Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memento Mori

Dev Anand died last week. He was 88.

I feel a distinct sense of loss. For a figure I had almost forgotten and for a life I had tucked away.

Dev Anand was no ordinary 88 year old. He was what the film magazines called the "evergreen hero"; one who had been acting since 1946 and hadn't delivered a hit or any movie of notice in the last two decades. This is the man credited with having "discovered" various actresses who then, in his own narrative, went onto become highly successful stars. Zeenat Aman is only among a long list. And for those who have forgotten Zeenat Aman (shame on you!), here's a reminder.

In various places, he is described as "The man who provided glimpse of different foreign countries through his cinematic oeuvre", India's "Gregory Peck", and "the longest serving matinee idol of Bollywood cinema."

What do I know or remember about Dev Anand? That he featured in these heartbreakingly beautiful songs. Of joy, and life, and love, and loss, and mischief, and coy flirting. That the black and white films of his that I consider part of my childhood were filled with content. And they were all undeniably urbane. They were about people caught in circumstances that allowed them to attain a notion of who they wanted to become. They were films about jaunty men, mysterious disappearances, recovery of love, the discovery of self, and magnificent women. They were scripts adapted from Ismat Chughtai and R.K.Narayan and froze for us the story of urban India and it's urbane men and women, be they working class taxi drivers, and bar dancers, or paying guests, con men, and middle-class women in unhappy marriages.

And I am trying to isolate the reasons why I feel desolate. And mulling the folly of mourning the death of a public figure who had been all but forgotten, his poor film choices over the years since the seventies decried and ridiculed. And for those who think he's managed anything interesting since "Hare Rama Hare Krishna", please go watch this; I did, in Jaipur's Raj Mandir no less.

The act of mourning, as most of us well know by now is never about anybody but ourselves and our vanishing sense of memory and temporality. We rely on friends, family, actors, films, and songs to preserve for us our childhood, our youth, our tremulous possibilities, and the many other lives we could have and have led. Every now and then we turn to them to recover the joie de vivre of an assumed immortality and vigor. And then they leave and the thought that we have left something behind with them is a difficult thought.

When I try and write about the role of film in Indian public culture, what I have most difficulty in capturing is its affective density, the sense that it permeates lives far deeper than mere symbolism. It doesn't stand in for life, it is life. I have lived with film as fantasy, as possibility, and as the material of the air I breathe.

Songs, for example, I experience as triggers of places, and smells, and food, and people. They form the background score and the very articulation of my mental picture albums. They stand in for dusky evenings and tightly bound clusters of singing voices, attempting rhythm, melody and kinship. Shooshan and I used to sing "Abhi na jao chodkar" on the footpath by the row of buildings where I set up my first apartment. "Mana Janab Ne Pukara Naheen" is one of the first songs I learnt to play on the mandolin. My ability to sing the entire "Hai apna dil tho awaara" ensured that I would always be on a winning antakshari team. "Nazar lagi raja tore bangle pe" was the song I hummed in bad tune with a professor from grad school. And on long train journeys from Bombay to Madras, strangers and I sang "Yeh Dil Na hota bechara", "Accha jee main haari", and "Dil Ka Bhanwar Kare Pukar" in temporary cohort as we headed to the place where no one spoke Hindi.

The films of Dev Anand are also a reminder that in the eighties, I was watching and listening to songs from films from the fifties and sixties on an old Panasonic recorder that my parents bought in the seventies. Bombay in the film was still recognizable to me as Bombay from my weekend trips into the city. Radio Ceylon had a designated hour to play what they called "Bhoole Bisre Geet" or forgotten songs. And these were the songs I most had the capacity to remember.

In an age when google is said to have robbed us of the capacity of memory, we feel loss more intensely even as we only feel it for a few seconds at a time. This then is the desolation and the forlornness of losing something so long forgotten that I have trouble naming it. And I do not know if I mourn Dev Anand, or the time of Dev Anand.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Little Tooth

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It's all

over: she'll learn some words, she'll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It's dusk. Your daughter's tall.

-- Thomas Lux

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Part Three: Love


Let me not mar that perfect dream
By an auroral stain,
But so adjust my daily night
That it will come again.

-- Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Complete Poems. 1924.

How to Build Cathedrals. Cildo Meireles, 1987

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Story in 500 Words

Nietzsche said that women make the highs higher and the lows more frequent. For who I wonder. I am a woman and I feel the highs higher and the lows more frequent. Am I becoming more woman? Is this what they call gendering?

I have known for a while now that this might just be the end of life as I know it. The world is at war. Thinking does not lead to change. Television no longer brings pleasure for more than a sum total of sixty minutes. I have become more dependent on alcohol.

And yet, this is also the beginning as I know it.

I had a conversation at the drugstore this morning.
Man at the counter: “How’s it going?”
Me: Silence
Man at the counter: “Shopping spree this morning?”
Me: Silence.
Man at the counter: “Going somewhere?”
Me: “No”

I am not going anywhere. I did not buy drugs. I bought a lipstick, combs, hairbands, concealer, eyeliner, pantyhose, nailpolish, eyelash curler, and breath freshener.

Tomorrow night, I will fill in for my friend Eileen. She is ill. Tomorrow night, I will accompany her client to a masked ball. I will be as womanly as womanly possible. How does one do that though?

The other day I watched the little girls on television preen and pirouette as they performed to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies”. It was uncannily real. If you buy into the notion of the real that is. Perhaps it is from them that I have to learn how to be feminine. The tilt of the hip, the jaunt of the brow. The awareness of beauty. The settling in of power.

Yesterday, I had an appointment at the spa. I decided to go all the way. It hurt.

These days I feel the weight of walking down the street. The air bears down upon me. I am not sure who I am, even though this is who I always wanted to be.

Do not get me wrong. I am not in crisis. I do not bemoan my presence in the world. I am beautiful. And striking. I catch my breath when I catch my reflection in shop windows. Doormen at the Majestic tell me that I am lovely. Men hand in hand with their girlfriends, and paramours, and dates throw me furtive glances. The boy at the dress store gave me a pair of earrings, gratis. My new landlord smiles when I tell him the rent will be a day late.

And this should add to the weightlessness of being. But it doesn’t.

I am a woman, and I feel the highs higher but the lows more frequent. It is a hypermodern age. Things don’t last. My feelings are intense, and short-lived. I careen up and down. Profound anxiety suffuses my existence.

Nietzsche also said that behind all their personal vanity, women themselves always have an impersonal contempt for woman. I never knew what that meant; until now.

You see, I used to be a man.

© Ed Paschke
Elcina, 1973.
MCA Collection, gift of Albert J. Bildner

Sunday, October 16, 2011

We asked for workers, but human beings came instead.

Agency is a tricky word. It is, in shorthand, the ability to be an agent. Of change, of value, of worth, even of identity. Choice writ large, intentionality writ small.

