Tuesday, October 26, 2004

randomness, and 'You 2'?

You too?

But this at least is worth pointing out, that the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected with it the name of the noblest of all arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art.

- Plato, Phaedrus

Saturday, October 23, 2004

cycling from kabul to kolkata

the crazy book proposal to end all crazy book proposals, which i wrote three months ago, and now don't know what to do with it!!!!
as in where to get fudning and other opportunities from... if anyone reads this blog, help!!!!

Book Plan

Summary –

The proposed book would use a journey (to be undertaken as part of the research/writing of the book) by cycle between Kabul and Kolkata, as the main narrative, around which the book would arrange a series of meditations/reflections/observations on transport technology and democratic empowerment, modernity and Speed, urban planning and the limitations of the nationalist imagination. And much else.

Details -

To put it simply, this book would be a travel-book, about a journey, by cycle, from Kabul to Kolkata.

The narrative framing the book would be an actual cycle journey, carried out between October and March, with the retreating monsoon behind, at a leisurely pace of no more than a hundred kilometres a day, leaving Kabul as the chill of Autumn sets in, and travelling through the Northern part of the sub-continent in the pleasant winter.

Of course, that raises the not-simple questions of –

1) Why a travel book?

The travel book, I believe is one of the most engaging formats to make research accessible to people. The journey keeps the narrative moving, while spatially, the geography that the book covers allows room, as it were, to make conceptual and historical linkages. As in William Dalrymple’s, ‘From the Holy Mountain’, where a journey through the contemporary Middle East is elegantly entwined with the history of Christianity in the region to give us a broader understanding of both.

The travel that the travel-book necessarily requires is also significant in inevitably (?) being a sustained encounter/engagement with other people’s everydays. (A traveller, particularly one cycling through, as opposed to flying over, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is hardly likely to escape the quotidian!) The traveller’s observation of these everydays and the conversations s/he engages in should be seen as valuable research all by itself, and also as a counterpoint to the material in the archive.

As a traveller and writer, one of my more interesting projects before this has been a journey from Delhi to Daulatabad, trying to re-trace the route of march of Muhammad bin Tughlak’s alleged transfer of population in the fourteenth century, and travelling the same route in the summer of 2001. Though the archival and library research dealt with such ‘esoteric’ subjects as medieval transport and communication technology; constantly traversing the landscape (and news-scape) of the present, along with Tughlak as a peg around which ‘on the road’ conversations revolved, made my writing (partially serialised in Tehelka.com in June and July 2001) an engaging account of the present, of ‘modern’ India uneasily haunted by the often unacknowledged spirits of its medieval past.

2) Why a cycle?

In most discourses, technologically deterministic or otherwise, it is the railways that are supposed to have ‘made’ modern India, by knitting the diverse parts of the landmass into a nation. What largely gets ignored is the role the humble and ubiquitous bicycle has played, and its claims as an equally representative vehicle of Indian modernity. The coming of the trains brought an unprecedented mobility to most, but the bicycle, along with affordable local mobility, brought a more personal liberation. Illustrated best by the sense of awe and wonder with which young men from the surrounding villages of the Punjab would cycle a couple of hours in the morning to reach pre-Partition Lahore, and gape in awe at its gracious streets, and take back to their villages in the evenings the saying, Jisne Lahore nahin dekhya vo jammeya kya? or variations thereof. Or girls on cycles passing by on the way to college being a symbol (even if sublimated) of freedom and emancipation on the streets and cinema screens of fifties India.

Cycles are late contemporaries of the development of steam-technology and slightly early contemporaries of the internal combustion engine. But by providing a non-fossil fuel resource consuming alternative and individual transportation, they occupy a unique place in the technology of modernity, which isn’t often recognised. It would be nearly twenty years after the Bombay-Thane line inaugurated train-travel in India before the velocipede, a recognisable ancestor to the modern bicycle, would be developed in England. Today, Hero Cycles, the single largest producer of cycles in India (and till a while ago, in the world), has its factory in Ludhiana, on the Grand Trunk Road, between Kabul and Kolkata. A factory and its products, which, along with Indian Railways, epitomize a certain imagination of the modern Indian state, rapidly metamorphosing into…?

What do/did cycles mean for modern India? And as (parts of )urban India move into a globalized hyper-modernity, and our city planning gets determined by automobiles and their ever-increasing numbers, and the self-fulfilling logic of the rush hour traffic jam, what alternatives do cycles open for us? Can the liberating possibilities of Michel de Certau’s theses be valid for Cycling the City?

