Tuesday, January 03, 2017

'The ancient story of the sun going down': RIP John Berger

The year begins with the ending of a rich and productive life. John Berger, who died yesterday, was 90. 

As 2016 ended, I said to myself, 'At least this isn't the year John Berger died.' As 2017 begins, he has.

And yet, I don't feel the shock and grief that many deaths the previous year brought. I feel gratitude for his work, for his clarity and compassion and for his quest to live and write ethically.

There are many, many things about his life and work that is easily found on the net, so I won't link to anything.

Instead, here's a poem:

Each Pine at Dusk

John Berger

Each pine at dusk
lodges the bird
of its voice
perpendicular and still
the forest
indifferent to history
tearless as stone
in tremulous excitement
the ancient story
of the sun going down


Okay, that was meagre. To fill it out, I will (naturally) need to talk about myself. Of being a very young 21 and encountering Ways of Seeing as a bunch of cyclostyled (yes!) excerpts at Sophia. Though I had already begun to train myself to see visual media more critically, it was Berger who was the first to thoroughly train my eye to work in tandem with my mind.

Then there was Once In Europa. It's a book to re-read today, for sure; but when I first read it, I was editing my first (and only) 'feature film, in Bangalore. We worked in a room off the projector room; the corridor outside was populated with monkeys; the manager of the state-owned theatre found it hard to believe that a woman was a director but frankly incredulous when he found that the editor was also a woman. We stayed in a clean lodge somewhere in Seshadripuram and I discovered a part of Bangalore through sitting and standing in buses to and from Jayanagar.

It was in this month and half (or however long it took) that I was reading Berger, in the few in-between times that were all we had before exhaustion and sleep took us. I don't think there were any even slight parallels between the world of the book and the life I was reading leading. And yet, it is in the dna of my poetry; I'm not sure how, but I know it - and Berger - is.

In recent years, when my mother's reading has outpaced mine in a way that still astonishes me, I've given her his books and she has devoured them. I have, perhaps, been more sceptical of his recent work (that A to X book; what is it with Berger and letters of the alphabet?) but I would never deny the power of his early work.

I need to look for his films now (Ways of Seeing is available on YouTube, by the way). 

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