Wednesday, October 25, 2006

eid mubarak

Monday Morning. Phone call. Strange Number.
- Hello?
- Salaam Aleikum.
Strange voice. And Salaam Aleikum could be said by people speaking a whole variety of languages. But my instinctive, immediate reaction was to switch to Hindustani.
- Aap kaun bol rahe hain?
- Oh, this must be a wrong number, I thought you were my friend. Sorry for the mistake.
- No problem.
Then suddenly
- Aapka naam kya hai?
- Ji, mera naam Anand hai.
- Achcha Anand bhai, Eid Mubarak.
The voice was warm with laughter.
- Aapko bhi Eid Mubarak. Khuda Hafiz.

I kept the phone down, smiling. Diwali had luckily been on a weekend, but there was nothing here, at least in this part of town, to suggest Eid being celebrated. Except on Chapati Mystery. So the strange coincidence of a wrong number turning out to be a hamzabaan felt good, very good. Like the universe was conspiring to wish me or something, which is a good feeling.

Last Eid (and Diwali) were a few days after the Delhi bomb blasts, and what I wrote about Eid then never went on to the blog. Now seems to be a good time to do so. But before that, a link to Vikings meeting Arabs in the eight century world. Dude.

I’m excited. Excited enough to ask other people along for an insomniac evening. It’s a Thursday night AND its Chand Raat, the night the Eid ka Chand is finally sighted. Nizamuddin basti should be an endless sea of sensation, light and noise and grilling meat…

While walking in from Nizamuddin West, we pass a couple, blind beggar being led by semi blind wife. Behen ki Lund, he says, we should have stood near the dargah.

Business hasn’t been that good. On Chand Raat? That’s not very promising.

A little before midnight and it’s sort of quiet. Five minutes after we enter my favourite restaurant, Nasir Iqbal, we’re the only people there. Cops on the road outside.

- It’s chand raat today, right? Where is the raunaq?

- There were lots of people here till eleven, but now everyone’s gone home to prepare for tomorrow… and since the bombs there have been a lot of check posts put up here. That has made a big difference.

We walk in towards the dargah, with all the shops on the way winding down. There’s one person calling out to sell us rose petals, just one offer of sevaiyan. Inside the dargah it’s emptier than I have ever seen it. The sound of water dripping from a hose is the loudest sound, as the huge marble courtyard is cleaned for tomorrow’s prayers. A few people sitting around the mazaar praying. The cats out, prowling around the edges, looking for food, disappearing like ghosts through medieval crevices. We hear the faint strains of qawwali. We barge into the house of Nizami Bandhu, qawwals, and are graciously allowed to sit in on a late night riyaaz.

They live in the many arched basement of a sixteenth century tomb, with kickass acoustics. They’re practicing for an upcoming tour of the United States. The regular rhythm guy still hasn’t got his visa. The last session is played back on a mobile phone. The next qawwali is taken up.

- Let’s create some mahaul. Atmosphere.

Voices blend in soulful, sonorous, sorrow. Not good enough, apparently.

- It’s difficult to do after a haadsa like that. Incident. Happening.

I am haunted by the song but it feels like a paraphrase – Mujhe chain se jeene ki ijaazat de de… Allow me to live in peace… O Lord?

It’s a song about Madina. City, in Arabic. This city? All cities?

They sing Kabir. Practise winds down around one. Tea is called for, family gathers around. We’re part of it all. The laugther, the camaraderie, the fun. Of course you have to stay for tea, you can’t leave. No one’s going to sleep tonight anyway…

We finally leave after one thirty. The basti seems so much livelier than when we came in. We eat insanely tasty phirni at one forty five in the morning. Our Eid is already mubarak.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


This Diwali, like two Diwalis ago, was in a new apartment, living with new people, and with the brand new twist of being halfway across the world from Hindustan.
(So Gogo, Marcus and K met in Delhi after Diwali, and for once I'm the man who isn't there.)

And yet being here, halfway across the world, has been one of the easiest transitions in my life, apart from the initial homesickness and missing the sound of Hindi. Part of it being the ease of grad school bubble land, but even outside of that, this is an easy city to get along in. (Perhaps especially after coming from Delhi. Even easier after coming from Bombay I would say, where I have spent some of my most f***ed up moments, and my single most miserable day on record.) Part of it being the grad school grind (You don't have time to feel homesick). Part of it has been the ease of making new friends. Part of it the city itself, and everything it has to offer. No, it doesn't feel like home, but I'm not complaining. There are parked bikes as sculpture, there are movies every week, and there's always, worse comes to worse, St. Nicks on a Saturday night.

