Monday, December 31, 2012

Thoughts for the end of the year

Question friends. Lose lovers. Find partners. Focus.

Seize the day. Lose the hour.

Doodle. Play. Run. Travel.

Ask of life the things you want most. Speak to those that understand. Understand those that speak.

Practise ruthlessness and empathy in equal measure.


Change. Even if it kills you. Your house, your world, your books, the things that you love, the things that you hate. Change.

Keep those that you can keep. Abandon deadweight. Cultivate dissatisfaction. Stay calm.

Practise lightness and certitude in equal measure.

Do not let this world fix you. Do not fix yourself in this world. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Theorizing the everyday

I am still amazed at the incredible everydayness of this world. My moods change like Austin weather, and no morning follows the night before. I am pliable as putty and my nerves seem to be made of very thin twine.

How shall I tell you about this everyday world? My life is governed by a few tasks and many uncertainties. This afternoon I walked out of campus to meet a prospective landlady. As I walked out of campus, I noticed all traffic moving in one direction like a sea of lemmings even as the opposite lane had been cleaned of all populations to make way for the cavalcade of the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The political part of this aside, can you imagine the spectacle this makes for? People lined the sidewalks by the hundreds even as the numerous cooks, helpers, and watchmen from the far reaches of India, many of them from Assam, peered down from rooftops. Flags lined the road dividers. Busstops crammed with lungi-clad men and gold nose-ringed sari-ed women dutifully bordered the rituals of power. Policemen heroically held back traffic, denying the ridiculousness of a 1:150 ratio.

So many men, so few women. So much traffic. Such little quietude. So much honking. And one empty lane.

Last week on a bus back to Chennai from Pondicherry, we all peered out as the bus stopped before a few hundred body strong funeral procession. We sat still in the insulated air-conditioning as the crowd gathered strength and police attempted to re-route traffic. Being the massive vehicle we were, we had no choice but to stay put in our first-class seats to the unfolding spectacle. Batons were wielded, instructions yelled silently as if in a fifties movie, and the quiet buzz of both morbid spectacle and public grief permeated the bus. The gentleman in front of me pulled out a newspaper reporting on the very incident we were watching. Somebody whispered that it was the deputy tahsildar, a local government official, who had committed suicide along with the entire family. Four bodies in all. The crowd parted for a little bit as our bus shimmied alongside two vans carrying shrouded bodies. The middle-aged woman next to me commented as to how she could not make out how the bodies had been distributed between the two vans. I later discovered that the deputy tahsildar was a woman. She had set herself on fire. Her family rushed to help and had been engulfed by the flames.

Last week, as a friend and I scoured the streets of Madras seeking suitable accommodation for two , we were followed around by a podgy, middle-aged man on a motorcycle. We paused to take his photograph on my phone and loudly announced to him his registration number and the actions we intended to pursue at the nearby police station. He left. The thought of our tiny triumph came with its attendant awareness that this is such a gendered space.

Many theorists have claimed that the politics of certain spaces lie in their everydayness and their ability to defeat certain determined ways of knowing and knowledge. That in their very elusiveness, they stick it to institutional and hence rigid forms of being and knowing. In other words, the everyday world is full of subterfuge.

This is an undeniably everyday world. You can touch, taste, feel, smoke, snort, and choke on it. If you plan it too much in advance, it will smother you in its elusiveness. And I cannot get rid of the fear evoked by its un-knowability.

And yet, even as I swallow dust and stare out grumpily at this world and these strange people and roads that defeat my plans, at other times, it seems like this might be important to know. This might be another way to live. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Watching, Waiting, Writing

I could give you an account of my last six months and it would read like a grocery list. And I promise you it would make sense.

* Cities -4
* Suitcases - 4
* Heart broken - 1
* Heart recuperated - 1.5
* Resilience - 2.5
* Clothes - Too few
* Shoes - Too many

And I told myself I would take some more time before attempting to summarize. Because I'm always in a hurry to make sense, to be precise, and to articulate. But the will is weak and the pen restless. So tonight I must write.

Chennai spills over with excess. Crackers resound. People fall over themselves in the streets, mere multitudes that must be loudspeaker-ed and shepherded. I watch from the wide open window of a bus that goes by the numerically reassuring and repeatedly repeated moniker 47A. The dust thrown up by many scurrying feet settles into skin, nails, hair, and cloth. Humidity and breeze alternate to dance around my pores. Together they scrub, clean and dry. I experience the light as either too dim or too bright. Somedays I sleep in incoherent tiredness and wake up even more so. Every day I am asked if I am a student. And if I am single or married.

I do understand and yet loudly and vociferously stake my claim to not understand. The ways of this world are not mine. I wonder if they ever will be. I am even more worried when I think that they might.

Tomorrow I will write about language, deer, beaches, and friction. About having to experience relationships in their entirety. About a subjectivity I had forgotten to inhabit. Tomorrow I will wake up to ritual and other such remedies to anomie. Tonight I have written and tonight I will sleep.

