Monday, September 23, 2013

Five Reasons I Go on Walks

I will work late tonight. Today, in the day, as I stared at my to-do list, churning lists in my head, and going over endless futures too-quickly truncated by virtue of an attention deficit memory, all I wanted to do was go for a walk.

So come evening, I graded papers, wrote letters, and then, a-walking I went. 
I was accosted by Aravanis, striking looking transsexual women, who demanded money that I did not give. The one with the fieriest eyes stood her ground. She stared into my eyes, I into hers. She left. I sidled away.

I espied mannequins in saris with the pleats tightly in place over cold flesh, columns and columns of boxes made of aluminium foil, stacked on the sunmica and oil stained counters of CRP hotel, cane boxes by the dozen, electronic stores full of employees with eyes glued to the television, a discrete corner of a rundown building announcing "The Immaculate Centre for English Education", and a scary plastic rabbit with a wastepaper basket emerging from its distended stomach, looking out seemingly unseeing from the threshold of the Coronet hotel.


I saw a store called Eden selling its plants. Trouble in paradise much? I noticed a shiny Waterworks store that was the opposite of E.L.Doctorow's book about New York City in 1871. As hopeful as Doctorow is cynical, as flush with the marvel of modernity, as its eponymous book is sharply critical. 


And now I'm back, trying to make sense of this walk and other walks, because after all, nothing exists in real life unless written about now, does it?


In this quest for sense-making, I made a list. I like lists. This one is called "Five Reasons I go on Walks". 


(a) It is perhaps not incidental that I am also reading two books about walking. Teju Cole's brilliant, meandering, and yet very difficult to read book (also in New York City), "Open City" and Christoph Simon's "Zbinden's Progress". Both books are in the first person, narrated by walking protagonists. Cole's hero walks and narrates the city. Simon's Zbinden talks about walking. I must confess that as much as I would mildly recommend both, I will also confess to a caveat. The romance of walking, to me, is much more embedded in writing about walking than in the act of walking. Or in other words, one of my primary reasons to go on a walk (and really, no irony, pathos maybe, but no irony), is to write about walking.


For those attracted to said romanticism, I would highly recommend W.G.Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn". A year or so ago, in a very quiet cinema theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw a movie inspired by this book. It takes viewers on a walking tour of Suffolk in the English countryside along the very same routes that Sebald's protagonist (himself perhaps?) takes. The movie was marginally haunting. But it took so much away from the inwardness of Sebald's walk. Suddenly the projection of his world was out there and it was so less promising than its description and its timbre in the author's head. Instead of his living, breathing view of the countryside, the movie replaced it with a ghost walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. 


(b) On a slightly related, but perhaps completely unrelated note, am also re-reading David Foster Wallace's, I must relucantantly admit, rather lucidly brilliant commencement speech delivered at Kenyon in 2006. Read it for yourself. But here are a couple of spoilers. This is what he says about a liberal arts education.


"It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."


And another; "...how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."


"It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:


"This is water."


"This is water."


Sometimes I walk, just to drag myself into consciousness, into the present. Sometimes I walk to remind myself that my head hurts because I live in it far too long to do anyone any good. I walk to be aware.


(c)  One of Lydia Davis' stories reads thus:


Often I think that his idea of what we should do is wrong, and my idea is right. Yet I know that he has often been right before, when I was wrong. And so I let him make his wrong decision, telling myself, though I can’t believe it, that his wrong decision may actually be right. And then later it turns out, as it often has before, that his decision was the right one, after all. Or, rather, his decision was still wrong, but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while it was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.


That's the end of the story. Yes. I know. 



A walk is like a short story. Like one of Lydia Davis' stories. It is inward and it is outward; it is that strange lucid world formed at the cusp of our seeing, feeling body and our rapidly firing sense-making synapses. It is our deepening present, it is our self-filled world, closer than ever before and yet strangely self-less.

