile. I’m making friends—at last!

A coincidence: on the way back to the funicular, I saw this:



                                    "I'd rather be a dog"          

It reminded me of what a friend, shocked by human brutality and delighted by canine affection for humans, told me long ago: “The dog is the perfect human being”.  He had a point, maybe; I am still, however, delighted that blind fate has fashioned me into a human being.

Day four of our trip began early; we had to leave around 2 a.m. to catch a flight to Punta Arenas, the southernmost major urban area in Chile. The airport was chaotic; we were traveling during peak season. Our guide, Jorge, however, had everything under control and we reached our destination without difficulty.

Punta Arenas has a population close to 130,000; it began, like Georgia in what was to become the United States, as a penal colony. It is an important base for Chilean access to Antarctica. The wind-swept town reminded me of ones we had visited in Alaska. From our hotel, we could see the Straits of Magellan, which is the many kilometers long connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the Straits and the connecting oceans moderate the climate of the town: in winter the temperature hovers around freezing, while in the summer, the season during which we visited, the temperature highs are in the 50s.

One of the highlights of our trip occurred here, a visit to the Isla Magdalena Penguin colony. The island is accessible by a small boat. The tourist-friendly hostess told me that I looked sexy in my life jacket. (Pour la première fois de ma vie, I said to myself.  She was, of course, being ironic—Hopefully not too ironic).

As we approached the island, it looked so desolate that I imagined myself as a passenger on the little boat heading for The Isle of The Dead in the famous painting by Arnold Böcklin. The island, however, is very much full of avian life: hundreds of nesting Magellan penguins, along with some nesting cormorants, were everywhere. The penguins were protected from too close contact with the most dangerous species in the world; we circumvented the island, separated from their strange stares by a small fence. It was an unforgettable experience. The Magellan penguins, a mid-sized example of the species, grow to about two and half feet and weigh about 15 lbs or so. Their nesting season begins around September; they lay their eggs in October, which hatch in December. Penguins mate for life; they re-hook up with each other after a year or so of fending for themselves. Both male and female share incubation duties and subsequent shared duties in raising their chicks. They are among the most unmusical birds on the planet. They are able, however, to identify the call of their mates, so each call has to be distinct. It is hard for us to imagine a female being attracted to the cacophonous calls of her mate; one could as easily imagine her falling in love with a foghorn. It reminds me of James Thurber’s response to a critic who asked him why his cartoon women were so unattractive. They’re attractive to my cartoon men, he replied. Nature knows what she’s doing.





The life of penguins is not easy. They make a little burrow where the female lays two eggs. After they hatch, the parents take turns on a journey for food; a journey from which they might not return. In the meantime, the stay-at-home parent stands guard by the nest. The penguins have many predators. Life is very precarious in nature, no doubt about that. I stared into the eyes of many fledglings. Their expressions were different form the ones depicted on statues of pre-columbian gods. There was no cruelty here; also no source of grandeur; no sense of self. The little stones that were their eyes seemed to be there simply to relay to their little brain whether the curious eyes belonging to me posed any threat. Nature is red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson so beautifully put it. All her creatures, however, are perfectly contained in her; it is only we humans who are able to ascend to the angels and descend to the devils. (Is climate change affecting the survival of these birds? Yes, indeed).

Tennyson was right

How irreverent are soles!
What once was an ant suddenly
is not. Tennis shoes aren’t Jains.

If I would step between their hills,
would doodlebugs be grateful? Ha!
Eat what falls into your jaws;

to a green pinhead of God
lift a beetle between fasts,
beautiful praying mantis!

A bug moving across a chyron
cannot grasp the latest carnage;
it crawls on. I brush it aside.


The next day, January 10, we were off on a bus ride to our next  destination. On the way, we stopped at an estancia, a ranch on which sheep are raised. We witnessed a sheep-shearing; it was interesting, but things were hardly as bucolic as depicted in the sheep-shearing festival in the third act of Shakespeare’s Tempest. After the poor thing was sheared, it reminded me of an enlarged photo of a newborn hamster. At least they didn’t kill it!—which, by the way, they more than sometimes do.

A few hours later, we reached Puerto Natalis, a rather unimpressive little town whose claim to fame is its proximity to the Torres del Paine National Park, which we visited in the afternoon.

Visiting the park was another unforgettable experience. Its large area contains many lakes, each a different color depending on the source of the water and the type of algae present. Wildlife was fairly abundant. The central attraction of the park is the towering peaks of Los Cuernos del Paine. Its base is ancient, but the peak is only about 12 million years old, barely out of the toddler stage of a mountain’s lifespan. (The Andes are 80 million years old). The huge granite slabs, carved by glaciers into their present form, reminded me of Titan-sized versions of the stone tablets of the Decalogue.




I stood in awe before them. Standing before this majestic scene, one is aware of what Longinus had in mind when he wrote his famous treatise over two thousand years ago: the only appropriate word for such experiences is, indeed, sublime.

After I “came down” from the heights, I thought, curiously, of Saint Bernard—at least I think it was Saint Bernard. I remember reading about a saint who had to be led across the Alps by an assistant. He kept his eyes closed—he didn’t want the grandeur of the outer world to challenge the grandeur of his inner world, the world of God. Odd. My Möbius mind informed me that the inner and outer must be kept wisely in balance, since they are actually one and the same. Love of the world, properly understood, not only doesn’t distract us from love of fellow human beings, it increases our resolve to do better.

