Wednesday, May 14, 2014

For Behram; or how H almost wasn't

“Hello, I’m Behram, and I was the first man to see this girl naked.” That’s what he used to lead with, every time I introduced him to any of my friends, or anyone I was seeing (much to their amusement and my discomfiture). And it was true, for he ‘delivered’ me unto this world. Here’s the thing about Behram uncle: every single person who ever met him – whether they saw him once or knew him all his life (or their lives) – will have stories about him; tales occasioned by the fact of his presence. I was fortunate to’ve known him from the moment I was born. This is our story, because that I came to be at all is because of this man.

My mother was a very tiny woman. She stands at (just about) five feet, and weighed less than I do now when she was pregnant with me, full-term; but wait, I get ahead of my-‘self’. Being so tiny, she was told by her gynaecologist – a stupid woman whose name escapes me now (which is for the best, really) – that she’d be unable to a) conceive, or on the off-chance that she did, b) give birth to a child. Wonder of wonders, my mother found that she was pregnant. A few weeks later, aforesaid doctor told her that she would “self-abort” or they’d have to induce an abortion because her foetus (an incipient H) showed no signs of life. Distraught, my mother returned home in tears. She spoke to my grandmother about what she’d been told, and being the veritable force of nature that she was, Bacchu granny prevailed upon her to go seek a second opinion; to go see Behram uncle (whose mother, also a gynaecologist, was responsible for my father seeing light of day – another story for another time).

This transpired in the sleepy town that was Ahmedabad in ’81, just so we’re clear about the context. There were no sonography machines back then. Hospitals looked and felt and smelled different from the sanitised – anaesthetised – versions we live with today. Full of trepidation, my grandmom took Ma to the Anklesaria clinic in the heart of the old city. Behram uncle, with his easy charm and ready wit, immediately set her at ease. He proceeded to examine her, iterating that she hadn’t been pregnant when she was first told she was by the other doctor. Instead of three months, his guess was that she was five weeks pregnant at best, which explained why that woman hadn’t been able to detect “growth” and life in the primordial goo that eventually turned into me. He told her she would bloody well be able to keep this pregnancy. And she did; with his help and under his constant supervision. Both Mel and I are C-section babies: we’re part of the agglomeration which is fortunate enough to call itself ‘Behram’s Babies’ – in so many ways, we’re all monsters of his creation.

Behram uncle knew his classical music better than anyone I’ve ever met. And he read. Everything. This made him a joy to talk to, and when he turned to look upon you? For that brief moment, you became the centre of the cosmos. The sun, around which all other astral bodies dance to the music of the spheres, shone directly and roundly upon you. I was fortunate enough to have Behram uncle and his wonderful family be a large part of my childhood and formative years. My aunt Persis remains one of my favourite people in the whole wide world, and every time I see her, I remember why I’ve loved them so all my life. He died – heartbreakingly suddenly – a couple of years ago, and to-day I grieve for him again. Afresh.

His daughter Ava called me over to their old house this afternoon – the house where Melody and I were born, for it also doubled up as his hospital. The family has moved to the new city since Behram uncle died, so this was one of the only times I’ve been back to this place in two years. It’s a house every corner and nook of which is filled with the smell and tastes and sounds of my childhood – I’ve spent ages poring over books there, seen my first ever computer (Sarosh’s Mac) there, imbibed some of the loveliest (and love-laden) meals of my life there, heard my first aria and concerto there, and all this in the company of the giant that was uncle Behram. Aavul is trying to find his books and prodigious collection of music a new home now, and it was to do with this that she asked me over. We went over all this stuff – his stuff, their stuff – and it dawned on me that this might well be the last time I ever get to “go home” to the place of my birth; the place where the idea of me changed from possibility to reality. And I missed him. I missed him so much, my heart broke. I’ve carried him with me these past couple of years, every time I went to the Opera or took in a symphonic recital – we’ve been to Vienna and London together, like this – and I suspect he’ll stay with me till I live and breathe.

I can’t remember the last time I felt such a pressing need to write, but as I pulled away from that place to-day, I felt like I would burst if I didn’t. I can only imagine how much of a struggle it must be for my darling aunt and his children – he might have belonged to the world, to us all, but he was theirs first – to deal with this Behram-shaped absence on a daily basis. I also realised that while it *is* the people who make a place, if you live, if you love in one long enough, it takes on elements of you – a trace residue – which it is impossible to diffuse. So despite the fact of the barren rooms, and carton-ed books and LPs and cassettes, he was everywhere. The terrace-garden I’d played in as a child (it’s where I first touched a ‘Touch-me-Not’ – an inkling of the contrarian to come) has now become a veritable tropical jungle. His tomes will find new takers, and his music will delight others, but this place and what it meant to us each and all fortunate enough to know the singular phenomenon that was Behram Anklesaria will live inside us – within us and without us. The King is dead; long live the King.   

