I’m 27 years old and I’ve been writing – or have written – the same story again and again. Many have told me this. Sometimes they say it calmly, benignly, meaning it as a compliment. They say that I reveal different aspects of the same story. They even use the word ‘kaleidoscopic’. At other times they say it as a question: You are writing the same story again and again? When they do that, they don’t mean to be rhetorical. Of course not. They’re asking me something deeper. They’re asking me if I’m stuck. They’re asking me if this is all that I’ve got to tell. And they are insinuating that they are uninterested. Because they have had it all before. From me. They are thinking: Of course he has nothing more, he is only 27.
I looked for the definition of a kaleidoscope, and this is what I found: A toy consisting of a tube containing mirrors and pieces of colored glass or paper, whose reflections produce changing patterns that are visible through an eyehole when the tube is rotated.
So what are the limits of a kaleidoscope? Does a kaleidoscope produce the same images again and again, or does it not? After each complete rotation of the glassy tube, do the images repeat themselves? Likely they do. And, well, even if any two images of a kaleidoscope are at least minutely different, why should anyone bother about the minutiae? In other words, conversely, if a kaleidoscope exhausts, it is boring. And boring is bad.
What can kaleidoscopes do to avert this fate? Perhaps the only way kaleidoscopes can forever renew themselves is by not asking you to look into them, but by asking you to look out from them. Why not?
And so, the three conditions of an ever-entertaining kaleidoscope are the following:
That it be expansive enough to let you in
That it gaze at distinct sights of the world, in order to forever change what is outside
That its tunnel of vision be intricate, meaning that it be both cinematic and novelistic
So now: LOOK!
Look at him inside the cubicle on the seventh floor of a large building. Look how he struggles with the project plan on his office laptop. Look how in the project plan there are forty-seven interrelated tasks under six interconnected categories, all with varying timelines that are all intricately related to each other. Look how some tasks appear green, some amber, some red. Look how he cannot make any sense of the colors, how he cannot establish any dependencies between the tasks, how he cannot make any action plans. He is set for miserable failure. Look how, even with the few tasks that he has absolute clarity of, he cannot move forward. Moving forward, acting, doing, is for him a problem, even when he is paid for it. Look how he is avoiding meeting the only person in the organization who could help him. It is clear that he is dysfunctional, impotent in contributing to the machinery of his metropolitan world. Look at The Bachelor.
Far, far away from the metropolis, in a small, small town…
Look into the squat bungalow. Look into the bedroom that hasn’t seen a whitewash in years. Look at her lying on the bed. Look how her face slackens when she listens to her heartbeat. Look how there is little similarity between what she is today and what she is in the photograph on the wall, the one in which her 24-year-old self is draped in a blue sari, her gaze averted. Look into the sharp eyes in the photograph, the sharp nose, the coy demeanor made still for an eternity, the graceful sari draping elegantly over the left arm. And now, look at the 25 odd years in between, settled on the body, on the face. Look at her gaze moving about the room. She can look at that photograph on the wall and not pine for anything, as if she were looking at a stone, or as if the photograph’s way of capturing time was as unremarkable as that of a stone’s. Look at The Mother.
Not more than a kilometer from the squat bungalow…
Look into a squat office compound with flat roofs. Enter an office cabin, where a man is signing useless documents behind a large desk. Look at his signature in Hindi, at how the bars and accents of his name shoot up like ferns on the near-brown paper. Like the top third of a thicket of sugarcane. Look how the cabin is full of preserved specimens of diseased sugar cane stems. Count and marvel at the number of diseases that can ruin a sugarcane crop. Now look at the man’s thick-rimmed cheap spectacles, and behind them his long eyelashes that are – yes, if you look closely – beautiful. Look at the wooden table that he has been sitting behind for the past 15 years, a heavy wooden table, immovable. Look at the archaic-looking office cabin, with no computer, no gadgets. This scene could very well be from the seventies, but is not. Look at him sighing after signing the documents. Look at his thoughts, it is possible. Look at him thinking of the day of his retirement, a day that is not very far away. Look how he counts the days remaining, just to keep himself occupied. Look how he calculates all his savings in his mind, and then shakes his head. And hey! Hey! Look, look, there, at that external thought or metaphor inside the room, hovering near the ceiling. There, just below the lethargic ceiling fan, hovering like a cloud, a cloud that you can see. Try to read the cloud. Look how the cloud says something about the spectacled old man behind the table: Like Mr. Biswas from A House for Mr. Biswas. Look at the man with your hyper-novelistic gaze now, and impart a meaning to the dull scene. Know that this man here, this old spectacled man with long eyelashes, has no house to go to after retirement. Look, now, at his anxiety regarding the future, the future when his younger son will go to college, and when he and his wife will have to quit the government bungalow they have always stayed in. Look at The Father.
