Friday, May 11, 2012

sewer gas

...In the 14th Street and 8th Avenue subway station, an alligator in a suit and tie reaches out from under a manhole cover and grabs a passerby; the passerby’s head is a smooth, full sack of gold. New York revels in its own legend. If there were no albino alligators in the sewers, they would have to be invented...

Read further here

Monday, February 06, 2012

Jinnealogy (outing a concept...)

The jinn, much longer lived than human beings, have memories stretching back a very long way, several gen­erations of human history. They can connect individuals hundreds of years apart instantaneously, forsaking human institutions of memory and generations of transmission, short-circuiting genealogy into electrifying, other-worldly jinnealogy. 

More here

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sarai in Meybod, Iran, June 2010

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

that which was named delhi

This is a translation of the opening page and a half of Urdu writer Intizar Hussain's literary memoir of Delhi, “Dilli Tha Jiska Naam”, published by Sang-e-Meel Publishers, Lahore, 2003.

No settlement shows its [true] self easily. And then Delhi is a settlement about which Mir had warned us that it's not any other town, this is Delhi. You and I are in a small numbered queue, the queue of those who have swallowed so much of the dust of Delhi's street and alleys that we have become the stones of Delhi's roads, but even to us, how much of its selfhood has this city shown? It has hidden away far more than it has ever shown. So know this attempt of mine as merely a useless fancy. To tell the truth, it's just one of Delhi's evenings which has made me crazy, obsessed. This melancholy monsoon evening revealed itself to me for the space of a breath, and then vanished. To relate it again is not my intention. When was I able to tell of it before? I am merely gesturing towards it.

This was an evening two or three years after Partition. I had reached Delhi after a lot of effort. When we set foot in that celebrated passage that is called the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the two times were meeting[1]. But the crowds that were usually present, with the scraping of shoulder against shoulder, were missing. Outside the dargah, the usual crowd around the shops selling roses, incense and candles was also nowhere to be seen. Silence had spread its encampment. From some direction a group of three qawwals appeared, harmoniums around their necks. They put the harmoniums down, and began singing immediately –

In every house sadness has spread, Shabbir has gone and left Madina.

We listened to them for a little while and then came outside. We being me and my old friends Rewati and Singh, whose guest I was. Rewati said, Did you know that Ghalib's mazaar is here as well? Let's go there as well, and so we got off the narrow path and started walking amidst tall grass. Janamashtami had passed, and the grass had grown green and tall from the showers of [the months of] Sawan and Bhadon. In the middle of this grass a ruined platform came into view. Around it was a tumbledown enclosure wall. Inside, three graves in a ruinous condition. One of them was Ghalib's grave. I read the fatiha. Then we started walking through the tall grass again. Silence was all around. Only a peacock's call coming from afar broke this silence. After which the silence deepened even further. A couplet of Amir Khusrau's which I had just read at his tomb started whirling in my head –

The fair one sleeps upon the bed, her hair veiling her face

Khusrau leave for your own home, it is dark now in this country.

After this I had to wait for thirty years to go to Delhi. Then somehow an opportunity to make a trip to this settlement presented itself. One trip. Then a second trip. Then a third trip. On every trip I made sure I visited the street of Nizamuddin Auliya. But now the whole map of the place had changed. Crowds. Shoulder scraping against shoulder. In every shop heap after heap of rose petals. Pushing and shoving to cross the threshold of the shrine to reach the tombs. And oh, the platform with Ghalib's grave vanished. The grass extinct. Now there was a wide platform of marble here. Beautiful filigree screens all around it. Inside, a grave made of marble. Right next to it, an imposing Ghalib Hall. On every visit the crowds seemed denser than the last time. And every time I badly missed that monsoon evening and that ruined grave falling apart amidst the tall grass. Oh Lord, where did that evening go and hide and where did that grave disappear to? Where should I look for it?