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Two musings.

Here. Have two pieces rescued from oblivion because I decided to put them *here* before the notebook they adorn the back pages of is complete, achieved, archived, and undoubtedly, if there's no escaping past precedent, lost in the mists of time (or the mess that is my room).


On reading,
I crave
his mouth, his hair, his voice, his breath;
the 'intelligent light'
transferred from the bottle to the eyes,
the archness, the tartness
of that line,
the softness of the smile - his.

Craving is an ephemeral absolute:
It doesn't cease 'ere it consumes, nay, devours
me whole,

But then it passes.

A craving passes.

The memory of its toll, though:

It imprints itself so,
turning everything once touched, held, known
into itself.
It is the muscle memory of a phantom limb.

It becomes self and non-self in one aching

The Expert Speaketh

We agree only that there is a valley.
Mountains surround it,
and people live there too.
Are they experts or amateurs?
Does being born there suffice? Who
The Arrow shirt?
The parting in the chaiwala's hair (centre-right)?
Us and them.
You know, of course, that we're all just ordinary men.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

At Phoenix Ashram, or, 'A Settlement'.


He was younger then;
     Gropingtastingfeeling his way achingly. Slowly,
allowing himself to articulate that which could be, because
of precedent, there was none.

Is this why I see him not here?
Is this why I cannot hear him, here,
where the sounds first came?
Is the resonance too diffused
or my hearing not keen enough, bapu?

Little remains of the lands you tilled;
littler yet of the roads you walked, the rooms you inhabited,
the lives which imagined alongside yours.

But, again, perhaps it is my eyes which fail me,
accustomed as they are to seeing you formed, complete, 'achieved'.
You did not engage with the Zulu: you didn't see the inequity; not to begin with.
I suspect this is why I struggle so.

You see, bapu, I turn to you for light, and you shine.
Being here has made me see that
if I must have your light,
I must also embrace the darkness at its core.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Where she acknowledges debts owed and other suchlike.

It's a tad impossible to try and translate the giddying feeling which accompanies a final submission of one's Ph.D. thesis. To be sure, it had been "cleared" four months ago (almost to the day), but I finally got around to printing it and handing it over - gasp, but...mine! MINE! - to the programme office only to-day. I then took ten minutes off from the rest of the world, found myself a shady little bower, and proceeded to smoke my first cigarette and imbibe my first cup of coffee, as smugly carefree as only a woman who has submitted her dissertation can be.

The process of churning out aforesaid labour of love was a (well...not very) long and (erm...really, not so much) arduous one, and I feel keenly for all the people who've had to deal with H in thesis mode. No. In the interest of keeping it so that you love me yet, I won't go on to describe what she was like. It's for the best. Her list of acknowledgements, therefore, is a bloody long one: one tends to rack up quite a fucking tab of gratitude owed when one is a little bit of a monster.

Here: have her list of thank-yous; each heart-felt, each so utterly necessary.


At long last, and yet in some ways, the source from whence it sprang: I started composing my ‘Acknowledgements’ page before a word of this thesis was written, and I finally commit it to paper to-day.

That this thesis would have been impossible – inconceivable, even – without the force of nature that is Tridip Suhrud is a given; something barely worth mentioning because it is obvious to me in each word I read or write, every phrase I utter in class, and every question I pose to my time and times bygone. Tridip, you are the light, and for the millionth time (most certainly not the last either), I extend you my gratitude: I am beholden to you, Sir, for everything you are, and everything you exhort me to each day become. My experiments – with truth, form, structure, self, identity – are mediated by the brilliance that is you.

Binita Desai, from under whose office desk I made my first ever Ph.D. “presentation” should know that neither distance nor time will ever dim what she means to my scheme of things. It all began with you, Bini, and your faith that this could come to be: I am grateful every moment for the fact of you.

