Going away – a visit to NIAS

Our team at work went for an offsite to NIAS in Wassenaar. I wrote a small feature on the outing. I am sharing a snippet (the one which Purab made me read out again):

Autumn is an extraordinary season. The trees laden with orange, brown and red, shed their leaves. Ripe with the experiences of the entire year, this purging of excess is liberating. Autumn prepares for winter a time of silence and rest. Lest we forget, in this stationary season much work is done. Below the surface, life prepares, and waits. The reflective black waters of the fountain in the Persian Rose garden is stirred, from these ripples emerge messages, onwards we must proceed.

Read more: click here

The pictures are that of NIAS and the area around the building taken on my iPhone 5s.

Full text:

The act of going away is highly underrated. The cyclic nature of everyday routines coats like a fog. When we step away we are able to see details clearly, patterns emerge that our eyes would have otherwise missed.

On November 20, 2014, Thursday, the VU Literatures in English team – staff members, Research Master students, and Ph.D. scholars – visited the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) in Wassenaar where Professor Diederik Oostdijk is writing a book while on sabbatical.

NIAS is an idyllic location nestled near the coast, with glorious beech, oak and horse chestnut trees currently in vibrant autumn colors. The building – quaint and a generous space provides valuable research time for international scholars.

The team enjoyed a walk through autumn’s bounty to the Persian Rose garden. Intricately painted blue tiles stood out against the white walls, a fountain, and roses saturated in white, in summer the same roses are pink. To grow, indeed, we must pay heed to changing climes and still retain some of that ethereal beauty that makes us unique.

Autumn is an extraordinary season. The trees laden with orange, brown and red, shed their leaves. Ripe with the experiences of the entire year, this purging of excess is liberating. Autumn prepares for winter a time of silence and rest. Lest we forget, in this stationary season much work is done. Below the surface, life prepares, and waits. The reflective black waters of the fountain in the Persian Rose garden is stirred, from these ripples emerge messages, onwards we must proceed.

Surrounded by this lushness, visible through large windows, the team members had their first session. Diederik Oostdijk talked about the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, Tim Scheffe on the Spanish Civil War, Karin Diks on Grace Nichols, and Anita Raghunath on the creation of the postcolonial other. They were joined by Professor Arthur Verhoogt, also a fellow at the NIAS. He is the Professor of Papyrology and Greek at the University of Michigan.

A warm lunch with pumpkin soup (apt for autumn), meatballs, vegetables and salad, cups of coffee and banter about the journeys undertaken and work accomplished was followed by the second session. Allard den Dulk, a guest from Amsterdam University College, joined the conversation and talked about 21st-century existentialism in American films and novels. Subsequently Roel van den Oever spoke about reading and sexual desire, Dirk Visser about plays revolving around the AIDS crisis and Amrita Das about American ghazals.

The themes varied, the techniques different, yet common threads of memory, remembering, forgetting, commemorating, performance, cultural symbolism and a passion for literature emerged. As the participants walked back to their cars, heading back to Amsterdam to what awaited on their desks and in their rooms, one could sense that stepping away had been worthwhile. Like the Persian Rose garden in the middle of NIAS, in between teaching, exams, administration and preparation, our research lies, sometimes white, sometimes pink, and it is helpful to step away and notice we chose the academic path (and literature in particular), and to witness ourselves going through the process of creation and recreation.



When I went to watch “The Hundred Foot Journey”

Has the study of literature made me lose the ability to enjoy an ordinary film? Has it? Has it?

I went to watch “The Hundred Foot Journey”. The film promised the agreeable mingling of food and diaspora. Purab laughed, “Are you watching the diaspakoda?”

I wanted the movie to move me. It had Om Puri. Helen Mirren. But, I returned so deeply disappointed.  For days, I mulled over what to write, what to not write, in the shower I constructed sentences: “I had hopes.” On my walk back from work I deconstructed them: “I had hopes.” I hemmed the subject. I produced analogies, “It was like a collapsed soufflé.” That did not work. “It was a thick mousse.” And, that too did not work. Then I gave up. I gave up on trying to come up with something stupendously smart. This is my last resort: Honesty.

I think that over the years of studying characters, scenes, speakers, stereo types, paradoxes, irony, sarcasm, wit, and other such devices, I have lost the ability to enjoy an ordinary film. This applies with the assumption that ordinary film can offer some form of enjoyment, which I did not experience.

