Monday, October 11, 2010

The Politics of Representation

Yes, you've heard this before, and yes, you say (well, go with the conceit {aside, literary or metaphysical conceits are plays of thought or word and have very little to do with arrogance [or wait, writers do it to showcase to you their sparkling wit, so hold that thought], which is the meaning we've ascribed to 'conceit' today} for now, won't you? THERE - three different brackets - and correctly used, I might add - in one sentence. Who's your daddy? Rhetorical question. Promise.) you've thought about whether that subaltern - yes, that one - can speak. But have you thought about questioning the questioner posing you that loaded query?

What is it that 'empowers' one set of people - caste-class-religious markers - and renders others so mute, they become silent spectators bearing witness to theorising about them, not 'from' them? It is vital to ask - who speaks, for whom, to what end? of every piece of communication we come across. What entitles me to speak of the Rathwas and how they're coming to terms with the invasion of the 21st century in the form of mobile towers and the notion of 'connectivity'? What, for that matter, entitles me to speak about any 'other'? Can 'intent' be enough? Isn't it a shade loaded, given the history of 'voicing' we have to contend with?

Having said that, need I be a woman to write women? Need I be a Dalit-Minority-OBC to write about injustice? Isn't the idea overarching enough to give me an entry-point into it by the sheer virtue of belonging to the same species as the people I speak of? And whilst speaking about them, isn't there a parallel narrative playing itself out here, in the act of my speaking about them - what does this act *tell* you about me, in other words? Framing within framing, and spinning and spinning in that godforsaken widening gyre.

Why am I thinking about this today? Because we discussed it in a class I taught, tout simplement. My students think it is the prerogative of the artiste to speak. They don't see yet that the silences - those peopled by the aphasia forced on a community - are more eloquent than the words which bespeak the losses of these people; their pain. That silence is a tapestry, woven rich and true by generations of sufferers. Generations who grow up thinking there is no elsewhere. And perhaps there isn't. Perhaps theirs is the poetics of the mime. And mine the lot of *not* giving voice to it. Just indicating that there is a silence-shaped hole where it ought to have been.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Modest yearnings

Are seldom just that.

Take for instance the other night.
I aimed for the moon
And got three feet above my head.

I inhaled deeper, blew harder,
the smoke - no rings - got to four.

I then stood up and gained a solid six feet
over my previous attempt.

It wasn't the moon,
But I got somewhere.
I got up.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On the road

I've been reading Kerouac. Him of the Jack variety. And it struck me that I've never taken a 'road-trip'. I've travelled *by* road, been *on the road*, driven down *roads* that have taken me where I must be, but I have never *taken* a road-trip. I've never hitch-hiked, headed out on my own down a road I don't know the *end* of, (and I've only just discovered how much I love the mighty asterisk) with never so much as a penny (not a Penny - how I'd fit one into my pocket is beyond me) to my name.

And I'm thinking, this poses a serious crisis of credentials, when one has spent most of one's life thinking she's a gypsy. A neo-gypsy, so? A gypsy of the mind? The, dare I say it, soul? Is this enough? I mean, I'm not being chased out of France or anything (at least not that I know of), so does this mean I'm doing something drastically wrong?

Or, and I turn my once-Greek-now-Roman-broken-Parsi-beak/nose {insert correct option here: the light, the day, the angle determine it} up in disdain at the mere thought of it, am I just another mundane, prosaic soul constantly feeding herself the fallacy that there could be an elsewhere - or three or seven - for her, should she but choose to *act*? Have I the gumption to give up a job-a-home-a-life to start afresh-anew-again? Do I have to, seeing as Faerie is not an option (I tried applying for a visa {nasty freakin' selection process too - they said my ears weren't cat-like enough} but no cigars were handed out on that occasion. Of course, what cigars have to do with emigration is anyone's guess) for me?

Sonalee and I have been talking about "hitting (and hard) the road" for ages now. Perhaps we will, soon. I need to know. I *need* to know. I need to *know*.

