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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

13 June, 2007


The clouds hang in the sunless sky like fluffy pink pillows.
The air is still between us. I smell you between the smells
of growing grass and blooming azaleas. You are curled up
holding my hand between yours. You can feel my little finger
travel slowly along your stomach. Textures are teased out in
an exploration of tender territory. I lean forward and run my
tongue along the back of your neck, through gleaming hair
and salty skin. The still air between us suffers, squeezed
between shivering bodies. Your leg slowly slides along mine,
miming a language in movement. I let the light of dawn flow
across your freckled forehead and pool in your opening eyes.
I wait for the breathless breeze to surround us and then blow
through your hair. I bend over and touch your lips, soft like sin
and flecked with spots of red teeth marks. I close the gap with
my lips and lazy light struggles to escape their locked confines.
The careless cries of birds wash over our aroused senses. We
sink into seconds and stretch them along our sinuous spines.

Silently, dawn parts from us like a jilted lover. The yellow overseer
is riding in on her familiar coattails. The brittle business of another
day awaits his grim golden gaze. You leave too as morning moves
her mundane face on us. Fie! A perpetual interrupter of intimate
auroral moments is here yet again to erase the early spoils.

(First posted here)



i fear the molten light
that cuts the embrace
of my darkness

somebody, somebody please
inform the sun to stop staring
and to the moonbeam to keep off
keep off my wavering mind

i fear the molten light
that cuts the embrace
of my darkness

tell that sun again, please
to warm not my heart
and to the moonbeam
that binds my being

let me be

let me be in
the shadows
of my eclipsed love
of the silence

i fear the molten light
that cuts the embrace
of my darkness

* sweorcan, anglo-saxon verb, meaning "to grow dark."

(c) arjun chandramohan bali. 2007


On Poetry

Dangerous Poetry - video of a stand-up routine.

Poetry, life full of surprises for Billy Collins (an interview with Richard Anderson)
All children, I think, write something that, for lack of a better word, is poetry … It’s really impossible to get out of the emotional turmoil of high school without, for better or worse, recording something that, again, by default if for no other reason, you might call a poem. …
Someone said you don’t need to have an uphappy childhood to be a writer, you just need to have gone through adolescence … . But most people stop, just as most people stop drawing and stop playing music and stop dancing and doing a lot of things that they did as children. I think poets are just people who never wanted to stop playing with language.
To save America - Fifty years ago this week, a bookshop assistant was arrested for 'peddling' obscene literature - the banned work was Allen Ginsberg's Howl. James Campbell on the poem that defined a generation.

A set of photos and an essay by Gordon Ball, about Ginsberg and friends.


Publishing 2.0, anyone?

Interesting moves in publishing. Or are they gimmicks?

Reuters reports on Tough sell for writers at NY literary "speed-dating" (by Claudia Parsons):
If you think speed-dating is tough, try selling your book to an editor in three minutes.
That's what hundreds of aspiring authors were doing this week at a New York trade fair, and the odds were against them.
And in the New York Times, in Publisher to Let the Public Have a Vote on Book Projects, Motoko Rich covers another interesting concept from a site called Media Predict, which is..
..soliciting book proposals from agents and the public, and posting pages of them on the site. Traders, who are given $5,000 in fantasy cash, can buy shares based on their guess about whether a particular book proposal is likely to get a deal, or whether Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will select it as a finalist in a contest called Project Publish. If either happens within a four-month period, the value of the shares go to $100 apiece; if not, the share price falls to zero.
What's your call?


09 June, 2007

Shalimar the Clown - Salman Rushdie - Book Review

We are all familiar with the sad, sad story of Kashmir. In fact, let’s shed a collective tear for this beautiful land, that hasn’t seen a semblance of peace in the past many years. Paradise, it has been, still is, but no longer a haven of peace. There is the rumble of armoured vehicles, bombs, mines and bullets shot from the most modern killing weapons as proof. Death haunts the valley. It takes the power of Salman Rushdie’s pen to script a story of the rape of this land and the disillusionment of its people in the face of unending terror.

Rushdie writes a masterpiece of literary skill and an epic-proportion chronicle of all that has gone wrong with the state in which the spectre of terrorism has arisen. His prose brings the struggle between the protectors and the oppressed with such felicity that one is, truth be told, left dazed and amazed.

