Monday, August 13, 2018

A capacity for joy

What does it mean to have a capacity for joy? I'm sure the actual experience of joy, or rather the granular details of that which delivers joy varies across people. And mine relates to an agglomeration of a multitude of things. And of course, these things only gesture to another multitude of worlds. So here's a list.

(a) Cats and dogs and animals: This morning, a bright white tomcat appeared at my backdoor and whined for food. I fed him two biscuits bit by bit by bit, after which he passed a soft paw through the grills on the door and gave me a low five. Every other day, two monkeys clamber onto my kitchen window and make plaintive sounds asking for food, watching me as I cook and babble nonsense at them. Some days in the morning, I leave them some food. And then there are the dogs everywhere who cock their heads and make communion; some of them charge towards me, ears down, soft and loving like only dogs can be.

All joy is about all life. Even as I anthropomorphize, my capacity for wonder is also the capacity for joy. Unbidden and boundless, unexpected and full.

(b)  Flowers: Now why do I love flowers so? Probably because they make me feel like the outdoors are indoors and that my home is not enclosed but open to the wind and the meadows and the sun and the stars. That the bright orange, purple and yellow blossoms waving in the wind of the fan, are nodding and cheering on the business of daily life. That no matter the sorrows of the moment, it is the nature of the day to move on. Some days, I pass women in the street, their hair glistening with oil and jasmine blossoms, and I think, Orientalism be damned, how beautiful are they.

(c) And then there are those conversations, the fodder and noise of life; in which I eavesdrop upon stranger and friend alike, and in which strangers tell me the stories of their lives. And what wonders are these stories, what telenovelas of abandon, bravery, chutzpah, and fortitude. How do we all live lives under so much duress? And therefore we must find momentary shelter, in words and deeds alike, and remember that this is a human ordeal, of different proportionality albeit, but shared nevertheless.Once upon a very long time ago, my father and I accompanied a very drunk, very shattered, melancholic man, back home from the train as he wept continually and quietly, to his home in the Bombay suburbs. We were received by his wife, who held his arm and asked him to drink some water. I mention it now to no avail.

(d) And last but not the least, let me tell you all about theory. For the driving forces of my life are theories—organizing mechanisms that explain the world to me, shattering like chimeras one by meticulous one. They hold together thought and the world, fleetingly and powerfully, knowing fully well that the conditions of their being are their fallibility. And in this is both their joy and their force. For all explanations are partial, all worlds are solipsistic, and like mirrors in which we view ourselves, ultimately false, albeit comforting. So I turn to feminism, and poststructuralism, and Marxism, and postmodernism, and postcolonialism, and find the world rendered a kaleidoscope of possibility and joy; turning this way and that.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Working out

The thing that they never told me about teaching is its breathless physicality. You see, in good Cartesian fashion, I thought it was all about the mind. But when faced with twenty odd recalcitrant or absent bodies as the case may be, that which kicks in most even before the mind is the body. One can sense either the presence or absence of energies, and one kicks into high gear. Literally. I'm sure if I were to view myself from the outside, hands and feet waving wildly, trying to keep in tune with the ersatz knowledge we call theory that I try so desperately to articulate, I'd consider myself just another court jester. Which, mind you, I have no problems embodying...

When first initiated into the world of Hindustani classical music in my childhood, all my attention veered towards the artist's bodily and facial contortions, and was both thoroughly tickled and completely awestruck by the ability for bodily abandon. I did not realize then as I did not realize before beginning to teach, that the body is not an instrument, it is the thing in itself. And often we see the body, and hear the voice, and think them to be separate in the world, even as together, they form embodiment proper.

See, for example, this video where you can watch Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in a rendering of Raag Deshkar, every curve of mouth, every tilt of eye, as much as the music as his voice.

But this body that I've spent so many years denying will not be denied; even as nobody ever tells you this secret. During the many years of the PhD, so many of my colleagues cultivated exercise, diet, activity and the rest not as constitutive but as substitutive elements of a life that must be abetted in reaching its highest possible potential, where the body is the means to an end, but never the end in itself. And I followed suit. I practised yoga, ran three miles a day, kayak-ed on weekends, went climbing twice a week, and wrote my dissertation on a Pilates ball. I tried to learn how to swim, a total of seven times, one set of classes at a time. As you can tell, I was not great at it. And while physical activity became routine and marginally fun, it was also equally easy for me to fall off the wagon, for every minute of every activity, counted as reasonable rather than pleasurable.

And I often wonder how it was that so many of my tween and teenage years were spent playing badminton, running around our colony lawn in circles, and absorbing large amount of sunlight at fantastic pursuits like lagori, three hours a day, seven days a week, with no thought of it needing to be on my calendar. I guess the answer might well be adulthood. For adulthood is the attainment of reasonable pursuits such as work, as opposed to pleasurable pursuits such as play. And as one trained in the anthropology of work, I should have known to connect the dots. And training be damned, anyone even marginally aware of the work-leisure binary ushered in by the Industrial Revolution will be able to explain my quandary. For the secret of that binary is that even leisure needs to be worked on, and all leisure in any case only exists in relation to work—yoga as curing stress, running as increasing focus, you get the drift.