Friday, September 24, 2010

And today, ladies and gentlemen

She will talk to you about her city. She believes now that there is truth in the adage 'ignorance is bliss'. Most of us live as unthinkingly as we die. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me you've stopped to think about the 'place' you are from as being more than an immediate, physical entity laid out afore you. Have you felt for its pulse? Have you grappled with its inane oxymorons? Explored its beautiful and disgusting paradoxes? Odds are you haven't. I know I hadn't. Not until I started writing about it. Not until, as it happens, someone asked.

This someone has become a dear, dear friend. He's been co-opted into my little world and has a multiple-entry visa into the ivory tower I call home. His name is Mayank Chhaya ( and he is a bloody prolific writer. He makes me feel - keenly - how much of a wastrel I am, and chides me to write more, better, faster. He's writing a book about Ahmedabad right now, and it was with regard to this that he looked up yours truly while in the city. He interviewed me for a 'biography' about the city, due out to commemorate its 600th year of 'being' in 2011. He asked me some poignant questions, and I had to dig deep to find some rather uncomfortable answers.

So here's what I think about Ahmedabad.

The reason I've lived in this city for as long as I have is that, and this is fast becoming my favourite phrase to describe it, Ahmedabad has always been conducive to the building of ivory towers. From what I know of the mad times my parents and their friends-relatives-peers have spent in the city; and from growing up here myself, the sense I’ve imbibed is that one can find the room, if one doesn’t mind living on the periphery of what passes for the ‘centre’ (real or imagined), to be who one wants to be, do what one wants to do, and live the way one wants to live.

However, what I am beginning to see as the increasingly myopic, stunted and stunting, insularity creeping into the new Ahmedabad; in other words, the passing of that opportune liminality I speak of above, is enough to make me, if not flee, at least seriously reconsider what I’m doing here and whether I can, in good faith, stay on indefinitely.

On whether She (think about it - this is *not* random capitalisation) thinks Ahmedabad has a core personality:

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to suggest that there isn’t one Ahmedabad – there are as many Ahmedabads ‘of the mind’, to borrow from Rushdie, as there are people living here, so a ‘core’ personality is probably something of a chimera.

That said, there do appear to be a number of ‘core’ impulses which drive the gigantic machinery of the city. High on that list appears to be a yen for what in short-hand is known as ‘development’ – when really all that is implied by this term the way it is used here is ‘infrastructure’; roads, electricity – we’ve got those sorted alright, but this is nowhere near holistic in conception.

Another core trait is the lack of ‘civic’ sense – we’re interested in getting somewhere (we’ll be hanged if we know where that somewhere is), and we want to get there now. Or ten minutes ago. The furtherance and ‘delivery’ of ourselves, at top velocity, and often with express disregard for any fellow ‘traveller’ is a definite identity-marker.

On Ahmedabad’s sense of a-historicity:

This is probably because we’ve been faced with a radical bid to re-write who we are, as a city, and where we’ve come from. Any ‘re-writing’ of history necessitates perfunctorily a disconnection from the world-as-it-has-been-written, and takes many guises: from bids to rename the city ‘Karnavati’, to pronouncing it the de-Islamicised ‘Amdavad’, instead of ‘Ahmed-abad’.

There seems too, I would imagine for some people, post the Godhra riots, a need to distance themselves from the burden of memory. This can take on the form of a near-obsessive compulsion to engage with the ‘future’, even at the cost of deracinating the present and rendering obscure the past.

Ahmedabad and/in the world:

Globalisation has affected Ahmedabad in myriad ways; some more obvious or blatant than others. There is a lot of money here – perhaps there has always been – but the way it is on display today is what is new. Ostentation is no distant cousin to crass capitalism and materialism, and today, there is an unapologetic flaunting of it, since it is no longer fettered by the quasi spiritual-religious moorings of societies bygone.

How my generation reads the city:

I’m going to have to say they don’t. It’s that simple. They probably hold (as I once did) that any place is what you make of it, and it has been, especially in the past, possible to make a fine life for oneself here. But that says nothing about the city itself. It’s a series of transactions – here’s what we want to do, and here’s how we’re going to go about doing it.