This is an ordinary film that I did not like.

The Kadam family owns restaurants in India. With escalating communal tensions they find themselves caught in a frightening evening of riots that leads to the death of Mama Kadam (Juhi Chawla). Little Hassan’s (Rohan Chand) love and aptitude for food lies deeply entrenched in his love for his mother. Uprooted, dislocated and depressed as refugees in UK they find it difficult – weather wise, the open grills are shown to be a disaster.

Eventually seeking a better fate they relocate to a small village in France with Papa Kadam (Om Puri) dictating every move and open an Indian restaurant called Maison Mumbai. Helping them along the way is Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) – a sweet French girl who offers them food, hospitality, openness, warmth – she is maternal and safe – an indulgence the Kadams miss. Clearly, French girls ride cycles with baguettes in their baskets, and are hopeless romantics with Juliette-esque balconies, picnic spreads and …other such contrived contraptions – a rant I shall not embark on today.

The hundred-foot journey in the title is the distance between Maison Mumbai and the French restaurant opposite them the Michelin-starred Le Saule Pleureur where Marguerite is a sous chef. And, in a Cruella de Ville avatar we have Helen Mirren as Madame Mallory the owner of the French restaurant. She and Om Puri share a special chemistry. As much as I enjoyed watching these two amazing actors what kept being a constant niggle was the gender bits (I will come to that eventually). So while Papa Kadam enjoys his kitschy glittery over-the-top flavors, Madam Mallory basks in subtle nuances, discreet manners, and a disdain for the grotesquely garish neighbors. It is also a clash of class. Somehow, being across the road, in a manner of speaking highlights differences, let me here assert that this isn’t India and France. Though the movie seems to allude to that, not all of India is the Kadams and not all of France is like the Mallorys. However, the gravel road between is rather accurate and poetic. As people come and go, visitors, evening walkers and vehicles the serpentine path becomes a living thriving being.

Some sub-plots are cute – the Mayor’s getting caught in the middle, the shopping strategies, the removal of wall scars (paint). Mirren’s comic timing is impeccable. But, the movie fails. The beautiful panoramic shots of France, the haunting sounds of the kitchen do not manage to grab. What bothers me the most is the gender depiction. It is the men who cross-over. Hassan (Manish Dayal) now all grown up gets involved with Marguerite. He moves to the next door kitchen. He masters both crafts – Eastern and Western cuisine. He is the hero — the guy who understands what it is like to come from a culture and integrate into another, without losing himself and displaying an appreciation for both. It is Hassan. Not Mahira (Farzana Dua Elahe) (the daughter, Hassan’s sister). What would have happened if Mahira was the one crossing over? Would Papa Kadam be as generous? Would he have given his blessings if Mahira was the one having an affair with the French chef? What if it was Papa Kadam who had died and not Mama Kadam? And, what about Madam Mallory – the restaurant becomes her life after her husband’s death – the narrative demands our sympathy for her hard-heart – she has lost her husband.

What I write is not the story. It is my reading of what I watched. And, I admit critical thinking has become a deep seated boil in the middle of my forehead. I love movies with food in them: “Ratatouille”, “Julie & Julia”, “No Reservations”, I even enjoyed “Chef”, which most my friends debunked. But, this one, I will have to pass. Because it’s problematic. Hassan’s success has baggage, Marguerite’s acceptance of him has issues, and I can’t look past the gender trouble (thank you Judith Butler) within the script.

I watched “Happy New Year” last week and enjoyed it — the song, dance, humor and massive scale were impressive. I accepted the genre with all its follies, some of which I have come to expect and enjoy. What troubles me is that while I could accept that a bunch of nit-wits from nowhere could win the world dance finale in Dubai in “Happy New Year” I could not digest that a bunch of Indians chefs could land up in the middle of France, start a kitschy Indian kitchen in front of a renowned French restaurant and make a success out of that story in “The Hundred Foot Journey”. My only explanation I can offer as of now (I am still dissecting this within my limited head space leisure time) – is that while “Happy New Year” only pressed my gender switch in one scene in the song “Manwa Laage” where Deepika is shown serving tea to the men who chat, “The Hundred Foot Journey” riled up the entire dashboard.

The question I want answered is – what happens to Mahira? Till then it remains a kebab that went too dry. Dammit still does not work!!!