Saint Bernard

He dealt in mirages, metaphors,
imaginary things, miracles;
his mind painted faces on stones.

He ignored what was under his nose,
so he crossed the Alps with his eyes closed.
Otherwise he’d be distracted; otherwise, he’d see.

(Coirón, crabgrass, dandelions,
vetches, clover and a yellow rose)
Wherever we look, whatever we see,

(their spirit full fills me, not his)
inside and outside encompasses all—
(Mind’s eyebrows are cirrus clouds;

mind’s cheeks are giant red stars)—
Why do we suffer? Why are we here?
God passes God nectar and laughs.

The next day consisted mainly of a very long bus ride to El Carafate, a town in Argentina. As we passed the Argentine border, we stopped at a shrine of an Argentine (sort-of) saint, El Gauchito Gil. He was apparently an Argentine Robin Hood, a champion of the common folk, for which he was executed. Miracles allegedly followed, and still follow. Jorge gave each one of us a card with a drawing of Gil on one side, and a request for intercession on the back. Here is the prayer on the back of the glossy, wallet-sized card:

¡OH! GAUCHITO GIL

Te ruego humildemente
se cumpla por intermedio
ante Dios, el milagro
que te pido; y te prometa
que cumpliré mi promessa,
brindándote mi fiel
agradecimiento y
demostación de Fe,
en Dios y en vos,
GAUCHITO GIL

Amén

The offerings at the shrine consisted mainly of  cans of beer, apparently typical offerings for this folksy saint.

I like to watch news in Spanish when I am in Baltimore. The half hour Noticias is followed by a silly telenovela entitled La Rosa de Guadalupe. It depicts young people who get themselves into desperate circumstances—usually, you guessed it, through inappropriate sexual encounters. When all hope is apparently lost, a white rose descends, accompanied by a  tinsely shower and tinsely music. Thus begins the intervention of the diva ex machina, the Virgin of Guadalupe, who will resolve whatever mess the hapless young folk have gotten themselves into, all in time for the final commercial. Why not make an offshoot of this nonsense, a telenovela called La Cerveza de Gauchito Gil? Instead of a rose, cans of beer would fall into the hands of the afflicted. And if Gauchito Gil failed to deliver, at least they’d be able to drown out their sorrows before the final commercial.

OK, let’s get serious. While riding on the bus, I stared at the endless fields of coirón, the pale yellow grass of the Patagonian steppe; breaking the monotony of the grass were many carafate bushes. I was spotting wildlife—guanacos, flamingos, condors and, of course, sheep. I saw in the distance some creature or other and turned to my wife, who, as I discovered, was asleep on the seat beside me. Her mouth was half-open and her eyes, eerily, were slightly open as well. For a moment she seemed to be dead, thus anticipating the most traumatic event of my life, if I’m not lucky enough to go first. (The major theme of poets is said to be love and death, which I have found out to be quite true).

For my dear and mortal wife

I don’t mind dying (O yes you do)
but hers—I couldn’t bear it!
(True)--Why am I soft as a doughnut?
Why is faith thin as a robin egg’s shell?

Not that I envy a  boulder’s palm
whose handshake I’ll feel soon enough.
Pale-yellow grass on an Argentine pampa
I’d be; beneath the surface of Enceladus,

frozen slush I’d be without her—Once
the marriage bed is empty, what cover
shall warm me this side of cremation,
what melts metaphorical snow?

What melts metaphorical snow? Figuring this out is one of the major problems of life, no? Well, Nirmala awoke and I was back in the middle of life. As we rode along, another poem came to me, a Buddhist poem. Contrary to what people think, Buddha didn’t recommend that one should eliminate all desires, just egotistic desire, cravings characterized by the three impediments to wisdom, namely, greed, hate and delusion. It is folly not to accept life as it is; to demand from it more than it is able to give. Even worse is the folly of demanding that we be something which we are not.  This is the subject of the following little poem. (Note “Nothing” refers to “Sunyatta” the void in which pure consciousness abides, the source of wisdom and peace).

“Enough isn’t enough”—this is desire.
I must be enough—desire again.
Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!
Enough--the fulfillment of Zen.

A bit tired from the bus trip, we finally arrived at El Carafate. Of the three towns we visited in Patagonia, this one is the most lively, largely due to tourism. We had a good vegetarian meal at a restaurant called Pura Vida.

The next day we visited the largest national park of Argentina, El Parque Nacional de los Glacieres. The park contains two large lakes, Lake Argentino and Lake Lake Viedma. We stopped at Lake Argentino, surrounded by subpolar forests, mountains and inhabited by an abundance of wildlife. A bit later we arrived at the southern face of Lake Argentino, which affords spectacular views of the Perito Moreno Glacier. The height of the glacier is much less than the height of the glaciers we saw in Alaska: it rises only about 200 ft, and, we were told, extends about 500 ft below the surface of the lake. What really impresses is the size of the glacier; seen from above, it extends to the horizon as far as the eye can see,



Suddenly, my mind’s eye saw rows of the terracotta soldiers which compose the posthumous army of the third century B.C.E. Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Looking down from a balcony from the Xian museum which houses the sculptures, one is impressed by long rows of this clay army, which extends into the distance in much the same way as the glacier, albeit on a much smaller scale. Perhaps the icy irregularities at the top of the glacier reminded me of the soldiers’ helmets. I soon wrote the following haiku:

The Perito Moreno Glacier

Frozen in attention,
white-capped Xian solders—One faints;
distant sounds of thunder

Soon we were on a plane again, this time to Buenas Aires, a fascinating  city, where we spent two nights. After that, many in our group flew back home. Not us: Nirmala and I, along with several others, booked an extension to Iguazú Falls, which proved to be a wise choice. On the two hour flight to Iguazú Falls, which is located near the borders of Brazil and of Paraguay, we experienced some turbulence, which led me to write the following poem:

Turbulence

We gallop through clouds—Suddenly,
Pegasus bucks—We rise, we fall;
no getting off this obstreperous steed
until we reach Iguazú Falls.