The city is never foregrounded; it is, in fact, the background score upon which our lives play themselves out. When it does decide to ‘intervene’ though (riots, floods, disasters), it’s almost always with the anguish of a spectator sidelined and abused too long. As Yeats prophesied, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.

On 2002:

The riots of 2002 were the ‘coming of age’ from hell. It was the moment at which I realised that things could never be the same again; that we were mere pawns in the hands of bloody skilled players, and that we, as a city, had been done in. The gore-fest, the looting, the raping and pillaging were all witness to the fact that we’re only ever a razor’s edge away from death and destruction; that we might don the mantles of ‘secularism’ and ‘equality’, but that in reality, these are sad, shrivelled signifiers divorced many times over from the meaning they have been ascribed. Rhetoric. Jargon.

And worst of all, we became aware of the deafening silence of a civil society, an ‘intelligentsia’ caught unawares, unprepared to make sense of what had befallen us.

I'm hoping to goodness that The Who got it right, and that 'we won't get fooled again'. I'd raise my hat to that. Wouldn't you?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Gandhi did to me.

The man is an imp, I tell you. He weasles himself into your brain, your heart, your soul (if you haven't struck any deals with a certain charmer in red at a crossroad near you) and does things to them all. He challenges the certainty of your vision; the way you make sense of this crazy little thing we call the 'world' in shorthand, and you come out...I want to say better, but I'll settle for 'different', for the experience. Here's a little note I wrote, applying for an advanced school on the life and thought of Gandhi at that splendid place I once called home (in a past life, as a Viceroy/Vicereine, possibly), the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla ( I was there last year, for the 'beginners' thoughtshop, and it was the most stimulating 2 weeks of my life in academia. Without further ado, I give you 'why' I must-need/have-to go back:

"I’ve been living with the idea of writing this note for the past month-and-a-half; struggling with it from the very day I received word from the Institute that it was making good the promise it made us about arranging an ‘advanced course’ on the life and thought of Gandhi as a follow-up to the Autumn School we were fortunate enough to have attended last year.

The reason I begin this note like so is that I need to establish just how much the experience of December past has meant to me. I want to say it changed my life – in fact, I will – it did change my life; in the subtlest of ways. A small example is that I’ve started thinking twice before I shine my high-beam onto a car which has not shown me the same courtesy. This act might sound like a trifle, but the first time I did it, it got me thinking about a larger ‘change’ being set in motion somewhere inside me. I finally understood that instead of merely doing unto others as they were doing unto me, it was more difficult to do unto them exactly what they were NOT doing unto me – showing consideration even in the face of apathy or wanton disregard. This, I learnt from Gandhi’s doggedness and unwillingness to back down and recourse to anything which might yield an end, but not satisfy his insistence on the purity of means.

I am both, a Ph.D. student working on the 19th century, as well as an educator in the field of Culture and Communication. Since working alongside the likes of Tridip Suhrud, Thomas Weber and Sudhir Chandra last year – all people who shared very generously of their time and knowledge – I’ve been grappling with the idea of constructing a course on Gandhi and the way he used-forged-disseminated what we today call ‘mass communication’. He was a brilliant semiotician – anyone who understood and deployed the everyday acts of ‘walking’ or ‘spinning’ with the efficacy that he did had to be – and the way he found and used symbols to elucidate for the larger public his ‘experiments’ with the nature and bounds of truth, make for fascinating study. I’ve wanted to work on this further, and see where we can find room for a questioning of this sort in contemporary Communications curricula and theory. This, I hope to do if I can return to the IIAS.

My research, as I mentioned, is also firmly focused on the changing dialectic of the language of social reform in the late 19th century. What the course on Gandhi last fall did for my understanding of the charged playing-field that was late 19th-century India is unparalleled; it taught me to question the age on and in its own terms, and gave me an entry-point into reconstructing the shared semiosphere those who lived and breathed in it had access to. Any retrospective understanding of what contemporary India is or has become is impossible without first understanding where we’ve come from, the seeds of which are sown, to my mind, most closely in the upheavals – social, legal, political – of the 19th century. A furthering of this understanding; seeing what Gandhi did, and recognising how it was a departure (or continuation, in some cases) from where the country-movement-people was/were at before he came to the forefront is precisely the grounding I need to better understand his forebears, the social reformers, politicians, journalists and writers of yore, who enunciated ‘nation’ and ‘freedom’ as ideas for the first time.

