best fortune cookie fortune ever
At Xing Xing (?) Vietnamese Restaurant, Chinatown, Boston, lunchtime, the 15th of November, 2006.
Recovered from my wallet this jetlagged morning.
noo yawk. delhi. elsewhere. multiverses. history.fiction.madness.love. random.poetry.prose.musings. occasional photographs.
To Boston, via the Chinatown Bus; and to England, via British Airways.
In Boston, for a meeting of a group on urban history and culture at MIT convened by Shekhar Krishnan and Michael Fisher. And in Nottingham , as a speaker in the History and Heritage Seminar Series at Nottingham Trent University. What I presented at MIT was a highly disorganised mess of ideas, but it was more in the nature of a conversation between friends, so that was alright. For the public lecture nature of the Nottingham thing, Elizabeth graciously volunteered her formidable editing skills gratis and streamlined my waffling down to an acceptable 35 minute paper. To both places I took narratives from and speculations about Delhi; djinns, vanished saints, waqf grants and land grabs, urban villages and oral histories, Tolkien and the Babri Masjid, alternate historicities and relations to place... In Nottingham, I was unwittingly made a Doctor too (see pic of poster), which seems at least a few years too premature, but was thrilling neverthless.
From both occasions I have come back richer in ideas and conversations of where to take the work further. And of course, the conversation has moved beyond the paper, and the scope of my work, over much post-presentation convivial drinking. In Boston, this turned into a lot of scribbling in scripts on the back of a napkin, grad school types enjoying their basic literacy in strange foreign squibbles. This reminded me so much of the last two or so months in Delhi, drinking with friends in 4S, and writing everyone's names in my newly acquired Urdu on the backs of napkins... that I brought the napkin back to New York with me.
In Boston, was graciously hosted and taken for a great walk through downtown Boston by Dacoit, and met Buchu for dinner. (and wrote maudlin poetry surrounded by the outrageously pretty but 'epistemically violent' red brick buildings of Harvard.) In Notts, being hosted by S and J, noticing that even the telephone poles in England are ridiculously pretty/symmetrical, and that the croissants are as wonderful as I remember them from 3 months ago.
As I said to J's question at 2 in the morning when he picked me up at the station, to his query -
'So how's New York?'
'Great jazz. Shit croissants.'
|Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,|
|And sorry I could not travel both|
|And be one traveler, long I stood|
|And looked down one as far as I could|
|To where it bent in the undergrowth...|
It all starts with my friend B inviting me to this cool weekend-before-Halloween party downtown.
- But you have to have to have to be in costume, he said. And it can’t be lame.
- Sure. I’ll be in costume, man. No worries.
- What are you going to be?
- I’m going to be the jihad. All I need is a turban around my head.
I don’t end up going for the party, but the seed has been sown. I am going to dress up as ‘the jihad’ and go down to the Halloween Parade down in
Often asked question, as I broadcast my intentions to colleagues and friends - What does the jihad dress like?
Well, as far as I’m concerned, the Jihad wears a beard (which I do), and whatever else I can pull out of my cupboard. Military/combat style jacket worn over a kurta and combat/bigassmothafucka boots, and a turban. In fact, the jihad dresses exactly the mass media circulated images of Osama bin Laden.
Apart from the turban, I posess everything else. So what if the kurta is more adab than jihad, hedonistically translucent, and with exquisite chikan embroidery? And so what if the jacket is Levi’s (more on which later)? It’s the effect that matters.
The afternoon of the 31st is spent franticlly calling my desi women friends, trying to find a white dupatta to turn into a turban, and some kaajal/surma to line my eyes with, like a good Pathan would. Both prove surprisingly elusive, but the dupatta does materialize and is better than could be asked for, and the lack of kaajal is made up for by mascara.
The jihad has never been quite this camp. But half an hour before heading downtown, as I finally complete the get up, dupatta wound around Afghan hat, mascara to lower lashes, green jacket over kurta – even I am surprised at how effective the transformation is. The bearded, turbaned, combat jacketed face staring back at me from the mirror is every visual cliché of what militant Islam looks like. I am the jihad, and at seven thirty the jihad meets a bunch of other people from
I feel the need to be surrounded by white people at this point, I tell my friends. It is true.
A black man in the crush on the platform at
- If you give me some, I’ll put them on.
Outside, in the mad carnival crowd of fairies (with and without wings), cops (real and otherwise), wizards and vampires, Jedi knights and strippers; two million or more packed around downtown
- Give me a dollar, Osama, and I’ll dance for you.
- Everybody go boom.
- We found Osama!
- The Taleban is in town.
Head into a supermarket to grab a bite to eat, and the staff is all in splits, laughing and pointing.
- Do you guys want to search me before I get in?
- Come here, we’ll search you alright, and we’ll just keep your wallet.
Being completely lost in
- What are you supposed to be, Osama bin Laden?
- Something like that.
- I should be arresting you.
- As long as you give me directions first.
He does. With a smile. And doesn’t arrest me. The rest of the evening passes in a similar fashion. Friends are met, by coincidence and co-ordination. We walk on the streets, and in and out of shops and restaurants and bars of downtown
I can’t get over this. No comments on the turban, or on the kurta, no Are you from
- Is that a Levi’s jacket.
He turns around to his friend and says, I told you so, and turns back to me.
- How much did you pay for it?
- Thirty dollars, I say, rapidly converting in my head. I had bought it in
- You got ripped off, he says, and they all walk out of the shop.