Whoa, Bronco, whoa! Coward’s no cowboy;
panic has no reins to quiet giddy hooves—
Buck on. Doubt turned green professes still-
things unseen: Faith still believes in Ground!

Ground did indeed arrive an hour later. We were now in a subtropical time zone; it was humid, it was hot. Shortly after our arrival, we took a little walking tour through some jungle, which proved to be an excellent way to muddy up our shoes.
The Falls, which we visited the following day provided yet another unforgettable experience. Yes, it was sublime, but it was also cosmic: I think that there are few spots on Earth where one comes into such close contact with the raw power of nature. 

We took a little train ride to the beginning of a suspended walkway which led to the falls. The panoramic views from the walkway were nothing short of astounding. As we approached the  falls, we all became Keats’s Cortez, as it were, “silent before a peak in Darien”.




Nature can be very small. For instance, there are about  1 x 1023
molecules in a teaspoon of water. How many trillions more in the human body, a large proportion of which consists of water! The amount of water molecules in the churning mass before us—a truly unfathomable amount!





I felt as if I had been surrounded by unearthly forces of truly cosmic proportion. The people on the walkway became, as it were, tiny (relatively speaking) stars trying to assert themselves in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy many light-years away from Earth.




The majestic Falls, however, became the source of the silliest poem I wrote on the journey, a poem of comic exaggeration:

Iguazú Falls
Pace, Lewis Carroll

If seven drunks with seven jugs
swigged for seven years,
ya think they’d ever drink it up?
They would if it were beer

The Falls gave rise to one of my more serious poems as well. At the site of a churning immensity called The Devil’s Throat—we were just a few feet away from the gurgling abyss—our local guide, Chino, informed us that if anyone leaped into the water at this point, there would be no chance of survival. I asked him how often this occurs—A few times a year, he told me.

How sad. Suicide visited my family on one occasion; I know more than a bit about its devastating impact on the living.  As a physician, I also came into contact with several desperate patients during my long career. A healthy life, as mentioned previously, is a balance between the mind and what the mind sees. When one is locked in an inner world full of demons, the psychic pain can be almost unbearable.

The healthy way to transcend the cravings of the ego is through acts of loving kindness and insight into the interconnectedness of all things. I thought of the lines by the Tang-dynasty poet, Li Po: We sit together, the mountain and me,/Until only the mountain remains.

The path of love and wisdom, as everyone of us knows, isn’t easy. Suicide, which is most often impulsive, is the easy—tragically easy-- way to leave the cravings of the ego behind—(No criticism of those who commit suicide implied! Mental illness is a disease, not a fault).

So many words to introduce a haiku I wrote after experiencing The Iguazú Falls!

Suicide, Iguazú Falls

What an easy way to
become one with the entire world!
My way is harder

We have thus come to an end of this inward-outward journey through Chile and Argentina. Comments welcome!

Thanks to Go Ahead Tours for arranging this trip; thanks to Jorge Monferini, our excellent cicerone; thanks goes to our fellow travelers and to all readers of this account as well!

Dorsett is a retired pediatrician and a widely published poet.

12.31.2018

A Review of J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls"


“An Inspector Calls,” by J.B. Priestley, directed by Stephen Delay, part of the 2018-1019 repertoire of the Shakespeare Theater in Washington D.C., was an enjoyable theatrical experience. The play was once a war horse that galloped across the world’s stages after its premiere—in The Soviet Union no less—in 1945. Why beat a near-dead horse? I’m not completely sure, but I'm grateful that the director chose to revive it—There is obviously life in the old steed yet.

It is a didactic play, true, but quite an innovative and entertaining one, nevertheless.  We know where Priestley’s sympathies lie as the unrepentant capitalist, Mr. Birling, says the following lines at the beginning of the play: "The way some of these cranks talk and write now, you'd think everybody has to look after everyone else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive--community and all that nonsense." Priestley, like the best of us in every generation, was undoubtedly one of those "cranks". 

"Love yourself and cheat your neighbor," a travesty of The Golden Rule, is still the unspoken mantra of many, 73 years after the play was written. Thus this idea play has still alas! a very contemporary message.

The mise-en-scene is quite impressive. The stage presents a large Victorian house on shaky foundations. The house reminded me of models on a train-set board lovingly erected by my father every Christmas when I was a kid. Its doll-house-like proportions in this production affords a view only of a dining room table around which the wealthy family gathers to celebrate the engagement of Birling's daughter to a younger version of himself, a promising little Koch, expected to exploit for years to come, expected to play dirty with a pristine conscience in the vacuous spirit of his soon-to-be father-in-law.

In the first scene, after the house opens into two equal wings, we find the family seated around a dining room table. The cramped space symbolizes the cramped spiritual life of the inhabitants.

Then the inspector calls, a police inspector named Goole, no less.  A young woman has poisoned herself with disinfectant, symbolizing the moral filth of the upper class members who are, as we shall see, responsible for her death. The family asks the inspector what the young girl’s death has to do with them?  Apparently plenty.

