Borges - The Secret Miracle (Summary)

On March 19th 1939, Jaromir Hladik a Jewish author is arrested by the Third Reich. He was tried for being Jewish and working against the Nazi state and sentenced to death on the 29th of same month. His first emotion were of terror and he reflected greatly on the different methods of his execution. The pure act of dying did not engross him as much as the circumstances of it. He tried to foresee every variation of it and died hundreds of death in his thoughts standing in courtyard whose shape took all possible form and executed by soldiers of changing faces and numbers. Hladik reflects that the reality seldom acts the way it has been envisioned before hand and he deduces that if he can foresee the actual reality, he can prevent it from happening. He began to weave exquisite circumstances for that day so that they would not occur. Ultimately he came to fear that is thoughts would become prophetic. On the eve of his execution, he pondered over his unfinished play "The Enemies". He always thought that this play would redeem his reputation from less satisfactory earlier works. The play is about the unities of time, place and action. In the play even though the events play out yet the time is shown to stay still. The complete scenes repeats and the characters who die appear become alive in subsequent scenes and the multiple characters are in fact the same person in different times. It is as if the play has never taken place and it is a circular delirium that the characters experiences and re-experiences.

Not satisfied with the way the play is written and having no time to finish it now, he asks God for more time. If, he prayed, I do somehow exist, if I am not one of Thy repetitions or errata, then I exist as the author of The Enemies. In order to complete that play, which can justify me and justify Thee as well, I need one more year. Grant me those days, Thou who art the centuries and time itself. In his sleep, he visits a library looking for God.The librarian said it is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes here. Hladik picks up a random book and flips it pages. He saw a map of India and suddenly certain, he touched one of the tiny letters. A voice that was everywhere spoke to him:The time for your labor has been granted.  .

At this moment Hladik wakes up and two soldiers take him to the backyard for execution. The firing squad lines up and the final order are shouted. At that moment, the physical universe stops. All are made immobile and paralysed. In his mind he wonders if the time has been halted but then he argues that if that were true, his thoughts would have halted as well. For an unknown amount of time he slept and when he wakes up still paralysed, he realises that God has granted him his request. In Hladik’s mind a year would pass between the order to fire and the discharge of the rifles. He furiously reworks on his unfinished work rewriting and redoing it to his satisfaction, until a single epithet was left to be decided. He finds it and at that moment, the volley of bullets fells him and he died exactly on the day and time when it was designated for.

Unlike many stories that Borges wrote, this story's background is based on historical events that actually took place in WWII Europe. Jews were widely targeted and mostly summarily executed. In this story, there is a surreal play within the story which is eerie familiar to the main story. The plot of the play is a circular drama where characters and their actions repeat and the time on stage is shown to have not changed. The drama in fact never takes place. It is like a collective neurosis that all characters experience. In the story the unconscious mind (dreams) and the conscious both appear seamless and influence one another. Similarly the distinction between reality and fiction are blurred and reality actually copies from the fiction. The God is all powerful and unattainable but for Hladik He is approachable and personal. The success of Hladik's last wish is the vindication of Hladik's God's existence for Hladik. There are shades of determinism (as in he never asks God to not be executed and he does not want to change what awaits him), but at the same time he uses his free will and thought to finish his masterpiece ultimately redeeming himself. Familiar Borges's ideas of dreams, God, story within story, perception of reality and time are all visited in the story. Can the the perception of time be open to change? Can we live a life in a passage of a second of the clock? If universe was in fact was to stop, would time also stop and how would the conscious mind understand it?  Pretty dense for a three page story.

Translation - Hai Sabzah-Zaar Har Dar (Ghalib)

hai sabzah-zaar har dar-o-diivaar-e gam-kadah
jis kii bahaar yih ho phir us kii khizaan nah puuchh

naachaar bekasii kii bhii hasrat uthaaiye
dushvaarii-e rah-o-sitam-e ham-rahaan nah puuchh

Line 1/2 - Every door and wall in this my house of grief is abound in greenery (they are like a exuberant green meadow). The state like this is in the spring, then ask not what it would be in the autumn!. The poet says that this house of his, this house of grief is falling apart with neglect and disrepair. Green shoots and plants are growing from the neglected walls and doors. It is like a green untended garden. And this is the season of spring, I wonder (ask me not!) what it would be in autumn when the leaves & greens would die down and expose the real ruins of my house. If spring is like this, I wonder what disaster awaits us in autumn!