Agency is a tricky minefield. If one understates it, one takes away the ability of people to represent themselves. For example, think of an oft-used fragment such as "The oppressed....". The use of the passive form of the adjective might indicate that those identified as "oppressed" have nothing to do within this narrative except be elected to the position of the oppressed. They function as markers rather than human beings. Think of the way Africans function within the social imaginary; as "the exploited", "the stateless", "the war-torn". However, if one overstates it, then there is the risk of according more charge to individuality and individual ability than the social condition allows to any one individual or group of individuals. Think of the form of the narrative that we know as everyday heroism, the exception that valorizes the agentive single-minded, individual, who "beats" the odds to make his/her way in the world (The American Dream of course feeds on this genre).

So how about we work with a compromised form of the word? Think of an agent who is never completely agentive. First tentative way out of the problem.

The second issue is of course, as always, the question of writing. A narrative that goes back and forth, and can never make up its mind, is not as compelling as a nicely stated, well chosen "argument". And argue I must. Back to square one. So then what form of argument do I choose? In talking about the condition of call center workers, who do we care more about? The condition or the workers?

In the middle of all this pontification, I do know that I cannot stomach writing about the "social condition" and "compulsions" of call center workers as if each one does not wake up everyday and live this social condition...and think about it. Yes, I know, awfully unfashionable and unsophisticated. But I'm trying to think through the body. And the body as we know is often the most compelling compulsion of all. As in the Max Frisch quote that is the title of this post, they are workers, and they are human. And I need to think about unpacking the humaneness of the human. Or my own for that matter.

In case you are wondering where all this is going, I am trying to not write about agency. And it's hard. And yes, I know this is all rather obvious. But I have to write it out. Why? Because. We'll leave the rest for another caffeinated night.

(And of course I completely forgot to mention that which began this thought. Sometimes, we have a strange form of agency when we affect people without knowing that we do. And it isn't always good. It leaves one with a distasteful sense of power.)

Marx, as usual, will have the last word.

"Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand." (Grundrisse)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Frivolity

The Philosopher's Drinking Song

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out consume
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya
'bout the raisin' of the wrist.
Socrates himself was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
after half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away,
'alf a crate of whiskey every day!
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
and Hobbes was fond of his Dram.
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart:
"I drink, therefore I am."

Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he's pissed.

-- Monty Python

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Encounters with the Nation-State

Yesterday, I had a parking ticket withdrawn. A conscientious policeman, having noticed that my registration plate was wrongfully displayed (the sign had fallen off to be precise), had stuck on a ticket for $55 on my windshield, thereby rendering me rather footstompy at the end of a taxing work day. In atypical bravado, I decided to contest the ticket, especially since I had painstakingly renewed my registration a month ago and given up my beloved Texas number plate for a Wisconsin one. All that sacrifice in vain, I thought. Of course, given Rick Perry, and the brutal summer, it hasn't been that bad I think. But oh wait, there is Scott Walker. Ah well, this is the world as we know it after all. We exchange one evil for another. All the time.

But yes, my story. So I decided to contest and submitted the following online:

"I received a citation of 55.00 for unregistered vehicle/ improper display. My vehicle is indeed registered it is no longer xxxxx but xxxxx. The display had been taped onto the back but seems to have fallen off due to weather conditions. I was not in town on the day and did not have occasion to use the car until back in Madison hence I did not notice. Kindly consider waiving the citation or alternatively reducing my liability. Thanks so much."

How polite we are in our conversations with the state. How extra polite in fact. And how much scorn lies hidden in that politeness. We function "as if" we are polite. The economy of the "as if" that then takes on the the place of reality. And this reality is powerful. In that very scorn couched in politeness, lies the compelling nature of power...

After sending this in, I waited. Even as I thought that all this waiting was in vain and that in fact I would receive a cold note telling me in Kafkaesque fashion that the citation would have to be paid, this being my debt for owning a car, and functioning in an irregular, ignorant manner, I held off paying the ticket. I had done all the right things; submitted a contestation within ten days of receiving the ticket, been superbly polite, and crossed my fingers. I had prayed to the Gods, and kept away from sin. No word. I steeled my nerves a little further. Apocalyptic thoughts of my car being taken away, or my being stopped at every signal, or worse, steely eyes following my every driving delinquency did cross my mind. Alright, I admit I was caffeinated.

However, on the day when I was almost ready to give up, give in, and do my time, my inbox beeped at me with this ominous title "Parking ticket". The mail said "The applicant's claim has been recognized and the ticket withdrawn". (On an aside, have you noticed that despite American averseness to the passive voice, the American state continues to deploy it? With much effect if I may add.)

And of course, scorn notwithstanding, I was ecstatic at my claim being recognized. It helped that I didn't have to shell out any money. But the location of such ecstasy also lay in the fact that the state had recognized the veracity of my claims. It had just told me that I was a good citizen. Gold star.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

'Tis the end of summer days

Fall is almost here. Well, actually, given that I have to wear two layers of clothing in the house, it is here. And I have so much to say that I'm suffering the problem of excess. This space will not contain everything, will it? So let's resort to our favorite way of making sense of the world. Lists.

(a) Speaking of lists, here is a really cool list-making tool called TeuxDeux. I am of course assuming that you are of the persuasion of people who believe that the tool precedes the solution. Even if really, in a world of increasing chaos and reducing rain (ask Texas if you don't believe me), there is no solution. And by tool, I mean gadget, not you-know-what. Imagine if Peter O'Toole had to be a teenager in this time and age. Sigh.

(b) Speaking of chaos, I was in Amsterdam. And saw the new Von Trier film, Melancholia. It is a strange, strange, film. He is a strange, strange, man. And as I said to my lovely companions, E and L, I was compelled despite myself. Here is a review from Peter Debruge in Variety,

"It's the end of the world but also the start of something new for Lars von Trier, whose mind-blowing Melancholia offers perhaps the gentlest depiction of annihilation one could imagine from any director, much less the Danish provocateur...If Antichrist was the needle in the eye von Trier needed to shake a bout of pulverizing depression, then Melancholia serves as his unexpectedly lucid response, blending grand-scale Hollywood effects with intimate, femme-focused melodrama."

Go see it. But, perhaps, only in a theater.

(c)Before that, the father was here and we went to Chicago and Milwaukee. And I do really like Chicago.

(d)I flew back to Chicago from Amsterdam through Detroit. The immigration officer was of Indian origin. In the midst of banal, rapid-fire questions about "occupation", "number of years in the US", "purpose of visiting Amsterdam", he threw in "Miss, are you single?" and then proceeded to say,"Welcome home". I'm not sure which of those two questions amused me more.

(e) Fall of 2011, I am teaching a course called "Hypermodern Cities". Of all the courses I have taught in my limited teaching life, this one has been my favorite. Also, I'm a rather entertaining teacher. Last week, I went to class all prepared to teach the wrong set of readings.