Around – Ghazal

The rhythmic clinking of her bangles, rotis piling around
Nagarjun’s pink bangles, wheels spinning around

The smell of evening flowers lingers in the air
You are saying something but no one is listening around

Drink, after drink, roving eyes, hands, mouths
All the misters in a desi party leering around

A sweet little lie on the tip of her tongue
With what finesse she ventures peddling it around

“You know only bland things can be held down”
There is any way too much masala going around

Restless eyes, her limp hair, she chews on her lower lip
Fidgeting with the end of her dupatta, looking around

He set sails on the high seas every other month
She got bored and took to sleeping around

“I think her kid is very rude”
Mrs. Makhija announced, shaking her head around

Your smile slipped from the edge of the glass
What stories has your belly been carrying around?

Don’t go by the daintiness of her feet
Her forearms have carried the weight of everything around

Birds of a gender flock together
“Oye, you there, ya you, no fucking around”

There is a dance we do at the end of every do
You chit-chat and avoid relevant anything around

“Why on earth are you wearing green?”
“Envy, is anyway, gallivanting around”

Give away your heart to that boy Das
For eighteen years he’s been hovering around

Unpacking Salzburg Global Seminar

My trip to Salzburg to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar’s twelfth session “Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions” at the beautiful Schloss Leopoldskron comprised of many profound moments of learning. At our Graduation Dinner in St. Stephen’s College, way back in 1999, my happy batch-mate Siddarth Correya had said that his learning in college had been as much outside the classroom as inside. The Schloss provided me with the atmosphere I was hopelessly nostalgic about post leaving College Campus. You learn during the sessions, from what is said, but you learn as much from just being there, and from what is still left unsaid.

It has taken me awhile to unpack. Between laundry and reams of notes, I find stories, I catch myself smiling. At the Schloss, the rooms overlook the sprawling lawns, fountains, the lake, the mountains, sunshine, inside the discussion focused on the nuances of authorship, or, the symbolism of a wet sari in a Bollywood film. The generous meals were sprinkled with conversations: the political air of Malaysia, traveling from Calcutta to Berhampur, the paintings that denote seasons, is there music playing? The range of speakers and topics were mind-boggling. The mind danced. And, the refrain I kept returning to, what does this mean for American Literature and the ghazal?

But, let’s just set aside my emotionally charged pen, (erm keys), talking hard facts, this Seminar belongs to the rare breed where seamless structure and efficiently managed logistics magnificently merges with informal atmosphere. It is an intensive program and an immersive one; you are dipped in and saturated. And you leave knowing that your thoughts have been tweaked.

As I slowly return to reading and writing, I feel I have greatly benefitted from the experience for three reasons. Firstly, because it has managed to refuel my faith in this field – sigh, campus life, also there is so much work still to be done. I know, I do hear the dismal talk about the state of academics and funding, but, by golly there is so much research still to be done, and this field is so deliciously dynamic. Secondly, in the library, at the Schloss I found ghazals I had not read before. I carried back these gems with me to use in my studies, along with lots of notes that I will try to incorporate into my research. Lastly, bierstube. That’s all I can say!

Enjoy the pictures! You might notice a picture of a cactus that has flowered. While I away our resident prickles decided to shine in neglect.

More about the seminar: The seminar was hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA).

It had attendees from 26 countries that included novelists, critics, Ph.D. candidates, academics, editors, professors, and performers. The speakers and discussion groups sought the definition of ‘new’ and aspects of it in American literature.

Seminar website: click here (spot me in the picture – black and white outfit, approximately in the middle row).

Edited to add: official pictures <— click

Drover’s Dog, Amsterdam

We went over to the Australian cafe Drover’s Dog for breakfast with our friends. It has a nice laid-back vibe. I could see myself reading the papers in a corner sipping a mug of coffee, the place is great to meet folks as well – warm wood interiors, soft and natural light and lots of vases with flowers. It is a bit noisy on the weekends.

The menu is not run of the mill and has a few interesting options e.g. corn fritters that came with a perfectly poached egg and chili jam. I appreciated that on asking for a glass of water they offered a pitcher of water with herbs and lemon. Small gesture that makes a big difference.

The service is friendly. Children were quite welcome.

We reached a consensus that we ought to give this place: 4 stars (out of 5)
Location: Heemstedestraat 25, Amsterdam Oud-Zuid.


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