Each family member discovers during the course of the play that their consciences are as diaphanously clear as a pile of Newcastle coal. They killed her as assuredly as the measles virus killed countless numbers of Indians during the Spanish conquest of South America. The virus in this case is that murderously infectious vector of the upper class, namely, exploitation of the poor. (The patriarch fired her because she wanted an increase in wages; his wife had her fired from her subsequent employment for a frivolous reason; the fiancé abused her sexually; Birling's son impregnates her; the matriarch refuses to help her  because she had become “a fallen woman.”

It is a bit too much; the author wants to demonstrate that most members of the upper class are guilty, a defensible position that comes across dramatically as an ineffective exaggeration. That’s not all: the reason she approaches the matriarch for help is that the latter's impecunious son has been stealing from his father in order to support her. The young girl is just too pure to accept stolen money—Oh, brother!

It reminds me of a wonderful, unintended Zen moment from a Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera. The bad guy is beating some poor schlep. Groucho stops him with the following words, “Hey, you big bully, why are you picking on that little bully?”

We’re all bullies; nobody’s innocent. What makes one bully a little one is simply due to a lack of power. That the oppressed young girl, born with mud in her mouth while the others eat off a silver spoon, is the only one in the entire play who is as innocent as a canary in coal mine, strikes us as being gratuitously and undramatically ideological. In real life she would most likely be less concerned with the means rather than with the end, namely, survival. Who could blame her? J.B. Priestley perhaps.Truth is, we are all guilty, but the powerful are a good deal more guilty than the powerless “little bullies”; the former alone have the means to be really mean.
In this age of gross inequality, however, Priestley's assessment of society is more apropos than ever. 

It is difficult to read the newspapers these days without getting depressed. To get myself out of the pit into which the world’s abuses have thrown me, I’ve read some of the books by Steven Pinsker, who claims that the world is getting better, and provides convincing charts to prove it. One need only think of the many programs that combat inequality which Great Britain has promulgated in the years since An Inspector Calls was written. Still… 

The arc of justice may eventually lead to a pot of gold--but does it have to be so long; does it have to pass over such desperate landscapes in order to reach its happy goal?

A metaphor taken from physics consoles. According to a theory, there was  an equal amount of matter and antimatter at the time of creation. Each category annihilated the other. A small amount of matter, which comprises our entire cosmos today, remained, since it took more time to turn into matter and thus escaped destruction.This might be a good metaphor for human history. In each generation, evil and good are present in almost equal amounts; however, in each generation, after much suffering and destruction, a small amount of good prevails.

Thus, in every generation “matter” inspectors visit and, with a message of “Love your neighbor” examine our consciences and inspire us to do better. Yet every generation receives visits, in almost equal measure, from antimatter inspectors whose message is “Gold loves you just the way you are.” According to Pinsker and his convincing charts, the good inspectors predominate, if ever so slightly.

In this view, genesis occurs with every generation anew. This is why the family members, after discovering that the inspector was a phantom, revert to their greedy ways. The only ones who have “learned their lesson”, the bride and her brother, are the surviving elements of “matter," the unannihilated remnant of good which will make the next generation better. Hope for the future? Perhaps.

Then comes Priestley’s theatrical surprise. There is an inspector after all, and he will call on the family shortly. Everyone, a new generation of the same characters,  will have to confront their antimatter again—a profound message presented with a theatrical tour de force.

The acting and directing were superb. Kudus to Shakespeare Theater for reviving this interesting play!

12.12.2018

R.I.P. Vimala Arjun (1930-2018)



Today, December 10, 2018, we got a call at 4:14 a.m. We knew what it was about. My sister-in-law, Vimala Arjun, passed away in Chennai, India.We had talked with her daughter, Vidya, on the evening of December 9th. Vimala’s skin had become mottled. I asked if her extremities were cold; they were. She was having excess mucus in her throat and had difficulty breathing. These are all signs of impending death. We advised against tube feeding; Just keep her comfortable, we said; no need to try to feed her if she is unable to eat; just keep her lips moist, etc.

It was not an easy death. She had been struggling against the inevitable for months. Vimala’s mind was sharp until the very end. For instance, she knew when my birthday was (Oct. 9th) and had her daughter call me this year so she could wish me a happy birthday. This was yet another example of her phenomenal memory, since I am an in-law, one of many relatives in a large family and a large circle of friends and acquaintances. Even toward the end, when her speech became slurred, her mentation had not lost its vigor.

Her body had not been as lucky. She was crippled by scoliosis and severe kyphosis. Her back was so bent that she could hardly walk; she was confined to her flat for the last few years of her life. We called her frequently; she never complained, and always gave us news about close and distant relatives, and news about the successes of past students as well. (Vimala had been a professor of English literature and department head at Ethiraj College in Chennai for many years).

My first memory of Vimala occurred before I had met her. My wife Nirmala and I, both pediatric residents in New York City, were in a relationship, which led to marriage after a two year courtship, in 1974. I remember thinking at the time that Nirmala had a sister who was so old—42! I can’t image what twenty-somethings must think of me now that I’ve become over thirty years older than Vimala was then! O yes I can.

