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Variant Modalities

“I wondered why people consider escapism so bad, even the escapism on display right then. At first it might appear unseemly, but in the end its lack of pretension gives it its own sort of beauty.”
(Saadat Hasan Manto, Bombay Stories)

Modal Voice

The water’s surface shimmered in the late afternoon sun. Like glinting glass. Sweat forms under my armpits. I feel the ardency of the warm Bengal sun a few hours after midday on my face. Standing at the pond’s edge, right in front of the house where I was born, I finger the handful of objects I’ve gathered for this afternoon’s exertions. One is a flat, almost smooth, the size of my pre-adolescent hand, a portion of a brick from the bricklayers’ kiln near the main road. Another is the plastic chassis of one of my toy cars, scrupulously dismantled so I could fling it along the limpid surface of the water, making it skip . . . once, twice . . . three times and . . . perhaps a golden fourth.

The afternoons sparkle in my recollection. Time stretched endlessly. Will I ever grow up and be on my own? When? In the meantime, I faultlessly serve at center court at Wimbledon and smack the return against the wall at the side of my house. Dribble unimpaired between a phalanx of ghostly defenders, shepherding the soccer ball for Mohun Bagan. My memories are filled with participation and purpose. The future gleamed and winked, twinkling as the sun and a slight breeze ruffled the water’s surface.

Covid-19 pandemic’s economic impact in Uganda, together with school closures and inadequate government assistance, has pushed children into dangerous labor, breaking bricks and stones by hand and working in mines.

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Vocal Fry

Palm trees, grids of water, splotches of brick, blocks with rooftops yawning at the cloudless sky, black tarmac snaking in between as the 747 drops from 550 to 580 cruising miles per hour to 150 to 160 miles per hour wheels unfurling underneath, clawing and rocketing toward the tarmac.

Dum Dum Airport in the 1970s, long before there were gleaming silver terminals and mechanized luggage claims belts. It was a step away from a crowded Indian railway station, except the passengers were better dressed. Dum Dum, a name with a colonial history, where the English manufactured the “Dum Dum” expanding bullet in the nineteenth century.

One of the cabin crew heaves the plane’s door open as the rollaway set of steps sidles to embrace the airliner. The air slams into my face, taking my breath away. I squint into the flaming sun, almost gasping for air. Erratically, I step out of the airplane onto the metal steps. Silently, I say to myself, in Bangla, Esho, tumi Kolkatai ( Come, you’re in Kolkata).

A boat capsized off the Egyptian coast with around 600 migrants on board in the Mediterranean Sea on September 21, 2016. 204 bodies were recovered (including at least 30 children).  160 people were rescued, as tens of people remained missing, with approximately 300 people presumed dead.

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Falsetto

I don’t possess a singular skill. I don’t know Greek or Latin. I don’t know Calculus. Or Mandarin. I don’t know how to play a musical instrument. But wait . . . I do know how to make a book. I mean EXACTLY how to do it. From soup to nuts as they say. From the time the trees are harvested for timber and rolled into paper mills to when the physical covered-and-bound book is in a bookstore, on a bedside table, or in a raggedy cardboard box on a sidewalk being hawked for a few bucks. It’s not a great skill; thousands command it too.

Books have been my unassailable shelter as long as I can remember. And it is of no surprise to me that when I was lurching, fumbling toward a “career,”  I rushed to encircle and embrace books, first through working jauntily in bookstores and then exerting myself in publishing houses mammoth and diminutive.

Picas, points, leading, hot type (yes, I’m that old), linotype, galleys, repros, blues, silhouette, dropout, vignette, castoffs, mechanicals, bleeds, dummies, endpapers, forms, f & gs, tape-and-knife fold binding, buckle-fold binding, case binding, wire stitching, sewing, headbands, running heads, widows, character counts, running feet, NASTA standards, copyfitting, colophons . . . are my relatives, my friends, my family. Some now have been confined to publishing’s equivalent of wheelchairs and the morgue, supplanted by the spry and chipper digital generation of the current industry that reflects the new family. The new relatives such as adaptive design, aggregated content. Alt text, alias, anchor text, CMS, dpi, integrated flipbook, and the already aging FTP are still my kinfolk.

I cling to the physical paper book closer than a survivor on the Titanic to a life vest. For centuries, its form and function have remained the same. How incredible is that?

It’s little wonder to me that I think nowadays about self-publishing, derisively called “vanity publishing” ( as with this Substack blog), and not wait to be plucked by the publishing princes or princesses with the crystal glass slipper. I write because it gives me pleasure. It helps me think about ordinary things in a different way. It’s selfish. It’s perhaps vain. It serves no greater good than to say to you, the reader, here’s a sliver of what I think is the best of myself.  

Varavara Rao, 81, Telugu poet in India is in prison (out on medical bail till October 14, 2021) accused of inciting riots, has been arrested numerous times, 25 to date in the past 50 years.

Raif bin Muhammad Badawi, Saudi blogger, has been in prison with a sentence of 8-10 years and a thousand lashes, of which 50 have been administered for insulting Islam through electronic channels. 

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