Category Archives: Books

Paris in the rain

Saturday, January 10, 2015, I was to be in Paris for the day to meet poet and translator Marilyn Hacker. I had many questions about her experience with the ghazal and ghazal poets; she was generous enough to offer her day to me. On Monday 5th I booked my tickets to travel by the Thalys by Wednesday the 7th – Paris was not the same. Two hostage crises bolted through the city.

I stuck to my decision to travel. On the Friday – 9th – a day before my travel my friend asked me, “Why are you putting your family through this, traveling to Paris now?” I wanted to calm her fears. But I don’t think I was able to. I just could not think of anywhere I would have rather been than in Paris. That somehow the terror, fear, the tendency to self-preserve would not, and could not hold me back. Indeed I could have rescheduled but I did not want to. I wanted to meet Marilyn. I also wanted to see Paris, like when you approach your friend to hold her hand, to let her know she will be okay when things go wrong, not just in the summer when the air is crisp and flowers are in bloom, but in winter when it’s cold and the body struggles to stay warm. The combination of these two interwove to help me make my decision.

It was an unusually gray and stormy day. The Thalys had delays while the wind waged its battle I prepared my questions. Within me was this surging tide to go forth, to ask, to inquire, while this emotion presented itself there was also this ‘manthan’ (inner churn) – poetry in the midst of turmoil. Agha Shahid Ali toyed with the takallhus Shahid – witness and beloved. Marilyn had written that her name was not as meta as Shahid’s, when the jokes on Marilyn came out she left the room. Kashmir. Palestine. Poetry. Paris.

Online I read articles on the cities of the world and the need of the hour being introspection. Why indeed is the second generation of migrants turning elsewhere to answer their religious and cultural quandaries? Have the countries they were born and brought up not nurturing? Or had they been brain washed? Was there another kind of schooling that created the other kind – this kind – what kind? There is no straight forward answer. God needs protecting. Caustic, sarcasm, dripping ink in pen, then blood, lots of blood, blood everywhere on the pages, on tables, the floor, oozing from wounds, the American ghazal – of Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Aimee Nehukumatahil talk of wounds, of hurt, Rich even says the way in which we murder is not the same anymore. Who is the gazelle today? Who the hunted, who the prey, who the hunter, who the almighty, Agha Shahid Ali “By Exile” wrote exiled by exiles, is this what is left of us? Birds fly over the landscape — Mahmoud Darwesh had asked where do birds fly after the last sky? Where do they go from here? And who are they? What hurts their heart? And what sort of God needs protection that too from creatures as fragile and faulty as us humans?

Bambi was sleeping on my bed when I left. He had kicked the duvet off, it half-covered his thin frame. His mouth was open. I could see his chest heaving steadily. His eyes twitched just a little. Was he dreaming? Would he ask for me when he woke up? Or would the iPad and Skylanders distract him enough for him to forget me just that bit – his forgetting me would hurt me. Ostriker had written in her essays in The Mother / Child Papers (1980) about birth and war time, the poignancy of the words raise a lump to my throat and I swallow it back with bad train coffee. The last time I was in Paris I was pregnant with Bambi.

—-

A long-winding dark bent wooden staircase curled up three floors to her small door; Marilyn opened it with a warm and gentle smile. Her office-living areas were covered in books. On the prayer stand open was the Arab to French dictionary, we both look at it, I tease her, “Is this what you have been worshipping Marilyn, have you done your hundred Bismillahs?” She laughs, “Oh yes I’ve been praying to irregular verbs.” She makes me coffee upstairs in her kitchenette with a Lebanese flag, over buttery croissants and raisin rolls we discuss ghazals. Her mind is sharp, wise, knowledgeable, a polyglot; she switches from Rumi, to Darwesh, to Ghalib, to Mimi Khalvati with such ease and grace. Somewhere my own ideas stretched, some modified, and some get fortified. While I start to understand Shahid better, women and the ghazal remain deliciously complicated. As a researcher one tends to be clinical about the work we study, for the artist it is more organic, natural, and inexplicable. She talks about her inclination towards anonymity, the idea to remain unknown – nameless, her last poetry collection was called Names (2010), she does not use the takallhus sometimes she alludes to it but most of the time she drops it. She says she enjoys doing that. It is fun to work with forms, to see how it functions, how far you can go with it, how much will it stretch. The ghazal becomes play-doh in my head and I start imagining what color it would be. I ask her how she knew about the ghazal, it was through Adrienne Rich, and Shahid, about Shahid she says, “He was very loved.” I can imagine that Shahid in his living room surrounded by his friends reciting poetry while the fragrance of a good rogan josh wafts from the kitchen. We discuss the differing styles of Shahid and Roger Sedarat. We analyze what it means for me an Indian living in Amsterdam to come to Paris to talk about an Arabic but more Persian-Urdu poetic form with an American-Jewish female poet, we notice the irony of it, also noting of how people and forms travel.

