April is apparently ‘poetry month’, and I am a closet poet. I suppose it’s the sort of event/ celebration/ motivation/ muse that every poet-cum-postaday-blogger aspires for. I, however, have been suffering from a paralyzing case of poet’s block. Unable to pen down a single couplet of free verse, let alone a rhyme.
It is frustrating, it is annoying, it is a case of stubbornness of the subconscious. That is to say, my subconscious refuses to do anything that is required of her, especially at the time she is required to do it. She may complete the job the minute the deadline has passed. Or, in some cases when perhaps she is feeling charitable, about 15 minutes before that. Have you heard the phrase ‘at the eleventh hour’? My high school principal loved to tell us to refrain from leaving things ‘for the eleventh hour’. In my case, or more precisely my subconscious’, it is literally the quarter-to-midnight-th hour. In rare but much appreciated instances, half-past-eleventh hour. I kid you not.
So every day I sit with my laptop on–where else?–the bed, and wait for inspiration to knock. In vain. Because, let’s face it, it’s not April 30th yet!
To continue with my (self-congratulatory at best and vain at worst) series of Coursera essays, here is the 340-word essay on H.G.Wells I wrote for my free online ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course.
One of the major elements of science-fiction literature is to attempt to predict or speculate about possible future events which might come to pass if mankind traverses a certain scientific and moral path. Wells, however, forces us to stop on the way and consider the journey itself—what happens when we presume to being enlightened, as the masses in ‘The Star’, but in fact, are as blind as the people of ‘The Country of the Blind’.
“Common-sense was sturdy everywhere” , Wells writes sarcastically. In the face of catastrophe, nine out of ten men on earth are “scornful, jesting, […] inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful” . He even equates common-sense to “barbarism and savagery”; the men, with “unalterable convictions”, scorn the respectable mathematician and go about their businesses unheeding the star. Similarly, the blind men mock Nunez and steadfastly stick to their beliefs—”it was an article of faith with them” . So much so that in order to cure Nunez of what they think are delusions, they decide to surgically remove his eyes and thus make him “perfectly sane” . “Thank Heaven for science”, Yacob says , and again Wells hints at the dangers of vainglory.
In both the stories, Wells warns us against intolerance and self-aggrandizement. Science enlightens mankind so that at any point in time we know more than we did in the past, but we should also realize that knowledge is illimitable, that there are many things we haven’t yet discovered. Just as the blind men lived in a world of their own making and limitations, so can we live either in a blind valley of a world or choose to open our eyes to truth and wisdom. Like the mathematician, we can hold “all the universe […] in the grip of this small brain” , the only requirements are acceptance and humility. Otherwise, one day someone will truthfully say that “Man has lived in vain.” 
 The Star, by H.G Wells
 The Country of the Blind, by H.G. Wells
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Audiences, as a general rule, dislike stereotypes. See what I did there? I stereotyped ‘audience’. Stereotypes are a part of life, whether we like them or not. Somewhat like cliches (and I just found out that cliches and stereotypes are etymologically related, being terms associated with printing).
Most of the times I can’t decide whether I mind it when people classify and categorize others. For example, some of my friends hated ‘Raj’ from ‘The big bang theory’ during the first few seasons because Indians (as we think of and know ourselves) are not like him. His accent for one is weird. But I always found him very cute in a self-deprecating way. Another time, I read a blog post about Indian weddings which advised the Indian woman to stay away from the guy she loves, because she won’t get to marry him anyway! (It was supposed to be a comment on arranged marriages, that Indian girls are not allowed to marry guys they love; but that’s for the most part misinformation perpetuated by bollywood movies). It was a very well-written paragraph, and of course it’s possible things like that happen in such a greatly populated country like India, but I know a lot of Indian girls (single and married, arranged and otherwise) and none of them have experienced this dilemma. So I couldn’t make up my mind whether I should be offended by that blog post or not.
I assume the bad feeling associated with cliches in general, and in literature and movies in particular is because a cliche is evidence of unoriginality. And I believe my ambiguous attitude towards cliches is because my original creations (as well as speech) abound with them, and towards stereotypes is because I consider myself one. That is to say, I seem to fit into many categories: the stereotypical woman, the Indian girl, the novice blogger, the amateur/wannabe poet, the female driver, the bride.
We don’t like stereotypes because they make us feel average; the background artists of the blockbuster called life. They take away our illusions of uniqueness, of being one of a kind.