(f) I read a couple of really good novels over the summer. One of them was M.G.Vassanji's "The Book of Secrets". Publishers Weekly calls it "a very postmodern meditation on the allures and pitfalls of narrative." And yes, it is. But Vassanji is exciting to me because of a couple of reasons. One, his intimate engagement with identity. He was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He writes about a variety of problematic identities and identifications in East Africa. Ethnically, his characters are both Indian and African. But he delves deeper. They identify with their religious affiliations, transnational loyalties, and local allegiances. They are caught up in political circumstances and allied with the Germans or the British. They are the in-betweens, the cross-identified, and the illegitimate. They are wily, worldly, and often troubled by calls for identity. Fluid and mobile, they travel. And together, they create a rich picture of community life, and community in the densest version of the word. As a lived everyday reality, and one populated with the makings of our melodramatic lives. Suspicion, adultery, doubt, pride, love, lust, philandering, birth, rebirth, death. His is also the kind of writing that caresses the landscape. And creates visceral feelings of heat, humidity, cold, dryness, and languor.

P.S On a completely different note, Vassanji is a nuclear physicist by training.

(g) I have giant orange lilies and an apple pie to help tide over what will be a rather demanding week.

(h) My next post will be about apple pie. Or Amitabh Bachchan.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Soup for the Soul

It is such bliss to have feet planted firmly in one place. Especially after scraping them all over endlessly precarious landscapes. My feet are wiser for the wear and I sleepier for the relatives who all insisted on waking me up at ungodly hours of the morning, which is why I am not even really sure if I'm back. But at least, I am temporarily in the place I currently call home.

I have been to India and back. Two months, six cities. Countless people. Many stories. It was all rather wonderful, albeit tiring.

So many of my friends live across countries like I do. We mourn our simpler past, even as we disavow any ability to be simple. We adapt to different tongues, even as we repent our lack of singularity. We leap across oceans and bemoan jetlag. Ours is now a common crisis. Of a particular class. I used to once lap up the literary products of exile. Rushdie, and Kundera, and Milosz. It must be prescience I'm thinking.

My nostalgia and angst are strongest I have realized when I don't have a kitchen and a desk to come back to at the end of the day. Yes, I'm very bourgeois like that. So now that I have some peace and quiet and a dining table and a bright yellow kitchen, I will make soup for the soul.

As a child, the only soup I would deign to lay down my comic book for was tomato. Thick dollops of creamy tomato soup like that served at Grand Central, Chembur. gives it 3 stars, but what do they know? My weekend treat used to be soup at Grand Central, after which I would refuse to eat the six other items I had insisted on ordering. Luckily, my father's robust and undiscerning propensity towards food tided us over the twin possibilities of bad karma and the consequent returning to earth as a cockroach.

I have now discovered other vegetables. Today's fare is zucchini. Helps that it also sounds exotic. Try saying it. Zucchini. See? So much better than squash. Reminds me of squashing mosquitoes.

I adapted the recipe from Nupur's blog . I replaced mushroom stock with vegetable bouillon. Why? End of vacation, empty refrigerator, laziness, sweltering weather, long walk to the grocery store. Enough said?

That which began as a pot of mush like so...

was soon transformed into this...

A salad of cucumbers, olives, tomatoes, and feta rounded us off to a stupendously satisfying night.

Hello lovely people. We've been away. But welcome back.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Two Poems

I haven't found any words for a while now. I have let my world become fluid, loosened its borders, and let others in. I am now as a result most confused. Too many people, too many other worlds, too little meaning. But I will soon regain my world, tighten its words, and give it form. Once again. And it will have beauty, and power, and it will compel you. Until then, I give you other words.

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

And just because we ought to all make nonsense verse everyday...

The Puffin and Nuffin

Upon this cake of ice is perched
The paddle-footed Puffin:
To find his double we have searched,
But have discovered - Nuffin!

-- Robert Williams Wood

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Summer of Discontent

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening(1944), Salvador Dali.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.
©Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Is this universal? Everywhere around me I see structures crumbling, people buckling, and things being not-so-even. I must admit that some of this is of course of my own doing. I sense my world out of synchrony and my structures prone to questioning. But it is, not just I. It is, in a manner of speaking, a maladroit world.

Innocent children die in misplaced gunfire, ships run aground on urban waters, and Federer has not been in the Wimbledon finals. The Hazare-ness of the world seems to have capitulated. Now he fasts, now he doesn't. Television channels are full of politicians and spin doctors who yell when they should talk. Ram Gopal Verma wants to sign Maria Susairaj. Amitabh Bachchan thinks flowery shirts are cool.

The falcon certainly cannot see the falconer.

And yes, there are, of course other things to see. But I don't see them today. Today is my token fast avoiding all things lovely and beautiful. Because you cannot compel me to smile and make it all go away. Because I believe that discontent is powerful.

So let me just make a tentative suggestion. That for this week, if you happen to be among those I see around me, tearing their hair apart, and mulling over the incomprehensibility of it all, then just for this one week, hold onto your discontent. Spy it from afar, approach it gingerly, and touch it. And tell me about it. This is the week of your discontent, and mine.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Five Books

And yes, that is precisely what this is about. Five books.

Begin your week with

The Elegance of the Hedgehog; Muriel Barbery

“Apparently, now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is. They complain without understanding and, like flies constantly banging against the same old windowpane, they buzz around, suffer, waste away, get depressed then wonder how they got caught up in this spiral that is taking them where they don’t want to go. The most intelligent among then turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence!”

And here's a review in the Guardian. Perhaps, after this, you can move onto:

Netherland, Joseph O'Neill

“Now that I, too, have left that city, I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned work, somebody once told me, refers literally to a second mowing of grass in the same season. You might say, if you’re the type prone to general observations, that New York City insists on memory’s repetitive mower – on the sort of purposeful postmortem that has the effect, so one is told and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions.”

Then just for fun, try:

The Big Sleep; Raymond Chandler

"When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in."

Prepare now for a magnum opus; a 700 and some long behemoth:

A Fraction of the Whole; Steve Toltz

"Meet the Deans: 'The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father more than any other man, just as they adore my uncle more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them.' Heroes or criminals? Crackpots or visionaries? Relatives or enemies? It's a simple family story... From the New South Wales bush to bohemian Paris, from sports fields to strip clubs, from the jungles of Thailand to a leaky boat in the Pacific, 'A Fraction of the Whole' follows the Deans on their freewheeling, scathingly funny and finally deepy moving quest to leave their mark on the world. "

Also, go see what the Guardian has to say..

Last but certainly not anywhere close to the least,gently ease your way into:

The Hakawati; Rabih Alameddine

“I felt foreign to myself. Doubt, that blind mole, burrowed down my spine. I leaned back on the car, surveyed the neighborhood, felt the blood throb in the veins of my arms. I could hear a soft gurgling, but was unsure whether it came from a fountain or a broken water pipe. There was once, a long time ago, a filigreed marble fountain in the building’s lobby, but it had ceased to exists. Poof.
I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home.”

And if you don't want the New York Times to have the last word, go read some of these and tell me what you think.

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Art in a Disenchanted World

Our survival as dare I say, members of a sensate class, depends on not just food, shelter, occupation, but on the idea of a full life. And into every full life, some art must fall. I am not going to escape the charge of elitism I know, but to my limited knowledge, art is not the prerogative only of the privileged classes, but of all communities, even if often referred to instead as "culture" or "tradition". So we all sing, paint, draw, listen, dance, and create -- objects, forms, outlines, and curlicues.