Three kilometers away from the office compound, on the main road in the small small town…
Look at the speed of the gear-free scooter. Look at the whiskery beard and the Adam’s apple. Look at the cheap, large-dial watch on the thin wrist. Look at the red Adidas shoes below the tight blue jeans. Look at the mouth, the mouth inside which the tongue seems to be sorting a chewing gum, repeatedly. Look at the mouth inside which no chewing gum really exists. Look at the style. Look at the premonition of a smile. Look at the promise of a man. Look at The Brother.
Ten hours later, when The Bachelor is home, you look inside the screen of his desktop. There is the moving image of a woman. The woman and the Bachelor are in a video conversation. Look at the woman’s tangled blonde hair. Look at the large space between her nose and her upper lip. Look at the suggestion of unmade eyebrows. Don’t complain about the quality of the image, it is because of the bad internet connection at the woman’s end. Below the large rectangle of the woman’s image is the small rectangle where The Bachelor’s own moving image is visible to him and you. To him, his own image is darker, unattractive. For some strange reason he looks more at himself in this small rectangle than at her in her large rectangle. It bothers him that the small image that he sees in the small rectangle is visible at the woman’s end as a large rectangle, possibly magnifying the unattractiveness of the visual content inside it. He keeps his palm across his chin, covering his lips, in a gesture that is only partly voluntary. You can outright assume that he is shy.
Now look at the yellowish wall against which the woman is sitting, and on that wall look at the quarter of a painting that is faintly visible, all inside the large rectangle inside The Bachelor’s monitor. You do not notice any forms in the painting, and are bound to assume that it is a work of abstract art. It may or may not be one, but what you’ve just seen is perhaps the rationale for abstract art. All that is abstract is nothing but the limit to the sense-seeking gaze.
Now the video conversation is nearing an end. Look at the woman kiss the fingers of her right hand and then cover the large rectangle on the screen with those fingers. Look at The Bachelor wave in response. He cannot kiss and cover his camera, he is shy. The rectangles switch off.
Now let us travel a thousand or so miles, westward. And let us do that instantaneously…
The woman we had moments before seen in a rectangle within a rectangle is here, in genuine three dimensions. Look at her looking at the full painting we had earlier looked at a quarter of, electronically, from very very far. Look at the painting. It is truly abstract, but you can notice the form of a brown mountain in it. Look at the woman look at the painting and look at her thoughts. As you know, it is possible. Look how she is thinking of the afternoon five years ago when she had bought this painting for 120 Canadian Dollars in a high-art shop in Toronto. Look how she remembers the seller tell her that the artist held great promise, and was likely to see a major appreciation in appreciation, and therefore an appreciation in demand. It’s been five years and there has been no appreciation. Suddenly, for no particular reason, the nature of this woman’s gaze changes. She looks at the painting. Look at her trying to trace the contours of the colors now. All dark…darkened…darkening. She thinks of The Bachelor. You can see that. She touches the grain of the canvas of the painting, at exactly the outlines of what we have earlier called a mountain. How do you climb an abstract mountain? she thinks, novelistically. Look at her sigh. Look at the sighing de La Belle Femme. Regarde La Belle Femme.
Allow me, me who is outside, to offer an interlude to the gazing. No point in looking at me, I’m only a semblance.
First, I want to comment on the third condition of the ever-entertaining kaleidoscope, as you are seeing it manifest here. I hope you have noticed how this condition plays. Intricacy is all, one has to go beneath the surface. Merely seeing cannot suffice. But there is something more to this third condition, and that something is difficult to pinpoint.
