Aged five, an early memory, Rakesh Sharma travelling in space
Mrs. Gandhi, he said, India appears best in the world, unravelling in space
When I go back home, the Mango tree has shrunk
The courtyard looks smaller, what is this diminishing space
My sister pretty like a flower, a gentle soul
She ended her relationship, she is carving her own space
A box is a handy object to put things in
Nick Sousanis says that a door is a barrier or an opening for space
When you step out and away
There is a tendency for romanticising the space
In the Metro, each morning, they push and shove
All these people, getting to somewhere, jostling for space
We are giving away our things, my boyfriend announces
Apparently, I am making space
Tall buildings tend to shroud small shacks
In a big city, they tell me, it is about monetising the space
Are you missing having your own spot, fear not
In Amsterdam, we have Spaces, for those wanting some space
It was not so easy for Kalpana Chawla
A light, she remains, for all of us brown girls claiming some space
On Twitter everyday the mobs outrage about something
140 characters did give the masses a liberating space
The talk in workplaces is about diversity
You can banter all you want but are you creating space
I care little about sand that slides
Those who are rocks, fundamentally stay, holding me in place
So, what are you up to these days Das?
Amongst other things updating my blogging space
On A Train for A Personal interview.
10 Jan. 2015.
8:33 am train from Schipol to Paris Nord, announcement: “you can travel in this train only if you have reservations.”
There is no sunrise yet. The sky is grey; the green of the fields, streetlights, and darkness hangs over the landscape, the train is rushing forth. Purab would be glad to know that I got a seat in the direction of the journey anything otherwise would have tormented him. I did carry my Axe Oil in case I feel sick. This is my last bottle. Dutch landscape is so flat like a brown often-green pancake.
There is a delay of thirty-minutes due to stormy weather. The train will be diverted to another route than the regular one it takes. The landscape has become industrial. Overhead electric poles with wires attaching and clinging; there are square containers and cylindrical gas containers. The buildings look derelict. The sky is turning pale. There is still no sign of the sun. 9:08am and we will not see a lush bright sunrise. You know the kind people mention during their train journeys. It is not going to happen on this one. I wonder what sort of storm I am leaving behind in Amsterdam. I don’t know what sort of storm am I going into in Paris.
I will be meeting a Jewish, American, poet Marilyn Hacker who lives in Paris. We will be discussing her experience with the ghazal, a poetic form of Arabic origin, entrenched in the culture of the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. Paris has been shaken the last two days. Two hostage crises have riveted the city. My friend asked me yesterday, “Why are you putting your family through this, traveling to Paris now?” I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be than Paris, I want to ask those questions in the midst of this, the urgency to answer how does indeed poetry transcend, does it really? Are poets activists? What is our role as researchers, to mark that activism, to bear witness to it – like Shahid would have – or to concentrate on the poetry, just the poetry, or is there a bifurcation is purpose like Shahid who described the inherent dichotomy in his name and takallhus Shahid – witness and beloved.
Amsterdam is going through 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 straightforward 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 Nehukumatathil 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?
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 breathing 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. Family is what connects us to life. The pillars within which we contain ourselves, family in not the manner of man-woman-child but family in a truer sense of the term as people we care about, whom we love.
9:12 am crossed a big river.
9:20 am another massive river.
12:14 pm the train is running over an hour late. I had breakfast and watched PK. Strange how the movie also talks of the themes I wrote about earlier. In the film the discussion is on the purpose of God and those who connect us through “wrong numbers” – the plot involved aliens, a love story, moments in Bruges and Delhi. I am at Garges Sarcelles station. Putting the laptop away, somehow I don’t want to let go of it – like it connects me in some unknown manner to purpose (for the lack of a better word). Next when I open it I will be with Marilyn. I tried texting her and emailing her about the delay but my connection is dodgy. It is quiet here – the platform, Paris will be busy. The grey clouds are still hanging onto the sky. There is still no sun. There is light but no presence of the giant ball up there.
I prepared some questions to ask Marilyn.
There are fir trees and another industrial area. Coaches and electrics. Do all stations have the same aura – they must, right! But how come do the house acquire that same derelict look, that forlorn texture, is it the soot from the trains, the fumes, or do they acquire the wisdom of comings and goings, seeing too much whiz by before their eyes.
7:12 pm return train back to Amsterdam; the station was teeming with people and the military and the police; the taxi driver from Notre Dame to Gare du Nord told me that there is a big demonstration tomorrow to show solidarity and unity for Charlie’s and his team’s death. He said it was important, he grew up reading this newspaper and he could not believe what happened in the last two days, he is in shock; he said he had lost his ability to react.
I had gone looking for the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore but I could not find it, then I lost my way and my phone battery died on me worried that I would run out of time I took a walk to Notre Dame across the bridge of locks. I noticed the gothic architecture of the cathedral, the angry-looking seine the water a steely red, and the cathedral, why do I remember it smaller, it is massive. I felt dwarfed walking along its length.