The lights are now dim. We will all wake up to the already accomplished promise of light. Happy Diwali.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tijuana Tales

Guest post courtesy Susy Chavez Herrera

By the Sea

Drugstore Cowboy

Heartbreak Hotel


Friendship Fence


Let's fly a kite

Let's fly away

Photo essay: Fronteras Mixtape Vol. 1
Place: Playas de Tijuana, BC México
Date: October 2012
All images © Susy Chavez Herrera

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Istanbul, not Constantinople

As a number of academics will tell you, some of us are only in the business so that we can travel. We, of course like our work, and our field-sites, and our analyses, but even more than all of these, we like to be the carriers of our always-on-the-verge-of-brilliance accounts to those bizarre social events that we call conferences. But it all depends on that one true mantra of all smarmy real-estate agents; location, location, location. In fact, travel is the twin side to our erudition. We get on a plane, and therefore we are. We scour the list of conference venues to determine our poison of choice. So what will it be today, heterodox heteronormativity in the former Helvetia (yes, I have stamps that prove this) or Malleswari Mami and other forms of pulp fiction among diaspora in Malaysia? And yes, I made those up.

Our tribe shows some peculiar ticks. For example, we talk of a month in our city of residence as imprisonment and two months as solitary confinement. The amount that we carp about said city is inversely proportional to the number of conferences we attend in a semester. Its follies, provinciality, and general lack of enlightenment are regular lunch-time conversations.

We can get ready for travel in lesser time than we take to bicycle over to the campus to teach. We have opinions about airports. Some of us collect miles and get upgraded to first-class (You know who you are, you skanks). And some of us wear red shoes. We also like melatonin. And have packing lists. Some would mistake us for corporate travelers, except that we have neither the wardrobe nor the financial acumen to match. However, we do have travel outfits (Tights, loafers, messenger bag) and PDFs on iPads. We like our travel sized cosmetics and hoard them. Have you ever noticed the infinite pleasure accorded by a set of beautifully packaged tiny face-washes, shampoos, and soaps? Like a little bit of complete life without the unwieldiness that largesse or largeness begets. Airport cab drivers in the city know us by first name and family background. Some of them ask us out.

On one such conference sojourn in Geneva, I decided that I must couple pleasurable business with pleasure-able pleasure and made my way to from India to Switzerland on Turkish airlines through Istanbul. Sigh, Istanbul. This was five years ago, which is why I'm sure my memories will barely perform the work of memory leave alone verisimilitude. What I remember is an overwhelming set of atmospheres.

Istanbul is affect laden. But then it also depends on when you decide to visit. I was there in November when it had begun to get cold. The flight from Geneva to Istanbul was, to put it mildly, rather like being plonked onto a roller-coaster perched above a volcano, seat-belt-less. We flew through a thunderstorm. I had previously stuffed myself with some delightful gnocchi and wine. The food on Turkish Airlines, by the way, is excellent. One cancelled the effects of the other; little potato pellets are excellent hangover cures I have since discovered. So here I was, in a plane full of slightly hysterical screamers trying to psyche myself into thinking of this an amusement park ride with a safe ending. It worked. We landed. And clapped. Between lightning, thunder, nerves, and nausea, I disembarked slightly off-kilter. Only to be out right back on my feet by my dear friend Can Aciksoz, purveyor of all things food-like and wonderful, who hosted, fed, and guided me through a nothing short of fantastic week.

My first impression of the city was a certain kind of confusing magic. It was European, yet not so. It looked superbly modern, yet not so. The men and women looked perpetually ready to attend a soiree, a concert, a conference, or a refined tête-à-tête. Coiffures or salons littered the streets. The air was perfumed with smoke, tea, and water. The raki was deliriously good, and the food never-endingly delicious. I, like the Imam of the eponymous Imam Bayildi, fainted many times everyday. The mosques made me desire religion, the city made me crave smoke. The men called me Rihanna, and the women uniformly looked down at my ragtag attire from the heights of their perpetually perplexed eyebrows. I brought home kilims that I now lug around the world. The Bosphorus flowed merrily as we went meyhane-hopping. I learnt to cheer for Beşiktaş. I met a theorist called Mladen Dolar who has since reminded me many a time of the uncanniness of voice. I also met a media artist who told a story through hyperextended wired arms and in his other life, was a butcher. Over dinner, he spoke very little and gulped his food in quick, short bursts as if it would run out any moment. Conversation flowed freely, and friendship was available for the taking. Smoky gray cats ate black olives from my hands.

There is a song playing in my head right now. A song in praise of wandering and being lost. And I gain strength from thinking of all the places that I have wandered to, and found pleasure in. I remember Istanbul, like it was yesterday that I was there.