After our residency, we traveled to India as a newly married couple. It was my first of many visits; Nirmala hadn’t been home for about five years. At that time, Vimala’s husband, Krishnarjun, was working for the Reserve Bank of India; they lived in a flat in a compound of flats for bank employees in Kilpauk, Madras—the city hadn’t been renamed Chennai yet. When we entered the flat, we had become, as it were, gods. Vimala had us sit at the center of the living room; she placed a mala, a garland of bright orange flowers around each of our necks. Two large valukkus, ceremonial lamps, had been lit. The bowls of the lamps, filled with oil, had places for several cotton wicks. While we sat on the floor, bathed in a warm glow from the valukku fire, our ears were full filled with carnatic, that is, classical South Indian religious music. It was an unforgettable experience.

Vimala, by the way, had musical talent. She was studying singing before her father’s unexpected death, in 1950, changed everything. I heard her sing a few times; she had a very sweet voice and always sang on key. I fondly recall discussing carnatic music on several occasions with her.

2. From Roshen To Vidya

The next day we had another unforgettable experience, a far less pleasant one. Vimala’s daughter, Roshen, (like Madras, she had not been renamed yet either—she is now called Vidya), had been riding around the compound courtyard on a bike. Vimala came to the courtyard soon after, begging Roshen to stop. Roshen, unfortunately had a severe form of heart disease. Nirmala and I noticed that she was very much out of breath after a few laps around the courtyard. Her lips had turned blue; her fingertips had turned blue as well.

Vimala, by far the most traditionally religious person of the family, had consulted a guru who advised her to change Roshen’s name. Nirmala had chosen Roshen as a name for her niece; Vidya, which means wisdom, however, is a lovely name, no doubt about that. I will call her by that name from now on.

Vidya had had a test a few years earlier to determine the nature of her cardiac disease. The procedure, called a cardiac catheterization, entailed the injection of an iodine-based dye into her blood stream, so that her vessels could be better visualized on X-ray. Vidya, however, suffered a near-fatal allergic reaction to the dye and the procedure had to be aborted. Only a partial video was available. This study was sent to the famous cardiologist, Dr. DeBakey, in Texas. He reported that she most likely had a diagnosis called transposition of the great vessels; he believed that the condition was now inoperable. There was nothing to do but await the inevitable.

Nirmala and I weren’t ready to accept this devastating news; perhaps something could be done. When we returned to the United States, Nirmala contacted cardiologists at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, where Nirmala worked as a pediatrician. She came into contact with a young cardiac surgeon there, whose name was Dr. Griepp. He reviewed the study, which we had brought along with us. He told us that the diagnosis was not transposition, bur a condition called tetralogy of Fallot. (His diagnosis, by the way, proved to be the correct one). He believed an operation could save her, and was willing to do it for free!  Those were the days—such largesse would be impossible today!

Nirmala and I were very pleased—as was Vimala, when we informed her. It was in the fall of 1977 when Vidya and her mother arrived in New York.  An aside: when we left the airport, Vimala noticed a billboard advertisement for drumsticks.”They have drumsticks here!” the vegetarian Vimala beamed. East is East and West is West, I thought, amused, for in India a drumstick is a yummy-gummy  vegetable, very different from the disembodied thigh of a dead bird!

The operation was a complete success! Helping to arrange for Vidya’s surgery was one of the three best things I’ve ever done. The first was marrying Nirmala, the second was adopting our son, Philip. The real hero of all this is, of course, Dr. Griepp, without whose help Vidya would not be alive today, nor would her lovely daughter, Shrada, a psychologist, ever have been born.

3. The Demise of the Family Matriarch




Vimala lived for over thirty years post retirement; her mind, as mentioned previously, remained sharp until the very end. But her last few months were difficult. It made me think of the poem Heinrich Heine wrote on this deathbed, the last stanza of which, in my translation, follows:

You wring your lovely hands so sadly.
O be consoled! It is our fate,
Our human fate, what’s good and great
And lovely ends—and ends badly.

Vimala’s eldest daughter, Sudha, did a fantastic job caring for her mother. She lived with her, slept with her, and did everything she could to ease her suffering. Vidya, of course, was a significant presence as well.

Vidya, who was with her when she died, reports that Vimala, propped up so that gravity could help her with the secretions that had gathered in her throat as she died, suddenly and very quietly simply stopped breathing. This reminded me of a poem by Emily Dickinson, The Last Night She Lived, perhaps the best poem about dying ever written. Here is how it ends:

She mentioned, and forgot—
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce—
Consented, and was dead—

And we—We placed the Hair,
And drew the Head erect—
And then an awful leisure was—
Belief to regulate.

Nirmala and I have begun this process of belief-regulation through daily meditations. During one of these sessions, I “saw” Vimala, as it were, and asked her if death had changed any of her views of life. She smiled and “answered” me. “Before I had many views, some correct, some incorrect; now I have all views. You cannot imagine the peace I have now.”

I told this to Vidya, who had had a similar experience. Vimala had become the world; she informed us that there was no reason to mourn; but mourn we will.

Vimala leaves behind two daughters and two grandchildren, Shrada and Varun; her brother, Rajagopalan, and two sisters, my wife Nirmala and Romila, and a host of other relatives and friends, too numerous to mention.

Her passing and the experiences Vidya and I had afterward, remind me of a poem I had written years earlier, after her wonderful mother, Bhagirathy, died in 1994:

Last Words

Dear ones, now that I am gone,
Do not shed another tear;
Why grieve for one beyond harm?
Children, there’s no sorrow here.

There, at the moment of death,
Pain is what I left, not love:
The mother you knew on earth
Has become Mother above.

Where have I gone? Look and learn
From the silent sky: now (do
Not believe I’m in an urn,
Dears!) from the stars I greet you.