You just had an anthropological moment there, my friend, says Gautam.
At the end of the day, capitalism always trumps terrorism.
Excerpt from chat with friend and fellow Indian in
me: I walked the streets of
this is not DU anand
stop being stupid
you'll land up in jail
Since this echoes pretty much what a lot of other people also told me before Halloween, it started me thinking.
Was it stupid and tasteless, (apart from being potentially suicidal) to dress up as Osama bin Laden in the city to which 9/11 happened? Was it not, in a way, analogous to walking around Ahmedabad with a saffron headband and a crow bar in hand, shouting Jai Sri Ram? Was it not particularly tasteless to do so less than two months after visiting Ground Zero on the day before the 5th anniversary of 9/11?
Did I have reasons beyond thrill seeking and crass exhibitionism in dressing up as a mujahiddeen in
(That’s such a peculiarly forgotten word. One who fights the jihad is a mujahiddeen, and it’s surprising, given the worldwide concern with the ‘jihad’, that the term has been so forgotten. More specifically, it was associated with the Afghan warlords and troops fighting the Soviets with American money and guns. Back then, they used to be the good guys – especially Ahmed Shah Massoud).
I don’t know. I have been taken into police custody in
And all of this was way before the beard. The (sculpted, identified with Muslims, khat/qat nikli, ‘Shahjahani’)beard made its appearance three years ago, after class mates were taken into custody and harassed by the police while making their diploma film and shooting near the American Cultural Centre, for being Kashmiri, and Muslim. (I was also taken into custody in the same area, but let go after fifteen minutes with a cup of tea. They were kept in there for six hours, and only half the faculty having to rush to the Police Station with official letters and threats to go to the media that things were sorted out.) In the hysteria after 9/11 and then the Parliament Attack,
But at the end of the day, in
Things are different in the States. Here, I am a brown man with a beard. I’m on top of no hierarchies, I fit the racial profile of what terrorists are supposed to look like, and my name doesn’t necessarily mean anything, one way or the other. (I have been positively shocked at the amount of trouble people have pronouncing this simple a name). I could be arrested, like Indian film-maker Rakesh Sharma was, for using a camera in public spaces in New York (and I do). If I wore a T-Shirt with a message in Arabic, like Raed Jarrar did, I might be asked to leave a plane. And the day after Halloween, five Jewish teenagers beat up a Pakistani man in
Did my dressing up as ‘the jihad’ on Halloween do any of this? I might be brown and bearded, but I am from a non Muslim ‘model minority’, and a grad student in an Ivy League school. (Did I say I am not on top of hierarchies here?) I can do this because I can get away with it. Maybe that’s all one can do, sometimes. Know what one can get away with, and exploit it. Push the limits of the possible, in whatever half assed fashion seems like a good idea at the point.
At the end of the day, as my father would say, people chose to laugh, rather than being angry or afraid of a brown man dressed as ‘Osama’, and in downtown
And if you really look at it, as my father would say, at the end of the day, the Levi’s jacket mattered more.
Inshallah, this augurs well for Tuesday’s elections.
Last week I found myself shocked by the realization that I’ve only been in
Already it feels like I’ve been here for a year or something. And it hasn’t even snowed yet. (But strange things happen to time anyway, when leaves fall. And they have been falling …)
Would you say that the opposite of ‘timeless’ is time-full? The ‘timeless’ East has never been that; but here in this city, my time has been full. Books and films and conversations and friends and sights and sounds and tastes. Looking back on months seems looking back at years. So much to read, think, see, experience. Way too much caffeine. The last time that felt so full of time was
Last weekend I attended a conference on ruins. Jetztzeit was mentioned. Benjamin’s time of the now. History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. [Jetztzeit].* Thus, to Robespierre ancient
On the 2 train heading uptown, an impromptu fashion show, catwalking and catcalling in the aisles by astoundingly beautiful young black people, one of them with Josephine Baker hair. They were the Jazz Age come back to life, as a friend said, we rode the 2 with the Harlem Renaissance.
I keep photographing stationary cycles. Locked and falling apart, abandoned. Out of time. Like the ruins of
The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do no measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in
we are told that new Joshuas
at the foot of every tower, as though irritated with time itself, fired at the dials in order to stop the day.
Whether or not imbued with historical consiousness, they tried to stop time in
On the Q train from
Back on my street at two in the morning, a taxi stood parked by the kerb. The driver had spread a small carpet on the pavement, facing East, towards a sun still many hours from rising, and in the cold and dark and silence, he prayed, towards
Stand at the beginning of the DND flyway, the cows gently chewing plastic for company and in about five minutes a call centre Qualis will pull up, fresh from ferrying workers to their night shift jobs, keeping time with the American workday. The drivers earn some extra cash, and you’d be surprised to see how many hitchhiking souls are already in the cab, traveling past midnight to a city that was thought, not so long ago, to be an early sleeper. There are no cops, no speedguns on the road this hour (most of the time), the shining lights of the twisting tollbridge turn to psychedelic blurs looking up at this speed,
It’s quite a ride for just ten rupees. Keep the change handy. Welcome to
Long years ago, when Babur came to
Head north from Ashram Chowk up
Nizamuddin Auliya, the most revered of
Even if it’s summer you’re probably too late by now to catch much live action at India Gate, apart from the eternal flickering of the Amar Javan Jyoti under the arch. Till one in the morning though, it is a rather lively place to be. The