So these days, in a minor albeit feeble attempt at bodily living, I do things I feel like, when I feel like. Sometimes I walk, and at other times run. I jump over balustrades, trip and fall, and skip steps. I climb walls, run into the sea, and fail miserably at somersaulting. I watch these Madras boys, running in wild abandon, vaulting over dividers, and imagine myself in their stead. I see young colt-like children waddling over grass, flailing and giggling, and follow in their wake.

And I tell myself that it'll all work out.

Sunday, August 05, 2018


I admit it. I've been unfaithful, and so many things have happened in the wake of my infidelity. For one, identity theft on this blog and then its return. Yes, my name got stolen. (So I forgot to renew my domain name. But that's a  small matter). While I procrastinated on administrative efficiency as I am wont to do, some cunning person of seemingly human proclivities bought my domain name. Now why someone who is not called either Mathangi or Krishnamurthy or a combination of the aforementioned would want a domain name called is beyond me but such are the ways of the world, with its hoarders, speculators and name-stealers. So then I contemplated chin in palms (both), for suitable alternative domain names, and then a year passed, and then said stealer let go, so here we are back in gloriously full nomenclature.

What other acts of perfidy have I performed, ask you? Well, I wrote a book. On second thoughts, I should have stuck to the blog. But ah well, I wrote a book. And then proceeded to use it as an excuse to not write a word for the next six months.

You can buy the book here, should you so be moved and there is a review to be found here, in case, like me, you are permanently suspicious and never quite an assertive consumer. There is also a very kind goodreads review here.

The book was launched in January of this year, and there is detailed pre-release interview here, and a launch description here. That's that. I have now officially sung for my supper. Sort of.

Ahem, if any of you do read it, please leave me a review either on Amazon or goodreads; or even better, send in a book review to the journal of your choice. You get publications on your resume, I get a testimony; satte pe satta and other such. (Ignore shady reference)

The beginning of the semester is upon us and I am inundated with deadlines, unfinished papers, incomplete syllabi, and fragmented class notes. Some weeks it takes effort to conjure oneself into the world. At the beginning of Tom Ford's beautifully photographed film, "A Single Man", the character played by Colin Firth, guides viewers through his morning, little by little assembling his armor of self, declaring how, it takes him a while each morning, to become himself.

My days usually begins slowly. Things work on automaton mode until the injection of caffeine. Much like my scooter, I choke until I can start.Momentarily and paradoxically, memories bind oneself to the moment. Montages of different times. Vague, and shimmery. It must be the antihistamines. Did I mention that I got bitten in the foot by a forest ant? And that my foot ballooned. One moment it's my foot, and five minutes later, it is an alien body part of a larger being. Gigantic. I didn't realize that I had this much room to expand.

I have a whiteboard and it bears lists. It summarily induces artificial order. A few hours later, order recedes and artificiality intercedes. We are back to a state of endless ennui. The mind is throwing an Everest-sized tantrum and nothing will tranquilize its will to be tranquilized.

But for today, I am satisfied because I have a composed a syllabus, a lesson plan and a reading list, and these are nothing short of works of art. This is one of the beauties of a teaching job; to be able to formulate and forecast a weekly plan that displays some modicum of orchestration and rising beauty. One week must lead to another, fugue-like, and together they must produce mellifluousness, if not learning.  And this I have done. Hallelujah. Sunday. I leave you with my current song of the day.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Tuesday, 18 June 2001 is when I began writing this blog. Phew. It's 2016. Way past June. And I wonder whether the me of June 2001 imagined or even thought it worth imagining to see how long this venture would persist. From there to now, we have traversed careers, continents, and possibilities. It is now the 6th of October 2016. And now it might be time to be back here, talking of all the things I continue to love and care about. Writing, food, people, books, animals, and things. And love. And poetry. And astonishment. So yes, we will be here for a while now. And so it begins...

Against Entropy

The worm drives helically through the wood 
And does not know the dust left in the bore 
Once made the table integral and good; 
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways, A massless eddy in a trail of smoke; 
The names of lovers, light of other days 
Perhaps you will not miss them. That's the joke. 
The universe winds down. That's how it's made. 
But memory is everything to lose; Although some of the colors have to fade, 
Do not believe you'll get the chance to choose. 
Regret, by definition, comes too late; 
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.

-- John M Ford

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Measure of Life

Preity Zinta has taken to twitter to "admit" that yes, she has gotten married to Gene Goodenough. And asked that the jokes begin. But this random bit of internet trivia, of a no doubt important event, brought me back to the experience of my not good enough week.

I was having a not good enough week. The days I have noticed seem divided, into much more than good enough, in fact, the soul and substance of life, and never will be good enough. Between these two extremes, I waft pendulum-like waiting for some balance. And why, pray, are things not enough or too much to feature in any category of measure? And why does my appetite, vacillate between the vamana's, unsated and unfulfilled, and obscure Roman emperors, vomiting it all out to make room for more? Part ennui, part the truth of meaninglessness, part the excess of hysteria, and part summer, it is a heady cocktail. But a large part of this, is life.