Line 3/4 - Helplessly, I am even longing for loneliness. Ask me not, difficulty of the road and the tyranny of the fellow travellers. The poet says in this difficult road that we all have to travel (life), ask me not of the brutal fellow companions that I had to face. It has reached such a state, that I helplessly wish that I was on this difficult road alone and without friends. 

Meaning of difficult words :-
sabzah-zaar = place abound in luxurious greens
gam-kadah = house of grief
khizaan = autumn
naachaar = helpless, 
bekasii = loneliness
hasrat = longing
dushvaarii = difficulty 
sitam = tyranny

The Rubaiyat : Quatrain XXIV

The Rubaiyat : Quatrain XXIV






Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after a To-morrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
"Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!"












This is the twenty-fourth quatrain of the Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat. The subtext is not very clear from reading it. The first two lines states that those who are living in today and those who stare on the tomorrow and think about the future. They are the same. The muzzein (i.e the prayer leader) from his high tower cries out that rewards of your effort is neither in This world or the world Thereafter. Not very forthcoming I must say. Here is how I read it. Those who are working hard today to make their wishes come true or those who are thinking about the future (or the life thereafter). They are both in same situation. The muezzin from the tower of darkness (probably Death itself personified from his liar) would laugh at both of them and say your reward is neither in this world or the world thereafter. He is telling there is no further reward is awaiting you whatever way you live your life and any expectation of it is just foolishness. The life lived is the reward itself and there is no more to come.

Again, the lines are very obtuse to be sure what the poet meant.

Borges : Death and the Compass (Summary)

I caught up with another of Borges's story "Death and the Compass", which is more of detective work that investigates a series of murder that seem to follow a pattern. The crimes are being investigated by 2 cops, Lonnrot  and Treviranus. A Jewish rabbi is killed in a  hotel room on Dec 3. T. postulates that he was killed by mistake for someone intended to steal from the person in the next room who owns the finest gems. On the typewriter in the room,  an unfinished line is written - "The first letter of the Name has been written.". Other possessions are mostly Kabbalah & Jewish books. L. shrugs off this explanation as not interesting and points to it being a planned murder. L. takes along dead man's books and studies them. Of particular interest to him is "tetragrammaton" which is the unspeakable name of the God. Word gets out that L. has taken to study the names of God in order find the murderer.

The next crime happens Jan 3 amid rhombus houses, a person lay dead with the "The second letter of the Name has been written." scribbled on the walls. On Feb 3, T. gets an anonymous call who offers to reveal the details of the murders. He traces the call to a hotel and when they reach the hotel room, they find the third crime committed and predictably scrawled on the wall is "The last letter of the Name has been written.". The hotel manager mentions that room guest had made a call and soon left. In the room L. finds a text underlined "The Jewish day begins at sundown and lasts until sundown of the following day."

On March 1, T. receives a letter predicting that this month there will be no crime and sending the exact location of the three crimes on map which turn out to be a equilateral triangle.T. is of the opinion that the killing spree is finished. L. pondered over the space and time symmetry of the crimes and declares that he will have killer arrested soon for there will be another crime. He leaves for the south a day earlier to pre-empt and catch the murderer. He reaches a villa that abounded in "pointless symmetries and obsessive repetitions." A niche reflected in a niche, a balcony was reflected in another balcony. A two-faced Hermes adored the garden. The abandoned house seemed infinite and ever growing.

