Monday, February 9, 2009

A discovery and a memory

Every once in a while, some little nugget of information makes the penny drop for an Eureka moment. 'Every once in a while, some neuron finally fires in our brains and we have a huge realization.' Good old Hilary Price gets it right everytime!

Today I had one such moment of discovery.

Not being a literature major, my reading has been entirely my own, so I had not been exposed to Coleridge's Kubla Khan -
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...
till I read Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. The entire book is based on this one poem composed in 1798, with inputs from 'The Rime of the ancient mariner' as well. If you haven't read the book, I will not spoil the mystery, but suffice it to say that it is so well meshed with the plot that I still can't read this poem without remembering that story as the true meaning. Its not a poem that is easy to understand, and I often wondered how it was that Adams took so many liberties with it, insinuating meanings where surely there were none? The lines

...Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !...

translate as description of an alien spacecraft, where each movement of life is changed to music! He also depicts Coleridge as having been drugged when he wrote this poem, something which I wasn't sure could be right. Surely anyone would realize that Adams would not have written this without making sure of his facts? Or that if there has not been any uproar about the book's factual inaccuracy, then it is not, in fact, wrong? Not me. I wondered and wondered, and still could not decipher the poem, entangled as it was with Dirk Gently in my mind. So when I read this introductory note to the poem, written by Coleridge himself, it was one Eureka moment: no wonder I couldn't understand it! He was likely under the effect of opium at that time, and the whole thing was actually 'a vision in a dream' and not some fancy way of saying something else. Duh.

I daresay this little discovery of mine means nothing to you; those among you who were in the know all the time will even find it a little - dumb to say the least. But I am still bemused by it, so do pardon my indulgence today!

P.S. I would like to end by quoting another author's reinterpretation of an earlier rhyme, which makes this post kind of long, so am splitting it in two parts again today. The section on ABC is to follow :)

Here is J R R Tolkien's version of the rhyme 'The cat and the fiddle' which I really enjoy reading ever since I first found his books. What a beautiful way to explain the nonsensical verse!

The man in the moon stayed up too late

There is an inn a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill

The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-stringed fiddle;
And up and down he draws his bow,
Now squeaking high, now purring low,
now sawing in the middle.

The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes;
When there's good cheer among the guests,
He cocks an ear at all the jests and laughs until he chokes.

They also keep a horn-ed cow
as proud as any queen;
But music turns her head like ale,
And makes her wave her tufted tail
and dance upon the green.

And O! the rows of silver dishes
and the store of silver spoons!
For Sunday there's a special pair,
And these they polish up with care
on saturday afternoons.

The Man in the Moon was drinking deep,
and the cat began to wail;
A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
The cow in the garden madly pranced,
and the little dog chased its tail.

The Man in the Moon took another mug,
and then rolled beneath his chair;
And there he dozed and dreamed of ale,
Till in the sky the stars were pale
and dawn was in the air.

Then the ostler said to his tipsy cat:
"The white horses of the Moon,
They neigh and champ their silver bits;
But their master's been and drowned his wits,
and the sun'll be rising soon!"

So the cat on his fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle,
a jig that would wake the dead:
He squeaked and sawed and quickened the tune,
While the landlord shook the Man in the Moon
"It's after three!" he said

They rolled the man slowly up the hill
and bundled him into the moon,
While his horses galloped up in rear,
And the cow came capering like a deer,
and a dish ran up with the spoon.

Now quicker the fiddle went deedle-dum-diddle;
the dog began to roar,
The cow and the horses stood on their heads;
the guests all bounded from their beds
and danced upon the floor

With a ping and a pong the fiddle strings broke!
the cow jumped over the moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
With the silver Sunday spoon.

The round Moon rolled behind the hill,
as the sun raised up her head.
She hardly believed her fiery eyes;
For though it was day, to her surprise
They all went back to bed!

He also wrote another poem to explain the nursery rhyme 'The man in the moon', which I discovered just today -

Why the man in the moon came down too soon

The Man in the Moon had silver shoon
And his beard was of silver thread;
He was girt with pure gold and inaureoled
With gold about his head.
Clad in silken robe in his great white globe
He opened an ivory door
With a crystal key, and in secrecy
He stole o'er a shadowy floor;

Down a filigree stair of spidery hair
He slipped in gleaming haste,
And laughing with glee to be merry and free
He swiftly earthward raced.
He was tired of his pearls and diamond twirls;
Of his pallid minaret
Dizzy and white at its lunar height
In a world of silver set;

And adventured this peril for ruby and beryl
And emerald and sapphire,
And all lustrous gems for new diadems,
Or to blazon his pale attire.
He was lonely too with nothing to do
But to stare at the golden world,
Or to strain at the hum that would distantly come
As it gaily past him whirled;

And at plenilune in his argent moon
He had wearily longed for Fire-
Not the limpid lights of wan selenites,
But a red terrestrial pyre
With impurpurate glows of crimson and rose
And leaping orange tongue;
For great seas of blues and the passionate hues
When a dancing dawn is young;