Marilyn takes me out for lunch to her neighborhood café. Where we meander away from the ghazal to nation states, and borders, and Paris, her reason to live in Paris was that she kept coming back to it and one day she decided to stay, she liked it there, her life, the book stores, the ability to have several literary options at her doorstep and the fact that she had studied French Literature in her youth. We talk of Beirut and our experiences with the city. She talks about Mosul and Syria.

I leave her apartment at five. She gives me her new collection of poems – with new ghazals – A Stranger’s Mirror (2015) – it is not yet in the stores, and she insists that I would understand it. I accept it. She gives me another book for Bambi. It is The Honey Hunter (2013) by Karthika Nair and Joëlle Jolivet; it is set in the Sunderbans, close to where I was born. I think of Bambi, and home, Marilyn smiles at me like she knows what I am thinking.

I go to the North Bank and walk along with the Seine towards Notre Dame across the bridge of locks, it is teeming with people professing their love, kissing, locking their locks, I pray for the bridge to hang on to its knobs and not collapse under the weight of too-much metal. The Seine looks angry. The sky is dark gray. The gothic elements of the cathedral look menacing. Every store, each corner has signs for Charlie. The air is somber.

I arrive at the station early. The taxi driver from Notre Dame to Gare du Nord tells me that on Sunday the 11th there will be a big demonstration to show solidarity and unity for Charlie. He says it is important to show it – that through this demonstration people want to stand together for Paris. He grew up reading Charlie’s newspaper and he could not believe what happened in the last two days, he says he has lost his ability to react, “Charlie was always poking fun at everyone, even himself, and I grew up reading his pages, this is my Paris, these are people from my childhood.”

It is pouring. The rain – “Even the Rain” (thank you Rafiq Kathwari for a poem I carry with me everywhere) – I am soaking wet. The Gare du Nord station is cold. There is police and military everywhere. I have to sit there and wait. Gare du Nord is no waiting room. But I have Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) for company. There is a lover’s tiff in the station, it gets physical, the military officers step in, it is like a dance, the officers don’t really do anything, but they watch, they don’t say anything, they observe other people watching the couple, the couple, the officers movements are orchestrated, slow and mindful in comparison to the fighting fish who seem random – jerky – slowly as the couple moves away, the officers move as well, their faces are expressionless.

The train back to Amsterdam has police doing checks – they are still looking for the girl my co-passenger informs me, she also points out — good thing you do not look like her despite your dark hair. I nod, not saying anything; I try to make my face expressionless. I don’t think I am good at this. For the rest of the journey I remain buried in Kureishi. By the time I reach home – it is the middle of the night, stillness, Bambi is in bed, Purab’s waiting. The day drains away in the shower, steam, quiet, words forming, Seine curling, qafiyas, radifs, buttresses and mornings. They always come. Like the radif. Somehow even when the sun does not shine, the day starts, life moves.

Is my uneasiness nurtured or organic?

The past few weeks I have been toying with the idea of getting an e-reader. Many of the books I need for my research and some of the books I want to read are located in and sold from places where shipping and handling charges are way over the price of the books themselves. I do understand the price of transport and duties; my interests though have weighed towards my meagre pocket as a PhD student. Selfish indeed!

When the newly launched Amazon.nl promised a ‘cheap’ Kindle Paperwhite via Amazon.de they got my attention. I realized, still the kit would land up being 145-euros-approx. If I signed up for a particular credit card I would be spared 30-euros. A concept I find disturbing and problematic. That I don’t subscribe to the idea of the credit card also adds to my dismay. How on earth am I ever going to keep track of the endless paper trails I drop each time I say yes to possess? What a tangled web we weave when we try to …. (apologies to the Gods of rhyme) try to live (albeit stylishly) within our means.

To add to this – I romanticize the physicality of books. Mea culpa! Sitting in the metro for long hours I often read, or look at the covers of books people are holding, fingers wrapped around paper, eyes darting, some slowly, others fast, a twitch of the lips, a gentle smile, a furrowed line in between the brows – I look for these signs. The language of these books might be different, the topics similar or dissimilar to my taste but in those rare quiet moments I feel a camaraderie. A kinship for those who seek stories and meaning; for those who travel via books in an inexplicable way travel together. E-readers (hence referred to as ERs), indeed, as well denote readership but in isolation, there is no cover peeking through gripped fingers. Thus, offering a privacy that crushes my romantic voyeurism.

