Winter Sun and Yellow Things

Those who read this blog regularly know my fondness for Amstel Park. I have befriended each hidden corner, nook and cranny, secluded benches and ponds. I have read under its trees, played hide and seek between its bushes, ran through the maze, broken ice on its neglected fountains, eaten ice cream, bandaged scraped knees, criticized the name ‘midget golf,’ hugged the rabbits, patted the pigs, clucked with hens, balanced myself on the train tracks, exchanged intelligent conversations, random ramblings, drunken songs and dragged branches home.

To you Amstel Park: “Acquainted with the Night” – a poem by Robert Frost published in 1928 in his collection West-Running Brook

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—-

The big yellow table with two chairs in Amstel Park look like something out of a Vincent van Gogh painting. They will be placed in Dam Square on May 4th and 5th. The table and chairs symbolize the Freedom Luncheon or Vrijheidsmaaltijd, which will be served to hundreds of tables in the city. The table was conceived by artist Arne Hendriks. Hendriks views the table as “an instrument of solidarity.” The table is designed by Stichting Stadshout. The wood used is a 155 year old beech. It sticks out, the yolk yellow in the middle of murky green.

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.

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!!!

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