I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011



Grounds through the Trees
I have been amazed at the kind of thoughts, images and senses of feeling that have been popping into my mind triggered by fleeting sightings of scenes and individuals that I see, only to disappear a moment or two later while jogging around the athletics oval of Hitotsubashi University, and sometimes along the wooded cross-country track that runs adjacent to this ground and the nearby baseball ground. I was amazed not because they were profound by any means! I was intrigued and also relieved because of the seamless manner in which they entered my mind without burdening it and without imposing any responsibilities of analysis. They were simply thoughts, images and minor events to be seen and perhaps forgotten.

Woods and the Carpet of Leaves
Though a long term practice since late 1980s, jogging quite literally took a back seat in my life in recent times in Colombo, mainly due to too much work. But I managed to rekindle that practice which I always enjoyed since about May this year on a regular basis mostly as a result of the relatively flexible schedule that I enjoy at the moment and also because of the inviting nature of the environment within which it could be done. After all, no dogs were chasing me, no mad drivers were trying to run me over, no politicians were speeding past me with their stooges wagging their hands out of the windows, and no carbon monoxide fumes to gas me to death. But of course, if invisible radiation is creeping into my system in the midst of these idyllic conditions is anyone’s guess; one thing that is clear is that the Japanese government cannot be believed and cannot be taken seriously when it comes to its ‘news’ on the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its aftermath, which has now become an absurd drama of epic proportions. But it is certainly not funny. But I decided quite some time ago that I willnot worry about this for the moment.
A Field of Flowers along the Long Distance Track
Back to my thoughts and fleeting moments: I wanted to write about these things from the moment I realized that they were present in my mind’s eye; but could never get myself to do it because by the time I came home, I was too bored to commit them to paper or a digital record. I also thought they were simply ephemeral moments that would disintegrate into non-events moments later. But I was wrong. Some of them continue to be in my mind, and perhaps may disappear in time and would be replaced by yet other moments. In any event, I figured it does not really matter what remains and what does not; but if I could pen down some of these things I thought in the very least my writing might improve somewhat which has become increasingly imprisoned in an academic lexicon that neither helps me nor anyone else that I know of. Two months after my first failed attempt I actually nagged to do it.

Long Distance Track
When I started my regular jogging in Japan it was usually at about 4.45 or 5.00 in the evening. Though the oval was never crowded, it had quite a bit of life at that time as was there much light. The magnificent trees and the surrounding woods were the things that always relaxed me. A cool breeze that almost always came my way, flowed through the trees, carrying their scents and sometimes the smell of coking ramen noodles, perhaps from nearby student dorms or homes of the townsfolk. It almost seemed liking singing trying to relax both the body and soul of an old man fast approaching his half century on the planet. When I first started jogging I was convinced that I must be the oldest creature trying to be fit. And I seemed to be right. There were so many young Japanese men and sometimes women sprinters practicing, cautiously avoiding any collision with me. And then, there was the nightmare of having to listen to cheerleaders practicing; young and full of life for sure; but annoying as hell and very loud as well. What was worse, I guess was its seeming quality of simulation from American iconic popular culture that I have often thought the world can do without. Ok, at this age, I have my biases well formed; but I am beginning to like them; besides, they hurt no one. And when I am writing as a citizen of the world, I do not have to be politically correct.

Carpet of Leaves in the Woods
Jogging with light around also meant that I could see the outlines of trees and other features of the surrounding areas much more clearly; it also meant that my shadow was constantly following me though it took me quite a bit of time to realize it. I guess we take too many things for granted like the shadow and over time things very close to us and even people close to us might not be seen by us. Without us knowing, they might take leave of our consciousness. But the shadow following me gave me all kinds of ideas; one evening I came home and write a poem on the shadow. When it comes to poetry and lyrics, I have noticed that I can write almost immediately on the spot if I can find a piece of paper or soon after when in a more convenient place; this is not the case with prose, either academic or mindless things like these lines. Anyway, ‘Shadows’ flows as follows:

ආවේය පිටුපසින්
කොපමණ දිව්වත්
යාඥා කළත්
ආඥා කළත්
බැගෑපත් වුවත්
කන්නලව් කළත්
සෙවනැල්ල තවමත්
මා පිටුපසය.

But the shadow stopped following me by about mid early July. The approach of summer with its heat and the scorching sun meant that I could begin my jogging at 06.00 or sometimes 07.00 in the evening; at that time the last rays of the sun had gone beyond the line of trees and the was no source to give life to the shadow. In the dim light that was left, the same scene I had seen countless times before seemed more blurred, surreal and even magical. If the trees, the ground and everything else seemed like a precise landscape painting by Constable before, now it looked like an expression of expressionism, less clear and leaving room for more interpretation and for imagination to work on. I must confess that I prefer this version of the day. It is instances like this when the sun dies and darkness surrounds that one realizes how much light there is in the midst of darkness; how much can be seen when the source of light has been extinguished; how much can be felt because of familiarity.