(d) We live in times when points of view are being corralled into one camp, and one side. Danger abounds. Our histories are being compacted and our futures prepared. In such times of dense, thickening ignorance, I walk to remember difference. To see the city in all its manifestations, its variedly colored, aesthetically dissenting facades, and in its differential pasts and ongoing fighting presents imprinted all over its peeling faces. 






(d) At day's end, the fury of all my unfulfilled worlds presses down upon me. It is a strange, tense, weight. This world is strange; its sins accumulate. Things reach howling, searing pitch by end of day. How can they not?How after all can one manage days of of searing loss, of scouring desire, of bottomless and savage cruelty day after day? It all happens around us, and in the happening we erode. So every now and then, when it all feels too much and the external pressure far outweighs my internal resistance (and yes, I've drawn borders between myself and the world. Lacan was right.), I go for a walk. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

On drama and life

Stories in a Song



Last weekend, Bhoomija Trust and Evam Entertainment brought to Chennai the 85th staging of Sunil Shanbag's "Stories in a Song". I have a critique. I have an analysis. I have detailed notes. But I would just rather throw them all to the wind and tell you that none of these can adequately represent what this production brought to an unfortunately sparse audience at the Music Academy. Not in a long time have I had initial skepticism and my nitpicky detail-ripping tendencies thrown awry by the sheer force of unbridled joie de vivre. They sang, they danced, they nearly caused me to burst a ventricle in my fast beating heart.

Over two hours, this production pranced through episodes of musical history in the subcontinent, unearthed through research into oral and written historical archives and then reinterpreted as slices of musical life. Over two hours, singers, dancers, and actors whirled through a Sufi shrine, a Lucknowi mansion, a music studio, a colonial house, and a tawaifkhana (in simplified terms, a brothel, but then not quite just a brothel). They performed stories of change, of love, of improvisation, and of adaptation. And the voices, oh the voices. Such melody, such force, such talent. Such musicality.

The production began with the inside of a dargah, a Sufi Islamic shrine. A covered tomb arose in the centre. Three musicians graced the right of stage. I awaited the simulacrum of Nizamuddin. And I was not disappointed. Five women in buttercup yellow dupattas wafted onto stage singing praises of the season, namely spring or Basant. And then unfolded through a qawwali the story of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau. Of an episode during the course of their friendship, and a tale outlining the vicissitudes of sorrow and joy. One must sorrow it claimed, but one must also be equally open to joy. For happiness will come uninvited; in the wind, in the air, in song, and in spring.



This is the only plot spoiler I'm willing to offer, the rest will have to be empirically experienced.

At the beginning of the performance, the director Sunil Shanbag explained the ethos of this production, a collaboration between himself and the musicians and composers Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. This production, in his explanation, is meant to showcase the hidden stories behind forms of Indian music, folk and otherwise. It is a laudable and beautifully executed effort. The performers were fantastic and to them goes all credit for holding together the songs in these stories. Of particularly noteworthy mention are Namit Das and Ketaki Thatte; sheer magic. Nishi Doshi as Bela made me wonder how I do not know anybody called Bela, and how everyone should know someone called Bela; besides Bahadur's love interest that is. The episodes chosen are telling; they showcase periods of intense change, issues of difference, and questions of cultural encounters. The forms of music chosen; qawwali, kajri, nautanki, Hindustani classical to name a few offered a marvelously robust and sublime sense of the musical landscape in these parts of the world. A special mention is due for the accompanists who were seemingly effortless in the jumps they made between myriad musical and life forms.



Here is the small puzzling gap though, the gap between what a work of art says it does and that which it does. At the beginning of the production, one expects stories and a historiography. What one gets is the poignancy of body, movement, and voice. This is an intensely visceral production and the viscerality overpowers the text. It's all sinew. And in contrast, the stories in the texts appear sparse and patchy. The transitions are abrupt and some of the tellings themselves expose a misplaced nostalgia and a rudimentarily purist version of an undiluted, popular, heartfelt past. They render neither its protagonists, nor their lives, anything beyond caricatured carriers of a vanishing history. Also, one deduces a rather reduced version of various "Indian" classical music forms; the production veered geographically northward and seemed to be dependent on the repertoire of its composers and performers rather than on a representative notion of Indianness.