Here he is ambushed by known criminal Scharlach Red and his henchmen. Red is previously known to L. for he arrested Red's brother in a shoot-out that also gravely injuring Red. Lying for nine days in midst of struggle between life and death in this complex villa, he vowed to hunt down L. and weave a labyrinth around him. Red discloses that the first murder was by chance for they were there to loot the gems, but his henchman double crossed and mistakenly killed the rabbi. The rabbi has just written a line on the typewriter. Red got the news that L. investigating the case was certain that the elusive line was linked to the murder. So Red set about justifying that link and killed the next two people on specific days & directions and left behind connecting clues to point to a greater conspiracy fully aware that only L. would see through it and find out that there is fourth piece to the puzzle for there are four directions, the day was the fourth Jewish day, and the Name of God "YHVH" consists of four letters. L. in his bitterness says that such a complex maze was not needed and proposes a easier solution before he is shot dead.

"There are three lines too many in your labyrinth," he said at last. "I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B and halfway between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy." "The next time I kill you,"Scharlach replied, "I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless."

One way to analyse this story is to read it at its face value as one detective investigation that goes horribly wrong or one can go about delving into the numerous niches and symbols and come up with all kind of fantastical and abstract propositions. This would in fact be the same mistake that L. did. He went about untangling the mystery, but in the act he tangles himself and ultimately the maze consumes him. He sees signs and scheme where there was none to begin with and that becomes his nemesis. Sometimes a rose it just a rose. Sometimes the most easiest explanation is the correct explanation. The form of the truth is its not its simplicity (or lack of it) but its essence. The mere fact that there is so much detail available does not change the substance of the situation or the truth about it.

Humans have this tendency to complicate things, to see it a part of a bigger design or of great game. No doubt world is a complex place with no particular order and whole life generally seems haphazard. But we do not like the idea that we are not in control, that we are not aware of it. We tend to see this randomness as a pattern in a big scheme of things, that is being controlled by someone higher. The idea that no one controlling it is more unravelling than the thought of someone controlling it. Like so many incidents these days (like 9/11) there are always people who go about finding theories and patterns and signs because the fantastical is sometimes more persuasive than the banal. To see the real in middle of all this noise and not misinterpret it or over analyse it and not give it a train of thought where it takes a life of its own. For now we can always take comfort in the fact that even with his lavish over-interpretation L. was able to solve, to prove to us that we can in fact ultimately see through the maze and reach the truth, even if at the cost of losing yourself.

The Cartographer's Surreal Dream

Today is a good day for India. It is not everyday you go about fixing a seventy year old nightmare. The nightmares I am talking about are the intractable border disputes that India has with pretty much with all its neighbours.

India and Bangladesh signed the Land Border Agreement (LBA) today that fixes the seventy year old monstrosity that has defined their border and made life miserable for people inhabiting these enclaves. I wonder why it took so long to fix a problem that was so idiotic to begin with. For the people living in those enclaves, it is probably an end to uncertainty, end of abandonment, of the state failing to provide even basic services.

Just to give you an idea of how absurd that situation was, check the image below. The area in pink is Bangladesh and inside it is an Indian enclave and inside is it a Bangladesh enclave and inside it is an Indian enclave. Now that is some cartographer's surreal dream. I am pretty sure the situation for people living in these ridiculous enclaves were of dread and not of dream!

Translation - Daayam Pada Huaa Tere Dar Par (Ghalib)

daayam pada huaa tere dar par naheen  hoon main
khaak 'eisee zindagee pe ke patthar naheen hoon main

kyoon gardish-e-mudaam se ghabra na jaaye dil ?
insaan hoon, pyaala-o-saaghar naheen hoon main

yaarab ! zamaana mujhko mitaata hai kis liye ?
loh-e-jahaan pe harf-e-muqarrar naheen hoon main

had chaahiye saza mein uqoobat ke waaste
aakhir gunaahagaar hoon, kaafir naheen hoon main

kis waaste 'azeez naheen jaante mujhe ?
laal-o-zumarrud-o-zar-o-gauhar naheen hoon main

rakhte ho tum qadam meree aankhon se kyun dareh
rutbe mein mehar-o-maah se kamtar naheen hoon main

karte ho mujhko man'a-e-qadam_bos kis liye ?
kya aasmaan ke bhee baraabar naheen hoon main ?