But that is not the Kashmir Shalimar the clown was born into. It was the Kashmir where the Muslim Bhand Pather performers and the Hindu wazza were friends and gently ribbed each other in the halcyon days of yore. Shalimar, the clowning member of the Bhand Pathers performing group is in love with Boonyi Kaul, daughter of the village wazza, or, head chef, who can cook up delicious Kashmiri meals, minimum thirty-six finger-licking delicacies.

Tragically Shalimar and Boonyi marry, and thereby begin their trials.

Panchigam, or, village of birds - where Rushdie’s novel is set - is heaven personified before terrorist insurgency and the army turn it into a virtual hell. Bhand Pathers do their acts which include “magic real” acts and tight rope walking by the clown – Shalimar. It is the place where the local Hindu – Pandit Pyarelal Kaul makes excellent cuisines with 36 dishes minimum to feed his friends that include his friend Abdullah Noman, the village chief and Shalimar’s father. All’s well in the small Kashmiri village and its inhabitants.

Into the valley comes a Rajput General Kachchwaha, the tortoise, who as representative of the Indian army is there to protect the inhabitants against militants personified by the Gegroo brothers who, goaded by the extremists across the border, become terrorists.

The army isn’t the bunch of angels they are presumed to be in this once peaceful paradise. That we know. Headed by a ruthless man, who remains a bachelor all his life, it is ruthless when it comes to putting down rebellion. There is no softness or mercy in their training manuals, and once unleashed their passions are immitigable.

General Kachchwaha instead of protecting the villagers turns his men into an evil force and unleashes a reign of terror only matched by the Gegroo brothers’ evil deeds. Who is the protector, who is the purveyor of terror, the line is thin, the division is indistinct.

Rushdie begins with Ambassador Max Ophuls’ death and then weaves a pastoral memory of Kashmir and develops a plot thicker than Swiss cheese. Yes, it has all the hallmark of the Rushdie genius, be it in the description of the French Resistance whence the “Grey Rat” rules the internecine labyrinths, or, the tragic life of the clown whose love life is doomed from the beginning. Yes, revenge is sweet, seems to be the major theme of the novel and it’s played out beautifully in the revenge of Shalimar and that of the shamed inhabitants of Panchigam.

Particularly noteworthy are the passages where the step father and step daughter: one a hardened terrorist and the other an athletic American youngster, are involved in a cat and mouse chase and a telepathic battle of wits across America. Some of the “magic realism” such as the clown walking away into thin air from across the prison, and the situation inside the US prison are well handled. Obviously, as with his previous novels, a lot of research has gone into the writing of this book.

Moreover, the novel is not only about unrequited love but also about the friendship of the Noman and Kaul families that is disrupted by terror. Kashmir even “Kashmiriyat” will never be the same again. Reading the novel one questions the very banality of using terror to bring social justice or even to bring about political settlement. The whole exercise seems futile; the very foundation on which the use of terror is built seems shaky. Hope someone sees sense in this message that the novel sends out.

It’s a sad novel in the sense of utter hopelessness of its characters. While Shalimar is tragedy personified Boonyi, the Kashmiri beauty, is even more so by her exploitation by the prurient US ambassador. Rushdie usually bases his characters and story on true incidents. This reviewer wonders on which story he based Boonyi’s ill-fated affair with a powerful US ambassador. Midnight’s Children was based in part on the famous Nanavati murder case, which occurred in Bombay. Old-timers would recollect how it shook the placid exterior of Bombay society in the fifties.

This reviewer wishes to draw here some parallels between Kashmir and Kalimpong as portrayed in the novels of Rushdie and Kiran Desai. These are places that are going through the same genre of problems. On the one hand there are ill-informed young cadres of terrorists trained by their harsh masters and on the other the mighty arm of the law that is sent to control them or to wipe them out using the force of guns.

The people, such as you and me, caught in the middle of this tussle bears the brunt of this tug of war, as is ably described by Rushdie in this novel, and by Desai in The Inheritance of Loss. This is the stuff we have heard happening in banana republics of less developed countries. Is this where we are headed? Is this the reality behind the empty rhetoric our leaders have foisted on us in the name of democracy?