Our fantasies as much as our daily waking up, bathing, eating food, scrounging for love, are also after all, part of our lives. We are singular beings, with a little wherewithal and scrawny arms. So I put away scenes in my head into this fantasy life. I file them away into the memory palace that is also my home. And sometimes in this fantasy life, I sing full-throated and dance on tables. Perhaps I ought to add Istanbul to this story. After all, a good lie is always partly true. And Istanbul is so true. In the middle of all the falsity and innumerable types of dissembling that life practises, one needs truth. 

Monday, October 01, 2012

On the nature of complete presence and preserved lemons

Two months and some of living in India have really not delivered too many surprises as much as they have lessons about self. And habit. And a way of life that had become so natural as to become invisible. I have been used to being absent. I have lived far away with email and then the telephone being my means of connection. I used to be able to get away with mere long-distance listening powers. I did not have to be here with my whole being. But now I do. I have to re-engage with a deep social sphere and an overwhelming set of cues.

A few months ago, I read a set of articles on a woman called Olivia Fox Cabane who apparently has the key to what some people call charisma. The thesis is sparse and the learnings instrumental. However, the idea of learning charisma and cues in order to be noticed is a little annoying, not to mention problematic. It ends up reinforcing guardedness and overly self-conscious behaviour (For example: "Far too many women have a complete bobblehead, which gives the impression of over-eagerness to please"). Ms.Cabane is paid a lot of money to coach Silicon Valley geeks to cultivate charisma or in other words, to instruct people in the art of "turning it on". The Marilyn Monroe example in this article that talks about Cabane's philosophy is particularly instructive. But those of us who have watched the brilliant film, "My Week with Marilyn" will also perhaps recall that there is a flip side to cultivating such intentional attention-garnering skills without the accompanying sustained interest in people. As an antidote, I instead advocate the less ambitious and more difficult art of presence.

For many long years, I used to view the world through nostalgia and what if's and continued to be absent. Now I scoff at the past and look at old photographs in a way reminiscent of Faiz and old love. As necessary loss. Now I practise presence. Like the untidy nest built by the little bird on the ceiling of our tiled roof, it is a messy endeavour. It is in equal measure composed of unruly dust and wildly beautiful flowers. 

One of the nicest ways to be present I have discovered is to cook. I do not have my own kitchen yet. So I borrow from friends and insert my few skills carefully and cautiously. And this is the truly wonderful part of it. I have friends and family who allow me into their homes and lives. And prattle and share my thoughts and theirs.  And so in gratefulness, I preserve lemons for them. This is what I have recently learnt to do and this is what I offer at the altar of those who feed and keep me.

One of my favorite forms of cooking is Mediterranean. And I live in lust for one of these ever since wolfing down some wonderful vegetarian tagine at Cafe Mogador in the East Village. While this will have to await the acquisition of a house and a kitchen, I am meanwhile slowly developing expertise in culling together the traditional ingredients of a tagine. Ras-el-hanout will be next. But today, I give you preserved lemons.

My recipe is from David Lebovitz whose website I really like. The instructions are simple, the language easy, and the final product really quite delicious.

You will need:
(a) Dry hands
(b) Eight to ten small, slightly pliable lemons with a clear skin
(c) One cup of rock salt
(d) A teaspoon of whole coriander seeds
(e) One or two dried red chillies
(f) Two or three bay leaves
(g) A dry glass bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid

 -- Wash and dry the lemons.
 -- Cut off small bits of each edge but be careful not to cut off the layer of skin.
 -- Incise the lemons with x-shaped cuts so that one is left with hot-cross like little yellow entities. Employ a delicate hand. Do not cut right through. If you do, make lemonade instead.
 -- Gently fill these incised lemons with around a teaspoon of rock salt. With lemons as in life, make sure to be generous.

-- Now stuff the lemons gently into the glass jar making sure to use a dry spoon to press down on top of them. Intersperse them with coriander seeds, chillies, and bay leaves.
-- Close the lid. Store in a cool, dry place.
-- Make sure to continue pressing down on the lemons every two or three days until all of them are immersed in juice. When you press down with a spoon, make sure to taste it. The tart, spicy juice is a special treat. It makes me think of novels, and hammocks, and stolen childhood afternoons.
-- Let the lemons soften for a month after which they can be stored in the refrigerator.

Once done:
  -- Rinse the liquid off and scrape out the pulp. Cut into small diced pieces and add to stews, soups, and pretty much anything else that might need some flavour.

Today, I drink coffee, listen to the thunderstorm outside, and listen to some rather funny, incredibly sassy, celebratory music. Happy Monday people. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

One Last Poem for Richard

December 24th and we're through again. 
This time for good I know because I didn't 
throw you out -- and anyway we waved. 

No shoes. No angry doors. 
We folded clothes and went 
our separate ways. 

You left behind that flannel shirt
of yours I liked but remembered to take 
your toothbrush. Where are you tonight? 

Richard, it's Christmas Ever again
and old ghost come back home.
I'm sitting by the Christmas tree
wondering where did we go wrong. 

Okay, we didn't work, and all
memories to tell you the truth aren't good. 
But sometimes there were good times. 
Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep 
beside me and never dreamed afraid. 