So then now we have not a fully formed definition of art, but a sense of it....surely, you don't think we can stop there?

Assumption.No.2: We need art even if we are not completely agreed on the parameters of evaluation or even on its definition.

Well then let's pile on an additional question; what is art? Do we define it by its fetish object, its ability to be magical, its meaning making function, or its "auratic" presence comprising all of the above and some? Is a building art? Is a painting art? Are the little squiggles made by a little kid on my neighbor's compound walls art? Democracy would entail that I answer yes to all the above, but then I lose specificity (God forbid!). So for purposes of exigency and this highly limited set of pontifications, let's assume that art is self-conscious. So, to begin with, we are assuming a certain distance; art stands apart even as it is part of the world.

Assumption.No.2: Art needs support.

To say this, of course, is to either deny or to admit to the consummately capitalist nature of the world we live in and therefore to say one of the following
(a) works of art must be allowed reprieve from the vagaries of supply and demand
(b) why should art escape commodification? Markets dictate taste; in other words, shape up or ship out.

I am, I'm afraid, rather squarely on the side of (a), mainly because the market and its rather droll logics neither appeal to my aesthetics nor to my humanity. As Benjamin writes, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art", indicating therefore Max Weber's discussion on the loss of magic in a world disenchanted by the advent of capitalism and consumption. But then, if placing myself within the confines of an "art for art's sake", I am also hoping, indeed insisting that there is an art qua art outside the mechanics of the market. And this, I am not so willing to stake my paltry scholarship upon...

The categories I discuss above are neither mutually exclusive nor clearly delineated. All forms of art can be bought and sold and they do bear some sort of function even if only "for art's sake". They are within the clutches of market and patronage and can neither be considered above nor completely within. In other words, I have successfully argued myself into a corner.

Assumption No.3: Art has a point. Or points. Or role.

Somehow, discussing the "role" of art makes it seem so, well, blase. As if, everything in this world ought to have a "role". What of the appendix then smart people? Or colored bandages? Or or....koi fish?! In case you need a visual guide, here you go.

So then, does art have a point? I am going to be slightly sneaky here and borrow from an ongoing debate on the role of the humanities and its continued relevance in the world as we know it; a world of hard-headed utilitarianism and efficiency. Here, for example is Anthony T. Kronman, a professor at Yale Law School, arguing that the humanities’ initial and essential role in higher education should be to address the deeper questions of the meaning of life. And here is Gayatri Spivak, who emphasizes that the only hope of reclaiming the arts "from the investment circuit" lies in the painstaking work of criticism and support that the humanities undertakes. Even more infamously and exclusively, Stanley Fish claims that the humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

Let me quote further from Fish before returning to our original discussion,

"You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people."

And he thus concludes with the abovementioned equivalent to the God argument -- if you don't know God already, then there is no way you will know God.

And on the other side of the fence, we can always find gems such as these...

“When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I’ll rescind my comment.”

So then, what does art do for us? Is it, like the humanities, that which will nudge us ever so gently to continue examining the meaning of life? Is it but representation clad sublime? And lastly, is my attempt to render meaning in that which might well push beyond meaning, futile?

Assumption no.4: Art is political

And this I will not be swayed from. I do not mean politics in the narrow version of a card-carrying anything, but rather, in the sense of what Hannah Arendt might call the opposite of totalitarianism. In other words, politics becomes the necessary condition to find solutions, albeit messy, albeit incomplete, but solutions nevertheless to the inequities of the world.

I will not say more and instead leave you at this critical juncture with a critical video and hope that if you have made it thus far into this ponderous stream of, well, something, you in turn will have something to say....come readers, de-lurk.

(Be warned, the talk will require 20 minutes of your precious time).

And lastly, M.F.Hussain has passed away. We all have tough questions to ask. Of ourselves and the world.

Monday, May 30, 2011


I feel fear. Not in an abstract fashion. But right in the middle of my chest. In a tight knot the size of a ping-pong ball. It is stuck in a mass of flesh and bone and struggles to escape, getting caught as it were in a whirligig of deepening complexity and stubborn ire.

I feel tiredness. Where the bottom of my feet meet my ankles. It pulls at my blood and all of it flows downward to coagulate along my calves before trickling dank and dense into the arch of my foot.

I feel doubt. Along the breadth of my palm and my tight knuckles. All over my sinews. On both sides of my chin and the furrows of my brow. In the corner of my eyes.

I feel in unison. I have used words. But I need none. To tell you what I feel. The body is really quite a good barometer. Sometimes I manage to read it.

And then I feel joy. And weightlessness. I don't feel my body. For just a few seconds, there is nothing to read. And this is joy.

Monday, May 16, 2011

All about Manasi

It is the end of an era. Badal Sarkar has passed away. And mourn I must. Not because this is the end qua end, but because surely this is worth calling the end of something. If I were to be melancholic, I might claim that the vision of a certain kind of life-world is becoming sparse. But I am not. So then what kind of end are we contemplating?

Badal Sarkar or Sircar, for those of you to who the name is all too unfamiliar, was a dramatist, theatre director, and playwright who lived from the years 1925 to 2011. He passed away on 13th April, 2011. Look him up and you will find all the details of his illustrious life and thoughtful career. Here is a précis. Sarkar was born in Calcutta and studied civil engineering before obtaining a Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. He then chose to work as a town planner in India, London and Nigeria where he first began acting, directing and soon writing for theater.

[One wonders at the unfinished details of biography. What did he do with a degree in comparative literature? Who did he read? What did he do in college? And why did he begin working as a town planner? It is not outside the realm of imagination to think that ala Benjamin, the city both moved and bothered Sarkar. And yet, such little detail on a life so rich.]

In 1963, while in Nigeria, he wrote his landmark play, Ebong Indrajit (Evam Indrajit, And Indrajit).

There are more noteworthy things to say, of course. The founding of his “Third Theatre”, for example, that spoke of the lives of common people in the city and embraced social change while performing for free in large rooms, or halls, in the open, in fields, in parks and gardens. Or his adherence to text as both verbal and intensely physical. Or of his ambivalent, and deeply critical view of the Indian Left. (He was perhaps prescient; his 2004 play Winkle Twinkle satirized the 26-year old rule of the Communist government in West Bengal).

But I will stop at 1963. Because all said and done, mankind aside, my mourning for Sarkar is deeply personal. And it has to do with Evam Indrajit. In translation albeit. In 1999, many decades after Sarkar penned his tale of quest and melancholia, I rediscovered angst. Perhaps it was incidental. Perhaps it was meant to be. How is it possible to not be broken apart and stitched together everyday when one is twenty? The years are young, the future rather fragile if infinitely sparkling, and the mind most capricious. But Evam Indrajit was special. It seems like the first and last time I would ever be involved in a collective effort of such passionate renewal that the text somehow both mattered and did not in the same breath. We were in the midst of a masters program in communications in a little bubble called Bopal and for many of us, this was the first time away from home. Bopal became community, and Indrajit our collective rite of passage. The travails of Indrajit while qualitatively worlds apart were nevertheless familiar to all of us in our firmly middle-class concerns and our rather naïve, rather young, marginally skeptical aspirations to change the world. Or ourselves at the least.