Would definitely recommend the novel if only to know the reality of Kashmir, the customs of its people, and its myriad problems. After all the truth of Kashmir concerns us all, however insulated we may be.


07 June, 2007

The First Rain Saudade

First Rain Saudade

The first showers fall,
Syncopated percussions,
Like memory of first love.

It wets eyelids,
Brings out a drawn sibilant breath.
The rain paints sky with a gray brush,
Satiates the earth,
Slakes desire, like an absent lover’s kiss.

Slowly memory unravels,
Oh! How the nymphs came and went,
Spilling the air
With moist yearning.
Isn’t love
The desire of something one can’t have?

The upended trees, buildings,
Reflected in recent clouds,
And the skin erupting with goose bumps,
The wetness clinging,
As memory to soul:
A feeling of saudade.

She went away,
Forsaking love,
The memory lingers,
As first showers.
The smell of wet earth,
Brings back her musky spoor,
Wish she were here,
To hug and to hold.

The clouds make love to thunder,
The skies pour forth anguish,
It would be enough,
To know that somewhere in the world,
She is alive,
And watching a similar rain.

The first showers fall,
Syncopated percussions,
Like the memory of first love.



Saudade, according to wikipedia ( is a Portuguese word for a feeling of longing for something that one is fond of, which is gone, but might return in a distant future. It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return. (Thanks “?!” for introducing me to the word.)