The meeting with Marilyn was fruitful. I learnt a lot from her. She is a reservoir of knowledge having read Darwesh, Ghalib, Hafez. She called herself a polyglot. I did not know what the word meant and have just learnt that it means multilingual, indeed that she is having knowledge of Arabic, Urdu, French and English. I continue to struggle with my Dutch. Her house is small, a long winding set of wooden stairs, on the third floor of an old building, she lives there alone. It had many books everywhere most of them had white spines. I noticed in the French bookstore that most French books have white spines.
I am tired. I think I will complete this tomorrow. Am I dodging, perhaps, I am cold and tired. I am also drained by the city – two strangers approached me with heaven-alone-knows-what and I had to walk away. Not understanding the language, being alone and wet from the rain, their moving mouths sounding words I could not hear. The air seems sinister. The way the station was organized seemed to add an air of exposure to a chilly draught. At one point in time the military personnel had to disperse what looked like a lover’s physical tiff, it was disturbing to say the least. An altercation that made me feel awkward as though watching was not enough something needed to be done, someone, me, I needed to get up and sort it out but it was not my business. I was the outsider. This was their private matter.
It is dark now. Nothing to look at outside, I see my own reflection, huddled. I have my back to the direction of the train, what would Purab say to that? Would he judge my raw drafts, the private notes, or would he warm the room, bring out the blanket, make soup, “You should sit in the direction of movement. Otherwise you will be sick.”
These were the raw notes that went into the preparation of the essay “Paris in the Rain.”
Some of my sketchbooks are on display in Zones of Privacy, curated by Rukminee Guha Thakurta at Chatterjee & Lal. It’s a show about the visual journals of 25 artists, and is on in Mumbai from Aug 11- Sept 3. Please do visit.
It is like returning to a lover you never stopped loving
I pause and linger, rolling words in my mouth, tasting the luscious lusty writing of someone as giving as Roy
It is indulgent and selfish on my part
After all there are many new books waiting on the to-read shelf
They can wait
This once, this one time
As I drown in that river, watching the black crows, eating those over-ripe bananas, indulging in “sloth and sullen expectation”
Oh let me be
I am permitting the .docx file to slide as I grab Velutha’s outstretched calloused hand accepting all the labels that come with this enchanted detachment
Recommendation: The God of Small Things to be savoured in slow bites over cups of ginger tea preferably with feet over a luxuriant cushion:
“They used to make pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples. And banana jam (illegally) after the FPO (Food Products Organization) banned it because according to their specifications it was neither jam nor jelly. Too thin for jelly and too thick for jam. An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency, they said… Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question… They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly.”
I have been writing poems a lot more than I usually do and reworking drafts of old poems. Perhaps due to my PhD work on the ghazal I tend to spend more time on structure and sound. Strict metrical scales and working with rhymes, refrains, provide me with an effective tool to have a dialogue with borders and control. Themes that I have no answer to, no solution for, but find myself deeply bothered with, amazed by our own humanity (or, often times, sadly, the lack of it).
I have also been attending these thought-provoking and insightful lectures on Politics and Literature by Prof. Diederik Oostdijk at the VU. Last class we listened to Naomi Shihab Nye (who I love very much, her poem “One Boy Told Me” I believe is a personal, intimate, love poem meant just for me) reading “Letters My Prez Never Wrote” and “Ted Kooser Is My President.” She is so incredibly talented – wise and kind.
The setting, topic, students and discussions in class are connected, entrenched, into the world we live in today. Even to say I am not into politics seems like the most politically charged sentence to utter. In our everyday choices, to choose to look or look away, to comment or not, to publish a post or avoid trouble, in every way we step into the fabric of politics.
I had an excellent teacher in school who taught us Political Science. Archana Pental at D.P.S. R.K. Puram instilled a sound foundation of understanding governing bodies and their functions. In her class she made us question democracy if it actually worked and where we could see the three arms of governance function as we stepped outside the classroom. I wanted to pursue a Bachelors in Political Science. However, St. Stephen’s College does not offer a Political Science degree. “Members of our family only attend College or else it is Salipur College in good old Orissa for you” (no offence to any Salipur students, I have never visited the campus, the warning of its existence impacted my teenage mind as a mammoth scare). So I pursued English Literature. That turned out very well.
When I heard about the course imagine my delight.
But, I am not the only one getting excited about this merger of literature and politics, Diederik was recently interviewed for this special class – “Hoogleraar VU wil drempel universiteiten verlagen voor vluchtelingen”
In the end I would like to leave you with this poem I wrote after getting to know about blockades that did not get reported, and of getting papers, embassy visits, pondering over what my lost citizenship would mean to me, and of living in a country where I can write this still.
