Tag Archives: amsterdam

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.

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.

Flowers and the bees

The joys of Amstel Park, where Bambi and I often spend hours. He hates the bees and loves the flowers, how ironical, how can one exist without the other. In the park they have a toy train that goes inside what we like to call “the deep dark woods” (a nod to Julia Donaldson). We have not spotted any Gruffalos yet, however, we have spotted butterflies, cows, sheep, goats, llamas, emus, turkeys, hens, roosters, peacocks and peahens, pigs, ponies, birds, rabbits, buffalos, and bees, lots of bees, and some mosquitoes.

A walk through Amstel Park


“Is it summer yet?”
“I think so.”
“How would you know?”
“Well it is that time of the year.”
“What if you did not have a calendar?”
“It is warm, the sky is clear, the ducks are having ducklings, the flowers are out, and the trees have leaves.”
“That’s just a good day.”
“When you have a series of such days then I guess you can safely assume that it is summer.”
“So then summer is a series of such good days.”
“I think so.”
“I wish there was summer in winter but, then I do love the snow and when it is really cold.”
*thoughtful face*

“Any other questions sir?”
“Yes, how many days till winter?”
“About 80.”
“How many minutes?”
“Many minutes.”
“And seconds?”
“Way too many.”
“Give me numbers.”
“How about the number 7.”
*big smile*

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.