Octo Plus, Reverse and Hulk

And then, one day my ageist assumptions were shattered when I saw Octo Plus; that is what I have called him in my mind’s eye ever since I saw him first nearly two months ago. He was clearly an octogenarian; quite possibly over eighty years old, and hence Octo Plus. Surely, I could not insult the old man by calling him Octopus, now could I? He is the slowest jogger I have ever seen and probably ever will. He suddenly emerges out of the tree line and presents a performance that varies between a very slow walk and an even slower jog. He emerges into and out of the regular jogging tracks of the oval, and sometimes vanishes into the cross country track and its wooded environs; sometimes he remerges from this and engages in a regime of exercise that seems to be a sort of tai-chi and some other concoction that he must have had plenty of time to devise. I have not seen Octo Plus in a few weeks; I hope he is OK. I already miss his grey flannel-like track suite and his slow-motion jog.

And then, about four weeks ago one evening, I think in my eighth lap, I saw from the corner of my right eye, Reverse in full throttle; at least in what was full throttle for him. Reverse is an amazing man, not as ancient as Octo Plus, but certainly much more senior than moi. He does not jog; he does not run; he does not walk; he does not sprint; he does no tai-chi. He simply walks backwards and never collides with anyone. He suddenly appears from perhaps the trees themselves for all I know; then equally as suddenly he vanishes in the midst of his steadfast reversal, perhaps into the clouds or the dust, only to reappear a few days later. He is a veritable David Copperfield when it comes to his disappearing act. I for one, could never fathom where he come from and where he went to. After all, there is so much an approaching half centurion can take from the corners of his eyes; and it is simply too rude to gape even at these amazing sons of the planet in the Japanese social milieu. One never looks at another directly. But I know by now that these guys see everything and take most things in; they simply do not show it as do we, gaping at everyone like circus monkeys. When it comes to notice-ability, I am particularly disadvantaged in these environs. The thought has often come to my mind, how could I simply disappear for a moment or two, if I so wish. Not in this place. A 172 CM, 65 KG black frame with graying hair and beard simply cannot avoid being seen among these shadows of samurai; no such luck. But I hope that someone would at least compose a very short haiku verse on this sight, which surely must be quite weird. What is sad is, if that haiku ever gets written, I will never know. That is sad, isn’t it?

Hulk ‘s appearance on the scene is far less surreal than Octo Plus or Reverse. He simply rides his bicycle which he parks under the trees beyond the oval like most others, takes a large plastic bag from the rear luggage rack of the bicycle, marches to the right hand corner of the oval and very decisively opens his bag after some routine twisting around. That must be some form of Japanese exercise. And then, he takes a whole range of iron balls from his bag and simply throws them around with all his might. And they fall at different places making an almost indistinguishable ‘thud.’ When he gets tired of this, he takes a bunch of heavy iron chains linked to each other and throw them around making quite a bit of racket. But Hulk has a sense of precision and control. Neither his iron balls nor his chains ever gets out into the jogging track. At the end of about one hour, when he has had enough of throwing hardware around, he gets all his cherished junk into his bag, mounts his bike and rides into the distant darkness; unlike the Hulk we all know form that tiresome American cartoon series, he never strips his clothes or that of anyone else, does not scream at anyone and he does not turn green; not even pink. After all, how could he? He is Japanese; it’s not in the rule book of good behavior.

I could see the goings and comings of Hulk as well as what he does more clearly because he was always in the playground itself which made his presence more visible. Comparatively, both Reverse and Octo Plus often used the outermost track which exiled them to the margins of the ground, literally and metaphorically, ensuring their relative invisibility.


What I enjoy most is the music of the trees and the wind and the dancing of the leaves. They always help me relax. But they also make me lose track of time and count of the number of laps I am supposed to jog. But then, what difference does it make? Not that the world is going to change and become the ‘Planet of the Apes’ if I jog for an additional lap or so; not that democracy will suddenly arrive in distant and mauled Lanka if I jog a lap or so less. That is the true greatness of flexibility of time. It is not a luxury at one’s disposal all the time though. But when it is offered to you in a platter, one might as well enjoy it. Anyway, music that nature makes in conjunction with the wind and foliage is not the only kind of music that I heard in the world of my jogging. The ‘left-right, up-down’ kind of orders accompanied by the truly loud characterless music that I had no option but to tolerate while the cheerleaders were around was truly unpleasant. I even held my breath while passing them hoping it would block my ears while passing them; the only thing that achieved was to nearly burst my insides. I am thankful that by early July, the Hell’s Angels have gone someplace, leaving me alone! And I truly do not need to know where. Anyway, on a few occasions in May, through the whispers of the wind and the fluttering of the leaves, I was convinced I heard music that was not made by nature, and it was beautiful. It was a violin played by an expert. Clearly, this was not the work of an amateur. I thought this was some kind of improvisation of what many of us just call ‘western classical music’. But for an uncultured lout like myself who cannot easily differentiate between Wagner’s ‘Funeral March’ and Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ it was not possible to really figure out what exactly maestro was playing from his invisible stage. But then, I thought, why should I know what it was or where he was. He was providing me live music, and he was clearly not a cheerleader. Then one day, I suddenly saw him, through the trees, in the woods under a large tree not too far from the pond where I rest after jogging watching the ducks if they have not migrated to some godforsaken place.