Second, I want to posit that there exist in the real world kaleidoscopes that very nearly meet the three conditions. Facebook is one. The only condition it misses is the third one, which is to say that Facebook is not novelistic. That makes a lot of difference.
Look at The Father and The Mother and The Brother watching TV. They are watching a football match between two English clubs. The score is 0-0. The Brother is the most excited. His excitement at watching the football game is natural, almost like an instinctual excitement, the kind that one is born with. But The Brother is not an excited person in general. It is tough to place his passions, simply because he is of an age when one both realizes one’s passions and also begins to lose them one by one. As of now The Brother is supporting one of the two teams, but his support for that team is not unshakable. It will vanish if the other team starts losing very badly.
Second in excitement is The Father. He has had a short day but he feels that he has had a long day. Just as he has had a long life but feels that it has passed by too soon. It is only the vague, perhaps fabricated, memory of enjoying watching football in his youth that makes him watch football now. He does not know either team and for him the distinction between the two teams is simply the colors of their jerseys – red and blue. Now and then he makes a vague comment about the red team playing better than the blue one, something that The Brother registers absent-mindedly. The remote control is in The Father’s hand, and since the game is approaching halftime he is pondering which news channel to switch to in the intervening ten minutes. The Father is also conscious of the fact that The Brother would want to watch the half-time analysis as well. He realizes he does not have the energy to argue with The Brother, and so, perfunctorily, after rotating the remote control twice or thrice in his right hand, he places it on the table before them and nudges it toward The Brother.
The least in excitement is The Mother. She has been in the house all day, like everyday, and she is currently cutting vegetables for dinner. For her the men inside the TV are too small, like varicolored flies flitting across a green dish, and she can make no head no tail of the kinetic images. She is expected to have watched all the TV she wanted in the day, when The Father and The Brother were away, and she has half a mind to tell both of them that she did not do so, that she in fact never watches TV when they are away, that she just lies on the bed and thinks of her elder son (The Bachelor) and thinks of her younger son (The Brother) and thinks of her youth and thinks of the places she could have been to had she not been stuck with someone (The Father) whose only expertise was in the diseases of sugarcane. She thinks of The Bachelor because she is the only one who knows that he is a failure at work, and has the sense to sense that he will, in all likelihood, be as much a failure in the world as his father is, and she thinks of The Bachelor because she is the only one who understands just how much he loves La Belle Femme and how this love of his is going to destroy him because this, this ardency in love, is what The Bachelor has inherited from her, and she thinks of The Bachelor because she understands him as a combination of two hollow halves, both defective, whose culmination in a single personality has calamitous outcomes. She worries about The Brother as well, because he too is from the same grain, and he too may tread a similar path.
The Mother is silent, although there is a hum of anxiety in her head. The dim light of the living room accentuates this hum. The light lends a soft shadow to everything inside the room, shadows that go unnoticed by the three persons in the room but are bound to make you scared. The Mother’s cutting of the vegetables is automatic. The two men around her don’t notice a thing.
Look at the kitchen knife in The Mother’s hand. Her grip is tight, tightening. Look at the hardening of her eyeballs. Look at her stare into chopped vegetables as if chopped vegetables were some kind of a symbol, a terminal symbol. Look at her desires, the innermost. The ones that haven’t taken a form, the ones that are abstract. Is it possible to look at them? Yes, concentrate. You can. You will see the desire to kill. You will see her rage and her sadness, and the desire to kill.
Look away. Look at the knife. It is an old knife, perhaps as old as the marriage. Over the years, it has had to be sharpened many times. If only you could see underneath The Mother’s grip, you would see how the knife’s handle has an imprint of the fingers of her right hand.
A dozen items from the news feed of The Bachelor’s Facebook account. The time is close to 9 P.M. This is going to be like two kaleidoscopes in series.
Shared by a male friend: A picture of a half-consumed pint of Tuborg beer on a glassy, watery, seemingly endless surface that seems to extend right till the horizon. The sky above this horizon is luminous, annotated by an unusually bright and yellow setting sun. It is tough to make out whether this is a crafted advertisement for the beer or a picturesque moment from the friend’s vacation.
