28 January 2009

The year of magical thinking

“It is my opinion that the earth is very noble and admirable by reason of so many and so different alterations and generations which are incessantly made therein.”
– Quote from Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘Galileo’, translated by Charles Laughton

No, I wasn’t at the Taj Hotel, nor at the Oberoi Trident, in Mumbai on 26 November last year when (Pakistani) terrorists attacked and shot dead innocent people at their dinner tables. Nor did I lose a close friend in those terror attacks of ‘26/11’ as they spread across South Mumbai, killing close to 200 persons. But, when I try to imagine the events of that night, I cannot help but recall American author Joan Didion’s opening words in her book, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’:

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as we know it ends.”

If you find these words ominous (particularly since this is my first post in 2009 after an absence of close to three months), I apologise. I’m no soothsayer. I don’t wish to spoil your mood by forecasting anything darker than what you would have heard already from your neighbourhood economist. The truth is, the way things are globally and in India, terrorists notwithstanding, we’ll all need some magical thinking to help us through 2009.

But, why magical thinking?

Joan Didion’s book, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ (forgive me, for I have stolen the title of the book to name this post), published in 2005, is an account of her grief in losing her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, quite suddenly from a heart attack on the night of 30 December 2003… while their daughter, Quintana, was in an ICU in a hospital downtown suffering from septic pneumonia.

Ms Didion had trouble accepting this reality. For an entire year, she hoped her husband would come back. She believed if she hoped enough, if she held onto her husband’s memories and possessions long enough and strongly enough, if she re-lived her earlier experiences with her husband vividly enough, if she performed the right actions timely enough, her husband’s death could be averted and her life would be normal again.

Alas, hope may be a strength in times of human weakness, but it cannot turn back time. And so, regretfully, Ms Didion confesses at the end of her book:

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

By magical thinking, perhaps, Joan Didion means hope. Perhaps she means acceptance. Perhaps she means the transition from grief to hope to acceptance as a natural progression of events and human experience. I’m not quite sure how to interpret this. Perhaps, I need to find the answer to this question in my own personal way… as I journey through 2009.

[Citation: Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Charles Laughton, Grove Press; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Harper Perennial.]

No comments: