It occurs to me that my main reason for writing is to organize my thoughts. The blank paper seems to work for me in that way.
Every so often I come across a work of fiction whose characters articulate a world view pitched to my own. One such book is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
I’m not referring to the movie which took just a piece of the narrative and ran with it. My memory of the film was of a steamy love story between two characters, very constrained, very taciturn, very English. Ralph Fiennes has a constipated look throughout and Kristin Scott Thomas displays her usual pinched demeanor. Their love affair becomes a metaphor of the passion that breaks through all these boundaries.
The novel focuses on four people in a bombed-out Italian villa immediately after the end of the war in Europe. In their proximity to death all of them are, in degrees, haunted by the recent past and almost ghost-like in their non-attachment to the world. The author has set them free to muse on renaissance art, dislocation, possession and identity.
I have long felt a dis-indentification with my religion. Even before my Bar Mitzvah I turned away from the theology. What I first regarded as a sham, irrelevant and hypocritical has since evolved into something offensive to me. The transcendence and soulful dimension which organized religion lays claims to is too important to cede to any institution. The religious experience is a relationship between people who are fully met or lifted by the power of art beyond themselves.
In this context of universality I see any form of nationalism as divisive in nature and tribal; a vestige of pre-history. My notion of identity has nothing to do with the usual givens of nationhood, geography, religion, job etc.. It crosses borders, gender, even time. It has to do with a kinship of like minds.
These sentiments are not meant to persuade anybody. They are an attempt to locate my position within a larger belief system. I'm also aware that my wish to reach beyond the conventional margins is most probably fraught with challenges and resistence by forces in society just as the characters in the book are also doomed.
In the pages of the English Patient we are presented with characters and images which are universal. The desert sand constantly shifting. The Sikh sapper halfway around the world as questions begin to focus for him. The English patient who is not English yet might as well be. The professional thief who sees himself re-distributing wealth. The young nurse exploring different facets of love.
All these find resonance in me as they speak to a recognition of a life beyond our petty grievances into a community of caring persons. Even as I write this I’m aware that we have few words to say what I’m reaching for. I’ll try this poem instead.
The Sahara was a sea
of dunes in waiting.
The Sahara is the lovers’ skin,
oasis and cave.
The sand of bodies shifting,
no border between
the rise and fall of.
The Cave of Swimmers
records the names writ on water.
Bedouins have a dozen words for wind
that make Egyptian sand, Libyan sand.
As cartographers work through the night
they are over-ruled by winds and war.
Nobody owns anything, even lovers;
Artists know this and thieves
who upset the order under a communal moon.
The Indian Sikh de-fused bombs one by one
then blows up at the assembled
over the atomic news in Asia.
In the end everyone is a patient
and everyone is English,
the one, black as Hiroshima
and the North Americans,
sick with the geometry of maps,
all those lines and false colors.