Many years have passed. We don’t live in Bopal anymore. Governments have fallen, children have been born, and criminals brought to justice. There have been earthquakes.

We inhabit other countries, other worlds, other possibilities. We are not twenty anymore. And some of us carry around a lot more of Evam Indrajit than others. And yet, perhaps it would be momentarily lovely to collectively mourn the passing of a life so rich that his one text brought us visions of so many worlds. Worlds he might never see, texts we might never write. Quid pro quo.

I quoted Neruda then, and I quote him again:

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

This one time upon the earth,
let's not speak any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.


It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

What I want shouldn't be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I'll go.

- Excerpt from Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, Pablo Neruda (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Let me now momentarily gather my thoughts, abandon romanticism and be a good academic. Following Foucault, I ask, what is an author? And following Foucault again, I ask if Sarkar’s text not only allows for analogies, but also divergences. Therefore, to put it better, even as I mourn Sarkar’s passing, the passing of the “author” as it were, I also ask how would his fiction operate free of its attachment to his genius and his time? We knew what he wrote and what he wrote moved us. He is gone now. So then, “What difference does it make who is speaking?” (Foucault 1977: 120)*

What did Manasi tell you today? Did Indrajit come visit?

[Foucault, Michel. 1977. "What is an Author?" The Author Function; translation Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. pp.124-127.

For more on Badal Sircar, see Sudhanva Deshpande’s piece here and eulogies here, and here; also see Shantanu Datta's 2004 piece here. Lastly, here is a piece on a documentary film that might be of interest.

*I must add that the text I read and cherished was Ebong Indrajit translated into English as Evam Indrajit by Girish Karnad. Thoughts on the possibilities and problematic of translation I will leave to some future moment of productivity.]

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Happiness is a stuffed brinjal

And if you must be curmudgeonly and orthodox, fine, I know it is a sin to translate. Bharli Vangi it is. Although "Happiness is a bharli vangi" doesn't quite have the same ring now does it?

So did you want an update from the last few weeks? I'll give it to you anyway. Three words. Austin, Tequila, Tacos. I miss the city, but in a good way. It is nostalgia of a peculiar sort and let me invoke Faiz to try and explain it.

Let Me Think

You ask me about that country whose details now escape me,
I don't remember its geography, nothing of its history.
And should I visit it in memory,
It would be as I would a past lover,
After years, for a night, no longer restless with passion,
With no fear of regret.
I have reached that age when one visits the heart merely as a courtesy.

-- Faiz Ahmed Faiz
(courtesy, The Wondering Minstrels)

If this still makes no sense, ask me. And I will tell you. Sometimes I wonder why I bother with laborious essay writing and long sentences. Why bother with slow, lengthy articulation when there is always poetry?

And to return to what I began with, happiness, my loves is a stuffed brinjal. I always find myself slightly out of touch when I return from travels. I am slower, more thoughtful, quiet, and rather disoriented. Work always manages to take over anyway, but once that is done, I have to find myself ways to feel like I inhabit the present tense. And food, of course, is an instant remedy.

I grew up in Maharashtra and never quite imagined myself as anything other than alien to the state. I was, after all, rather markedly Tamilian. Name aside, my household was different, my parents transplants to the state, and our food, dress, and orientation to the world, supposedly non-Maharashtrian. But after living many years in Pune, and speaking Marathi as much as Tamil in recent years, I find myself quite attached to Maharashtrian-ness. Yes, the Puneri grouchiness included. And as a result, my limited food repertoire is bi- if not multi-cultural. However, not having had many immediate culinary Maharashtrian influences growing up, my ability to cook from the region largely depends on food blogs. Nupur's OneHotStove is one such permanent go-to bookmark, and it is from here that I use the recipe for Bharli Vangi.

Look how pretty they are...

And divine to boot....

Like I said, happiness is a stuffed brinjal. And for you?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Down & Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century
---{Book Review and Guest Post by Susy Chavez]

There is a legend that runs through artist circles in Mexico about the surrealist French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s first visit to that country. They say Cartier-Bresson was so moved and overwhelmed with visual stimulation that he declared all one had to do to find a surrealist image while in Mexico was to point one’s camera and simply shoot. Apparently, Cartier-Bresson found the surrealist promised land in le Mexique.

Escondido, 2005
Mazahuacholoskatopunk Series
Federico Gama

I often times find myself imagining Mr. Cartier-Bresson wondering the streets of Mexico camera and western sensibilities in hand, like some sort of belated colonialist explorer encountering the totem-like mishmash of the ancient, colonial and the modern that makes up Mexico. My own voyeuristic fascination with Mexico, like all the best voyeuristic endeavors in life, is deeply personal. I am, to put it mildly, passionately in love with its fluid pump-up-the-color-volume folklorico-piñata-dance chaos. Fortunately, this love abounds and Daniel Hernandez’s new book, a quasi telenovela meets Boogie Nights love letter to the 20 plus million metropolis that is Mexico City, is a worthwhile testament.

To take Hernandez’s book as simply a non-fiction travel book or as the cool kids are calling it these days, creative non-fiction travel book, would be a mistake. Hernandez’s book is fascinating precisely because he is NOT: 1) trying to find himself by teaching English in another country 2) throwing himself into hard labor in a remote indigenous village 3) has no philanthropic endeavors 4) and NO broken heart he needs to mend through ancient indigenous practices. Hernandez is on a mission to find himself, a San Diego native, Angeleno transplant via Tijuana, Mexico whose parents warn him early on that in el DF (Mexico City, pronounced ‘de-efe’), he’ll get his socks stolen while he’s got his shoes on. Instead of making him run up towards Canada, Hernandez, a self-described “dark-skinned” pocho mexi-gringo, decides to move to el monstruo (the monster, a tongue and cheek term-of-endearment for el DF). It is in el monstruo that Hernandez leads us through a series of hoyos funkys, underground tunnels that weave through the city coming up momentarily from time to time for brief snap-shots of a series of urban subcultures that include but are not limited to fashionista fairies, nezayorkinos, banda, grafiteros, emos and fresas.

One of, I believe, nine children raised by immigrant parents in Southern California, by the end of the book you get a sense that Hernandez is some sort of desert chameleon one minute drinking a cahuama (a family sized beer sold in Mexico) with a friend in a run-down prostitute laden side of town and the next schmoozing with the crème-de-la-crème Mexican up-and-coming fashion, artist, writing crowd. I suppose a warning against whiplash is in order. Nevertheless, it is through these encounters that Hernandez not only lays out the mega-city for us with all of its divine contradictions, but it is precisely through these urban-life snippets that he refreshingly peels back and exposes his own identity based struggles. Knowing exactly from where he was coming, I found myself wanting to reach through the pages to shake his hand on several occasions. There are particularities to being a fill-in-the-blank –American and going back to the country of “origin” that I believe might transcend beyond one particular experience or culture, Hernandez’s book would fit that category. The prodigal son that leaves the land of opportunity for the land our parents left behind. This is not Cartier-Bresson getting off a plane baptizing Mexico as the surrealist-promised land.