One should still avoid cliches like the plague, especially while writing, even though they are as old as hills and we may be rushed for time. However, all’s well that ends well.
My 300-word essay on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ for my course, ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, our Modern World’ provided by coursera.org.
Anthropomorphism is one of the many interesting literary devices seen in the “Alice” books. In ‘Through the looking glass’ especially, the humanized chess-men and the chess-set world are an analogy for real people and the real world respectively. “It’s a great huge game of chess being played all over the world”, Alice says.
In the beginning, Alice receives instructions from the Red Queen, like we receive instructions from our elders before setting out into the world. On her journey she meets many people and learns many things: the White Queen tells Alice to keep an open mind (“I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”), from Humpty Dumpty she learns semantics and that a word means “what (you) choose it to mean–neither more nor less”, she learns self-belief in the face of doubt when Tweedledum tells her “you’re not real” and she realizes that he’s “talking nonsense”. The chess pieces themselves stand for the various types of people in our world. Some, like the queens, go “running wildly” hither and thither; they have great power which they may or may not use wisely (e.g., the White Queen is powerful but helpless and rambling). Some, like the Red King, stay on just one square all their lives. There are the White Knights, kind and helpful; and finally there are people like Alice who sometimes go where fate takes them, and sometimes make their own way, but always have their goal in mind and humility in heart.
We wonder whether the author is telling us to live as though we really were in a chess game. There are specific rules by which we have to play (or live); as a pawn one can only move forward, for one “certainly won’t go back”, and always there is the ultimate goal: that of reaching the eighth square; of fulfilling one’s destiny.
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Nothing Beats a Fountain Pen (Photo credit: kartikay.sahay)
It doesn’t matter which century we live in, or in which country. It doesn’t even matter that we write on our laptops and PDAs rather than on paper. Fountain pens are eternal; forever.
I needn’t mention that I love to write with my fountain pen. They are so elegant, regal almost. Writing something–anything, even a to-do list–with a fountain pen somehow makes me feel like a real writer. As if I’m leaving something valuable for posterity; even though I know said posterity will sooner throw away my scribbles than publish them, and even though paper and ink are destructible whereas electronic storage is almost immortal.
I go so far as to buy hand-made journals for the specific purpose of filling them up with my genius literary work (well, genius in my head), inked with a fountain pen of course. It’s a tale for another day that I haven’t yet written a word in any of the four such journals that I own. But although the journals are blank, and my blog posts are typed directly on my laptop, I do have this habit of writing down stuff with a fountain pen in my ordinary notebook at least once a week. Makes me feel important; as though somehow I’m fit to be within twenty feet of Edgar Allan Poe or Douglas Adams.
“When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
–Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking Glass’
I love how the English language is so flexible. Of course there are rules, but there are also exceptions. And there are exceptions to the exceptions! These things bothered me no end when I was a child. Should it be ‘who’ or ‘whom’? How can the same word mean three different things when used in three different sentences? You know what I mean.
In fact, some things still confuse me. And many grammatical mistakes irk me no end (people using “your” instead of “you’re”, saying “literally” when they mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively”). However, I still love the fact that I can say something like, “I’m so technologically handicapped that I can’t even operate a hair-dryer without electrocuting myself”, and still make sense! (And if I’m still not making sense to you, ‘technologically handicapped’ isn’t really a thing.)
I think what Carroll was trying to say through Humpty Dumpty is that context is as important in English language as the rules of grammar. An example is his extremely famous poem ‘Jabberwocky’. An excerpt:
“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.”
The grammar and syntax are perfect, but the verse itself is nonsensical; yet we love the poem and understand it exactly how it’s meant to be understood. (Like Alice says after finishing the poem, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate”)
Another fine example of the importance of context is Douglas Adams’ Vogon poetry from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’:
“Oh freddled gruntbuggly
thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.”
We might not know the meaning of the words, but we get the gist anyway; and we realize first-hand why Vogon poetry is the third worst in the Universe. (If you want to know the worst and the second worst poetry in the universe, read the book. I assure you it’ll be worth it.)
The fluidity and voracity of the English language is what makes it so universal. All the Grammar Nazis notwithstanding–and I confess I’m an occasional milder version, if there is such a thing, myself–that is the most interesting and fun thing about writing!
Like Alice, I might not always say what I mean, but “at least I mean what I say”!