For the meadowy ways like chrysophrase
By winding Yare and Nen.
How he longed for the mirth of the populous Earth
And the sanguine blood of men;
And coveted song and laughter long
And viands hot and wine,
Eating pearly cakes of light snowflakes
And drinking thin

He twinkled his feet as he thought of the meat,
Of the punch and the peppery brew,
Till he tripped unaware on his slanting stair,
And fell like meteors do;
As the whickering sparks in splashing arcs
Of stars blown down like rain
From his laddery path took a foaming bath
In the ocean of Almain;

And began to think, lest he melt and stink,
What in the moon to do,
When a Yarmouth boat found him far afloat,
To the mazement of the crew
Caught in their net all shimmering wet
In a phosphorescent sheen
Of bluey whites and opal lights
And delicate liquid green

With the morning fish - 'twas his regal wish -
They packed him to Norwich town,
To get warm on gin in a Norfolk inn,
And dry his watery gown.
Though St. Peter's knell waked many a bell
In the city's ringing towers
To shout the news of his lunatic cruise
In the early morning hours,

No hearths were laid, not a breakfast made,
And no one would sell him gems;
He found ashes for fire, and his gay desire
For choruses and brave anthems
Met snores instead with all Norfolk abed,
And his round heart nearly broke,
More empty and cold than above of old,
Till he bartered his fairy cloak

With a half waked cook for a kitchen nook,
And his belt of gold for a smile,
And a priceless jewel for a bowl of gruel,
A sample cold and vile
Of the proud plum porridge of Anglian Norwich -
He arrived much too soon
For unusual guests on adventurous quests
From the Mountains of the Moon.

Someday I hope to share these gems with my children, and have a quiet chuckle about Tolkien's wonderful world...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Of cultures, and J language matching game***

Can I ask you something today? There is a question at the end of these spiraling, sliding paragraphs which is intriguing me. Tell me if any part of this story piques your imagination?

(If it seems too confusing, take a look at the post-script first!)

In late sixties, a girl child was born in Poland. Was she born to a chorus of glad welcome, calm acceptance or resigned indifference? Was it a big city apartment, a townhouse, or a farmstead that she was taken to from the hospital? Where did her grandparents come from, which village did they trace their history to? Her father left the country when she was seven, to earn. Her mother, a year later. For the next three years, they could not visit while she stayed with her grandparents. Was she staying with them before as well? Were they nice? Strict? Orthodox, traditional or modern? Loving and generous or miserly? So much is conjecture, so much a case history can not tell us. We can only assume, fill in the blanks with our own imagination.

An imagination that is restricted by experience.

When we are told that she took care of an older disabled cousin, how can we know what it was like unless we know already what it means to live with someone suffering from severe cerebral palsy? To live, and to take care of such a person? And even then we can not say. Was she too skinny to hold him up properly, or buxom an
d strong? What was it like, those years long back, spent in low beamed smoke darkened narrow corridors, or in open cold fields, or comfortable though cramped rooms with warm amber hued walls and robin blue ceiling? I have not been to Poland, have no Polish friends. What smells wafted from the kitchen, which were the rhymes chanted by children? Was there music, were there nosy helpful neighbours, a posse of bustling relatives? What was her life like, those days, so far from me in time and space and understanding? She was proud of the work she did, caring for her cousin. The doctor questioned, wondered if she had not wanted to get away, whether her current symptoms may actually have an origin in that time when she had felt abandoned, overworked. Was that truly how she had felt, back then, at the age of eight? Did she have friends to envy, other children to emulate or compare herself with? Or, was it matter of fact, just as picking cotton under unrelenting white skies was for slave children a century back in America? Or, as taking care of four younger siblings may be, for the little girl in a village in Bihar, today? A reality from which there is no specific yearning to escape, for no alternative is known. Only a general, diffuse unhappiness within the only life one has seen.

Three years later, she got her father back, for a brief d
uration of time. He left again, this time for Greece, where he re-married, had another daughter. Where her mother was, the history doesn't tell us, but presumably she was back as well. When the father returned with his new family, mother and daughter were allowed to leave for the distant shores of promising future, the United States of America, in return for giving up any claims on their home and belongings. What was it like, this separation? The terms of this exchange seem patently unfair to us, yet, they were accepted, perhaps gladly? What was the kind of life that mother and daughter left, in return for this displacement, this relocation to a new culture? When they reached, were they able to talk in English, did they have any friends or relations to go to? In those teenage years, did she have any friends? Was she able to adjust to school easily, was she accepted? How did her mother feel, leaving her country alone, with a child, a growing daughter to provide for? How many hours did she need to work, how much of silent abuse did she take, for the sake of a future? Or are we looking at the wrong end of the social spectrum; did she just move in with relatives, and have it real easy? Surely not - surely if both parents need to leave the country to earn, there is an element of fiscal uncertainty involved?