The book is a quick read at that, one that I intentionally extended and savored piece by piece until despite my every effort it’s pages ran out. At the end of the journey through one of the largest urban jungles in the world, it is obvious that although Hernandez is gifted with those chameleon-like tendencies I previously mentioned, it is the magic of the city itself that allows Hernandez and the millions of transplants that keep pumping into it, to transform themselves day in and day out.

[Susy Chavez is a manic gardner, artist, photographer who loves nothing more than to walk down the sunny streets of Oaxaca Mexico. See more here]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Panzanella and signs of middle-classness

Even as I talk about identity being fluid, and personhood as pastiche, there is still a value to certain core forms of identification. In my case, middle-classness. Or to be more specific, socialist Indian eighties-style middle-classness. While a really poor eater through my childhood and teens, I nevertheless absorbed that one core lesson that all my peers learnt, "Do not waste food!". While most of my parents' generation has it down to a fine art, I am a rather confused arranger of all things leftover. As a result, I have to scout for recipes to figure out what to do with things such as day-old bread. This is one such.

Panzanella is an Tuscan bread salad and while it sounds to my ears, rather meaty, soggy and heavy, it is far from. Give it a go.

For 3-4 servings of Panzanella, you will need:

* A loaf of day-old bread
* 4 teaspoons of rice wine/ apple cider/cooking vinegar
* 2 cups of olive oil (It's good for you, so stop sighing!)
* 2 cloves of garlic chopped fine
* 2 cucumbers peeled and chopped
* 2 tomatoes chopped
* A cup of basil leaves
* Salt and pepper

1. Soak the bread in water enough to cover it; add 2 teaspoons of vinegar
2. After 15 minutes, squeeze out all the water and crumble into fine particles into a bowl or serving dish

3. Add salt, pepper, garlic, 2 tsps vinegar, garlic, and 1/2 a cup of oil. Mix well.
4. Then add the cucumber, tomatoes, and the remaining oil. Tear pieces of basil leaves and add them in.
5. Cover well and chill for at least an hour.

I have seen a number of variations so you can imagine this is easy to play with; add celery, sage, marjoram, perhaps even some feta.

I adapted this recipe from the Organic Tuscany Cookbook and if any of you generous souls feel like planning me a birthday present in advance, I need cooking lessons here!

Panzanella is light, and effervescent, it is the both light and delicious and a little like a summer's day in the park. I could do with a frisbee now.

But the day is at an end and I have the week to contemplate, so I will now settle down to my salad and a glass of wine and leave you fine people to whatever it is that you want to do. Perhaps work, perhaps play, perhaps even nothing. Alright, I have to go. I need wine. And music.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Prodigal Returns

Or not?

Dear ole faithfuls, at the risk of boring you with the inordinately long tale of my absence, let me sum it up thus:

(a) Travel
(b) Conferences
(c) Work crises
(d) Travel
(e) Work that I had to get to because I lazed around on the beach...

And it is this last that should catch your attention because wait, isn't she in Wisconsin? Wasn't it winter? Where is the beach? Has she lost it?

To answer all of the above; I went to Hawaii. For a conference. Really...

The one thing I was not ready for when I signed up for this conference was how far Hawaii is from the West Coast of the US. Really. Here's a map.

It took ten hours to get from Chicago to Honolulu. I traveled from freezing, 3 degrees Celsius weather to a lovely balmy, humid, sunny 25. The sense of travel itself is so funny. Distance is difficult to comprehend. The travel corridor is so inundated with technology and speed. You enter into the plane and exit into another airport. No whoosh, no bodily disintegration and reintegration. No magic. In so many ways, the disenchantments of modernity are so horribly obvious.

And of course, even if it's Hawaii, it is inexplicably part of the US and therefore culturally expected to produce the signs of Americanness. Like diners. And fake politeness. Not that the stewardesses on Continental felt the compulsion to be anything like that. They reminded me of an older generation of Air India aunties who find it their birthright to be both snooty, and matronly, in the same sentence. Imagine an American aunty mentally wagging her finger that you asked for wine. And producing it five hours later than requested. At which point you are asleep. Which is precisely the state that you needed the wine to catalyze. But of course, you have now been woken up so you can ingest said wine. Hello aunty.

Let me also mention that my travel companion was upgraded to business class while I was stuck mangling my already stunted frame into tiny, "small is friendly (to capitalism)" persuasion cattle class seats. Skank. The travel companion, that is.

We finally landed in Honolulu. Just the name was enough to warrant my feeling happier already. We all have these mythical places of exotic repute that have been mythologized in quizzes, drawing room conversations, and nerdy oneupmanship. Mine are Honolulu, Mombasa, and Jhumritalaiya.

The conference was in Honolulu, so we stuck to Oahu and didn't explore any of the other islands. Our hotel was by Waikiki beach, my presentation was on Day One, and there were very few anthropologists around. Clearly the Gods were in support of my intellectual laziness.

For four glorious days, I ate pineapples, and walked by the beach, and drank beer and rum. I walked endlessly, drove around Oahu to the beautiful surfing beaches and got browner than ever before. Thanks to fabulous travel companions, I also discovered great Japanese food, drove by the coast, and felt rather wonderfully ready to return to work.

Honolulu is strange. For one, it is unbearably touristy, commercial and built-up. The hotels, and condominiums come right up to the beachfront. It is also racially very diverse (which is a relief). You see many Polynesians in the city, and of course, white Americans in hordes, but also African Americans, Asians, and Japanese residents. What is also obvious are the levels of poverty. The city is inundated with the homeless and we were trying to understand the phenomenon. I suppose the most obvious reason would be the weather. It is not disturbing on the whole, but the city is far from soothing. It seems like a city forced upon a rather differently oriented landscape. As if this is were not meant for urbanity of this kind. I'd like to think that this is not pastoral nostalgia, but in some ways, I suppose...

The foliage though is something else. It covers, adorns, and wraps around the island like a living, breathing ferment. The city thankfully cannot escape it either. It is the kind of lush green that I know screams forth after it rains in the Sahyadri ghats. And it's tall, and broad, and generous and kindly. Like a favorite uncle. Or an aunt.

So here we are at the end of our travels, calmer, wiser, quiet-er....and here are a few learnings:
(a) I will write more frequently...cause it is good for me. And I forget that in any case, there is always the written word.
(b) It might not be everyday, because life interferes, but it will be more frequent, because writing makes me happy.
(c) I like pineapples
(d) I should swim more.

On that note peoples, welcome back. Tell me all about yourselves now. Next week, I will tell you all about NYC.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I'm away folks. It's officially vacation time. Be back soon. Watch for more in the coming weeks. Vacations, that is....

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

And in today's news...

And if you're wondering what this is about, go here.

Judith Davidoff writes:

"When did Al Jazeera start caring about Madison, Wisconsin? That would be since last week, when the Qatar-based news agency contacted WisconsinEye for permission to use video of the tens of thousands of public workers and their allies who were swarming the Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector unions."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tonight I am indolent. In half stupor. I see things clearly.