Profs. Shiv Visvanathan, Ganesh Devy, Aditi Nath Sarkar and Rita Kothari: you are the giants of our time, and to walk with you awhile has been an honour and a privilege. Thank you for all the poking and proding and pushing and shoving: you demanded more, and I couldn’t help but strive that much harder. The generosity of your spirit staggers me, and I thank you each with all my heart for the ear, the coffee, and the laughter. AF Mathew, you number here too: friend, colleague, sounding-board, and usher sans compare – thank you for asking each day, rather optimistically, if the thesis was “done yet”! My love and thanks to you each for giving me so much of yourselves: you humble me.

None of the archival work at the British Library, London, that went into the making of this thesis would have been possible were it not for the Charles Wallace Grant that I received in 2012: my thanks to Richard Alford and the Charles Wallace India Trust for this crucial funding which allowed my work to speak more authentically than it could have done without this time at the grand old institution that is the British Library. In the same vein, I’d also like to thank Nagesh Rao and MICA, my ‘home’ institute, for granting me the time off from teaching that I needed to avail of this Grant. In addition, my heartfelt thanks go out to Shailesh Yagnik, Lavji Zala and everyone else who makes the KEIC at MICA the splendid home to scholars that it is.

The joys of teaching include being constantly pushed into corners by students past, who want to know what one is working on, and subject the writer to questions galore about back-stories taken, perhaps, for granted. Pritish Mukherjee, Sanchita Dasgupta, Anupam Dhar, Sukaran Thakur and the host of others – students and friends –  with whom there have been countless discussions while I was working on this thesis: thank you for taking the time to engage with my work and showing me that this was never a one-way street. Sukaran is also the reason you, dear reader, see a ‘Contents’ page on this thesis at all - thank you for teaching me to speak technology, Mr. Thakur.  

The lot of the people who surround the thesis-writer is never an easy one. Antoine Perrin, thank you for all the love, the faith, the good humour and the ‘calm’ I had at my disposal as I lived in and thought through the 19th-century. First reader and dearest ally, you will always mean the world to me. Marc Damania, you know that all my stories invariably have you in them. This is one of the bigger ones, and it counts the most, so thank you for having put up with me through this phase: you deserve chocolate. Equally, love and thanks to Kyra Fuchs for egging me on to finish “editing the thesis so I can read it already” – I did, and you still haven’t. To everyone who’s been in Purple Flower from 2009-2012 – cheers for making time off from thinking about this beast as joyful and beautiful as you have: Arnav, Dhaara and Meher (who came into our world so close to the end of this process), Anup, Abhinav, Dev, Chinmay – you’ve been fabulous.  

Manik Acharya, you made finishing this thesis easy: I didn’t mind leaving my 19th-century home because I knew you were waiting two centuries away. Thank you. I like it here.

And then there’s the fact of Vispi and Nilu Siganporia, followed by the inimitable Melody Siganporia, Dhun and Hazel Karkaria, and Kaiki Siganporia: I owe you my life, and whether you like it or not, all I am and all I ever will be. I know that I don’t say this nearly enough, but each day that I live and have the privilege of learning from and being with each of you is a gift. All that is of any worth in me comes from you, Vispi and Nilu: you are the music that scores my world.

This thesis is dedicated to my grandmother Bachu Siganporia; my first librarian, best friend, and the one who ordered my universe.    

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Coming undone.

Embeddedness. Deferral. Difference. Differance:
This is how she understands the making and unmaking of meaning.
Context is everything. And context, she will tell you, comprises space and time.
What happens, so, when there are rents in both? Do you surrender yourself to an inevitable unravelling?
Is this sordid or delicious; self-indulgent or all-subsuming? Does she ask too many questions? Doesn't she always?

These fevered - I could lie and tell you they're dispassionate, but why bother - musings were occasioned by the arrival into my little idyllic campus-kingdom of three veritable giants. Kings. Not from the Orient, but very wise nonetheless. One of the joys of 'belonging' to a wealthy university-home is that it lets me play. We can invite scholars and artistes from world-over to come and feed into our manifold programmes and classes, and provide our students (and ourselves, so much more importantly) with myriad perspectives; give them the lushness only polyphony can bring to discourse(s). The three I speak of - circuitously because it's the only way I know how - here, are men I have the distinct honour of thinking of as friends and comrades-in-arms against the fact of the yawning, gaping neant that is the world as we know it, through the ambiguity of our lived realities, broken and fragmented as they need necessarily be.