These critiques aside, what the production does tell us is perhaps far more important than the selectivity of the histories it channels. Some days I walk through life to my own background score. I expect backup singers and full orchestras. And I am renewed. Stories in a Song is my story as much as ours. It says that everyday life can only be redeemed through song and dance, and we are only possible as singing and dancing subjects of our own lives. And for this, bravo. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Return of the Cavalier Cook

For the longest time, food was one of my life's latencies. It undergirded the Industrial-revolution-mandated eight hour day, but never really emerged into the bright light of my consciousness. I ate absent-mindedly with one hand, a novel held in the other. It marked the end of three hours of badminton and heralded the day of mindless rote-learning. (Ironically I loved the descriptions of food in my novel-worlds. At Bertram's Hotel to this day remains one of my favorite books. Watch for the description of an English breakfast on the first few pages.)

It took me a while to traverse the arc from hatred and pooh-pah-ing of all manner of ingestibles (except potatoes and chocolate; and not in that combination) to sheer, unadulterated, visceral love of food. 

I have been cooking since I left the country and moved to the US for graduate school. The motivation was sheer necessity; that and the gigantic pressure cooker that my parents and I gleefully allowed occupy 2/3rds of my luggage.  Also, the incomprehensibility of doctoral degrees can only be combated through the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, which then necessitates good, healthy, home-cooked meals to restore one's stomach linings. It's the balance of life. This really is all that matters. 

So all things considered, I started by being a reasonable, and then later, a pretty good cook. This blog has seen my various levels of food enthusiasm which culminated in a food blogging marathon in 2010 or so. Since then, my performance has dipped. As in, I cook. But I don't write about cooking. Or photograph my every meal. Perhaps these were good changes. 

But today, I feel like writing about shahi paneer. And about my friends who share recipes and make me think of them when I cook and write. Women and men who create experiences, and homes, and worlds. Who make me so happy. Who conjure up smells, and sounds, and flowers, and pans, and sunshine, and possibility. Who freeze time into little packages to be dug out on cold nights. Nice smelling ones at that. 

Kathleen Stewart taught me the value of sensoria-laden lists. So here is one. 

(a) Gouri is a magician. With leftovers, and bits and pieces, and chillies, and wine, and cheese, and coriander, she makes appear chutneys, and treats, and joy. No meal I've shared with her has had any less than five things on the table. With little or no notice often. 
(b) Paul never has a meal that isn't a full one. In the middle of a task-filled day, he can find the time and peace to make sure the table bears a salad, a main course, and something to drink. One then has to wash the dishes and this he supervises with the watchful eye of a Night's Watch steward. Small price because everything he makes is nothing short of fabulous.
(c) Ruchira and I shared an apartment in the early 2000s. Her capsicum paneer concoction kept us going on many an angsty night, when an apartment, a job, and the future weren't nearly enough to stave off the suspicion that the world was wonky. Today, she and I are better at handling this realization and have houses and full kitchens and perhaps a tad bit more spine, but that capsiscum paneer thingie is still pretty damn cool. If you ask me nicely, I will ask her to give you the recipe. 
(d) Shrik and Senti are the geeks par excellence who make eggs par excellence. Ask Shrik uber nicely and he might tell you the tall tale of his special omelette technique - the TOPAZ. In other words, "Tawa Omelette Plate Assembly". Senti is also the master of precision cutting. He was or will be Japanese in another life. Or Bruce Lee. In 2006-07, we all shared each other's homes and kitchens where company, beer, and food were in free flow. It was a good time to be young. 
(e) Madhuvanti makes food the way she does not do other things, gracefully. But one should be so lucky to have a kitchen companion this wonderful and this fun. Mad and I pretty much shared an apartment in a building we called Chaitrabhanjee and peppered our food outings with random bits of work. We even had plans to open a breakfast bar should our respective careers not take off. Today, we are both academics. Don't ask. Yes, the breakfast bar would have been infinitely more exciting. 
(f) Veena's kitchen is like her. Generous, well-thought out, and elegant without being pretentious. Things are always in the right place, and food appears. And it is delicious. And wonderfully healthy. And so layered. She is also rather fruit-insistent. It is a good thing. Because she also cuts them up for you.
(g) My trips to Pune are never complete without a foray into Yashoda Joshi's kitchen. The Joshi home is a cornucopia of crazy good. Amti, and varan, and thecha, and gulkand. And lots of ghee. The tables groan. I, on the contrary, am usually fine. A post-lunch siesta is however usually mandated. 
(h) In Abir's home we congregated. Parties happened. Cocktails were conjured. Soups, stews, and pasta appeared. And to this day, there are always tall mugs of lemongrass chai. Munificent, and surprising. 
(i) My fabulous former roommate Christina is a baker's dream. Our home on Rutledge street would so often seem like a scene out of my imagined American landscape. Warm kitchen, and smells of pastry. With generosity and precision in the same measure, Christina would will the dough to rise, and the muffins to brown. The month of the Mexican chocolate cake was a good one. 
(j) My friend Can once hosted me for a week in Istanbul. It was a week of substances. It was also a week of food. With characteristic panache, Can would juggle eggs, and salads, and bread and condiments. From him I learnt the importance of that one last shake of pepper, that one dash of good olive oil. And of being style-bhai.
(k) And last, but not the least, my mother's cooking is the best-est. 
(l) My father comes a close second. He makes pav bhaji. It's the best pav bhaji in the world. 