05 June, 2007

The Girl Who Fell in Love with Shahrukh Khan

“Ha Chokri tho nathi sudharvani che!” Baa says in Gujarati from the kitchen, in between flattening dhokla with a wooden roller. This girl will never improve, never!
“Look here, Bapu, father of my daughters, Cricket or Shahrukh Khan movies; she will go mad, and drive us mad one day.”
“Leave her alone,” is all what Bapu would say.
Parul is seated on the doorstep of their modest house in Ghatkopar in a lowly housing complex listening to the radio which is playing the song “Badi Mushkil Hai,” from Anjam. She likes Anjam in which Shahrukh Khan leaps over cars to flirt with Madhuri Dixit. She likes the song particularly because of her favourite star: his raw energy, the twinkling of his eyes, his dimpled cheeks, his full lips, “Oh, what a man, hai, hai!” she exclaims.
She watches all his movies, wheedling compact discs from friends to watch them on her friend Pallavi’s compact disc player. Her father can’t afford discs or players, he is too poor. She fancies him playing negative roles that none of the others stars would touch: serial killers, and characters veering towards the dark side of life.
“I am fond of him because he has unconventional looks, he isn’t tall and strikingly handsome, is good-looking in a homely way, which adds to his charm,” she tells Pallavi.
“But aren’t you aiming too high, dear girl?” Pallavi taunts.
“Doesn’t matter I know he is made for me. If not in this life, in the next,” Parul says. She believes in Karma and rebirth.
“He is such a super star and you….” Pallavi doesn’t complete the sentence and Parul knows what she means. She has acne on her face, and she is fat.
“She is in love with a star,” her elder sister Purvi teases.
“Why are you troubling my girl so much,” Bapu says between reading the newspaper. He is a writer and a dreamer that is when he is not teaching in a nearby school.
“But what if she fails in her final B.A. exams? You will responsible,” Baa accuses Bapu.
But Parul Kapadia keeps dreaming of Shahrukh. How his hair falls over his eyes, how his cheeks dimple into those deep crags of the flesh, how shapely and attractive his lips are.
Oh! How she wishes she could meet him once!
Then along comes Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, hosted by Sharukh Khan. Parul knows this is her chance. She sits beside the phone and dials the contest number, for hours. Her fingers ache. But she knows she can, at least, be in a room with him, even if she doesn’t get to the “Hot Seat.”
Her mind is a whirl with the hum of the telephone’s recorded messages repeating in her mind. She imagines Shahrukh talking to her in her sleep, his lips forming the words like magic. She imagines talking to him when going to college, when in class, and when she is at home listening to the music of his movies.
She wants to win the KBC quiz contest and take Bapu and Baa and Purvi out of the miserable housing complex they live in. She wants to see her father, Bapu, happy.
“Soo thaye gayo? What’s wrong with you people? She has a dream, that’s all.” Bapu would scold Baa and Parul. Baa is old-fashioned and superstitious, both her daughters know, but on this she has Purvi’s support.
“If she goes and does something unusual, then don’t blame me,” Baa warns.
Parul knows Baapu like Baa doesn’t entirely believe in her and thinks this is a passing phase, something all girls go through. But she knows he believes in the power of dreams, how dreams are made of the substance of the mind. It is the force of the mind that makes her dream and, if she strongly believes in her dream, her mind can achieve anything.
Unusual is what Parul does. She skips meals and sits for hours holding the telephone in her lap, dialling.
“Did you get through, son?” Bapu would ask from his easy chair in the small verandah of their house. Since he doesn’t have a son he calls Parul “son” considering her the son he couldn’t have.
“No, Bapu, not this time. But, next time when the phone lines open I surely will,” she says, rubbing her bleary eyes.
“Son, why are you doing this? See how angry Baa and Purvi are. We aren’t getting any phone calls because you dominate the phones so much.”
“They don’t understand. They just don’t understand me, or, what my heart says. Shahrukh is a really nice man and I have a feeling I will meet him, talk to him.”
Bapu looks at her earnest face, her misty eyes, her chubby cheeks and his heart melts for her.
“Do whatever is right, son. I will support you, I am with you.”
Then it happened, without warning. It marked the end of all her expectations and the beginning of all her fascinating dream, now slowly coming true. When she is selected to appear in KBC quiz contest; she dances all over the house, teasing Baa and Purvi.
Two nights ago she had dialled the phone numbers till her fingers had grown numb and her sleep-deprived brain had become blank. “Next one, next one…” she had kept goading herself. She knew no telephone line could be engaged for ever. Then she got a recorded message with a simple question to which she gave the right answer.
And so things begin to happen! She receives a letter from the KBC organizers with the dates and details of when and where she has to appear for the show.
“Don’t worry, you will never get past the first round,” Purvi says.
“Yes I will, I will tell Shahrukh to blow you a kiss,” Parul replies.
“That is if you first get through, no?”
“You wait and see,” Parul says.
“You lucky girl,” he friend Pallavi says. Pallavi is happy for her.
On the day of the quiz Bapu escorts Parul to the studio of KBC. She is amazed by how a television studio looks. The shooting is done during the day. She had imagined it would be done at night as it was broadcast daily at 9 p.m. A shooting takes hours of preparation. There are the studio hands, there are bright lights, there are people hurrying about shouting instructions. Then there is make-up, and all seem to pass in a whirl.
Then Shahrukh makes his appearance. He looks so relaxed and jovial; all nervousness disappears when she looks at him. Here is the man she truly loves, and the man of her dreams, now right before her. Her Shahrukh! She can reach out and touch him if she wants.
Then the opening round of “Fastest Fingers First” starts after the previous episode’s contestant withdraws after winning Rs 650,000.