I don't know it all. And I don't know you at all. But if I never know anything ever again, if I never know anyone ever again, it will still be enough.

Tonight, I am the romance of the soul. Tonight, I am enough.

Tomorrow, I will be awake. And ambitious. And dissatisfied. And yet, tonight I am enough. Even if profoundly alienated. Even if having been declared someone's love, I no longer feel present.

Isn't love precisely this kind of a cosmic imbalance?... Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not "I love you all." Love means: I pick out something; it's again the structure of imbalance. Even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person. I say, "I love you more than anything else": In this quite formal sense, love is evil. -- Zizek

What does love feel like?
Like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.

-- Slavoj Zizek in The Guardian

Saturday, February 19, 2011


To clap. To infuse noise and possibility and movement into life as is known. An act of ritual, of acceleration, of energy in lieu of movement, of the performance of speed in the hope that life will acquiesce.

Wassily Kandinsky. Fugue.
1914. Oil on canvas. 129.5 x 129.5 cm.
Private collection.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Time Out

Unusually busy week. One public lecture. Two big decisions. Three politically charged days. Now officially exhausted. One more day to go. Bear with me. Be back Sunday.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Female Body

Trawling my various online article feeds today, I found this gem:
"South Dakota Moves To Legalize Killing Abortion Providers"

Kate Sheppard writes, "A law under consideration in South Dakota would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus—a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions...If the bill passes, it could in theory allow a woman's father, mother, son, daughter, or husband to kill anyone who tried to provide that woman an abortion—even if she wanted one."

Following up on the bill's sponsor Rep.Jensen's reaction to the article, she further writes here, "Anti-abortion lawmakers know they don't actually have to make it technically legal to kill a doctor—merely opening up the possibility of that interpretation in hopes of may discourage doctors from offering the service in the state. Given the history of violence against providers, this is no insignificant issue."

The figures she quotes are scary. "Since 1993" she writes, "eight doctors have been assassinated at the hands of anti-abortion extremists, and another 17 have been the victims of murder attempts."

A number of issues are at the heart of this chilling statistic. To begin with, of course the whole untenability of the pro-life versus pro-choice brigade. The semantics themselves are interesting as if one were to negate the other. If I am pro-life, apparently I cannot be pro-choice and vice-versa. The comments at the end of the article deserve an entire thesis unto themselves. One commenter defending South Dakota's progressiveness says, "No, I would not support this bill, but as a pro-life advocate, abortion is far more barbaric/prehistoric/and primitive, and takes away the rights of many potential women AND men. You sound un-educated and ignorant. People like you are the only ones to blame for bringing women down by brainwashing us into believing we can't raise a child AND be educated at the same time."

There are many questions at the heart of this debate: (a) Who controls an impregnated female body? (b) What is the status on the human scale of the foetus? (c) When does the State come into the picture? While this might seem to be an issue specific to the American political milieu, the debate on controlling the female body is not.

At stake in this and every other debate on female morality, propriety, behavior, responsibility, and role is the need to regulate the reproductive and sexual potential of the female body.

I wonder how I could possibly not feel like a societally gendered artifact. But I suppose the question is a moot point. We are all gendered, one way or the other. Rather, the question then seems to be, why does it feel so inherently powerless sometimes to be gendered as a reproductive body? Why is primacy accorded to being productive over being sexual? Why is our sexuality suspect even as we are sexual objects? And lastly, how does the figure of the sex worker either complicate or intervene in this debate?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Random responses...(and realities?)
---[Guest post by Arshiya Bose]

I'm writing from a small village in Konkan (Western India), where I'm doing PhD fieldwork. I have just started a survey/interview process in 8 villages and am quickly realizing that this PhD is not going to be as pretty as I had originally hoped! Yet the process of unravelling this mystery is exciting and I often feel like a detective trying to find small clues that fit together parts of a huge puzzle. However, dilemmas come in plenty and though I love the 'there's no right way' philosophy - I wish I could sneak a peak at a damned textbook one of these days!

Yesterday, I was chatting with a farmer about his forest and asked him about environmental NGOs working in the region. What were these organisations like? Were they crooked? Had they helped lift small, marginal farmers out of abject poverty? And most of all, why did this man choose not to participate in one particular big conservation project? I waited patiently, ready to start scribbling down his response at supersonic speed. His reply could have been "Forest protection is only for rich people" or "We don't need NGOs to tell us how to look after our forest." But he said, "I was traveling on my bike when these NGO people came to our village. You can't talk properly on the main road!"

Frankly, many farmers have responded in similar ways. "My friend participates in forest protection I participate," is the most common reply to my fancy questionnaire.

Is it a lack of trust between researcher and respondent that inhibits the real response? Or are realities genuinely this contingent? Do such responses come from skepticism, a thought pops into my head and immediately, I feel selfish and mercenary. How many lunches, teas and social 'soft' visits will it take before I can collect data? It's been 2 months in the village, day after day, and last week I found out about a rumour (among many!) going around that I could be a terrorist!

But if it is the latter and realities are genuinely random - dependent on the whims and fancies of individuals without any larger pattern - then what happens to prospective PhDs? How do you explain in the words of lofty political ecology that environmental circumstances are as dependent on a person's daily routine (departures, mealtimes...bowel movements?) as they are on 'resource partitioning', 'elite-capture' or climate change?

That said, last evening, I conducted a 20 minute interview with a woodcutter in his underwear. He offered me tea and everything. I guess fieldwork has its share of rather delightful moments!

[Arshiya Bose has oddly decided that a PhD is the best way to resolve her existential crisis and she is currently registered at Cambridge University. Read more here...]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why would I go to Utah?

The other day, a friend and I were making a list of must-see places in the US. Apparently, Utah is one of them. Of course, given that I'm rather committed to near-urbanity having lived in two almost-cities in the US and forever aspiring to a city proper, no bells rang. Utah? Really?

The only reference I could remember to Utah was in one of the four Sherlock Holmes "long" stories. Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet" was published in 1887, and is set in 1847 Utah. The year is significant to both the plot and the history of the State. Brigham Young and the first band of Mormon pioneers came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. While the story paints the Mormon pioneers as philanderers, misogynists, and murderers, and there are conflicting versions of his sources and reasons for such a portrayal, it is important to remember that most "pioneers" were lawless, fierce, and often more occupied with the act of both annihilating previous occupants and protecting their own notion of community than political propriety. Digression aside, this never aroused in me any desire to visit Utah. Especially given that to this day, Utah is one of the most religiously homogeneous states in the US and a large number of Utahns are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

However, a couple of pictures later....

Arches National Park

Angels' Landing, Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Canyonlands National Park

...I am a convert (pun not intended).

Anyone else game?

If so, let me warn you of the following:
(a) I am not an inveterate hiker, oh no. I have no stamina, I dawdle, and I while in pretty good shape, do not necessarily boast any strength. My father used to call me a paapad-tod pehalwan. Still does.
(b) My love for hiking is also aided by fantasies of what I might be able to do once I get to aforementioned places -- like read a book.
(c) I like cities
(d) Please do not talk too much when hiking. It's most annoying.