There should be stars for great wars 
like ours. There ought to be awards
and plenty of champagne for the survivors. 

After all the years of degradations, 
the several holidays of failure, 
there should be something
to commemorate the pain. 

Someday we'll forget that great Brazil disaster.
Till then, Richard, I wish you well. 
I wish you love affairs and plenty of hot water, 
and women kinder than I treated you. 
I forget the reason, but I loved you once, 

Maybe in this season, drunk
and sentimental, I'm willing to admit
a part of me, crazed and kamikaze,
ripe for anarchy, loves still.

-- Sandra Cisneros

Saturday, September 08, 2012

This Senseless, Sensate World

I lie in bed and stare at the inky sky that holds color for just a moment. Now things are dark and I wish the inside of the house were too. 

It's been a little more than a month and a half and what an extraordinary time it has been. I landed at Bombay airport and waited for my father to show up like he has a hundred thousand times before..except this time I was in no hurry. And so I waited by the side of suitcases one, two, and three as the city's lucid humidity settled in and around my stone bench. Three other women huddled beside me, all of us awash in the distances we had travelled. A child wailed and another skipped merrily along. I stared for a few moments and then did what has become second nature for my "I need to look busy" and "I really don't know how to sit still" self. I pulled out a book. 

A Lovers' Discourse is an extraordinary text, but it is also an extraordinarily apt text to read when one is out of sync. Barthes reminds you that what you feel or think or do may be singular but you are not alone. You participate in the discursive milieu that defines, in the case of this particular text, the plight of the lover, of the one who pines, the one who waits, the one whose love is already a lost plot. 

Am I in love? --yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn't wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover's fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” 

Perhaps this is also the fate of those that have lived in two countries. Perhaps they will never fully comprehend belonging even as they catch glimpses of it. Perhaps familiarity will have to stand in for knowledge. Perhaps I will wait to be able to say that I live in India now. 

And then again, perhaps I will use Kathleen Stewart's strategy and list my claims instead. 

Umbrellas. Traffic. Chor bazaar. Rains. Humidity. Hindi. Tamil. English. Trains. Marathi. Speed. Songs. Earth. Throngs. Inching. Patience. Staring. Crows, a hundred strong, perched on the tree next door. The magnificent Greater Coucal that is so pretty but eats the eggs off neighboring nests. Snakes. Crunch. Torn billboards. Green. Indigo. Attar. 

This is hard work. This list is terrible. Let's try again.

The road that rushes past my terror-stricken eyes. These people that walk the world at every hour of night and day. TRushing, regurgitating sky that inks over my head. The flash of gold that flew past my staring eyes. The hours I spend reading on my bed summarily staring out the iron-grilled windows. The day that is divided into four different meals from my mother's kitchen. The smells that take on physical form, some like a whiff of smoke, others like a living, breathing animal, and still others like the dreams one has that one cannot remember. 

I am thinking of two people today, Jeanne Favret-Saada and e.e.cummings. Favret-Saada writes of a culture of witchcraft in the Bocage, in rural western France. And before you wonder why this talk in a post that seems to talk of nothing at all, hold on. Her claim that I find poignant, exciting, and intensely difficult is that in order to know witchcraft, one must be caught up in it oneself, in its deadly words. This is an intense thesis to say the least. Leave aside questions of so-called objectivity, which this ethnographer thinks is a waste of intellectual effort in any case. But instead, think more seriously about what it means to be caught up. Is this the same as blind belief? Or is it suspended disbelief? Do we put away for the morrow what in this picture does not appeal to us? Do we endlessly postpone our ignorance and our stubbornness? And so on and so forth. And why e.e.cummings? This I cannot explain. For this you must read him. 

And so my lovely readers, I leave you with this last thought. We are caught up. In worlds that bewitch us. And like the poets that we love, we must take these deadly words, these deadly worlds, and we must play. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

America came, America went

Long years ago, when I waddled around in pigtails, I said aloud the magic words that for many years characterized how I felt about the world, my world. "I will settle in America", I said. My father had just come back from the US you see. With suitcases laden with things bright enough to charm the most curmudgeonly three year old. Neither did I know how heavy "settling" can be nor was I clued into the power of words. Carelessly, toddler-ly, I threw around that which would one day make my world. America was then not only an idea but an escape. Much like its original intent, it charmed me into thinking that escaping to America indicated not the newness of a world but a not-ness of this one. No school, no dreary days, no strange scapes of a scary adult world with its inexplicable sorrows and forbidding rules. America was colorful, with its flowery denims, and video games, and automatic erasers. And View-Masters. Remember those? With their otherworldly scuffed gaze onto so-near foreign shores

These were the eighties. India was a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic with one, and later two, television channels. We all read the national pledge aloud in school, that went something to the effect of "India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters". We all suffered one  heckler in every class who would mutter sotto voce "Well who do I marry then?" We received our news from singular sources and imagined our leaders sovereign, if ineffectual. We trusted secularism, even if in its often troubled avatar, tolerance. We muddled through power cuts, and ration cards, and held onto a quiet, steely middle-classness. Benedict Anderson would have pronounced us a truly well-imagined nation. Or at least, some of us. 