R.I.P. Vimala Arjun, you shall be missed.

11.29.2018

The Tragic Case of Donald Trump

Trump is not only the worst president in U.S. history, he is arguably the most transparent one as well. If you don't know why he acts the way he does by now, you either haven't been paying attention, or, more seriously, you are inclined to believe that the writing on his identity's wall tends to lead to an heroic interpretation, rather than to a clinical one.

The purpose of this article is not only to explain why Trump acts the way he does, but also to indicate why his personality disorder is so dangerous to the well-being of the United States and to the entire world. I will illustrate this with the help of an excerpt from Stephen Hawking's latest and last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, published a few months after the great scientist's death in March 2018, at the age of seventy-six. I will address Trump's personality-disorder first.

1. The Malignant Narcissist

All non-partisan observers should know by now that Trump is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. Morality for him is that which supports him; immorality for him is any form of opposition--What can be more amoral than that? The examples are legion! One of the latest is his criticism of Mark Hertling, the Navy Seal who was instrumental in capturing Saddam Hussein and killing Osama bin Laden. The retired admiral took Trump to task for his attacks on the press. When Chris Wallace of Fox News asked for a comment on Hertling's criticism, Trump interrupted and stated that the admiral was a Clinton and Obama supporter. (An accusation which the admiral subsequently vehemently denied). For Trump, the accusation of being a Clinton or Obama supporter nullifies the objectivity of whatever is said; whatever opponents say is by definition immoral, according to his internal, very limited dictionary. 

If you would prefer a clinical reason that explains Trump's behavior rather that an ethical one, it is malignant narcissism, an extreme form of vanity. Trump lives on praise as a vampire lives on blood; without it he becomes desiccated, like a grape after a  week in a desert.

Because he lacks a center, he must imagine himself to be the center of the universe. Because he knows so little, he pretends to know everything in order to salvage his precarious equilibrium. If deep down in his psyche he believes that he is worthless--this is why narcissists need constant praise--he surely knows how to cover up his lack of character with his characteristic bragging. "How would you grade your presidency so far?" Trump was asked in a recent interview. "A+," he replied; "Can I go higher than that?" He has been saying such ridiculous things for so long that
one isn't sure if he really believes the lies he tells. I think he does, which is sad and scary--Trump, after all, is the most powerful person in the world. He does not have the right stuff, however; we know it, and deep down there he knows it as well.

2. The Ignorant Narcissist

Trump claims that he is a "very stable genius," and that he knows "all the words," while in reality he is profoundly ignorant of that which one needs to know in order to govern, and cannot even put a decent sentence together. His tragedy, which has become ours, is a toxic combination of ignorance and inability to learn. Learning involves, among other things, humility and the ability to listen. Trump's lack of both of these qualities astounds. How can you learn if you are driven to pretend that you are smarter than everyone else and know all the answers already? One of his former instructors at the Wharton School of Business declared that Trump was a terrible student for this very reason.

Trump's inability to learn, his delusion that he knows all the answers, and his impulsiveness in making decisions without expert input are very dangerous flaws indeed. One of many examples follows. Trump discovered that South Korea has a trade surplus with the United States. Impulsively, he decided to pull out troops from South Korea and transfer missile defenses to Oregon. This would be an unmitigated disaster, since South Korea's proximity to "Little Rocket Man" means that a missile launched at the United States would be detected much earlier, a fact of crucial importance. Trump apparently directed his staff to have a letter ready for his signature, a letter informing the South Koreans that the United States was withdrawing from its military commitments. A patriotic aide intercepted the letter; Trump subsequently forgot about it. Whew! (The source of this anecdote is Bob Woodward's book, Fear, which chronicles the truly fearsome and amoralTrumpian chaos).

Why is he, in addition to his narcissism, so ignorant? He doesn't read. Kelly, the Secretary of Defense, considers Trump to be at the level of a fifth-grader. If he doesn't read, and he apparently doesn't, it is far worse than that. Aides apparently have to have texts illustrated with pictures, so that the president can grasp what is going on in informative meetings. Trump is known to "keep up" with the news by watching television, not by reading. This is truly unprecedented.

How does a refusal or inability to read affect a human being's ability to learn? For this, we turn to a passage from Steven Hawking's last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, (Bantam Books, 2018):

Trump ridiculously claims that  he is “a very stable genius”—if he were, he wouldn’t have to make such outlandish claims. Stephen Hawking lacked the narcissism to boast, nor did he need to—his genius was apparent to all. The great scientist who, amazingly, lasted over half a century after receiving a diagnosis of a malady which usually proves fatal within a few years, unfortunately died in March of this year, 2018, at the age of seventy-six, “a very stable genius,” despite his crippling handicap, to the very end of his life. Not only characterized by stability, his genius, as one might expect from a scientist, was also informed by rationality and by a progressive stance as well. He was thus in vehement opposition to the inane populism of Donald Trump. 

What follows is a quote from Hawkings's book:

The DNA in a human egg or sperm contains three billion base pairs of nucleic acids...the total amount of useful information in our genes is probably something like a hundred million bits...By contrast, a paperback novel might contain two million bits of information. Therefore, a human is equivalent to about fifty Harry Potter books, and a major modern national library can contain about five million books--or about ten trillion bits. The amount of information handed down in books or via the internet is 100,000 times as much as there is in DNA.