On the plus side,
(a) I am a silent hiker.
(b) I can cook on the most elementary paraphernalia. And lest we are confused, oh no, you will be in charge of firewood collection, lighting fires, and all such girl/boy scout expertise.
(c) I told you about Utah, see?

(P.S I owe you guys a food post; watch this space tomorrow)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Waiting and watching...what can I tell myself except that even though this isn't me, perhaps it is.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Art/ifice of Love

A picture may well be worth a thousand words, but I'd honestly just have the thousand words instead. I am not sure, for example, if any picture could do what this poem does.

(P.S Since we don't do Valentine's consider this my pre-Valentine offering)

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart;
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

-- Andrew Marvell

This was featured on John Stammers's top 10 love poems in the Guardian.

Stammers writes of the poem -
A romantic take on Horace's Carpe Diem in which the suitor desires to seize rather more than simply the day. This poem contains many of the cleverest metaphysical conceits: witness "our vegetable love" or those trying worms.

Life's dark. And challenging. And often either mundane or impenetrable. But love, ah love. Think about it. Wouldn't you rather have a playful, lilting, fleetfooted love than a simpering, sinking, serious one?
Business School

And that people, is your television fix recommendation for the year. Go watch "The Wire".

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Different Strokes

I was considering a polemic on the nation-state and its component parts, and the myth we term unity even as we ignore its inconsistencies and violence. Rivetting eh?

But I read this first thing in the morning and I think it says more, and rather, something else. Do go read Vivek Menezes' piece, "Bringing it All Back Home (To Shillong)" on 3quarksdaily.

An excerpt:

The story of western music in the North East of India starts with the church, more precisely with one very unusual missionary from Wales named Thomas Jones.

In 1841, the young Weshman clambered up into the Khasi hills from the opposite direction from the one we had taken along the Guwahati-Shillong highway. At that time, the capital of Assam was the ancient Khasi stronghold of Sohra (Cherrapunjee), and this is where Jones headed after a long boat ride from Calcutta, up the Hooghly and the Sunderbans to Sylhet far below the tribal highlands.

Thomas Jones is pure paradox. He belonged to a rigorous and conservative missionary order, but never converted anyone in his years in the Khasi hills. Eventually, he was considered disreputable by his own order, which expelled him, and he died in a kind of disgrace in Calcutta, where his tomb lay abandoned until the Khasis came looking for it.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The GAP in the vision
-- [Guest post by Madhu]

As someone prone to museum fatigue and precarious finances, I am only too thrilled to browse the colossal corridors of the Met or the Uffizi online. But I find the Google Art Project intriguing for other reasons. Having trawled museum websites for some time now, I am more interested in Google’s role in this ambitious project of digital curatorship/archiving, in relation to a museum.

The points of innovation in the GAP, as I have decided to refer to it, are adapting the Street View technology to digitally navigate certain partnering museums, providing an unprecedented level of detail and resolution for some selected images, and a tool that allows viewers to build their own collections on the site. I am quite a fan of online art databases so I wasn’t prepared for how underwhelmed I felt when I actually checked out the site. The super resolution images were of course very exciting – to see the cracks on old canvases that even the artists themselves would not have seen? That’s awesome. But apart from that, I admit I was initially tempted to wave it away as just a victory of numbers – this is from the press release:
The Art Project in numbers:
11 Cities, 9 Countries
17 Museums
17 ‘gigapixel’ pictures
385 gallery rooms
486 artists
1061 high res artwork images
More than 6,000 Street View ‘panoramas’

Reading the celebratory reception of the project, however, the lavish superlatives struck me as odd and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I also did find some criticism of the project, for instance, about how limited the list of museums and the available works from each museum are. But Google has been quick to assure us that the current list is only a starting point and will hopefully grow in the future. Fair enough I think – I wasn’t disappointed with the size of the archive anyway (although I am curious about some of the choices for super-resolution, like why the Museo Reina Sofia chose Juan Gris’s The Bottle of Anis del Mono instead of Picasso’s Guernica - but again, I doubt there can ever be a list acceptable to everyone).

Another point of contention was the inevitably simplistic question – is the GAP as good as the ‘real thing’? I think the question is misguided for more than one reason. Firstly, it assumes that the museum space is unmediated and neutral, with free access to the ‘real’, when it is anything but. Secondly, the questions of authenticity of experience in a digital version of a work of art are not exclusive to the GAP but common to the larger field of digital archiving and spectatorship.

The GAP, however, hinges on two things – the perception of the work of art as a primarily physical artifact, and the value of seeing more. The project’s greatest contribution is the heightened visual experience. But given that this hyper-visual experience can’t add much to, say, conceptual art, I have to conclude that the physical artifact is essential to the effectiveness of the GAP. I am also inclined to guess that by slotting painting into a fundamentally visual space, the project subscribes to the archaic pigeonholing of painting into 2D, accessed fundamentally by the sense of sight, implying perhaps that sculpture is best experienced spatially in 3D, and so on - ideas often prevalent in museum spaces, and challenged, ironically, even by the extraordinarily sensuous textures of Starry Night.

That begs my central question – what is Google’s attitude to the Museum? On the one hand the GAP uncritically legitimizes the institution of the museum as a custodian of art and arbiter of good and bad art. On the other hand, it asserts itself and subverts the museum space by turning it into an ‘artifact’ itself, with the Street View application. The works included in the GAP are selected by the museums and the accompanying information about the art is also from the respective museums. The differences I see between the GAP and online tours offered by museum websites are of course the unprecedented giga-pixel resolution in one work selected by each museum from its collection, and that it is a common space for works from different museums. The detail of the selected works is definitely a first for most of us and that specific kind of viewership of the works is greatly increased to an audience much wider than conservators and owners of the works - and hopefully this will now spawn a more complex narrative.

Dr. Julian Raby, Director, Smithsonian: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery says, “The giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the spirit and energy of the artist…” (Eh?!) Nicholas Serota of the Tate Gallery was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “This is a second generation view of the way museums will use the internet. Ten years ago museums were obsessed with getting thousands of objects on the screen, now we're interested in getting depth of understanding of the works."

At this point I began to be puzzled by the easy equation of understanding with seeing more. It aligns the GAP with the mythology of technological coups always resulting in greater democratization of knowledge, without necessarily asking questions about whose knowledge is being made accessible and why. I realize I am no expert on the inner workings of Google-sized corporations or the technical aspects of search engine algorithms. But I am one of the millions of people, who thanks to Google, can now ‘see’ more. But what we see is still determined by Google’s partnerships with institutions whose bodies of information it deems legitimate.

I don’t see anything in the GAP to indicate that Google is structurally and ideologically poised to make fundamental shifts in the field of archiving and dissemination – not, for instance, in the way that Wikipedia seems to envision. But when I think about all the Google follies – criteria for the page ranking system, the Street View in maps, its relationship with China, and Eric Schmidt responding to privacy concerns with, “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place” – it’s quite consistent. And, well, icky.

* For those interested in the buzz, the NY Times has a rather lame article out here.

[Madhu prides herself on her ability to estimate both time and space, and shuns all devices that measure either. Read more here...]