And in this world, America's otherness beckoned ever so strongly. With its free love, and rampant spending. With its alter-egoness of individualism and seeming control over the world. Russia only had Mathematics books and fairy tales and War and Peace to offer. And I hated math, much preferred the Brothers Grimm, and to date, am at odds with the melancholies of Tolstoy. 

And so for many years, I held onto the fantasy world of America. Until the nineties. Whence I discovered rebellion and economic liberalization. In the same breath. Within the homeland. When leaving for America was "uncool", just as lacking in spunk as those unknowing, unthinking engineering graduates who left in hordes contributing to what the magazines derisively titled "brain drain". In contrast, I wanted to stay and ride the new wave. Of opening markets, and a rising MBA count. So I thwarted my well-meaning father's suggestions that I study literature and enrolled in a commerce and economics degree before heading stubbornly towards a masters in marketing communications. It was a heady time to be an eighteen year old. The milieu seemed to suggest that the world was merely a few years away. As was gaadipaisabangla, and makaan.

And it all trickled in. One by hardworking one. I took off for the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad and discovered community, and advertising, and late-nights, and seances, and bubble living. I luxuriated in campus life and tentative adulthood. I figured out what I wanted to do, and tried doing it well. And it all seemed to work really well on paper. I graduated, found a job, pretended to the trappings of adulthood. I moved back to Pune. And thought that I really didn't need to get to America, because really, what did America have that I didn't?
The finality of it all hit. Life became days in the office. From 9 in the morning to 2 at night. Ensuring that trucks of promotional material reached nervous clients, that billboards were up on time and that kiosks announcing the latest development in some unpronounce-ably acronym-ed software stayed upright. And I got bored. 

So many many years after making that loud and bold and unthinking pronouncement, I left for America. For contrary gains. No money, no conspicuous consumption, but instead in pursuit of that hallowed of all hallowed middle-class goals. A PhD (insert suitable gasp). My past had caught up with me. I boarded the plane in Bombay with my boss's words ringing in my ears, "Why are you leaving? You are a doer not a thinker". I couldn't tell him that this was precisely why I was leaving, because I was tired of doing without thinking.

I moved to Austin, Texas. And anthropology. And graduate school. Triple whammy. It took me a year or two to stop staring wide-eyed at everything the massive and uncontrolled landscape had to offer. Space. Gigantic highways with feeder roads the size of a ranch. Supermarkets the size of my hometown. Smelly hippies. Mexican martinis. Foucault. Americans. Differently American Americans. 

Through my twenties and through the turn of the century, I attempted to live on two continents. I gained a couple of degrees, and a lot of what I thought to be familiarity. I traveled, I cooked, I moved houses and learnt how to drive and dance. I pronounced confidently that I would ultimately live in India and mistakenly thought that I had consumed as much of America as I could. 

I finished graduate school. I moved to Madison, Wisconsin. And for the second time in many years, I found that I hadn't seen it all. I lived in a wonderful house with wonderful women who taught me, in the words of Sushmita Sen, "what love, sharing, and caring is all about" (for those actually interested in the video, watch from 2:37 to 3:10 and yes, you will cringe). I swam in the lake, biked to school, and learned how to teach. Two years of Midwestern living showed me a whole new side of America. Even if some of them in this part of the country called me "the dark one". And two years down, I thought I had finally seen America. 

However, last month, right before I left, I took a roadtrip to Michigan. To the dunes by the shores of Lake Michigan. To towns called Hart (where every road sign bears a heart next to the name of the road), Pentwater (also called the graveyard of ships, Ludington (where the tour guide at the lighthouse regaled us with his logics of why teachers should not be paid more than they already are), and Saugatuck (built over the former ghost town of Singapore, Michigan). To an inn where the otherwise friendly owners didn't in the words of Destiny's Child "say my name" at all. Three days straight. Now I do admit that my name is an enterprise fraught with danger for even the most linguistically malleable of cultures, but surely one must try? But not to digress, for the first time in a very long time, I felt profoundly alienated. Productively so. 

It is perhaps fitting that many years after coming to the US, I leave knowing that I do not know what America is. The thought is liberating as much as it is unnerving. It is a realization of self and world. In the same breath. Just because one is grown up does not mean one needs to stop thinking. One has to break and build. Break and build. Again and again. One has to keen. And weep. And hold on tight before letting go.

And then open up the body. And the world.

America came. America went. Now she is part of a larger world. That I know as little as I know America. Ah the wonderfully biting excitement of not knowing. 