The opportunity to return to the IIAS and work on some of these issues anew would undoubtedly benefit my research and my teaching. Most importantly though, musing about Gandhi afresh would also re-validate my decision to drive with my headlights on low-beam. Or just maybe, walk instead."

Would you allow me back if I sent you this?

Monday, September 20, 2010

All you have to do is ask

I can't get enough of Neil Gaiman. That's all there is to it. His writing insinuates itself into my head, creating havoc with all the randomness which peoples aforementioned storage compartment, and then proceeds to take it apart. Little by little. Re-creating endlessly.

He's got me dreaming wolves of the were variety, living with the Endless (creating the rather disturbing issue of incestuous leanings - I'd explain, but it would distract me from can wait, so here goes - I'm in love with Morpheus. But I *am* his sister Death {Though I'm still stealing Pratchett's horse. Binky is mine. Hands/paws/mitts off, suckers}. This poses, as you can imagine, certain ethical dilemmas. Oh well. Such is life. Or whatever it is that anthropomorphic personifications call the passage of time - 'being', perhaps?), seeking opportunities to work with the 'Adjuster', and longing for my homeland, Faerie.

Last night, I was introduced to a sucker for bargains. A man of temperance in every other respect, but, as I said, a sucker for bargains. Peter Pinter wanted to 'dispose off' a Casanova-like figure from the accounting department, who was doing the business with his 'intended' (Aside: What is with inane pre/conjugal terminology? Intended? As a noun? I mean, really? And what does it mean when someone says they're "engaged"? That the idiot on the other line forgot to hang up? Ah, me). The people he contacts tell him they can get the job done for 500 quid. BUT. They have a special offer - 2 for 475, or 10 for less! Then of course, there's the 'wholesale' rate. 1000 people for a quid each. Something about how human life comes cheap springs to mind, but quickly sees what else it's sharing liminal mindspace with, and scampers back from whence it came. Next, he finds that for the princely sum of 4,000 pounds, he can get rid of the 14-million-odd people who stand between him and the throne of England (a cousin of his was married to a minor lordling). He's tempted, but suspects there's an even better deal he just might be passing up.

So he asks.
"How much for the world?"
"The world, Sir? Why, that would cost nothing. We've been prepared for aeons. It's just that we needed to be asked first."
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, the world ends.

It's that simple. All you have to do is ask.

This is a mighty long preamble, even for a meandering minstrel (no, I'm not, and yes, I only did it for the alliteration) like me {three points}. So, instead of giving you what I thought I would, I'll let the prologue double up as *the* thing itself. Notice how I avoid naming these rambling-wandering-treatises, even as I name them.

This one came out of Hazel asking me to write today. I said I'd consider it.
She did ask, after all.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On why she doesn't write.

Do you find you don't rhyme because you're scared?

When you read as much as I do, it's a wonder one ever winds up putting pen to paper at all, because the 'anxiety of authorship' (and the fact that I know what it is in the first place) rests heavy on what feel like increasingly fragile shoulders.

I'm scared that nothing I ever write will be a fraction as fine as some of the things I've read. And since I'm afraid of laying bare my soul, for I can't do it as eloquently as I'd like, I write very little verse. And when I do, most times, it is in French. To make it even less accessible than any poetry, by virtue of being a window into your own personal semiosphere, already is.

I'm just a scared little girl, me.

But I like Warhol's golden heels.