[1] It was dusk.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

the faded colours of delhi

Aaj rang hai ri ma, rang hai ri. Mere mehboob ke ghar rang hai ri…

There is colour in the beloved’s house today. These lines are attributed to Hazrat Amir Khusrau Dehlavi. Some say it is a song about Holi. Some say it describes his first meeting with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Perhaps it is about both. But what was the rang of the mehboob ka ghar? What colours did Khusrau and Nizamuddin (and everyone else) live amidst in fourteenth century Delhi? Much of what remains from the 14th century (and later) is dark and somber and unadorned now. But so much of Khusrau’s Hindavi poetry is about colour and brightness. Jag ujiyaro, jagat ujiyaro. This is the poetry of a bright, lit up,world. Surely it was not all metaphysical, metaphorical?

More here

Friday, February 11, 2011

the ethnographer in his youth

S’adat Yar Khan “Rangin” (1755-1835), true to his takhallus or nom-de-plume, was a “Colorful” character; “A mercenary, a horse trader, and a poet (Kidwai & Vanita 2000, 221),” he lived and worked and traveled extensively in late-Mughal India. He could also be said to be the first ethnographer-poet, preceding Val Daniel by about two hundred years. He gave the name Rekhti to a genre of poetry that purports to be “women’s speech”, and dwells on women’s lives and concerns (Vanita 2004, 12). While similar poetry had been written before him (Naim 2001, 5), Rangin not only names but also invents, as it were, a new genre of poetry; which is an almost obsessive ethnographic documentation of women’s speech, rituals, beliefs, emotions and sexual practices, written with tenderness, sarcasm, irony and occasionally undisguised wickedness. His introduction to his Rekhti Divan [collection of poetry] describes a decidedly participant observatory approach. In the days of his youth, he declares, he used to spend a lot of time with khangis [married women from respectable households who surreptitiously practiced prostitution], and he used to pay almost voyeuristic attention to them and “pay close attention to the speech of the eloquent ones in that community.” [tamashbini khangiyon ki hi karta tha aur is qaum meN har ek fasih taqrir par dhyan dharta tha]. And due to this, he got much information about their idioms, language and phrases [un ki istilahoN, zabaan aur muhavaroN se bahut si khabar hui], which he then merely set in verse. He then gives the reason for including the Farhang-e Muhavarat-e Begamat, the Glossary of Ladies’ Idioms, in the preface to his book – his friends could not understand what he was writing, for there were words and phrases that they could not comprehend [lekin divan meN lughat aur muhavarat aise aise nazm hu’e the jo aksar yaroN se samjhe na jate]. And so, “Inevitably in this preface this slave has written descriptions of these subtle words in such a fashion that their meaning does not escape those who see and read this book.” [Nachareh jo daqiqi alfaz the in ko bande ne is dibacheh meN taur shar’a kar ke likh diya ke kisi lafz ke m’ani paRhne aur dekhne waloN se reh na ja’eN.]

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

open city

My friend Teju Cole's book is out. Here's a glowing review of Open City.
Buy it. Beg, borrow, steal it. Most importantly, read it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

beeta saal

Over a year went by in which I wrote nothing on the blog. It wasn't that I wasn't writing, but I was in Delhi, doing research, and it all seemed a little unbloggable, as it were. I worked on the city, and the city worked on me, and it was all a little more fraught and sad and bruising and transformative and enlightening and melancholy and deep and rich with both tears and laughter than the chatty, snippet-y style of (my) blogging could do justice to.

Now that I'm back in New York, and about to go off Facebook so that I can write the damn dissertation instead of looking at everyone's status updates, I think I'll return to the blog; in the form I like it best -- a repository of writing and ideas and works in progress, open to comment and conversation. So in that spirit, here's links to some of the stuff I did write last year.

To begin with, the city overwhelmed me. I couldn't stop looking and listening, my Delhi-wallah armour was off. I gave a talk at my alma mater, Ramjas College, early in my wide-eared sojourn in Delhi, and on Shivam Vij's insistence, posted a snippet of it about overheard conversations on Kafila. Continuing to be often overwhelmed by the city, I left it a lot. I went to Haridwar, to Spiti and to Iran; the latter being a particularly special journey.