Friday, June 01, 2012

Writing about Writing

I write in a capricious fashion. I am a Capricornian but I behave otherwise. Unlike the goat, I climb in spurts, ascending quickly but pausing long to catch my breath. Writing to me was always secondary and a corollary to the art of reading. At some point of time, I fell prey to a strange malaise where I identified so closely with the author that I began imagining myself to be one. We are still to find out if I was delusional,  misdirected, or merely being told by a distracted parent to find ways to stop being bored.

I feel about my writing the same way I feel about myself. I don't know how the two of us are seen from the outside. Even as I see us both from the inside and outside*. This of course is the classic problem of identity, namely the physical and psychological impossibility of seeing ourselves. And so I do not know what people see when I write. Much as I do not know what people see when I put myself out into the world.

The material as we all know is out there. For example, in the last three weeks I have been to Austin, New Orleans, New York City, and Boston. I have met friends, family, and strangers. We have chatted about life, space, music, manias, and happenstance. A stranger in a supermarket told me he liked my turquoise toes; toes that were painted by a lovely kindly lady in a BYOB nail salon even as I drank Blue Moon with a dear friend. The plane landed in New Orleans over tree-like forms arising eerily from slushy, unstable land-water. The bus from New York city to Boston almost asphyxiated us until a smart fellow passenger suggested we open the sun-roof. We danced under a Boston sky and a Harvard canopy to Ace of Base.

There are tales for the taking and giving. And yet, I am lazy and shy. In unequal measure.

Sometimes I consult books. Such as this one that tells you the usual things. Essentially that writing is a skill and is therefore incumbent upon forming a few habits and sticking to them. In other words, write regularly. Then I go look at writers' rooms. And finally I look to other writers for rules, mantras, and all the secret knowledge one hopes they have garnered from being writers. And then I go run. Or climb walls.

I ran for a total of twenty minutes today. It is neither impressive nor suggestive. When I was running regularly, I could manage a maximum of forty minutes and cover about three miles. I was both reluctant and slow. I am not a natural runner and neither do I keep up the practice. However, I have begun in recent years to enjoy it much more than I ever did when I was writing my dissertation. Then, everything was forced and most things were a burden. But then as much as now, the awareness of the body in complete exclusion of everything else helps. Especially when everything else seems more and more overwhelming by the day and all-encompassing to the point where I am unable to write. So I run, as Murakami does, in search of the void. Climbing walls is even more fun. But we will save that for another long-winded day.

So I ran and came back to this half-filled page. Then I went back to notes and half-bitten documents spanning the last five years. A trifle narcissistic perhaps, but also surprisingly enlightening. If you ever indulge in this exercise, you will know what I'm talking about when I say it's partly schizophrenic, and mostly just a relief. To know that one has written. In other words, that one can write. And I read my long ago words the way I would read a random page in a random book off the library shelf. And am surprisingly astounded that I can manage both distance and understanding. And jouissance. As a reader. I can write. And I can read. And I can separate the two. And in honor of this newfound old understanding, I give you page one of a story I abandonded a long time ago. Even as I wonder if the author will ever come back to this tale.

Nightfall: A Story in Many Parts 

It is morning. I am writing. The sun slants in dusty and indolent. Well actually it’s supposed to be bright and perky, but I decided against such a sun. How? Oh, easy enough; put the blinds down. What manner of creature am I to play with the elements thus? Cyborgian my love, cyborgian. Women implant breasts, men inject hormones, transsexuals reassign sex, and I? I merely play with the sun. Perhaps because I am hoping to keep it away. Besides, to me lack of light is quietude. And if I am to tell my story, we must be quiet on the outside and noisy on the inside. Your organs and mine should rattle as I tell this tale. It is a fine tale of murder, sex, velvet curtains, and pole dancers. Alright, perhaps not pole dancers. But you get the drift. It begins on a sunny afternoon, and ends in the middle of the night. It moves from light and hope, to silence and the end. Just like life, don’t you think? So yes, this story is my grand metaphor. For life itself.

He speaks endlessly. And cannot bear anyone else interrupting. I make him breakfast, clean his house, and walk his turtle. All morning long, he speaks into tapes. The tapes are then laboriously labeled and catalogued. Sometimes it takes him a week to name a category. They are all names of places, his labels. Towns, and cities, and hamlets. But not the Parises, the Mumbais, the New Yorks; not even the exotica; Mombasa or Cairo, or Buenos Aires. They are ghost towns. Bodie, Grand Bassam, and Daulatabad. His ghostly life of tall tales and vanished lives.

At night, he writes. In beautiful slanting cursive writing. In the light of candles. For it’s the monsoon, and the electricity doesn’t stay any more than his attention span. He is a writer, and I am his housekeeper. Together, we make up the world.

*Complete digression, but do read John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" for an extended set of thoughts on the relationship between seeing and knowing.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Only Children Have Homes

Warning: Some spoilers

The Wisconsin Film Festival is in town as part of which I watched seven films this week. Yes, seven. Yes, I am that focused. Or jobless. In any case, don't make me digress!