(m) And now, onward bound to this day's recipe. Without further ado, (unless you want more ado, in which case we shall a-do), I bring you Sana Aiyar's delicious and badly addictive shahi paneer. 

Once upon a time, Sana and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. In different apartments. Often, actually more than often since we are curmudgeonly and all, she and I would find ourselves collectively asocial only managing to tolerate each other and Grey's Anatomy or the Real Housewives. At such times, I would drive the five blocks and twenty thousand leagues from Willy Street to her beautiful apartment in the vintage precincts (read bad carpeting) of Kennedy Manor. She would cook, and then we would gorge on shahi paneer washed down by enormous quantities of beer. It would often be snowing outside. The comfort of those times is hard to put down on paper. Let me just say that the smell of shahi paneer is now enough to make me feel warm and safe. In these mean times, this is no small deal. 

Shahi Paneer 
Serves Two moderate eaters or one very greedy person

Step One: Make yourself a gin and tonic. This above all else! Toast to Sana. 


Step Two - Gather the following:

(a) Paneer - 250 gms
(b) Spices
-- Cumin seeds - 1/2 tsp
-- Salt - 11/2 tsp
-- Kasuri methi (Dried fenugreek leaves) - 1/2 tbsp
-- Red chilli powder - 1/2 tsp
-- Dhaniya (Coriander) powder - 2 tsp
-- Garam masala -- 1/2 tsp
(c) Tomato puree
(d) Garlic minced fine - 2 tsp
(e) Ginger cut fine - 2 tsp
(f) Green chillies - 2
(g) Fresh cream - 1/2 cup
(h) Whole milk - 1/2 cup
(i) Ghee and/or butter - 2 tbsp (yes, don't be faint-hearted)
(j) Vegetable oil - 2 tbsp



1) Heat oil
2) Add half tsp cumin. Let it splutter.
3) Lower heat. add garlic and let it smell good but not burnt
4) Add half a large can of tomatoe puree (the smoothest puree you can find - no bits of seed and skin), ginger and two split green chillies.
5) Cook on a low-medium heat until it "goes dry" or reduces to half the original size and starts sticking slightly to the pan.
6) Add half tbsp kastoori methi, no more no less unless you want bitter shahi paneer. Stir for a minute.
7) Add the spices: 1.5 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp red chilli, 2 tsp dhania powder, 1/2 tsp garam masala
8) Mix the masalas and let it all cook for about 3-5 minutes
9) Add half a cup of water and bring to boil for a couple of minutes.