ERs, as the publishing industry will argue, works besides and not as a binary opposition to books. Is this how selling out begins? I wonder what happens to the weight of books, carrying Shakespeare’s Sonnets back and forth to university my shoulders ached, my neck struggled, when I downloaded it on to the Kindle app on my phone it seemed to me that I belittled the text. My body asked me to shut up and accept the easy reading of the pixels, wasn’t the backlight in some of these readers meant to delay the formation of cataracts? Despite this, my heart rebels. Is there a strange value in physical weight? (What would the pundits of fashion say?).

I am not allergic to technology. At one point in time in my life I actually studied code (I know – it went the same way as Law School – that is for another day). I am fond of Apple products. I enjoy my HP laptop – bulky and old it has brought me great comfort. I play Candy Crush, and Candy Crush Soda. I blog. I have enjoyed my Moleskin notebooks as well as my Notes app on my iPhone – then why indeed does my heart ache just that bit more when it comes to ERs? And here is the epiphany I came to this morning while dusting my shelves – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter jutted out – it was a book that belonged to my grandfather, later to my aunt, and then it came to me as I studied Literatures in English. Sons and Lovers, Mill on the Floss, Wuthering Heights, Complete Works of Saki, that old withered copy of Treasure Island that belonged to Purab when he was a wee lad, thumbed down and stained. And, as I touch their spines I feel connected. Odd that connectivity is enabled by technology yet these placid pages are not connected to any hyper networks, or are they? These books had lives, and were part of the lives of people I no longer have with me and of time that has passed.

I remind myself – besides – and not against. How many more shelves will I build? Roughly each wall in my house is either covered in bookshelves or relevant art. Will I be the last generation to appreciate the physical nature of the textbook? I run my fingers on Bambi’s Mercy Watson books, how he loves them, how he pours over his Grapes of Math – like I did – over Grapes of Wrath. I would hope not. But who knows – I am human – and only time holds answers. The knot remains so. As our receptionist shares with me an old volume of the photographs of the American Civil War, I appreciate what I have now – the cusp at which I find myself. Here and there. I gravitate towards that balance I need to find between my nurtured uneasiness and the organic path of publication evolution. Wish me luck.

Though it is not a binary opposition – for more information: click here

Edited to add: With the new billing options turns out Amazon will not allow me to buy certain e-books. I found the June Jordan collection of poems Directed by Desire on Google Play. Just for 7-euros, that too. Looks like using the computer via apps might give me the multi-platform flexibility I need. If you have any ideas / suggestions on this please email me or add to the comments section.

The walls of the room I am building

The Netherlands Research School of Gender Studies had their research day conference on 26th May 2014 in Amsterdam. The day was titled – Doing Gender in the Netherlands: Feminism in Transition (Activism, Institutions and Canons). I was there to present a paper: Tumbling Wall: Adrienne Rich Dismantles a Male Form. My paper spoke about the ghazal, Ghalib, and Rich, focusing on the 60s, in America, the coming together of poet and poetic form.

It was pouring. Water dripped from the corners of my coat leaving little pools wherever I went. My boots squelched. Rain drops made concentric circles on the canal water. Everything looked so grey and grim. Inside the aged buildings of the UvA, underneath original beams, sitting on freshly draped white linen chairs, over cups of coffee and generously made butter cookies we talked of contrasts and constructive confrontation. It was a day when stillness was questioned and ideas stirred. I wrote some notes and made some drawings. Of which the notes I am going to share with you.

Dr. Rachel Spronks pointed out how feminism needs to be transformative and transgressive. She explained in detail how these two aspects in feminism are interlinked for exchange and action. She said that where we find ourselves today is not a post-feminist era; for there are new forms that we see feminism in. The hierarchies in feminism – gender, race, class – and what do we land up with – activism, art and scholarly debate. The purpose of the day was to solidify efforts, navigate – truth; and landscapes – twin topics – gender + sexuality, personal + social – the co-relations and the interaction. These are always viewed as institutions and paradigms but it has interdisciplinary potential – an academy of thinking through culture that includes:

– Interdisciplinary umbrella of interactions – commonalities, pushed to undo comfortable truths
– “Less convinced about our own truths” (RS)
– Revisit canons of critical agency
– Reorganizing gender studies
– Undoing told, undoing the shackles
– Coming out narrative – coming out as a feminist

How to respond to contrast.
Female part-time work – undercurrent of patriarchy
Pivotal dilemmas: social equality + inclusion
Engagement of critical agency
Vibrancy of contemporary feminism in civil society

“Continuum” (RS) (I was so reminded of Adrienne Rich – this term I first discovered through her works) of feminist production, she urged us to “go, do gender, and enjoy” (and I sat there and asked myself – why? – why was I there? And where I fit in – or didn’t – in this community, or whether his was indeed a community).