Shared by a male friend: A picture of the friend flanked by two elderly people on either side. The elderly people are most likely the friend’s parents. The caption above the photo says: ‘A week of bliss.’
Shared by a female friend: A link to a website that promises to proffer some action plan to all those who feel utterly frustrated by the Indian political situation.
Shared by a female friend: A link to an article about the legacy of A. K. Ramanujan, the poet and scholar and translator. The Bachelor likes the post without really intending to read the article any time soon.
Shared by the ‘English Premier League’ page: A picture that seems to be, vaguely, about the varicolored football jerseys that the clubs are donning this season. The Bachelor realizes that he had liked this ‘English Premier League’ page a couple of years ago and that he does not like it anymore, and yet he does not unlike the page now because of a minor apprehension regarding losing out on information about the football league in case he were to become interested in it again.
Shared by a male presence that The Bachelor cannot really identify as a friend: A link to a website accompanied by a picture from that website. The picture is of Michael Jordan in a black suit next to an extremely potently cathartically hot woman. The breasts of the woman mark perfectly tightly spherical shapes on her ochre dress. The text accompanying this picture is about the second novel of an extremely talented writer. The Bachelor, of course, finds it funny that the picture and the text have absolutely no relation to each other. For that reason alone he ponders liking this post, but then decides against it, because if anyone notices that he has liked this post, they will not be able to decipher the complex thought behind his liking the post and will most likely assume that he has liked the post because he has liked the breasts of the awesomely incredible woman.
Shared by a male friend: A simply textual announcement, a status message, that the friend has finished reading a book of poetry and that it was awesome. The Bachelor likes the post, immediately, as if there were some danger in not liking it.
Shared by ‘The Hindu’ page: A news item mentioning something about the toxicity of the bleach content in common white flour, and how it may be a major cause of pancreatic cancer.
Shared by a female friend: A smug picture of the friend’s pair of legs, one on top of the other, besides a male’s pair of legs, again one on top of the other. The picture has these four legs and nothing else. The setting, from the little there is of it, seems to be that of an airport. The tips of her shoes and the tips of the man’s shoes point towards each other, in a gesture that signifies connection, but is to The Bachelor neither cute nor romantic nor erotic, but altogether disgusting.
Shared by a female friend: A picture of M. S. Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain, holding a street dog in his arms, apparently in his capacity as a brand ambassador for a program that aims to convince people to adopt street dogs in greater quantities. For some outlandish reason, The Bachelor is disgusted by this post as well.
Shared by a male friend: A change in profile picture: A picture of the friend and his wife, full body shot, although the camera is bizarrely tilted by almost 45 degrees to the left, making the couple appear as if they are falling. The couple is glitteringly dressed. The wife is beautiful. The Bachelor is disgusted.
Shared by a male friend: A link to a Youtube music video of some obscure American band. He has peppered the post with the introductory text, “Sometimes it takes me too much to discover a ‘new’ artist. What a terrific singer and band!!" The Bachelor is indifferent to this post.
The Bachelor is from here on indifferent to all further posts.
Then he receives a message from The Brother.
STOP looking. Exit! This is it.
Hope you liked the experience. Of course there is no denying the fact that the putative kaleidoscope may still be criticized. Some among you might feel cheated by the fact that it was tied to views of four persons that were in some way connected. You are right when you ask: Why should we see persons or objects in a deterministic fashion, as if the gaze was ordained by some narrative power?
Well, this is the story I’m stuck to.
The fallacy of the putative kaleidoscope may lie in the fact that the second condition presupposes a grander hand that moves the kaleidoscope. Basically, when you enter the grand kaleidoscope, you let an Other direct your gaze. The whims of this Other determine the quality of your experience. If this Other is stuck at some things, so are you.
The second fallacy, and the more important one, may lie in the simple fact that even the novelistic gaze is only a gaze. It makes you look at feelings, knowing that the best it can offer are mere abstractions. In effect, it makes you look at the semblances of feelings in the hope that you will try to reach out to the subliminal. But in this flurry of looking, cinematic or novelistic, you glide over the true nature of feelings. Feelings are those that can only be felt.
So feel the story beyond the kaleidoscope, if you can.
Close your eyes.