10) Turn off your stove, add the paneer pieces and mix.


12) Set the mixture aside to cool. 
13) When serving add 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup cream and heat the mixture on a very low flame. Stir continuously so that milk doesn't curdle. The colour will start changing from deep red to desired colour or pinkish-red depending on how much cream you've added. Heat through and serve and eat. Also in Sana's words, "now fart away." 


On that note folks, I must attend to the business of sleep. And dreams. Goodnight and good luck. Winter is truly coming. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Thursday

For this we are jostled. For this strange belief that the rightness of things and our life must be made manifest. For the conviction that it all means something. And for this we are pummelled, and for this we plummet from grace. This to be remembered above all else; we are of this world but the world is not ours.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sometimes it Happens
 
And sometimes it happens that you are friends and then
You are not friends,
And friendship has passed.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself.

And sometimes it happens that you are loved and then
You are not loved,
And love is past.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself into the grass.

And sometimes you want to speak to her and then
You do not want to speak,
Then the opportunity has passed.
Your dreams flare up, they suddenly vanish.

And also it happens that there is nowhere to go and then
There is somewhere to go,
Then you have bypassed.
And the years flare up and are gone,
Quicker than a minute.

So you have nothing.
You wonder if these things matter and then
As soon you begin to wonder if these things matter
They cease to matter,
And caring is past.
And a fountain empties itself into the grass.
 
-- Brian Patten 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Throwaway thought

If I were to persist imagining my parents young, I would cry. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because I wouldn't know how to continue being taken care of, perhaps because my own knowledge that this youth is ephemeral would solidify. And just maybe because it would make me feel their loss like my own. All that spring sunshine. I would wonder what became of it. And I wouldn't know. And I would look at the remarkable equanimity with which they seem to have handled the passage of time. And I would grieve for them. And wonder why they didn't hold onto that time when their child was little and their world large. With the arrogance of youth I would feel a sorrow they may or may not have. And impose on them the soon to be thwarted ambitions of my own immortality. But most of all, it would make me painfully aware that time is fleeting. And mine will be up as will that of everybody I know. And none of it ought to be unfelt. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Life perched on a string of unrelated sentences and disjointed pictures

Good cheer comes unbidden. I have a potent combination of coconut oil and honey in my hair; while this may seem like an unseemly unguent, it isn't. Yesterday, I managed to read half a novel in one day and I'm not entirely unhappy at my inability to be continuous. Once upon a not so long ago, I used to be able to read a novel a day.

I have had coffee, not any coffee but my mother's magical filter coffee. This coffee sings. It makes one happy. It makes one smell things more particularly, more spectacularly. Also, my father cuts me fruit. These acts of infinite kindness that make possible coffee and fruit make me very happy.


Travel has become part of life. It seems to ask for nothing in return, except movement. And I'm a fan of continuous movement. After all, focused thought is a luxurious commodity and I am nothing if not a creature of rare luxury. So, in its lieu, I substitute movement. In the service of such movement, I have been back and forth between cities, and precincts, and spaces, and places. I am now slightly tired. 





In the middle of one unfinished novel, one un-thought book, one incomplete ethnography, one unwritten blog post, one un-purchased air conditioner, one head of un-styled hair, one suitcase of unpacked goods, one case of unpolished shoes, one mass of un-filled forms, and one drawer of unclaimed bills, I seek completeness.








Things feel differently when I try to write them down. Turquoise nails looks turquoise-ier, landscapes sit calmer, noise sounds un-noised. The world looks tamer, and within reach.



This month, I will buy myself a writing desk.  And write myself a life in sentences of mesmerizing beauty.


Monday, February 18, 2013

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough. 

— Ezra Pound


















Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012
© Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Some Fill With Each Good Rain 

There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.

In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Stranger,
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you. 

There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
For that.