Matthew Pateman was my teacher while I was a student at Hull a decade ago. He guided my Master's thesis, and is largely responsible for who and what I have become - and become every day as I live and breathe in my chosen profession of vagrant academic - and he is one of the most erudite and self-reflexive men I have ever had the pleasure of watching at work. His mind is a thing of beauty; his hair even more so. Glibness aside, watching a thinker, a pensant, and I am certain, a flaneur extraordinarie, lay bare his heart, his soul and his thought processes for us to partake of, in a fucking classroom - mine - no less, is one of the singularly moving experiences your scribe has yet borne witness to. It was nerve-wracking to have him sit in on my introduction to semiotics session and watch me teach; humbling beyond measure to have him not tear my sense of self to shreds on the other side of it. He didn't have to, you see. Like him, it is my lot to do that to myself, and on a routine basis, thankyouverymuchforasking. Matthew means the world to me, and the gift of him - again, 10 years on - is one I'm grateful for beyond words. Or as Matthew put it, in another time and place, before language.

Next, there is the force of nature known as Aryan Kaganof. Aryan is a filmmaker. And a writer. And a Derridean, Matthew and I have decided. And a thinker beyond compare. And a chronicler of otherness and the back-breaking burden of inequity, wherever he sees it, whatever its roots. Aryan is the best example I have seen yet of one who will forge an idiom if he must, to tell the stories that he must, because only he can. His aesthetic is a searing one: from the delicacy of his utter and completely masterful edits, to the choice of lexicon - yes, for he speaks the language of visuality better than most I've known - that determines each shot's framing, his work is testimony to the fact that to 'mean', art must do. It must speak the languages simultaneously of its medium, of citizenship, of a rights discourse, of love, loss and everything it means to live and more crucially, be alive. It must be seeped in and of the worlds it gives birth to even as it elaborates and 'names' them into being. Aryan Kaganof is a master, and I am deeply beholden to him for being. For speaking to me across space, time and contexts; for showing me that the quest for the universal - that which marks us each as human - is not a futile one.

And then there is the fact of Kyle Shepherd. Truth be told, if I've held off writing this piece for as long as I have, it is largely because of the affect-ive aspect of this man's work. Which, so you know reader, is the same as the fact of this man's being. Kyle is a musician. But that doesn't seem nearly descriptive enough: the best I can do is to suggest that when he plays? He is music. I've heard him live four times. On three occasions, he's moved me to tears. I could try and work out why - I did, actually, once. I scribbled away furiously at one of the gigs in Bombay - but in breaking with a lifetime's habit, this time, I really don't want to. He was here to talk about what went into the making of a film Aryan, he, and the legendary Zim Ngqawana had collaborated on following the vandalism of Zim's institute a few years ago. Kyle isn't prone to speaking much. Or at all, come to think of it. But the way that he gave of himself during the sessions that followed the screening of this film, and engaged with the (okay, in-joke time:) "rhythms" of this particular situation filled me with awe. He is a man with an enormous amount to say - of staggering worth - and this time, I had the singular pleasure of hearing him hold court across two mediums: his music, and my language. He played a solo piano gig in our auditorium on the eve of their departure. My students and anyone else who was fortunate enough to be present there that night cannot possibly have left that space unaltered by what we had witnessed. Playing on the back of a screening of Aryan's delicate and exquisite 'An Inconsolable Memory', it was all I could do to remember to breathe as this man played. He hadn't, in the ten days he'd been here (something of a rarity, from what I understand), and on a less-than-concert-worthy piano with a squeaky ruddy sustain pedal, he transported us; imagined us into an elsewhere. The contours of this 'elsewhere', through his aqueous - the Cape rises and falls with him, decidedly - transmissions, were as hybrid as must be expected in a place which has polyphony at its heart: when you speak, read, write, dream, listen, hear and cohere across many languages and cultures, which are each evocative of homes known and not, lost and reclaimed, real and imagined, your sound cannot be reduced to a monolithic category or compartmentalised into a genre or style, except at great - tragic, even - loss.

That he was able to do what he did, and then smile as the audience accorded him two standing ovations and wouldn't let him leave yet, is near incomprehensible to me. Surely he leaves something of himself behind every time he plays? Surely he leaves it behind in the safe-keeping of the many - so many - who are fortunate enough to have 'been there'? This little metaphysical conceit is one I'm terribly fond of: the idea of leaving shards of stories - one's own - in the safe-keeping of others. It implies returns and re-voirs, if you see what I mean. And that, I kid you not, is a large part of what is keeping me going.

So weep for me, reader, for these three kings have gone; returned each, to their own worlds. And I await the day when this is no longer so. Imagine me now an elsewhere.