Pond and its Reflections
A few days later, he played the flute, equally elegantly; and that day, there were ducks in the pond too. I was convinced they enjoyed the music too because they were very quite on the water, almost still. Then he disappeared without warning with his music. I have not seen or heard him for over a month. I often wondered where he went and thought he must have rejoined the rat race from which he must have taken a respite to practice his music for a short time. I felt sad that I could not go up to him and thank him in language that he understood to say how much I enjoyed his music.


I know that the word ‘culture’ is one of the most abused and misused words in any language in today’s contexts just as much as ‘fundamentalism,’ ‘art’ and ‘nationalism.’ But it was a word, in terms of the ideas it conjures, that constantly came into my mind while jogging; that is because fleeting images constantly pointed to ramifications, interpretations, over-interpretations, nuances and nonsense that emanate from the idea of culture, and occupied an unsettled corner in my mind. Of course, all these images made their presence felt when situated in the context of cultural terrains that popular and academic discourses often quite simplistically suggest as ‘Japanese culture.’ This includes a preoccupation with iconic things like sake, sushi, the kimonos as well as notions of precision that has to do with technology and issues of what seems like unwavering attention to ethics in day to day practices. To me, this entire discourse was interesting not because of its existence in reality but due to the almost mythological sense it created.

One hears this from many locals as well as foreigners. Japan in that sense is a highly mythologized place. And the discourse further suggests that the present is linked in almost a linear fashion to the mists of the past as if the past was a constant companion of the present. Japanese television relentlessly offers images of growling and unsmiling samurai types chasing other such men around the countryside and rescuing kimono-clad women from yet other bands of samurai who might be wearing somewhat darker costumes. And then suddenly, in the midst of this TV narrative, we are shockingly transported in ‘Star Wars’ fashion to the present through a series of very loud and often uncreative advertisements on food, alcohol, underwear and what not. And one does not even have to scream ‘beam me up Scotty” to go through this entire process. Anyway, culture presented in this way seems not only to be a linked to the past through some kind of linear umbilical cord, but also as a set of objects and practices that persist in the present unchanged.

That was the source of the contradiction that opened up in my mind what seemed like binary opposites of culture: something of awe, unchanged and linked to the past versus something ordinary, constantly changing and often borrowed. Not that I did not know all of this before; but it was quite interesting to see the contradictions in the uncritical discourses on culture and what was seen on ground -- albeit as fleeting images while jogging! I was intrigued when I saw a young father trying to teach his very small son Tai-chi which itself was borrowed from China a long time ago; but the son’s attention span with this ancient art form was clearly very limited. He soon grabbed a baseball bat, adorned his head with an appropriate hat and was ready to be a star of a practice borrowed from the US more clearly since the end of World War Two. And the father was ever ready to teach him baseball just as much as Tai-Ichi. The cheerleaders were on the other hand, perfecting a process of simulation to such an extent that they could have seriously challenged many of their American counterparts. The young sprinters in training were certainly not running around in kimonos and the minstrel in my midst was certainly not playing an ancient Kabuki or Noh hit composed by some unknown Shogun for his beloved Geisha; he was experimenting with the music of one of the ‘western’ maestros; too bad I could not figure out whose music it was.

This then was culture as it was evolving on the ground that seeped into my mind as I was jogging. It was not something that inspired awe; it was nothing extraordinary; it was noting particularly ancient. It was quite ordinary and routine. The linkages to the ancient past do exist but certainly not in this particular context. Where it does exist, it is often in simulated circumstances rather than in people’s day to day practices despite their beliefs to the contrary. It is also in this context that the young students in my classes were clueless about art forms in their own temples and shrines as if it was something strange from Timbuktu and did not know the name of their Emperor which I could spell for them in ten seconds; but of course, all of them took out their mobile phones and gallivanted to the internet in search for the Emperors’ name the moment the question came out of the horse’s mouth! That was the work of culture too. Culture here or anywhere else is not something neat and black and white; if at all, its messy and comes in shades of gray as well as any other color one can think of.

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