-- Hafiz. Translated by Daniel Ladinsky (1999). The Gift.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Notes from Thanjavur

The family insists on calling it Tanjore. Don’t ask me why. This is also why they refer to dance in the American accent and Hydra-bad as in the bad-assness of the mythical figure. So the family and I went to Tanjore. Or Thanjavur. The ancient seat of the medieval kingdoms of the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar Sangama Dynasty, the Madurai Nayaks, the Thanjavur Nayaks, and the Thanjavur Marathas.  Except for the last, the first set were treated rather shabbily in my history textbooks prescribed by the Maharashtra state education board. Maharashtra is in western India. The Northerners think Southerners reside there. The Maharashtrian state government disagrees. And so they take their ire out on the ancient Southern empires. Or some such. I digress.

So Thanjavur yes, and Kumbakonam, yes. The family was coerced into vacationing. My good and dutiful family members, possessiong abundant Protestant ethics that they know not of, do not approve of pointless vacationing. They visit relatives. Whereas I do the opposite. Now that we live in the same country, I fight for my will to prevail. So I coaxed them into hauling selves from Bombay to Madras to come travel with me. They got here, booked tickets, and boarded the train. As for me? Well, I almost missed the train.

The rickshaw driver who I muttered sleepily to and asked if he would care to take me to Egmore railway station assumed I said I wanted to go to the airport. So I dozed in the back and he chugged his merry way in the opposite direction of Egmore. I woke up even as I spied signs that said “Airport” pointing us ominously in the direction of said chugging. I freaked. We both then had the brilliant idea of dropping me off at the airport railway station so I could beat traffic and move in the opposite direction. He snidely remarked as I disembarked that my jacket seemed to suggest that I was headed to the airport.

So I made it. The parents giggled. Alright, guffawed.  

Half a day of eating, sleeping, and climbing up and down from the three storey train berths later, we arrived at Kumbakonam. Have I mentioned how much I love train travel? Some other time then.

At Kumbakonam we made our way to the strangely named Raya’s (half of Royal? Krishnadeva’s better half? Okay sorry), a hotel bang in the middle of the town of Kumbakonam with snazzy, shiny, interiors, lots of God pictures and a neon inundated façade.


The rooms were clean, the coffee fantastic, and the tourism services fascinatingly efficient. This is the pamphlet they supplied us with as soon as we checked in….


Lord Almighty, we were in God country.

Now for those of you who may be acquainted with my complicated relationship with God with a capital G, and Hinduism with a capital H, I need say nothing. But for the rest of you, I will. I consider myself mostly agnostic, but I have a nostalgic, affective, and intensely calming relationship with ritual. It keeps me safe. The memory of a little-r me traipsing temples holding the grandfather’s hand as he spun stories about trees, and Krishna, and Nachiket, and asuras, and Shiva keeps me warm on many a godless night. But the attendant memories of gendering, of paunchy priests pushing my mother aside, and my father sneering at the godlessness of a god-filled country make this a schizophrenic warmth. So here we were, in the middle of a place guaranteed to send me spinning into existential crisis. So I did the next best thing. I became strategically essentialist. I bought into it. All of it.

We visited sixteen temples in two and  a half days. I would have seen more. The family got tired.



We saw or rather, if one must recognize properly the hierarchy of gaze, we showed ourselves to Anchaniyars, and Shivas, and Perumals, and Karthikeyas, and Kalis, and a lone Moon God. The Nayanars saw us and so did the Alwars. Durgas and Vishnus deigned to throw us sideway glances. We were blessed by elephants. We clicked our fingers to indicate attendance to Chandikeswara. It is believed that Chandikeswara is the official record keeper. But being in a state of deep meditation, he apparently does not register selfsame attendance. Hence the finger clicking. Bureaucracy clearly has divine roots.


We bowed and prayed and anointed ourselves with vibhuti, and kumkum, and manjal. White, red, yellow all over, we reminded ourselves of death, and life, and desire, and craving, and yearning, and sorrow, and calm, and cruelty, and doubt, and dread. We went through the motions. Even as things went through us.