Kanhaiya Kumar is back in the world, and produced what in my mind is the Amitabh Bachchan of recent speeches. And yes, this is a compliment. That one can rouse sentiment in skeptics is no small achievement. But like all else, one sees the speech, and not the life. The surface mirrors nothing. It is, after all, the surface. And yet, it is not nothing. The everyday is made of surfaces, and the sooner we start looking at it, the sooner we abandon the pursuit of meaning and the future at the cost of the present moment. And yet, can we look at the present moment as situated in the past and future? What forms of vision do we need to cast our nets wider?

I finished reading Part I of Knausgaard's "My Struggle". It is everything people say it is. It is a life, and a set of unfinished moments. It is memory, and it is truth. It plods, and yet it moves. This is, also, a good time in life to read this book, for as James Wood says, in this interview, "It's a tragedy of getting older." 

One of the things that intrigues me about the book is its seeming masculinity. Or at least its desire for such. The more years of feminist theory I teach, the more I become interested in masculinity. This of course may be the poverty of my discursive inhabitation, that I still do think only in binaries. But to temporarily escape this charge, let me reiterate that I'm interested in the -ities and not in their pre-determined attachment to male and female bodies. In the same interview, Knausgaard says, "I'm very well aware of the fact that women are objects in this book, because that's how it is for me, and I wanted to show that. I'm aware of me doing it. Every time I see a woman, I think, How would it be to have sex with her?....These are things that you not supposed to say. We are told, This is wrong, that is wrong, we shouldn't think this way. But the difference interests me a lot- the difference between what you should do and what you really do."

The beauty of located thought, of course, is that the two can and do co-exist, and it is not a battle of wills, but a different set of locations. That I understand gender as fluid, but inhabit my body as woman, are not contrary sets of assertions in the world, one being normative (in feminist theory, at least), and the other phenomenological. These are different histories, and different compulsions. They come with costs, and rewards, and at all times, we inhabit them simultaneously. And I think Knausgaard does himself and gender an injustice by performing naivete. 

In other phenomenological worlds, I had myself a rather hedonistic dinner. Turmeric and lemon couscous with parsely and almonds(again), tomato and cucumber tzatziki/ raita, roasted bell peppers and zucchini, and pan-seared paneer, marinated in galangal and chilli paste. And wine. It was one of those more than good enough days. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Another False Start

Things come back into being like the longing for old, and summarily interrupted friendships. Sheepishly. I wonder why I haven't been here for so long. Because even as I write, I realize the pleasure that flows into every word, and the little gleeful anticipation of these sets of rituals, this writing of self and world. I think I am now back, having cheated on this space with other glitzier ones. After having consumed all the possible pleasures of other kinds of displays of self that will no doubt continue in their own parallel universes, I think I find the need to be back.

I am writing a book. Or at least I think I am writing a book. It is an academic one, out of which I am attempting to squeeze out a narrative. After all, the impetus for the book emerged from narrative, and from the stories of call centre workers. Yet, there are other compulsions, other ways in which one seeks to be visible to people other than those that speak in the book. And these are ethical questions that I wrestle with. Wish us all luck.

On other fronts, being off Facebook is unsurprisingly cathartic. Someday when I have exhausted the number of projects that clutter my desk, I will think about Facebook, and its remarkable ability to render ugliness, beauty, and all wonder into two-dimensional status messages for consumption. And I am so guilty of it all. I consume myself, even as I consume others. In the month that I have held back from this aforementioned daily buffet, I find myself calmer, and more willing to be hesitant about the world. It's nice.

But yes. More here. More soon.

What other things can I tell you about that will possibly help us share some beauty, and some temporary kinship? Here are my top three:

-- I was incredibly lucky to attend the Kenyon Review Writers' Workshop last summer. To have a week to craft a piece a day is both laborious, and immensely luxurious. I knew this all along, that much like the annoyance that is math homework, one has to write everyday in order to get anywhere. But I forget. And remember at the moment of crisis. Just like the night before exams. This is my attempt to not forget. Some of these pieces that emerged from the workshop have been published in 3quarksdaily. Go have a look see. I write about the new yearanthropological sartorialistscall centre love, and an almost love, so go take your pick. And follow the website anyway.

-- The Chennai Photo Biennale has been on since February 26, and what a joy it is to have these bourgeois pleasures. And these moments of knowing the world haltingly. I was reading this rather long but rather nicely written article on the stupefactions of the permanently connected world, and contrasting it with my evening yesterday of walking slowly by pictures sans captions, stories untold, and petrified people and locales. Such a lovely break from constant presence and movement. If in the city, do check it out.

-- Cooking is part of this life again. A fog has lifted. For lunch today, I had a turmeric and lemon flavored couscous plate with roasted carrots and yellow zucchini, feta, almonds, and mint, with a tomato salad dressed with lemon and olive oil. For dinner, I had varan bhat. And let me not distract myself with the pleasures of this food not the Gods, but of the mortals. For this mellifluous combination of lentils, asafoetida, sugar, salt, and ghee which makes us grateful for this life.