Wednesday, the first night of the festival, I saw a film called Monsieur Lazhar. Besides the lyrical beauty of the title (try saying it a few times), I have always been a sucker for teacher-student tales, of the right kind. Think "Mr.Holland's Opus" or "School of Rock" or the fantastic "The Class". And no, "Dead Poets' Society" is not on my list.

And so I went to see Monsieur Lazhar. Set in Montreal, the story progresses over a few months in the lives of a class of elementary school children, whose teacher commits suicide and is found hanging in the classroom by one of the students. The desperate principal hires Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar who shows up at school upon reading the news and volunteers his services. Over the course of the film, we see ways in which Bachir Lazhar's demons as much as the children's converge upon the ways in which systems and ideologies release subjects into their own nightmares. And this really is the crux of the film. The children are marvelously restrained actors, and the performances are unforced and remarkably poignant. They remind you of the precious and precarious time that childhood can be, where safety means a few things that leave one defenseless in their absence. The film is joyful, yet melancholic and sad, yet reassuring. It invites one to inhabit the borders where adults and children meet. The things the big peoople say, the things the small ones hear, the heartbreaking hurt on both sides and yet the mutual ability to redeem one another. Unequivocally recommended.

On a complete aside, I thought of Monsieur Lazhar again when watching this strange, strange film.

I would recommend seeing this too, just because I want to know you guys think of it. Based on and built around W.G.Sebald's "Rings of Saturn", the film attempts to both showcase and examine the author's pet themes of memory, loss, and decay. It is a melancholic explanation of melancholia. And it did manage to invoke thought long after I had left the theatre. However, one thing stood out and this is what reminded me of Monsieur Lazhar. An author attempting to explain Sebald's search for a meaningful home while walking through Suffolk strikingly brings attention to the fact that only children have a home, not adults. That sealed, controlled, hermetic, safe environment that is sufficiently amenable to our will is a product of our childhood not adulthood. And hence, children must continue to have that home. If only so that they can have something to be nostalgic about. And Lazhar has this to say about the classroom in one instance - "“A classroom is a place of friendship, of work, of courtesy, a place of life.”

And as I walked out of the various theaters I have been in this week, I could not help but be reminded that is also part of my task. I teach undergraduates, seventeen to twenty year olds with well formed personalities, far more awareness, and far less fear. It's easier. I doubt I would ever have the courage to teach schoolchildren. I find some of my greatest joy in class, in talk, in sharing. It took me a while to get here. As a graduate student, the classroom was merely a showcase for my skills and a platform upon which I strode and roared, flailing to camouflage my insecurities. I was hard on students, and even worse, harsh. As I grow older, as I read more, and attempt to write some, my insecurities have been replaced by the ability to be collectively wondrous, to share in that first moment when the class and I discover something together. Where once in a while I can strum a perfect sentence, but much more importantly, where students rearticulate my confused words and render them into something beautiful.

And I think of my own teachers and the memories they left me, and the notion of them that I hold on tight to, in the hope that the world will not decay. That maybe I will return to the kind of life where Mr.Apte taught me to draw and I tried for hours on end to render light and shadow on a vase. And discover how wonderful and new it can be to capture twilight on an object. That maybe Mrs.Akhawe who passed away far too young and far too cruelly is waiting by the fence to remind me to get back to math homework, because unlike my disbelieving self, she knew she could teach me into competence. That perhaps Victoria Jelki will know how in some other life she gave me my one true anchor, novels; by reading aloud from them in sixth grade (If you must know, it was Omen. Yes, don't ask). In that world, Mrs.Sahasrabuddhe runs through Sanskrit grammar as I listen distractedly hoping to get home in time for Remington Steele. And she patiently steers me to a 100 in the exams. Yes, a 100. And Ms.Anuradha Raman looks a vision and all the girls want to look like her and share their lunch boxes with her and of course, we are not surprised when she leaves to begin work as an air hostess. And we must of course mention Professor.A.Y.Joshi, my economics professor and Professor Anil Kulkarni, my marketing professor, who are as erudite as they look and give me something that I can aspire to, the corporeality of knowledge.

And this world is important, because in order to continue to hold onto its truth, I must work harder, feel stronger, delve deeper. And above all, I must care.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Two nights

Bombay, April 5, 2011: The city looks reassuring at night. Lights out. I'm in a car buzzing alongside condominiums, shuttered shops, hazy garbage lined streets, and intrepid dogs. The buildings loom large. In the vertical distance, one lone flickering bulb indicates midnight prevarications, insomnias, and muddled sleep. There are still people on the streets. A lone figure adjusts his backpack and crosses the street. He walks straight in search of home.

