Arjun Shivaji Jain‘s essay: On Success and Failure

I haven’t written an ‘essay’ like this in years — haven’t taken out the time to clarify, in words, I mean, such reflections that are in fact ever ongoing. Last I did, it seems, was in August 2020, when I tried to answer for myself, in quite a fit of despair, why precisely I continued to want to live in which country I was born (where I am still!).

Lots of things have happened since that August of 2020. Almost everything’s happened. Everything’s changed. And, perhaps, nothing. I’ve lost many a dear one, sadly, but gained many as well- some of whom I’ve lost again(!), but am continually regaining others as well then. In balance, I should have to conclude, perhaps, that ‘I don’t know, really, at all, what’s happened’ — and invoke something like Keats’ Negative Capability to console myself and continue, in distinction to the commando-like mode of thought I am also in often, of wanting to analyse ‘the fuck out of’ everything, and ultimately ‘win’.

I am not so good at committing to things, evidently (or perhaps, really, I am indeed, on the whole and in hindsight). I’ve moved, it seems, with apparently breakneck speed, from circumstance to circumstance through life – pausing, yes, ‘searching, receiving, contemplating, gently’ (in my opinion), ‘but’, in Whitman’s words, ‘with undeniable will divesting myself of the holds that would hold me’. Not easy, this, of course – not for myself nor for those around me. Nonetheless, I’ve been happy, though I’m not sure I know what that means. Better perhaps to say that I’ve done what I could – or better yet, not done what I absolutely couldn’t. I’ve left many a mile midway, to be brief.

On the other hand, surprisingly, to some things I’ve been extraordinarily committed, beyond all bounds of rationality. With no skills at all to begin with, I set off for some reason into the waters of architecture in 2016, sailing atop a 19th century ‘manual’ by John Ruskin. Sitting in South Delhi, working part-time in my father’s electronics’ factory, I began ‘a-spiring’, experimenting with all sorts of non-standard brick-bonds, all sorts of non-standard mortars, to be honest in the same way a mad scientist would, or a hopelessly impractical poet. I’ve spent many thousands of hours and many millions of rupees, not really knowing at all to what end. Perhaps I’d be a good gambler. Or, perhaps just a passionately poor one.

Anyway, there’s an exhibition of sculptures at the Triveni Kala Sangam soon, in September, of which I’m going to be part – again, never actually having ‘sculpted’ anything before. I spent a couple of weeks this past month trying various things out, but none of which’ve worked. I laid out flat ‘slabs’, to begin with, but they’ve all cracked – and I haven’t been able to figure out why. Though I will probably try again once the weather’s more forgiving, I reckon, what I should do of the slabs already broken, has a been a question I’ve been contending with. As luck would have it, I learnt (I mean really ‘learnt’) recently of the Japanese philosophy (or craft) of ‘Kintsugi’- you know, where they glue together broken ceramic with gold? It is very beautiful, and convenient.

This architecture thing, however, that I’ve been working on since 2016, is now taking shape as a cultural centre (it’s got a name!). Two of the four roofs, again non-standard, I decided two months ago to make jointly of terracotta ‘Mangalore’ tiles and glass. And for almost the entirety of these last two months, it hasn’t been working – I mean I haven’t been able to think up a way of making it work – and I’ve asked many a very experienced mason and many a self-respecting architect. A dozen different approaches have been attempted, all very costly, in terms of both money and time, and all of which have failed. And this, with the monsoons nearly -very, very nearly- upon us! It’d either be leakage every which where, or a complete design change – a massive compromise- a financial loss, and a blow to the ego. ——— But. BUT. I did make it work! Three days ago, after a series of very rash drives out of annoyance, and sleepless nights out of anxiety, the mind was ‘warmed up’ sufficiently, to come up with an answer – and the answer’s ‘watertight’, if I may say so myself! And it is structural (albeit simple)! I could keep ‘kintsugiing’ terracotta and glass all my life – the rains would still break through every July.

The moral of the story then, I suppose, is that no general recipe can be prescribed for success, as much we’d like one. There are some things which if one keeps on failing at, one ought indeed to abandon. There are others, which are indeed worth repairing, and even with gold, so precious they are. And others still, which cannot be repaired, however many times one may try, but whose cracks, with sufficient measures of a lot of different things, can indeed be resolved and in fact absolutely dominated- analysed and annihilated. Come to think of it, provided a far-enough vantage point, ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as well mean nothing. One just does what one can, doesn’t one? The architecture project’s been teaching me much beyond architecture proper. In the face of an insurmountable enemy, it has taught me when best to retreat. In times of peace, it has taught me, let us not put it mildly, to ‘exploit’ what traits of personality I possess, to my advantage. And in general, to get on in corrupt surroundings, it has elasticated my mind sufficiently, now, to be capable of lying, whilst not being that of a liar. Chin up, and chest out, therefore —and eyes open – wide open. That is all.

Having studied physics at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, and fine art at Central Saint Martins, London, and having worked, previously, as a coil-winder, salesman, housekeeper, lumberman, web-designer, waiter, gallery invigilator, gardener, and school-teacher, and having written on visa restrictions, family relations, and national language, 30-year-old Arjun Shivaji Jain is, at present, a painter, and proprietor of the Red House, a cultural institute in South Delhi, and will be, in the future, if all goes well, head of vernacular-architectural firm, the John Ruskin Manufactory.

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