Slowly, a picture builds up in my mind; a picture of bleakness and craving for the good things, for an easy, loving life. How much of it is true, who
can tell? For the words, only partly sanitized in medical detachment, come from someone who is trained to listen, dissect, question, expose, tease and fit into criteria, syndromes, disease. The compassion is, and perhaps must, be subservient to scientific coolness. But man is man, even when a psychiatrist, and there is excitement when you find a hidden clue; laughter at some unexpected turn; triumph on uncovering a diagnosis. So much is subjective even so, dependent on the observer's state of mind. The analyses may be faultless, yet false, for it is not easy always to know where the patient is coming from... Ms. A, the girl grown up, dropped out of college, married her sweetheart when pregnant. Six years later, there is trouble in marriage as well, and the husband may be required to leave the country any time. So much fact can be American, the common thread the investigator and she share, understand. But what of all that went into the making of this person, not just her own years but those of generations behind and around her? And of the doctor? Which culture led him to this meeting? What makes him think that "we need to ask if Ms. A slept with her mother nightly until she was 18 years of age to reassure herself that both she and her mother were safe and connected" ?

For is that so significant? Perhaps it is, for a people who are able to place a month old baby in a solitary crib in another room, and sleep. But for another culture? I do not know how it is Poland; can't pretend to have any glimmering of Polish customs. I can however, find no reason for this fact to be accorded any importance whatsoever. What more natural than to share a room when your quarters are cramped, when there is little money to waste on heating the rest of the apartment, if that is what it was? What else, with no family member to live under the same roof with? Just the two of them together against the rest of the world, unfriendly if not hostile? The loneliness of those displaced goes beyond the need for connections. Longing for a word in familiar tones, a gesture of old friendship, or even the crowds from far away 'home' is enough to bond strangers together. Why not mother and daughter? It is not that I am not able to appreciate what the doctor questions. It is just that were I was he, I would have found no reason to even note this as important, for I would have understood it as completely natural...

And there again I perhaps would have erred. For, like I said, I know not where she came from...

This post has been in the making this last two days, and I have been preparing to feature ABC, part II finally, but chance wins. The evening snack time was short today, and we both were cranky from lack of sleep. In no mood for games which would go on and on, I browsed through the bookmarks for something short and newish, and chanced upon something I had saved as language match game. Turns out that it was a link to a site called 'Jewish Education & Entertainment', which I thought would fit in with the theme of different cultures, different thoughts. So here we are!

The site is flash based, so I could not have given only a link to one game which we played. But it doesn't take any time to load, and is pretty simple really. It is the brainchild of Jacob Richman, who states that he wanted to create a "Jewish oriented site that would be educational, fun, simple to use and friendly." As far as I can make out, it is intended for Jewish children (and adults) who are trying to learn English as well. I expect it can be used by teachers and parents talking of the Jewish festivals and culture as well. As right now, I am not in that phase at all, with my sole interest having been in the matching game, I must beg our pardon if the rest of the site doesn't prove to be helpful or accurate.

The language matching game gives an option of learning or playing. When you choose learn, you are given a set of cards with an image and the name written in Hebrew and English, which is read aloud when you click on the card. You can choose the language to read it in, and the set of cards, for example, vegetables, fruits, tools etc. On choosing to play, you are given the additional choice of easy, medium or difficult games.

After that, it is a standard card matching memory game.The number of sets and the game level choices make it a great game for teaching toddlers and pre-schoolers. The illustrations are clear and easily identifiable for the most part. The naming of each object as its card is turned is an added advantage, both in terms of remembering where it was and in identifying the object.

The hangman game is likewise either in Hebrew or English, but the words are all Jewish themes, eg. Jewish months as in the example above, which I chose at random, and got right quite by accident!

The colouring book has Jewish themed pages only, which would have been quite useful had the quality of the illustrations been better. However, colouring is colouring, and it is enjoyable. I have avoided it for now, because I don't feel equipped to answer questions like 'what is happening here mama?' till I do some more research.

Briefly the other links - 'Hebrew sign maker' allows you to print out Hebrew characters even if you don't have a special keyboard, through their online one; 'My Hebrew songbook' refused to open for me today; 'In memory of' told me of the Jewish custom to read special verses at a grave, according to name of the deceased. You can find those verses here if you enter the name and sex. The databases and the trivia quiz I have not explored. The word search game is the usual one where you have to find words in a jumble of letters; the geography game has a learning component where you can read a para each about different cities/places, and then you are quizzed about these when you play.

The url -

P.S. And now for the background, and explanation:

New York, 2005. A Polish origin woman in mid twenties was brought in the casualty, after she called up saying she was afraid she'd hurt her six year old son if she stayed home with him. She was admitted.

New York, 2008. Grand rounds at the hospital. Case presented: Diagnosing PTSD: Does It Help Us Heal? The doctor who presented the case had been treating her for about a year. He presented the history, discussed his diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder relating to child birth as the precipitating trauma, and was advised, in turn, by others.

New Delhi, 2009. Published article is read by yours truly. One sentence catches my attention, leads to musing, wondering how much difficult it is to really understand another being, when so little a thing may be accorded no significance in one culture, and be viewed with horror in another. Result, above. :)

What do you think? It would be interesting to know your take on this - do write in!