'ghalib' wazifaa_khwaar ho, do shaah ko duaa
 woh din gaye ki kehte the;, "naukar naheen hoon main"

Line 1/2 - I am not always lying on the ground in front of your door. Dust be such a life, for I am not a stone. This is a familiar theme in Ghalib's work. You can nuance it either ways. One way goes that I am not always lying prostate in front of your house for I have self respect and dust be such a life that is spent on such meaning less pursuit for I am a man, not a stone. The other ways says that alas! I am not always lying in front of your door and such a life is worthless for I am not a stone, for the stepping stone always gets to touch the feet of the beloved every day. I wish I had been a stone lying there always!

Line 3/4 - Why would the heart not be anxious by the constant stream of bad luck that I am facing. For I am a human, and not a glass or vessel of wine. Ghalib says why wouldn't the heart be uneasy due to this never-ending and going round & round bad luck. He is after all a human, and not a glass or pitcher of wine that goes around the patrons of the tavern and yet comes out unscathed.

Line 5/6 - Oh God!, why does this world try to erase me. On the tablet of this world, I am not an letter that was repeated. This is Ghalib at its brilliant best. Probably among the best of his lines. harf-e-muqarrar is a letter that is mistakenly written twice during writing and therefore has to be struck off/erased. Ghalib has compared himself to such a wrongly repeated word and said, that the world and passing time is trying to
erase me. But on this face of the earth, in this tablet of the world (that we write with our lives), I am not a letter that is repeated that can be struck off. I am someone who is unique, and someone whom the world needs. I am to be cherished & respected, not to be erased by the passage of time.

Line 7/8 - There needs to be a limit of punishment with respect to the pain and agony. For I am a sinner and wrong-doer but I a not a non-believer. The poet says there should be a limit of punishment for this endless torment is wrong. He is not a infidel that has been sent to the never-ending torture of hell. He is after all a mere sinner and does not warrant such a grave punishment. These lines seem to be addressed to God, but could very well be for the beloved.

Line 9/10 - For what reason, you do not consider me precious. I am not a gem, gold, rubies or precious stones. The poet requests to God, that since you do not consider these gems & stones precious. Why do you not consider me as precious for I am none of these. I am humble and simple unlike the pretentious gems that you do not like. In a sense, I am better than all those things!

Line 11/12 - Why do you hesitate to place your foot on my eyes. In rank or status, I am no less than the sun and moon.O! God you have placed your foot on the sun and moon and they were delighted that you touched them. I am in rank no less than sun and moon and yet, I do not get the pleasure of that.

Line 13/14 - Why do you stop me from kissing your footsteps. Am I not even equal to the sky. Do you not think me worthy enough to kiss your footsteps? The Lord went to the world beyond using the sky as a stepping stone. If the sky can get to kiss your steps, why can't I? Am I not even equal to the sky. The last three verses can be taken together as a poet's hurtful address to the God. He is complaining that he is better than the valuable thing on earth (like gems, gold & stones), of same rank as sun & moon and even equal to the sky and yet I am not allowed of the joy of kissing your feet.

Line 15/16 - Ghalib! pensioner you are, give blessing to the king. Those days are gone now when you used to say, "I am not a servant". Khwaar means eater. Ghalib distresses over his finances and says that earlier he could rebuke anyone for he was not answerable to anyone. But now since he is receiving pension from the king, he is bound to express gratitude to the king by blessing him!

Meaning of difficult words :-
daayam = always
gardish = bad time/luck (revolving)
mudaam = always, eternal.
harf = alphabet
muqarrar = again
uqoobat = pain
laal = a kind of gem
zumurrud = green colored gem
zar = gold
gauhar = gem
mehar = sun
maah = moon
bosa = kiss
wazifaa_khawaar = pensioner

The Rubaiyat : Quatrain XXIII



Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend.
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End.

This is the twenty-third quatrain of the FitzGerald's Rubaiyat. The idea in these lines is the same as one in the previous two - XXI and XXII quatrains. That our stay in this world is transitory, so live it while it lasts. The quatrain cautions that make most of your time here, on the face of the earth where you live and can spend time engaging in worldly or non-worldly  pursuits. For we are travelers here with limited time to spend. We too will turn to dust, from where we come. Dust to Dust and under the dirt we lie without the pleasure of wine, without the song and without the company of the singer (companion) and without the end, for death is going to be everlasting.