                                         --pages 76-


What we quoted from his book might not have been written with Trump in mind, but it exposes very well the current American—and world—predicament. Trump isn’t able and isn’t even willing to learn from experts, since he doesn’t read and suffers from a pathology that makes him imagine that he knows all the answers already—a truly toxic combination!

A few pages further on, Hawking writes: 

An even greater limitation (the first arising from specialization in narrower and narrower fields due exponential growth of knowledge) and danger for future generations
is that we still have the instincts, and in particular the aggressive impulses, that we had in caveman days.
                                     
                                                     --page 80

Trump’s aggression and greed are not tempered by wisdom, since he has no access to the wise. Trump’s hates and delusions are not tempered by the light of experience either; his illness prevents him from seeing light in the world, since he lives in his own world, which is dark. (He lives in a primitive world of nitbits, as it were). Trump is thus not merely a narcissist, but a Neolithic Narcissist; we’ve got a caveman in the White House and all, to put it mildly, isn’t well.




11.22.2018

Favorite Poems, Volume lll: "Death is Coming," by Heinrich Heine


Death is coming--Time to depart;
time to confess what foolish pride
till now did not let me confide:
for you was each beat of my heart!

The coffin's ready. Slowly I'll sink
into the earth. Peace I shall have--
But you, but you, Maria, you will think
of me often and weep beside my grave.

You wring your lovely hands so sadly--
Oh, be consoled! It is our fate,
our human fate, what's  good and great
and lovely ends--and ends badly.

Heinrich Heine
--Translated from the German
by Thomas Dorsett

Es kommt der Tod

Es kommt der Tod--jetzt will ich sagen,
Was zu verschweigen ewiglich
Mein Stolz gebot: für dich, für dich,
Es hat mein Herz für dich geschlagen!

Der Sarg ist fertig, sie vesenken
Mich in die Gruft. da hab ich Ruh,
Doch du, doch du, Maria, du
Wirst weinen oft und mein gendenken.

Du ringst sogar die schönen Hände--
O tröste dich--Das ist das Los,
Das Menschenlos--was gut und gross
Und schön, das nimmt ein schlechtes Ende.

                          --Heinrich Heine





Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was a major German poet of the nineteenth century. His poems, especially the early ones, celebrate love and rejection with consummate skill. He also wrote several notable ballads, including the famous Lorelei. He was politically involved as well, and knew Karl Marx; he was, as one might suspect,  socially progressive, but did not advocate communism. He moved to France in his thirties and remained there for the rest of his life. He visited Germany on occasion; toward the end of his life, however, he was banned from has native land due to his political views.

Important for the poem discussed here is his liaison with Crescence Eugénie Mirat, a shopgirl whom he met in 1834 when the former was nineteen. She was uneducated, sometimes embarrassingly so, a periodic embarrassment to Heine's friends and acquaintances; the couple quarreled frequently, but remained committed to each other. Heine, who was Jewish, married Crescence, who was Catholic, in 1841.

In 1848, Heine who had been ill, collapsed. He had become paralyzed, perhaps from venereal disease, perhaps from multiple sclerosis. He became bedridden, confined to his 'mattress grave' until his death a decade later. His wife, whom he called 'Mathilde', the 'Maria' of the poem, was his faithful nurse until his death.

Analysis

This poem was found in the poet's legacy. Its heartfelt directness is a convincing fulfillment of Beethoven's dedication to his Missa Solemnis: Vom Herzen; möge es wieder zum Herzen gehen--"From my heart--may it reach yours as well."

Heine had led a full life until the time of his paralysis; his personality was animated more by a joie de vivre quality, rather than by an introverted gloominess, examples of which abound in German Romantic poetry. He writes about death here only because he was, well, dying. Unlike many of his previous poems, there is no ironic detachment; every word comes from direct experience. This adds to the emotional impact of the poem; it is a grand exception to Wilde's dictum that all bad poetry is sincere--for this is indeed a great poem.

In the first three lines, Heine regrets that he had not confessed his love earlier. Mathilde--whose name was changed to the more euphonious Maria in the poem--was, after all, very ignorant. (On a visit to Germany, Mathilde made a disastrous impression on Heine's family). He loved her, but his pride (and occasional embarrassment) forbade him from expressing that love as much as he would have liked.

The poem is not bitter: one of its many strengths lies in the fact that Heine has accepted death and does his best to console his wife, who will miss him greatly.

For me, the masterful stroke of this poem comes at the end. It is, as one might suspect, much more powerful in the original German:

O tröste dich! Es ist das Los,
das Menschenlos, was gut und gross
und schön--das nimmt ein schlechtes Ende.

The beauty and wonder of life is depicted with the long vowels of gut (good), gross (great) and especially schön (beautiful)--all this is dashed by death, and, as the German has it, "takes a bad end." What I love about this phrase is its understatement: the last five words must be read more rapidly and perhaps, sotto voce. This simple statement, which addresses the main theme of the poem, namely that death is inevitable, has all the more impact due to its lack of elaboration. Only true poets can accomplish a feat like that.

We all know the truth of the last three lines. Human beings, all of whom are great but some of whom are truly great, must die, sometimes die at the height of their powers. The inexorability of death and the sorrow it unleashes is indeed our human fate; no one mourns the passing of  bacteria, for instance, which were the only form of life on earth for three and half billion years. The utter devastation and chaos of  annihilation reminds me of one of Emily Dickinson's poems about the dying process, "The Last Night She Lived".  She finishes the poem after the protagonist's demise with these harrowing lines: "And then an awful leisure was/ Belief to regulate."