“Arrange these films of Shahrukh Khan, that’s me (Oh! He dimples so sweetly!) in the ascending order in which they were released. Meaning starting from the earliest, arrange these films of mine in the order they were released,” his super-confident voice rings out.
Parul swallows hard. She can’t believe it! Luck is on her side. She has seen all his films, and knows the years in which they were released.
A. Darr B. Anjam C. Swades D. Mohobatein
Her fingers fly on the screen; she is done in a flash. BADC. Then a pause when she can hear her heart beat, her ears ring, and the music pauses for effect.
“The winner is Parul Kapadia, who answered in 3.02 seconds, congratulations Parul!” Shahrukh has called her by her name.
It feels like a dream when Shahrukh hugs her. She walks to the hot seat as if she is in a dream. He wears a nice-looking suit that looks expensive and his face and skin are glowing as he looks at her. She is going to ask him to marry her, she is determined.
The first few questions, till she reaches Rs 20,000, are simple. She knows all the answers.
“From now on Parul the questions get a bit tough,” he says, “are you nervous?”
“Yes,” she mumbles.
“Main Hoon Na? I am there for you. Main Hoon Na is one of my films. Do you know that?”
Then he reaches across and shakes hands with her. His hand is a little moist in hers.
“Shahrukh, I have a request,” she says, her voice tremulous. A silence falls over the audience.
“Tell me,” he says with all his usual earnestness.
“I want you to greet my father Bapu, who is here, my mother Kantaben Kapadia, my sister Purvi Kapadia, and my friend Pallavi.”
Shahrukh greets Bapu with a namaste. Then he turns his shining eyes towards the camera.
“Kantaben, Purvi and Pallavi, I hope you are watching this. Here’s lots of love and, muaaaaa,” he blows a kiss towards the camera.
A twitter passes through the audience.
“Shahrukh I want to ask you a question.”
“Yes, go ahead.” He looks slightly puzzled; one eyebrow shoots up effortlessly, eloquently, as she has seen in his movies.
“I know how much you love your wife Gauri, but I am in love with you, too. I want to marry you.”
The audience looks on, stunned. But the star doesn’t look ruffled and it seems as if he has met with such girls, with similar requests, that too, often.
“Yes, I will marry you,” he beams, his dimples cutting fissures down his cheeks.
“Y-y-y-yes?” she is ecstatic and couldn’t control her voice from breaking.
“Yes, not in this life, but in the next one.”
Her heart almost misses a beat. Her head throbs, drowning the audience’s laughter.
“That’s enough for me. I believe in Karma and after life. I will wait for you, Shahrukh, promise?”
That answer makes her happy, and she glows all over. Her mind works faster; even the answers come fast to her mind. For the Rs 1, 250,000-question she is asked:
Q: What did Galvin Corporation first manufacture under the brand name Motorola?
A. Battery Eliminator B. Walkie Talkie C. Cell Phone D. Car Radio.
She knows it’s a trick question. Motorola’s famous brand is Cell Phones, but they still manufacture all the other products. The question is what they manufactured first under the brand name. Cell phone is the obvious answer as Motorola is a popular brand. She answers “C.”
Shahrukh is playful now. Something tells her she is wrong. She has exhausted all her life lines.
“Shall I freeze “C”?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says seriously while the star, her love, tries to create tension with his trademark goofiness.
“No. I think it is “D” Car Radios,” she says. Epiphany has struck.
“Shall I freeze “D”?”
“Oh, why did you change your mind? Parul, you were playing so well, you got all your answers right. I told you to be careful. I told you, if you gave the wrong answer you would lose a lot of money.”
Gone, all that money gone in a second! Parul is disappointed and angry with herself. She has acted stupidly and has lost a lot of money, and her dream of a better house for her family is never going to be a reality. The handle of the Hot Seat seems to slip from her grip. Her eyes can hardly meet his. Her throat feels as if furry creatures are clawing at it.
“However, if you had answered “C,” you would have been wrong; “D” is the right answer.”
Was she right?
“You win Rs 1,250,000. Congratulations!”
Yes, she is right!
The next question for Rs 2,500,000 is:
Which cricketer’s autobiography is titled: Beyond Ten Thousand – My Life Story?
A. Sunil Gavaskar B. Allan Border C. Steve Waugh D. Brian Lara
Parul is a cricket addict. She knows it is Allan Border who has written that book. But she hesitates.
“What importance does Rs 2,500,000 play in your life?” he asks flirtatiously.
“I want to take you with me on a Hawaiian holiday,” she says.
He pretends he is touched, places both palms over his heart and says, “Jaaneman, sweetheart, my loving wife in my next life, what is the answer?”
Oh, how her heart beats when she hears him call her “sweetheart.” How she would have liked to hug and cling to him for that. She is prepared to give all that she has won, to be his, only his. How her eyes betray her love for the man who sits opposite her, his eyes twinkling in the studio lights, his face a halo of charm, calm and friskiness.
But she has to help Bapu, Baa and Purvi. They need the money to move to a decent house away from the lowly housing complex in Ghatkopar.
“The answer is “B” Allan Border.”
“Congratulations Parul! “B” is the right answer. You have won Rs 2,500,000. Now you can take me on my Hawaiian holiday.”
The next question is tough and Parul is so excited, doesn’t remember what it is. She is ecstatic and in a frenzied state of mind. She says she would quit rather than take any risks.
As Sharukh Khan, the star, her love, envelopes her in a warm hug for the last time she is wondering, does he mean what he says? But she believes in Karma and the eternal chain of death and rebirth. She plans do a lot of good work with the money that she has won. Then when she is reborn he would be hers, in her next life.
As they exit the studio into another world Bapu looks at her and the cheque she is holding and says, “Son, the power of dreams. Didn’t I tell you to trust in the power of dreams?”