To tell you the truth
Upon walking into an airport
My body somehow becomes a machine
Mechanical with nuts and bolts
A system I cyclically follow
My head tells me – lets get this over with
Please take out all electronic devices from your bag ma’am
Place them on the tray ma’am
Take off those shoes as well ma’am
And ma’am your jacket, and that belt
Ma’am, now slowly move through this capsule
Arms in the air, your legs apart
Indeed like that ma’am
Let the scan run over you
Step forward ma’am
To be patted down ma’am
Ma’am you may go now
Step away ma’am
Contorted into the shape of an ill-positioned seat
I curse the person who said the journey is the destination
Who was it – Buddha?
Would he travel First Class?
Sleep-deprived, dehydrated, claustrophobic, partially deaf
What is the purpose of your visit to this country ma’am?
Where will you be staying ma’am and for how long?
Do you really want to visit libraries ma’am?
Do see some of our well-known sights as well ma’am!
My bags wheel out of the hall
Backpack clinging onto to the side of my body
The awkwardness of playing dress-undress with sardines
After all calling ourselves cattle can have me debarred from several states
I did not want to be touched
I did not want to slip out of the comfort of my zone
But to enter
You must submit
Did you ever feel like my entry into your state was forced upon my body in ways that defiled my clean sheet?
Now I am stamped.
At the embassy I attested that my son could have a different card than mine
I looked at his disinterested big eyes as we stood in line
Two minutes more baby
I want to go to school after this
Yes, I will drop you there
As she sliced his picture she said she is afraid of such large shears
Her shaking hands cut a sliver into my resident card
I offered to do it for her
She hesitated looking for purpose in my eyes
And then relented
I cut his picture to fit into the allotted space
They made him sign
This is him
His y like a bird in the sky
My residency jarringly sliced
I look at my blue and their maroons
It says I belong somewhere else
A grey sky
Each crossover like a painful birthing from tired hips
My labor was three days long
It left my arms limp for days
I could hold nothing
I have decided to rebel
I do not belong to any country
I do not believe in borders
I am just going to say that this body is a state by itself
And I am sovereign
My heart the center of power
My head, brain and eyes – legislators
My legs and arms that are used to hold and walk these are the executive wings
I refuse to pay allegiance
Cancel my subscription
Here take this document
This card, the signature, take away this marker of who you tell me I should be
You do not get to decide who I am or who I will become
I belong everywhere
And to the encompassing powers of love
I will live by my heart
These lines – decrees of the blind – the misled – mean nothing
They will never mean anything
My passport from now on will be the picture of me my son drew when he was two
I declare that I will care for those my heart demands me to
I will not be held back by color, caste, creed, class or other such crap that I was taught to adhere to
I refuse to conform
I will become an amoeba
My nucleus will welcome immigrants
I will cry
I will defy
My document will have all colors of the rainbow
This earth, the soil, water, sky, trees and birds
I will tell my son to go ahead choose pink, choose green, choose any color, any one, be, be, be, who you want to be, be with who you choose to be, be a star, be the sky, become a river, flow, roar, escape, run, stay, root, grow – be you – be who you think you are meant to be
There is nothing, nothing, nothing
More powerful than to be free
Of compartments and cubicles
Confining commands that tell you don’t look, don’t see
Do not register disappointment, disagreement, dismay, disability, your disdain, keep that debate away
This is a democratic state
All dissidents will be made to obey
“judge a country by how it treats their weakest and poorest and also their richest”
Last night I killed her. Watched her bleed near the gutter. Left her to rot by the sewer gates. There is a place where they bury dreams. They have headstones. “Here lies my need to fly.” “Loved and cherished, mother of all my desire.” “He saved the world. Now dead.” Don’t talk to an Indian about risk-taking. From the day we are born – the act of birthing itself – is a risk. The air, itself, is a risk.
These wet and windy days aggravate the rheumatism in my joints. I struggle to keep the body at pace with my mind. My mind: the curious two-year old, with the passion of a teenage romance, and the gravity of mid-life. The body oscillates. Move forward, I demand of it, it stays at home. Then comes a poem that speaks to me as well as listens to me, and I want to share it with you.
The body unbuckles the door latch
and stands behind the screen. To hide its bloated legs
it wears the frayed red bathrobe of its grief. The sun, that swollen increment,
gathers to a dark burr in my mouth. The green leaves
tighten down across their stems, a small voice coming toward me
on someone else’s phone.
There was something I wanted to say
about the body. (The sun, that swollen
increment, a dark burr in my mouth—) That the body
is a tent stake. That the figure I am chasing through the late
short grass is mine. But the lip makes no remittance
and the sparrow in the boxwood
cools itself to quartz. Then the sparrow casts the spiral
of its sleep. Our feet in the earth are chisels.