As military strategic planning makes NH1/GT Road from Delhi to the Pakistan border a smooth tarmac four lane on which cars can thunder past at one forty kilometres per hour, leaving the scenery an unseen blur, are we not subjecting ourselves to, as in Paul Virilio’s conception, the tyranny of ‘absolute speed’, where the here and dwindles to nothingness and elsewhere is always dominating our imagination. Does cycling offer us an alternative of slowness, of the being in the here and now, of extricating ourselves from the tunnel vision of the high speed Highway into the widespread network of bylanes, both literally, and in as many ways possible, metaphorically?

3) Why Kabul?

Kabul seems to be a strange place to start a journey, when the brief is a book about modern India.

The Partition, and since 1979, the twenty five years of warfare in Afghanistan, combined with the dominant worldview of the gl/ocal mediascape have made Afghanistan seem like a country from long ago and far away, a memory from a different age.

But there are Pashto speaking Sikh shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi to remind us that things were very different, not so long ago. The annual journey from Kabul to Kolkata by Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwallah is symbolic of many other journeys across the north-western passes into the sub-continent. With Kabul within the ambit of the idea of ‘India’, a whole different imagination of India was possible, and a different imagination of South Asia still can be. The borderlands of our truncated north-west are hermetically sealed (at least normatively), and every breach is now considered an act of terror and violation, and received history makes it seem like that has always been the case. But the ‘north-west passage’ has been a conduit, if seen in perspective, only marginally of ‘terror’, and far more importantly, one of cultures, and trade, and technology. And not just uni-directionally.

To reclaim Kabul in the landscape of the imagination is to reclaim not just the Indo- Greeks and the Scythians and the Mughals, in the generally understood terms of ‘heritage’, but to reclaim the routes along which ideas travelled – from Bamiyan to the university at Taxila down the ancient uttarapath to Pataliputra, from Ulugh Beg’s astronomical tables in Samarkand to the Jantar Mantar in Ujjain. To reclaim Kabul in the landscape of the imagination is to bring Lahore closer to Delhi, by focusing not just on the pasts of the link between Kabul and Kolkata, but also its possibilities.

To cycle from Kabul to Kolkata is to do many things.

At the simplest, it is to reiterate the continuity, and continued relevance of a road that predates nations and should hopefully, outlast this particular method of segregating humanity.

It is to pay homage to Kim, The Lama and their dusty road.

It is the opportunity to have a sustained engagement with life ‘on the road’ in the sub-continent, and to reclaim the pleasures, and the value, of the roadside conversation as a mode of discourse.

It is the opportunity to explore the many layers of the past that are hidden under and give shape to the present of Northern South Asia.

It is to remember the many different means of transport by which humans have crossed the north-western passes, and by the act of cycling, to reclaim a mode of transport, and of being, which seems antidotal to our fractured hypermodernity.

What it is not an attempt at, as the leisurely pace of the exercise envisioned will indicate, is any great effort of human endurance.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Kashmiri Gate

Kashmiri Gate. Bombarded 1857.
Metro Rail Station, Kashmiri Gate, 2001. 'A dream come true'.
So it goes. So it goes.

Monday, October 11, 2004

More on Terminals, and Borders

Suzanne wrote back after reading the last post, with more of a taste of the border.

As the last lines of someone's deatbed poem go -

"Don't ask the blacksmith
the taste of iron
Ask the horse
Who holds the bit in his mouth"

what you don't know is the problems i encountered at heathrow having a
PAL/NTSC/SECAM vcr in my mom's 1960's pan am flight attendant suitcase.

the head of heathrow security called my name on the speaker system
minutes before take-off. i was wearing those thick green eyeglasses
(you know the ones i wore when i had photo-sensitivity) and my hair was
frizzed out and messy from the flight. i must have looked like some
emma goldman-type. when they searched the suitcase, they discovering
the secret of my sloppiness. underwear wrapped around mini-dv tapes,
pieces of mosaic stolen from crumbling parsi mansions in matheran, and
the vcr.

i cried when they interrogated me about the vcr. the security official
called me emotionally unstable. i had no money - the last of it was
spent on that phone call to eric - except a check reimbursing me for my
time in apollo hospital, which i had no way of cashing in london.

at the last minute, he let me on the plane.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Terminals, Borders, Goodbyes.

saw the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg film 'The Terminal' yesterday; based on the real story of ....

The Man Who Lost His Past
Monday September 6, 2004
The Guardian

I first saw him, many years ago now, staring out with an uncanny gaze of blank intensity from the pages of a newspaper. Seated alone on a bench, immune to the endless motion of the airport around him, there was a curious inscrutability to his slight, balding yet dignified countenance. He looked like some unlikely cross between a Zen master and Chaplin's Tramp. He had these amazing long brows, as dark as his hooded eyes, and a small, perfectly groomed moustache perched on top of his upper lip. It was like a caricature of a face, five charcoal marks on a canvas. But strangely noble, too.