I will wear them diamond dust shoes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Colonial Hangovers

I've come to a conclusion. It mightn't be radical, but appears sufficiently *true* even as I play with it in my head, coming at it from as many angles as I can think of. You know how students out West, especially in England, take a 'gap-year' between high-school and university? It's a trend that's fast catching on, so I'm going to assume you know what I'm on about. Well, the amazing alacrity with which they wander the world, thinking that it IS, in very deed (I love 'New Grub Street' for this phrase alone) their ruddy insert-shell-fish-of-choice-here:compute- oyster, has a distinct forebear.

These are the children of Empire. The sons and daughters of ethnographers, historians, naturalists, adventurers, buccaneers, mercenaries, merchants and administrators past. The number of them who show up in India every year is pretty damn high - heck, it used to be the starting point of most conversations, when people used to try and chat up your 'umble writer in her student/bar-maid-at-a-pub-in-ye-olde-Blighty avatar: "Where are you from, love? India? Really? I LOVE INDIA! I spent most of my gap-year there, smoking some really good shit in Goa before moving on to Kerala, Delhi and Bombay!"all the while playing Indiana Jones, looking to 'rediscover' the jewel in the crown that once was. Just like the scores who came out before them, during the high-noon of the Raj.

These are the kids to the colonial hangover born. Consider the *authority* which informs most social history/travel writing from the 19th century onwards. See the writings of even a Liberal like Gladstone, for example. Or CA Kincaid. Or Colonel Todd; en bref, my point is this: These were people for whom the world was laid out, on the great A'Tuin's gigantic back if you like, to explore and make sense of as they would. They constructed their own realities, and in so doing, their histories, historiographies, geographies, sociologies, anthropologies and nations.

Our present-day breed of 'gap-year' backpackers haven't the same advantage of Empire that their ancestors did. They *do*, however, still have the same maverick spirit of exploration and the money (I'm tempted to add 'pilfered from the East over centuries', but I won't. Oh wait. I just did) to feed this yen to 'travel'. There are differences too, mind you. Unlike the Orientalists of yore, who came here to see/hear/experience/feel India in their bones, a lot of the newcomers are content to visit hackneyed places on the tourist map, where they can kick up their feet, smoke good weed for very little money, meet and spend time *exclusively* with other tourists (White-Caucasian-uninterested-in-immersing-themselves-in-the-sounds-colours-and-lives-here) bitch about how "awful these Indians are" and what harrowing trials they've had to undergo in that crowded bazaar in Pushkar, go back home in a few months, and chat up another (not so) hapless Indian chick in a student pub near Uni.

Oh well.

Friday, August 6, 2010

On truth(s); momentary and otherwise

I saw something on TV the other day which sickened me to the gut. Much that is sordid-lurid-despicable is on air currently, purporting to reflect who we are as a people and what it is those benign assholes who pass off for channel ideators/producers *think* (that's me showcasing my much vaunted 'generosity of spirit') we want to see. This wasn't just that. This was horrendously hurtful, not to mention more than a little harmful to one's general well-being. Notice how I slipped in the 3-point alliteration without diluting/distorting the import of what I was trying to say. Nicely done, H. Smooth. Yes, I *write* to myself. Someone has to.

The travesty I'm on about is 'The Moment of Truth', where people are paid money - and a hell of a lot of it too - to answer painfully personal questions 'truthfully'. On national television. A lie-detector determines whether they're being honest or not. Each of the relatively simple questions in the beginning of the show give the contestant increments of 5000$, then jumping on to 10s of thousands of dollars, before doubling and trebling the amounts in question, ending at something like 5,00,000$ for, what is it, 20 questions? If this sounds too good to be true, it is. Like most things.

I'm sure a lot of us think of ourselves as being *good* or *honest* people, no less righteous than the next person. While this is all very well, we often discount the fact that being honest does not equate exactly with telling someone every gory detail about what we feel for them at any given time. Consider this: we love our families, for the most part. But how many of you can honestly say you haven't had an uncharitable thought about how this cousin can be a real retard, or that aunt a bitch who could put Hitler to shame? Does this, however, affect your ability to carry on living life as best you can, or *being* a family? Consider now what would happen if you went onto national television and told each of these people what you really thought about them. Sure, you could walk away up to 5,00,000 $ richer, but at what cost? Does anyone know what new families are going for on the market these days?