When I was in the city, I ended up being involved in two art-projects. One, Beam Me Up (curated by Gitanjali Dang), for which I wrote an essay for/about a public art-project by Vishal Rawlley, involving a floating sculpture, a medieval reservoir, and skype. The other was a photo-essay on Delhi that I put together for the Delhi Commons website, curated by Iram Ghufran.

Also, while in the city, some experiments in trying to make my research/academic work popularly accessible, mostly thanks to Raghu Karnad at TimeOut Delhi. On tracing the forgotten biography of an early 16th century saint at Bijay Mandal; and a piece on what the first decade of New Delhi felt like to those in the newly "Old" City. (There was a tranlsation of a page and a half of Intezar Husain too, but I can't seem to find a link).

While in Delhi I cried and bemoaned the city more than I have ever done; but it also became for me, more strongly than ever before, shehr-i yaran, the city of friends. And for that no thanks is enough.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

universal ethnic. or, this happens to me a lot.

Two carpenters are tearing down the front door of my apartment.
One of them looks at me in the hallway, and asks, Are you Greek?
The other turns around, looks at my beard, and says, No, he's Egyptian.
I'm Indian, I say.
You're Jewish? asks Carpenter 2.
No, Indian.

A version of this phenomenon previously noted here.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

faiz on the d train/ tere gham ko jaan ki talaash thi

तेरे ग़म को जाँ की तलाश थी तेरे जाँ निसार चले गए
तेरी रह में करते थे सर तलब, सर- रहगुज़ार चले गए

तेरी कज-अदाई से हार के शब-ए इंतज़ार चली गयी
मेरे ज़ब्त-ए हाल से रूठ कर मेरे ग़मगुसार चले गए

न सवाल-ए वस्ल, न अर्ज़-ए ग़म, न हिकायतें न शिकायतें
तेरे अहद में दिल-ए ज़ार के सभी इख़तियार चले गए

यह हमीं थे जिन के लिबास पर सर-ए रह सयाही लिखी गयी
यही दाग़ थे जो सजा के हम सर-ए बज़्म यार चले गए

न रहा जूनून-ए रुख़-ए वफ़ा, यह रसन यह दार करोगे क्या
जिन्हें जुर्म-ए इश्क़ पे नाज़ था वह गुनाहगार चले गए

-- Faiz Ahmad "Faiz", July 1959

In Roman --

Tere gham ko jaaN ki talaash thi, tere jaN nisaar chale gaye
Teri rah meiN karte the sar talab, sar-e rahguzaar chale gaye

Teri kaj adaaee se haar kar shab-e intazaar chali gayee
Mere zabt-e haal se rooTh kar mere ghamgusaar chale gaye

Na sawaal-e vasl, na arz-e gham, na hikayateN na shikayateN
Tere ehed maIn dil-e zaar ke bhi ikhteyaar chale gaye

Yeh hameeN the jin ke libaas par sar-e rah syaahi likhi gayee
Yahi daagh the jo sajaa ke ham sar-e bazm yaar chale gaye

Na raha junoon-e rukh-e wafa, ya rasan ye dar karoge kya?
JinheiN jurm-e ishq pe naaz tha voh gunaahgar chale gaye

In (as usual) crappy, too literal translation --

Your sorrow searched for life, those ready to give life for you are gone
Those who clamoured to be at the head of your path, have gone to the beginning of another road

Defeated by your twisted gestures the night of waiting went away
Upset by the restraint of my condition, my would-be consolers went away

No question of union, no declaration of grief, neither anecdotes nor complaints
In your era the rights of this wounded heart also went away

It is us on whose clothing blackness was written at the beginning of the road
These were the scars we adorned when we went to the start of the beloved's banquet

The madness of the face of fidelity does not remain, what will you do with this rope, these gallows
They who were proud of the crime of love, those sinners have gone away

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