Review of "An Iron Harvest" by CP Surendran

Poet and columnist CP Surendran's debut novel "An Iron Harvest" is a living chronicle of how an industrially backward state took a leap into radical ideology of the industrial era (communism) to find itself slowly enmeshed in a seemingly unending class struggle.

Communism has been a by-product of the industrial age of systematic production, streamlined marketing and shrewed people management and its failure is in most parts because of the eclipsing of the industrial age by the information age. The information age is another deal. Here people work as if no clocks exists. But still, communism continues to thrive and prosper in an industrially backward state, Kerala, and has fanatical adherents there who believe that revolution is possible and that workers of the world can rule countries. CP Surendran's novel depicts such a group of people who is bent on carrying on with the idea of revolution.

Kerala is the first state in the world to elect a communist government by a democratic voting process in 1959. Almost half a century later, it is today (in 2007) ruled by a communist government though all over the world communist governments have failed. Communist Russia and China have embraced market realities and its communal ideologies have been washed away by capitalism. But Kerala still adheres to Marx and his teachings of dialectic materialism. The exploited labour force still believe that only a communist revolution can redeem  their plight, and have a stranglehold over industrial enterprises across the state.

It is in such a revolution that John, ersatz Che Guevera, protagonist of Surendran's novel fights for his ideology, and believes he can achieve with this associates. He along with his band of men are killing evil landlords, attacking police stations, terrorizing the ruling class to bring about a revolution (remember Crasto and Che Guevara took over Cuba with just eighty men, they had the backing of the people).

They call themselves "Red Earth" and this breakaway group of leftists is led by Varkeychayan, who is an erstwhile communist leader. John's comrades are a motley group who use sickles, matchets, and crude country-made rifles to achieve revolution. But in what sense? Could a revolution in one state of India transform into a mass movement to take over a country such as India which has world's second largest army to protect it? They achieve in some measure to spread terror among the landed classes and the ruling elite.

Ironically the epoch is the emergency days of Indira Gandhi and Kerala's home minister Marar has deputed commissioner Raman to hunt down the radical revolutionaries. Raman is a bachelor given to lascivious thoughts, masturbates copiously, presumably because sex is unavailable in conservative Kerala. But he is shown by the author as ruthless and powerful, despite his puny appearance.

Abey, an innocent student in John's college is picked up by the police for questioning.  He dies in the police lock up at Raman's behest as a result of the police's highhanded interrogation methods. His father Sebanstian makes it life's mission to get justice for his dead son. He is helped in this mission by Nambiar, the Inspector General of police - a theatre aficionado, therefore an artist - who is at loggerheads with the ambitious Raman.

Surendran is at ease with his narration of the beautiful Kerala conuntryside, and its customs. What this author liked best about the book is that to a great extend Surendran has succeeded in capturing the Malayalis' aspirations, behavior and "mentality" with his words. All through the book a Malayali's innate cynicism, humour and wit is amply depicted.

The author's prose has poetic inclination right from the start. Examples: "The sky paled in slivers over the paddy fields and rivers and, in between them, the railway tracks bared themselves in the first light like bones of distance. A necklace of white birds flew past in the East." Who but a poet can write such elevating prose?

Raman's life and actions provide comic relief throughout the novel. His deviationist look at women and sex is told hilariously, especially his encounter with his subordinate Vijayan's wife. "Mrs. Vijayan spoke very fast, as if she had only one breath to speak and a great deal to tell," a very apt description of some fast-talking Malayalis I have seen and met. Raman is ruthlessly caricatured throughtout the novel. His discription of the excesses of the emergency as seen through Sebastian's eyes brings home the terror of those dark days.

I would have loved it if John's relationship with his love Janaki was explored a little more in detail and intimacy. All in all, a well-crafted, intricately woven novel that looks not only at the radicalisation of  God's chosen state, but also provides a window through which to view Kerala and its people.

Surendran's novel is dark but with a purpose. He takes the reader on a new high with sharp observations and pointed irony. He tells the tale of a people caught in a time warp trying to exorcise the ghost of an ideology that has failed, and like obsessive love, compounds it by going even further in an unproductive attempt to revive the lost magic.