Our lives are meticulously constructed, based as they are on how we function and build relationships - personal, social, professional and otherwise. It is poignant omissions and occasional white lies which allow this edifice to keep from crumbling; crashing and burning everything in its wake. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating lying. Far from it. I *am*, however, suggesting that telling someone you're about to marry that you still fantasise about your ex is not something you ought to get paid for. It's also not the best idea in the world to do it on national TV. Give them a cuppa tea spiked with brandy, sit them down and have this chat if you must. It's kinder. Really.

I guess this rant is about recognising fallacy for what it is. A convenient, important part of the glue that holds societies-extended families-lives together. Denigrate it another day. Today, sing paeans to it instead.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh, the horror of it all

I saw 'Khatta Meetha' last night - by accident, as it happens. For those of you familiar with my hemming-and-hawing style, you've got to have picked up on the fact that something is very wrong. H does *not* cut to the chase like this. Unless she's spending it all on the title - remember that Delhi piece? It remains my favourite one to-date. Anyhow, it was the only movie we could get tickets for on a Tuesday night which saw 89.56% of the population of Ahmedabad struggle to fit into 3 cinema halls. True story.

I didn't want to see it, but we were already there, it was beginning to rain; let's just say we thought we could do worse than to sit in a movie hall and watch what we naively presumed would be just another mindless flick.

It wasn't. It was the head-fuck from hell. I can *do* mindless - I don't have a chip on my elegant Parsi shoulder about that; but this was just wrong. The moral axis of the movie's semiosphere was so skewed, it was bloody horizontal. A flat-line; no heartbeat. Whether it's the hero's "lovable hooligan" of a side-kick staring in on an unsuspecting woman bathing, or the hero slapping the love of his life because she ignored his diktat to boycott their college exam, this movie affords innumerable examples of everything that we know to be wrong, even as it holds up the mirror to a society which winks, nudges, and condones these 'slights'. I could barely breathe in there; that is how angry this movie made me.

What exacerbated things, of course, was seeing the full-to-capacity theatre wet itself laughing at inanities so over-the-top/phy-sic(k)al-slap-sticky/done-to-death/racist-sexist-classist, that even my pet toad, had I one, would have sickened at the sight/sound of it. I despair (it *can* be used as a verb. Shut up). And fear.

To echo my-10-minute-ago-self, Oh, the horror of it all.

Monday, July 26, 2010


No longer paranoid about proliferation (nuclear, literary or otherwise),
Consumed as always by the anxiety of authorship, she writes.

Yes, it's been a while. I still read too much to write often; no, I won't let that always stop me, and yes, these might indeed be (in)famous last words.

It isn't like I've had nothing to say - there've been thingspeopleplaces I've donebeenwithseen. But. Such is the life of a procrastinator who puts off indefinitely that which she doesn't, absolutely, have to *do* right this instant. It is, therefore, now or pretty certainly never. The strange thing is, this hasn't been one of those days when to write was not an option. It's just another gray (the only spelling the Americans ever got right - so much prettier than grey, IMHO) afternoon, and there is much that is beautiful about my lush environs. I'm in town, at work, whiling away my time instead of reading (what is admittedly a darn fine history book) 'The Flaws in the Jewel', which divides the British Raj into four rather audaciously labelled phases: "Greed, Scorn, Fear, Indifference". Dismiss these terms as facile at your own risk - they're rather handy and contain more than a grain of truth.

The bit that interests me most is 'Indifference'. Remember we're not talking about boots you no longer use or a coat you no longer wear. We're talking about a realm. About millions of people. About a historical course which can never double back to that which it was before the *event* under discussion distorted it irretrievably. Indifference. What a loaded, destructive, beautiful word. A 'terrible beauty', to borrow from one of my favourite paradoxes.

I'd take this somewhere, I would, but I'm going to go watch Salt instead.

Hold this thought. Muse (Calliope, please) over it. Savour it like a swig of Cointreau which burns your innards on its way down, and revel in the oppressive heat it generates in you.

I'll probably be back.