There was no catharsis. There was merely the fact of distraction, also the fact of a different everyday life. But it was all rather nice.  And also a reminder of the muscle memory of ritual. I bobbed up and down as if I had been doing it all my life (I had, for some of it at least). For half a moment, I had an outside glimpse of a different self. And was reassured of the persistence of difference. Even within self.

We stood in line to gaze at idols that had been there since the 10th and 11th centuries, some of them erected to commemorate war, bloodshed, and victory. The architecture as expected was glorious.






The Chola kings were aesthetes and competitive ones at that. Look up the story of the Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur in relation to that of the one at Gangaikondacholapuram. Masculinity and the Oedipus complex are apparently never out of fashion. We were also shoved out of line by very devoted devotees, who did not really contemplate the consequences of behaving badly to your fellow beings even as they pushed their way to the sanctum sanctorum to ask for grace. 




Thanjavur used to, even until recent times, be an abundantly prosperous region on the banks of the Cauvery and is known to date as the rice bowl of the region. People who visited thirty years ago, remember the Cauvery steaming and flooding over. Now it’s a sandy bed that is regularly excavated by trucks a thousand strong corralled in the service of future monuments.Ugly ones at that.

For two days, I sort of believed. For two days, I was given an inner window into a life of focused and determined hope and desire. It was interesting, in a good way. A friend of mine once lamented the loss of certain worlds the moment one becomes secular or God-denying. How one can no longer hear the language of the world sans cynicism or critique. It was not the loss of faith that bothered him, but the loss of a world. And for a few days, I inhabited that world. And was rather taken in by its completeness. Much like I am taken in by the completeness of other worlds. Like family, and gated complexes, and offices, and colonies.  But then, this is the problem with a world that promises to be complete. It isn’t. And one has to leave.

On the last day, we visited our only secular monument, the house of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The one who claimed that he solved mathematical equations by the grace of the Goddess who appeared to him in his sleep.  


And this is all I can tell you today about truth, beauty, and faith. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Shop Talk: The First Ten Updates of 2013

Friends afar, I am now thinking that this blog, ought to stop writing and start working. On maintaining the connections it already bears.  This living in multiple countries has its advantages and the ever growing loving brood of friends that you are, are much missed and thought about. But I don't know enough. So please use this column to keep me informed about your lives, and loves, and strange adventures.


As I will, you about mine. So here we go.

(a) I now live in Chennai, India, a city that used to be known as Madras, India. I teach at the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Oh, for those of you who haven't been paying attention, I'm by training and loyalty beholden to anthropology. Those of my ilk do things like this.


My campus was carved out of the former Guindy National Park and is three degrees cooler than the rest of Madras, which is not saying much considering that our three seasons bear the names "hot", "hotter", "hottest". If you are ever in these parts, holler, come visit, come stay. For those interested, my Institute does have the possibility of providing room,board, an office, and an internet connection should you wish to enjoy a sabbatical or a writing stint in these southern environs. My stellar company is gratis.

(b) If you want to get geekier and probe further into the history of the hallowed halls I inhabit, Ajantha Subramanian is working on a manuscript tentatively entitled "Gifted: Articulating Knowledge and Value in Indian Technical Education" that asks how "colonial legacies structure postcolonial technical education in India and the diasporic trajectories of technical professionals." I heard her speak about this work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison over the Spring of 2012 and found the research both intriguing and compelling. For those already acquainted with the illustrious/nefarious value of an IIT education, do read Shiv Vishvanathan use it as an example of everything that demolishes the "Dreams of Childhood".

(c) My postdoctoral project is now a manuscript titled 1-800 Worlds: The Making of the Indian Middle-Classes. It is being circulated and prepped as we speak. Some parts of this work can be found here and here. Excerpt/ review here. For those interested in call centers, outsourcing, subjectivity, bodies, sexuality, criminality (the works), some books I would recommend would be Reena Patel's "Working the Night Shift", Shehzaad Nadeem's "Dead Ringers", and Kiran Mirchandani's "Phone Clones". Do share your views if you have read any of the above.