His name was Merhan Karimi Nasseri though he called himself "Sir Alfred". He lived in a lost dimension of absurd bureaucratic entanglement. That is to say, on a bench in Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, and he had lived there since 1988. For a series of insanely complicated reasons, the Iranian-born refugee was now a man without a country - or any other documented, internationally accepted identity status. Alfred couldn't leave France because he did not have papers; he couldn't enter France because he did not have papers. The authorities told him to wait in the airport lounge while they sorted the paradox out. That he did - for years and years.

Then one day, I heard that Alfred had finally been given his papers. He was free to go anywhere in the world he wished. Except now it seemed he didn't want to leave the airport after all. It was the only home - the only past - he had left....

Paul Berczeller calls Steven Spielberg's 'The Terminal' puerile, and at one level that's easy to agree with.

'Sir Alfred' Merhan Karimi Nasseri's life, suspended in Charles de Gaulle Airport is a knife edged absurdist comment on our times, Toba Tek Singh for the twenty first century. And like Sadat Hasan Manto's unforgettable character, Merhan refuses to make a 'sane' choice - instead he prefers being stuck in limbo, a man without a country.
To take such a character and put him into a Hollywood film with a schmaltzy, happy ending would of course immediately attract the 'puerile' label...

I found the film aware of borders, aware of the constant gaze of the surveillance camera, aware of the inherent cruelty of 'Homeland Security' and bureacratic red tape, aware that the 'border' isn't just the arbitrary line that divides nations on maps, but everywhere that you have to 'Prove your Identity' - and yet full of hope. Saadat Hasan Manto may have been a greater story writer than God, but the creed of the storyteller is (I hope and wish and pray) not just to lay bare with economical scapel strokes the heart of human darkness, but to enlighten it.

Hope cannot rhyme with history if there is no hope.
And how else would you challenge the Panopticon of the surveillance state, unless you did it the Victor Navorski way?
By talking back to the Surveillance Cameras, like the New York Surveillance Camera Players.
How else do you challenge Power than with unformal alliances and subversive friendships, the Weapons of the Weak?

And how else do you lose a love? A man without a country, in love with a woman who crosses seas... Tristan und Isolde. ummm... Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones? Who meet often in the International Transit Lounge at a bookshop called "Borders". Where she voraciously devours History books, perhaps to have some sense of rootedness in an itinerant flight schedule?

. . . Ah, said Tridib. That's the trick, you see. It happened everywhere, wherever you wish it. It was an old story, the best story in Europe, Snipe said, told when Europe was a better place, a place without borders, and countries -- it was a German story in what we call Germany, Nordic in the north, French in France, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall it was the story of a hero called Tristan, a very sad story, about a man without a country, who fell in love with a woman across-the-seas....

- Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines

And in the end of the Terminal, Victor and Amelie, the stranded passenger and the airhostess cannot be together - defeated by the border.

Shuddha has written eloquently about borders, a piece that I circulated last year among friends across many borders, and which seemed poignantly true when Eric and Suzanne and I went to Indira Gandhi Intenational Airport to see Suzanne off...
To cut a long story short, machine gun toting policemen wouldn't let us beyond the entrance to the Terminal. There wasn't even a chance to say goodbye properly. We we worried becuase Suzanne had way too much luggage and could possibly have customs snafus. There was nothing we could do, except standing, milling around, looking past the geats if we could maybe get a glimpse of her, lost in the cavernous Terminal. We were't the only ones. A thousand bobbing necks craned to catch glimpses of those now irrevocably on the other side of the border. We couldn't even get through to her on her mobile phone becuase there was mobile jamming for security reasons. finally, after an interminable hour's wait, while we sat in the vistor's lounge, she managed to call Eric and say that she was through. It was, I think, two in the morning. Nothing out of the oridanry, of course, but extraordinarily soul destroying.

The next morning, Eric left for Hyderabad, after a short two hours of sleep. The message he sent, at five eighteen in the morning, is still preserved on my cellphone.
'Fully through the borders at hand...'

I want this line in the sand they call the border, and all lines in the sand that they call borders, anywhere, to be wiped away by the trespasses of the multitudes for whom the lines are only so much wasted electricity, and scrap metal, and piled up energy doing nothing but making the world a place that belongs to no one at all.

I think Victor Navorski would have approved...

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Surplus, or even Time is on my side...

these clocks were shot at alang, gujarat, where the bowels of ships get ripped out. Alang, where the defunct innards of dead luxury liners are salvaged by workers risking life and limb. Insurance? You've got to be kidding... was reminded of alang by this movie i saw last friday called 'surplus'. in the west a surplus, even, of clocks.... ti-i-i-me is on my side, yes it is...
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