The lights in the houses turn in
Experiencing Fun Home by Alison Bechdel in Prof. dr. D.M. Oostdijk’s class, October 15, 2015.
By Amrita Das
“What’s lost in translation is the complexity of loss itself. In the same box where I found the photo of Roy, there’s one of Dad at about the same age” (Bechdel FH 120).
Alison’s Bechdel’s graphic novel and memoir Fun Home (2006) is a complex, delightful, tragic, inter-textual text that offers the best of the visual and written medium. It deals with the coming-out of two characters, Alison the protagonist and her father Bruce. But, the novel is about much more as students discovered.
On October 15, 2015, Prof. dr. D.M. Oostdijk taught a Bachelor’s class on Fun Home that combined living in a visual culture, American Literature and pedagogic elements. Students were asked to make a poster presentation on panels from Fun Home that they would present to visiting High School students from the OSG in Hoorn.
Prof. Oostdijk began the class with some profound observations about the world we live in today. It is a visual age in which we are bombarded with images on a continual basis. This reverberates in our daily existence – television, screens, advertisements, signs, posters, flyers, even the word is (to quote W.J.T. Mitchell) an image. On paper it transforms, making what is written a multi-medial experience. How do we deal with this?
W.J.T. Mitchell’s book on Picture Theory (1995) makes us mindful of these aspects. It is about becoming savvy on the facets of visual culture. It is not merely the prerogative of intellectuals and academics — visuals are pervasive. It confronts children, and makes us question what is it that we see? How does it affect our mind? And, what does it imply for the future?
We do not have answers to these questions. Nevertheless, it is important to ask them. The fuelling of a critical mind that investigates these practices is vital to the task of literary studies and also for the Humanities.
As our first step into investigating Fun Home we delved into the differentiation between a comic book and a graphic novel. The comic – by definition – deals with aspects of comedy. The comic book is a form of entertainment, which is lighthearted, jovial and fun. Fun Home is different. Bechdel calls it a “traginomic,” a pun that is an amalgamation of the words tragedy and comic. Though, the book is more a graphic novel than a comic book.
In the book The Graphic Novels (2015) authors Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey argue that between the two genres lie, “…common scales of differences.”(7). They discuss four ways of distinguishing comic books from novels:
- Publication format
- Production and distribution aspects
In conclusion, it was well established in the class that while comic books are an escape from reality graphic novels were an immersion into it.
Fun Home is not about fun, it hides within it the funeral home it houses. The gothic font used in the cover, in its connection with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the fall of Icarus, Oscar Wilde, amongst many other inter-textual elements; it is evocative of how knotty human relationships are. In loving her father Bechdel has to accept and deal with the inadequacies that make the man. In this she is confronted with her own struggles. She tries to elucidate this by reaching out to several texts, contexts, characters, that she uses to connect her story to a larger fabric.
The story is the narration of imperfections. But then who decides what is perfect? Who chooses the definition of normal? To quote from Anna Karenina, which begins with the line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What are the variables in happiness and unhappiness? Isn’t the presence of happiness splendidly built on unhappiness? How do we know that we are happy if we haven’t been unhappy? The Bechdel family in their moments of vivid isolation harbor genuine warmth too. Illustrated in how Bruce plays with Alison wielding her like an airplane and their bath-time routine, in which the washing with water is almost redemptive. There are pockets of contentment in this dismal family-life.
The book questions family values but fortifies the need for love and physical affection. It destroys sexual and gender norms and asserts that as human beings we need to be sensitive and compassionate. Perhaps, we need to rethink the walls that we build, the boundaries we construct, and what is it that we hold so dear that we do not wish to lose at any cost?
The posters made by the teams reflected all these themes. They encapsulated how the words and images in Fun Home work cohesively in order to narrate the story. They are not in binary opposition to each other. Quite like happiness and unhappiness, which are often placed as counterparts but actually work together. Like sides of the same coin. The textual content combines with the graphic content to explore subtle aspects. The drawing of body language in the novel, managed to find definition in exercises posed by the students. Again, pushing our preconceived notions to breaking point.
The creating of posters in order to tell the story of a graphic novel was an effective way to engage the students into the process of making visuals. In this the class had a meta-quality. While the students selected and presented to the High School students they were also participating in visual culture. Their choices, medium, and agency, heightened the experience. Their awareness then moved towards deep learning through activating their minds.
In the end, the winner (democratically selected by the High School students) received a box of chocolates. This process connected the students to what their criteria were in appreciating the visual presentations that they had seen. As we laughed about the movie-quote from Forrest Gump (more visual culture), “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” The class rolled up its posters and moved outside into the world.
There are plenty of boxes that we will land up opening and closing. It is moments of introspection in classes such as this that makes us aware how we label these boxes and what are the pictures that we choose to keep in them.
(The following article appeared in the VU Literature & Society website.)