(d) I am being a fly on the wall for a new project just begun by my dear friends at Evam that will (fingers crossed) be performed this summer. For more information, watch this space. For now, suffice to say, it is interesting, political, provocative, and well, interesting. I had earlier worked perfunctorily with them for a small and terribly cute short film that asked young children about the meaning of life. Yes, deep, I know.

(e) On the home front, I have a new apartment, my roommate has a new puppy, and I bought some period furniture. The process of searching for said furniture was much more exciting than its actual procurement. I lost my heart to countless wardrobes, and numerous chairs. Yes, I'm a materialist like that. But actually, let me amend that. What I am is a nostalgist. I like the affect and the feel of a different time than this, always, and the past-er, the better. Go on, take a look.


And I tell myself  that I would be a stellar author if only I had the right furniture. But that aside, I did write on benches such as these in a remote school in a rural corner of Maharashtra. Ah Toto, Kansas is long gone. 
This was in the warehouse of a large furniture store in Pondicherry or Puducherry that specializes in restoring and selling colonial furniture from the 19th and 20th century. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces ranging from the slightly damaged to the wholly termite-eaten sit forlorn, and wait for an unforgiving market to deem them worthy of redemption.  

And yes, I am being overly dramatic. But there is something slightly melancholic about the search for forgotten furniture. Reminds of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books from Carlos Ruis Zafon's "Shadow of the Wind". Sometimes, objects have so much more romance than people. 

And one last. 


(f) Over the past few months, I have been able to catch three new bands in Chennai. So quick shoutout. 

-- Bindhumalini and Vedanth, who I saw perform some of my favorite Kabir bhajans from their album Suno Bhai. Lovely, robust voices both. My favorite rendition however remains this one. 




-- And although, we went to the basement production of the Chennai IndieFest 2012 to watch Peter Cat Recording Company, we ended up catching the last act of Bombay favorites, Something Relevant. Absolutely sparkling.

(g) Onto the next agenda item: books. My new bookshelves await Amruta Patil's "Adi Parva", Naresh Fernandes' "Taj mahal Foxtrot", and Matthew Wolf-Meyer's "The Slumbering Masses". Also, so excited to possibly teach my dear friends Nick and Chris' book "The World of Wal-Mart" sometime in the near future; am working on getting myself a copy. In hand; Teju Cole's "Open City", a book I have been waiting to read for a while and one that has already made a promising start, the long awaited Junot Diaz cracker "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao", and Heidegger's "Being and Time". The last one, don't ask. It is my problem child project of the year. And on related fronts, how I love Blossom Book House.

(h) On exciting fronts, I ended the year by taking a trip to Hampi, capital and pride and joy of the Vijayanagara empire from 1336 to 1565, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The details of this fabulous little sojourn will have to wait, but until then here are a few pictures. Also, we stayed at a wonderful little heritage resort called Peshegaar in the village of Anegundi across the Tungabhadra river. This entailed magical logistics such as transporting our Super Heavy Duty XL mopeds on boats every morning and returning dusty and hatless every evening to catch the last boat at 5 pm. Sheer adult magic. Hampi itself is magnficent, even if crowded and overrun. The trip afforded many ruinous delights including endless food and drink. We were entertained by Bollywood dancers, American tourists on banana lassi overdose, and podgy old men stalking us on our mopeds. My companions claimed the latter was because of my fedora. For said fedora, please see reference below. 


 Anegundi by evening at the "golden hour"

 Innumerable tanks dot the Hampi heritage site. Some of them bear water. Such as this one. 
Oh, Yashoda drank from here.

 This is probably the Chariot temple compound.

 Banana plantations waved us by on our not-so-secret canal route at the end of which awaited hot breakfast in a tiny little hut run by Anjali and her husband. 
Best breakfast ever.

Moped, fedora, etc.

(i) And lastly, in the manner of the South Madras neighborhood I now inhabit, do tell, havaayu? My email inbox, my comments section, my facebook page, my twitter even, all await with bated breath the gory details of your secret and candid lives. I repeat, do tell.