Madison, April 5, 2011: The city looks ghostlier at night. One longs for the return of day. The quiet of day solidifies into the loneliness of night. Orderly people have been tucked away into orderly beds. The shops are brightly lit to deter thieves and the homeless. Security systems watch over the lifeless objects of daytime happiness. I'm in a bus with large windows and the moon shines right through. It is am almost-full moon night.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Real

Guest post courtesy Deepak Kaw

All images © Deepak Kaw

The Real is thus, in effect, all three dimensions at the same time: the abyssal vortex which ruins every consistent structure; the mathematized consistent structure of reality; the fragile pure appearance.
-- Slavoj Zizek, For they Know Not What They Do

I am nothing
I will never be anything
I cannot desire to be nothing
Moreover, I carry in me all the dreams of the world.
-- Tobacco Shop, Fernando Pessoa

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Hundred Word Story

The air pressed down into his throat pincer-like and oppressive. He felt deformed and grotesque; his eyebrows felt singed and his fingers distended. He attempted upward movement only to meet his chest pressing downward in violent fashion. He pushed his voice out and heard in the distance a faint echo of self. Trying to fight the urge to delay consciousness, he counted in his head, each number interspersed with a hundred pointed splinters, tearing and shredding the surface of an unfelt body.

And then he heard someone say, “He will live. It will take a while. But he will live.”

Friday, February 24, 2012

On the time of the Strandbeest

I attended a series of brilliant lectures today loosely corralled under the theme "Mediated Life". Of these, I want to talk briefly about Helmut Muller-Sievers' all too brief account of the nineteenth century and its relationship with forced motion; specifically the politics of the cylinder and those of the screw in relation to the limits and indeed the malleability and adaptability of the human body. And all of these in relation to virtuosity. And I won't say any more. If any of you need further elaboration, ask me.

However, this post is not about his lecture as much as the ways in which it reminded me of something I had espied in The New Yorker, Ian Frazier's article "The March of the Strandbeests". And whether this might help us think of machines, men, materiality, the body, cyborgs, and indeed, art in the twenty first century.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune -- without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

-- Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Emperor's New Clothes

It's 2012. It's been a month and it's only just sinking in. So I made us new clothes to celebrate the year's birthday. And mine.

It's just another artifical marker I know. Just another excuse to have four sleepless nights in a row and contemplate beginnings. But I suppose we all need the possibility of fresh starts. And reminders that there will always be music. And love. And newness.

This is the tenth year of this blog. I've been rambling for a decade now. It's really quite pleasing though. It's not that I believe this life is worth chronicling, just that the practice of chronicling is important. If I don't record, I will forget how to remember.

I’ve managed a respectable 49 posts for 2011; that’s an average of 4 posts a month, a post a week. Given that January is already out of the way, I have a lot of catching up to do for 2012. There is a lot to be written. I've been away over December and January traveling to four cities and peeking into many lives. L.A, New York, Princeton, and San Juan in a month. And it's been exhausting and immensely fulfilling. I've realized how much lighter it makes me to travel. I do like home. And its stability. But it also weighs me down. And makes me rather curmudgeonly. I have to get away. I realize this is a luxury that I have increasingly become used to but I also think there are bigger lessons hidden in this restlessness. So in no particular order, here are some learnings I have corralled:

(a) The more I travel the
better I pack. The less I pack, the
more I travel. But here is the other problem. I also like having nice clothes when I travel. So
then I have to come up with better ways of packing while continuing to travel as much as I do.

(b) It helps to be up early when traveling. You see more and you experience new places in their every mood. Also, since coming back home, I've been up at six every morning. For those who know me, this signals nothing short of the apocalypse.

(c) Talk to people. Even when they tell you things like "Who are you hoping to attract if you wear clothes like that? " (This from a charming British dotard who apparently didn't like that my t-shirt said "Let's go spacetrucking")

(d) Stay at a place where you can cook. Eating out all the time is debilitating. Cooking for yourself and/or feeding others helps maintain a tiny sense of home, a home that travels. Even if people steal your food. It just means that you cook well.

(e) Give up on sleep. Especially if like us you end up in a hostel with many snoring teenagers of various persuasions and nationalities. Think of it as early training for parenthood. Or persuasion for contraception.

(f) Brave the weather. If going somewhere sunny, do not fear a tan. Even if, like me, you already have copious amounts of melanin. Go darker. Sock it to the fair and lovelies of the world. If escaping to chilly terrain, do not glue yourself to the fireplace. Layer up. Wear bright colors. Look ridiculous in bunny coats. Get out.

(g)Find some music. Go dancing.

(h)Read a book. Always. I cannot say this enough. Read a book. The book will take on the textures of the place. Your memories will double up. And your companions will thank you for shutting up for at least some part of the day.

(i) Flirt.

(j) Lastly, make friends. Remember to leave open the possibility of going back.

That's ten for travel. I only have three more to set the tone for 2012 blogging.

(1) Write.
(2) Edit.
(3) Insert pretty pictures.

And finally, finally, finally, my one resolution for what promises to be an exciting, difficult, demanding,and
hopeful year.

Lightness. The kind that hinges the day while letting it swing. The kind that sees and knows and deals and lives and sings and shouts and sleeps and wakes up. Serious, wizened, light as gossamer lightness.

Happy New Year lovely folks.