In many of the discussions that day I noticed the importance given to the body. The physical body, where it is placed in research and what role does it play. In most academic work – we are in a three-way didactic relationship – positioning of the researcher, the text and the author and where are ‘you’ physically placed, location. The ability to do the research, the consent, the permission, the ethics, we are in many ways studying a body as well – and how do we deal with intimacy and privacy issues. I thought of the many times I face these dilemmas and what my purpose was. To be intuitively aware of what truths are told and who they are told through. I also thought of how sometimes, the body is there, it is present but then it is not bodily enough – it is much more elusive. The discussion lead us towards the work of Elizabeth Grosz – corporeal feminism, Foucault on autonomy, framing of people on gender.

Another fascinating research was on the nature and nurture role of the brain: the plasticity of the brain; brain sex; biological materiality of the body and the role of environmental influences. I discovered that there is an entire movement on how sexual orientation can be changed (no, not in the Middle Ages, apparently today, I had not realized how bullish some of these groups are or can be) – homosexual and heterosexual – “train the gay away” – what is wrong with us? In India, they are trying to criminalize homosexuality. Really, again, what is wrong with us? There are differences made in research as well between male and female – we talked about how sex works as an independent variable in research. Gender and the brain – does gender decide the brain or brain decides the gender – this is not just a neuro-scientist issue. Slowing down science. Resolve and dissolve – not important – but map them. The researchers call this the trojan horse of real issues, to use it to take away rather than actually have impact. So how does feminism change the sciences? We spoke about post-structuralism and the female scientist and subjects – and the male weight. Queering neuro science. And then there is also transexuality, transgender, Judith Butler – ambiguity of identity, and boundary objects. To learn the art of tolerating the ambiguousness. And how can we use this to see things, use of objects as a lens – to get a focus.

Can institutions dismantle/reorganize queer theory. One of the researchers Marieke van Eijk spent years working at a gender identity clinic. Mid-western American, international standards, expensive – class based – access to some, with mandatory counselling – removal to have access to treatment. Sara Ahmed’s “Strange Encounters” – historically grounded ß this was questioned. The study examined the role and character of private organizations in the process of political globalization. Recognition of diversity – not one way of being (I thought of how we had been reading Astrid Erll’s and she had mentioned: robust plural identities). To put these matters into perspective we analyzed – monolithic entities – heteronormative ideas – we are forced to rethink and how all of this (today) had created a bunch of cascading questions, one opens up into another.

I discussed Alison Bechdel (oh how much I love her), Dr. Donald Winnicott’s theories of mirror and children (that we had already studied with Dr. Lewis Krischner and Prof. dr. Dawn Scorczewski in their Master Class at the VU), Romania’s latch-key generation and communist symbols of nostalgia by Codruta Pohrib (who is also working on Erll), feminism in South Africa and Coetzee amongst many other intellectually stimulating debates and discussions.

I loved talking to Anja Meulenbelt, her speech was inspiring and funny, she blogged and took some lovely pictures of the day: http://www.anjameulenbelt.nl/weblog/2014/05/27/een-dag-academisch-feminisme/ (including a few of me – sounds of dripping water need to be imagined as you view my picture so please do the needful).

There were people there, who summarized many of my thoughts in enviable vocabulary, and sometimes I caught myself questioning what was being said – that does not sound right, or where is this headed. Sitting at the edge of the seat, nodding my head, looking, waiting, listening, watching the rain, the words that bounced, rooms that opened and closed, people who came and left, mugs of half-finished coffee, crumpled paper, hangers. I came home late, my head was throbbing, at home hot food and a warm bed were waiting. I snuggled into familiar arms, my mind noting, highlighting and remembering – this is indeed a gift.  I am, and will remain, one of the fortunate ones.

I WROTE A BOOK!

Diligent Candy:

Alice’s adventure through corporate land – I am already intrigued. Tarun’s sister Tulika has written a book and considering that family produces the brightest brains – I have immense hope that this book will be a good addition to the intellectual stable.

Originally posted on Collectivity:

Ok. i’m lying.

My sister wrote a Book. She’s this horrifyingly overachieving woman who is an inspiration to all, and a pain in my ass. She’s one of the youngest Women MDs of an MNC in the world. AND, in the 2 month between her switching jobs, she managed to write a book that got picked up by Penguin!

Its called Alice in Corporateland and its kinda chick-lit with a twist. It takes the route of fairy tales to give guidance to young people on how to build a strong career.

It’s actually pretty good. I hate to admit it because, y’know, Sis.

So she’s launching it in Mumbai on the 3rd (this saturday) at the Crossword at Kemp’s Corner. Anupama Chopra is in conversation with her.

The invite details are below… msg me on @probablytrippy (Twitter) if you can come? Free autographed copies for all attendees!

Also, because, i…

View original 97 more words

“Dedications”

283099_10150259010012381_959947_n
“I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.”
Adrienne Rich, From an Atlas of the Difficult World

For more on this poem do read: this ~ click here
Picture clicked in Bordeaux, France, 2012.