We all would like to die in accord with a Spanish proverb, namely, that when one is born, one cries and everyone smiles; when one dies after a full life, however, the opposite is true: one smiles while everyone cries.  Let's hope that this is what happened in Heine's last moments. 

Yes, life doesn't end the way we would like. Yes, "death is (indeed)  coming," whether we like it or not. Yet if we lead a good life--as Heine did--and accept the inevitable, we can continue to console and be consoled until our last breath. That's what Heine has outlined in this brilliant poem. Read it carefully. The implication is that love and wisdom can still fulfill, even at the point of death. That is no small consolation.

11.12.2018

What Islam Means to Me (A Poem)


l.

Responding to a current event, I am posting a poem I wrote shortly after the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, which occurred on March 2, 2011 in Pakistan. From 2008 until his death, Bhatti, a Christian and the only non-Muslim in the parliament, was the Minister of Minorities Affairs. He struggled to ease the burdens of the "oppressed, downtrodden and the marginalized," struggling "for human equality, social justice and the uplift and empowerment of religious minorities' communities" in Pakistan. He strove to repeal Pakistan's blasphemy law, which includes the sentence of capital punishment for those who "blaspheme" the Prophet's honor. For this reason he was assassinated, a murder in cold blood which received widespread support throughout the country.

Bhatti wasn't the only major figure assassinated for opposition to the blasphemy law. The governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in January, 2011; the public cheered.

A few months before Bhatti  was killed, Asia Bibi, a Punjabi Christian, was accused of blasphemy--just what she said is uncertain--and sentenced to death. (Bhatti defended her; this is why he was murdered.) She remained in solitary confinement until last month, when the Pakistani Supreme Court righted a grievous wrong and pardoned her.

Here is a photo of the reaction many Pakistanis had:






Many demand that she be hanged. Having received numerous death threats, several of those who publicly defended her have already fled the country.

2.

Pakistani extremists remind me of the current deterioration of social comity in the United Sates since the election of Donald Trump. First, while the more benign cries of "Lock her up!" may be considered to originate, as it were, just several steps beyond the mouth of the Inferno, while "Hang her!" is a cry heard, as it were again, in the belly of Hell, the former is located on a path which leads directly to the latter. It certainly can happen here if that path is followed farther. There is no doubt in my mind that Trump's bigotry and the recent acts of deplorable violence in the United States are connected. The Bhatti assassination demonstrates where hate leads if it remains unchecked. It is a warning that must be heeded. 

Second, I am reminded that America is not Pakistan. One of the glories of our country is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech. The amendment is threatened, but still very much remains a bulwark of the Republic. Our diversity is also a blessing. Sometimes I think that the partition of the Indian subcontinent was similar to the gerrymandering that plagues American democracy. Muslims went to Pakistan, Hindus remained in India; they no longer had to talk to each other and get along, just as a representative in an American gerrymandered district needn't bother to address the concerns of those on the other side of the political divide in order to get elected. This is especially applicable to Pakistan, since India has a large Muslim minority.

Third, and most important here, I consider the Pakistani fanatics to be in opposition to the true spirit of Islam. As I stated in a previous essay, judging religions should not be a popularity contest; one should judge religions at their best. In literature, for instance, Shakespeare should come first to mind rather than poetasters. Islam has produced great and wise thinkers over the ages, and has inspired millions to lead better lives, including those alive today. I recall the recent aid offered by American Muslims to victims of the horrible Tree of Life synagogue massacre; these Muslims, in their words, wished to conquer evil with good.  

Furthermore, the tolerance and loving kindness characteristic of the Sufi branch of Islam is an inspiration  for us all. (In the spirit of Sufism, I compose the following sentence: If a Hindu abuses a Muslim in any way, he is no Hindu; if a Muslim abuses a Hindu in any way, he is no Muslim; true Muslims and true Hindus are guided by love, wisdom and tolerance. This principle applies to all faiths and to those without any specific faith as well). 


Granted there is more extremism in Islam today than, say, in Christianity; I think this is largely due, however, to the miserable politics in many Islamic countries, which has produced a large number of underemployed, undereducated, and relatively poor young, angry men--a toxic combination. Another factor is that secularism is much more prevalent in Western countries--in most of them, at least! I

n general, people who are unhappy tend to hate, no matter the religion; people who are happy tend to practice loving kindness, no matter the religion. It's as simple and complex as that. 

Human beings can become better through the practice of Islam, there is no doubt about that. 

3.

Words! Words! Words! Time, at last! for a poem.

What Islam Means To Me

In memoriam: S.B., assassinated by extremists

Shahbaz Bhatti worked very quietly.
He knew that to be a non-Muslim in modern Pakistan
is like being black in Georgia in 1921--
Worse than that, being a Christian cabinet minister

made him vulnerable as an “uppity” judge
during Reconstruction. He had had one of five seats
reserved for minorities--Getting paid for tolerance
in this world (he knew it) almost never lasts.

His crime against non-humanity was fighting to repeal
the blasphemy law--Truth is, if we all had 
to die for harrowing the sacred, everyone,
including grandmas in Kansas, wouldn’t survive.

Zia-ul-Haq modified the heinous 1970s law
by making it worse for the usual reason,
to cover up blasphemous failures of power--
This cannot last forever. Decency tells me

people like you, Shahbaz Bhatti, will increase--
(Despite fear for us, half in heaven's image, the other
half in hell's ferocious, self-righteous beast’s)
Peace