Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Colour of Words

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs.

Rao Uncle was visiting. Almost 20 years ago, we used to exchange books as neighbours in Delhi. But this time we were caught in the catching up of where is who, some more chai, cracker, cutlet. As he slipped his feet into his shoes to leave, he asked, ‘But who’s your favourite writer?’ 

‘Nabokov,’ I chose one.

Shocked eyebrows shot up and then his face fell in folds of disappointment, disgust almost. Did I say something that’s not to be said to elders? I bit my tongue and smiled. Like when Papa chanced upon Z and me together-alone between the book aisles in the library, I presented without being asked, at dinner that day, my defense – the reads Z had been recommending. Papa’s eyebrows shot up, but in his calm, typically understated and almost talking to himself manner, he said, ‘He was suggesting D H Lawrence?’ That only sent me scurrying post haste to grab a DHL.

If you said ‘Nabokov’ at Word Association, the first, only, fastest response would be ‘Lolita’! Its ‘depraved’ theme makes readers overlook the aesthetic bliss of its delightful telling – the almost-dream sequences, the lilting, lifting prose, dazzling images softened by his nuanced brush strokes of memory and passion. But we are judges of human failings first.

I read Lolita later. I loved him first for his autobiography, Speak, Memory – the Bible on my bedside that constitutes my ‘spiritual reading’ as opposed to the ‘carnal reading’ famously distinguished by the literary critic, Frank Kermode as, ‘the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet and ‘spiritual reading’, reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth.

I came upon Speak, Memory while reading about minds, working of minds, wrong wirings and wiring into my major love – synaesthesia*. 

Nabokov, a synaesthetic, could see and feel colour, a faculty that equipped him to create word images that breathed. I cannot read more than three pages of Speak, Memory at one go, on good days. So suffused with sensory delight it is that one has to stop to soak it in. Like chocolate, I leave some for later. 

If I had some paints handy, I would mix burnt sienna and sepia for you as to match the color of a 'ch' sound. And you would appreciate my radiant 's' if I could pour into your cupped hands some of those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child.

The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard ‘g’ (vulcanized rubber) and ‘r’ (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal ‘n’, noodle-limp ‘l’, and the ivory-backed hand-mirror of ‘o’ take care of the white. . . . Passing on to the blue group, there is steely ‘x’, thundercloud ‘z’ and huckleberry ‘h’. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see ‘q’ as browner than ‘k’, while ‘s’ is not the light blue of ‘c’, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

And here are indisputably the most beautiful lines in English Literature that I have read (I have read little) and read over and over:

I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors, in an alley of birches, limes and maples at its debouchment on the smooth sanded space of the garden proper that separated the park and the house. I see the tablecloth and the faces of seated people sharing in the animation of light and shade beneath a moving, a fabulous foliage, exaggerated, no doubt, by the same faculty of impassioned commemoration, of ceaseless return, that makes me always approach that banquet table from the outside, from the depth of the park —as if the mind, in order to go back thither, had to do so with the silent steps of a prodigal, faint with excitement.

Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech. I see the steam of the chocolate and the plates of blueberry tarts. I note the small helicopter of a revolving samara that gently descends upon the tablecloth, and, lying across the table, an adolescent girl's bare arm indolently extended as far as it will go, with its turquoise-veined underside turned up to the flaky sunlight, the palm open in lazy expectancy of something —perhaps the nutcracker. In the place where my current tutor sits, there is a changeful image, a succession of fade-ins and fade-outs; the pulsation of my thought mingles with that of the leaf shadows and turns Ordo into Max and Max into Lenski and Lenski into the schoolmaster, and the whole array of trembling, transformations is repeated.

And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties —smiling, frivolous duties —some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats; the sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.

In the same vein, another piece that I often refer to and badger others into reading, is from Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier. 

"What have you been doing here, Griet?" he asked.

I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. "Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup."

I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.

The man tapped his finger on the table. "Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?" he suggested, studying the circle.

"No, sir." I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.

"I see you have separated the whites," he said, indicating the turnips and onions. "And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?" He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.

I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.

* Synesthesia is a neurological condition, often described as a sensory cross-wiring in the brain. In its most common manifestation, people see letters in colour. Some also see numbers in colour, hear music and speech in colour, taste shapes, smell sounds ...

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