Part of making it feel more like home was celebrating Diwali in the apartment. The flatmates were all enthused by the idea. The house was spruced up, the room was done up, kaju ki barfi was bought from Jackson Heights. Fabio cleaned the kitchen like it's never been cleaned before, Ivor scrubbed the bathroom till it shone and Mark repaired the donated stereo system, making the eight hour 'sort of desi' playlist possible. We got by with a little help from our friends. There were the W deck playing cards, sadly unused, courtesy Joel. The candles were borrowed, tea lights in aluminium shells from Ikea serving as diyas - thanks Hester. 'My cook came all the way from Brooklyn,' as I remember saying early in the party, in a classic case of reverse outsourcing. (Yes, I must confess that I was a mere humble assistant on Saturday evening, chopper of onions, cooker of rice, occasional stirrer of ladles. The concept and execution of the chana masala were done by a paleface from Seattle, via Istanbul and Oxford.) Thanks Elizabeth.

Then the guests started trickling in, then they started flooding in. At some point in the evening there must have been between forty and fifty people in different parts of the apartment, talking to each other, not listening to the music, drinking, laughing. Early in the evening, a friend from Delhi said that there's nothing here like the conversations that we have in Delhi, jahaan log chaude hoke baat karte hain, where people in at least two parties I've been to have been so involved in their debates that they've kept talking long after the host has gone to bed. I tend to agree with him, but Diwali night felt different, it felt like being in Delhi. There were astronomers talking to artists, policy wallahs talking to art historians, physicists talking to photographers. At least five different languages were spoken in the course of the evening. There were some intense conversations that I only flitted through, playing the host. Maybe this is what happens when eighty percent of your guests are from grad school; maybe this is what happens in New York anyway; maybe we got a little bit of the spirit of Delhi going this Diwali.

Whatever it was, waving goodbye to the last of the guests at two thirty in the morning, I definitely felt right at home.
And there was a definite sense of deja vu in clearing out the mess the next morning...

Lets hear it for the dolphin
Lets hear it for the trees
Aint runnin out of nothin in my deep freeze
Its casual entertaining
We aim to please

At my parties...

Monday, October 23, 2006

parked bikes as sculpture.

To me, these are iconic images of New York. And the beginning of a series.
I don't have words yet, but thinking almost entirely in a visual register, these tangential thought/image constellations -
Ghost Bikes.

I don't have the words, but trust Raqs to have them -
"there are no histories of residue, no atlases of abandonment, no memoirs of what a person was but could not be"

So much more to write on.
Diwali, Eid and Inshallah.
Soon, inshallah, if grad school allows.

Friday, October 20, 2006

ach, those germans...

...the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one's self.
- Friedrich Nietzzche, from On the Use and Abuse of History for Life

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

- Walter Benjamin, from On the Concept of History

Photographs -
- Abandoned mosque, Lado Sarai village, Delhi, October 2005
- Sculpture outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Morningside Heights, New York, October 2006

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

dilli ki sardi

October, and it's already as cold as the worst of Delhi winters. Day time temperatures of 13-14 degrees, night time temperatures of 5-6. (Yeah I know Delhi went down to 0.7 degrees last January but that was one day, people.)

This fall weather/cold front/whatvever it is is brilliant. I could go on and on and on about the angled light, the turning colour of the leaves, and so on and so on, and I will, in another post. Right now, I'm just bothered about the temperature.

People die when it's this cold in Delhi. And it's going to get colder still, going down to -18 on real miserable days. How on earth do you bear cold like that when you're living out on the streets?

Some gullible third world part of me is still in shock about the number of homeless people you see in New York. The number of people living out on the streets , wheeling all their worldy goods in ex supermarket carts. (Apologies for the unsubtle irony of the first photo, but I couldn't resist the (cheap) shot - wheels look at wheels.) The number of people, on the streets, in the subway, asking you to help them out, asking you for money. And this is, shockingly, the total mindfuck for me - people begging in English.

(And then there's the other dilemma. Do you give? How much do you give? Especially when you're a grad student and you feel poor yourself?)

How long can you sleep out under the bridge on a piece of cardboard when it gets below freezing? Where do you go when it starts snowing? How do you survive the winter?

I really want to know.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

sapnon ka sheher

Watching The Science of Sleep was painfully funny, because through much of the film, my laughter was bittersweet, laughing not just at the antics of Gael Garcia Bernal, but also at myself; at how much that interior landscape of dreams resembled my own. And how much of my own life tends to get spent inside my own head. (Or up my own ass, as my more persipacious friends would say. Right, Ashley?)

And since coming to New York, my dreams have just got weirder. I thought it was just a reaction to being from away from 'home' (and hence unheimlich, unhomelike in the most obviously Freudian sense), but maybe it's just my bed. When Gaurav was here, he kept slipping in and out of weirder and weirder dreams (or so he said). Meanwhile I, for once, slept dreamless in the sleeping bag.

So, not only have suitcases run downhill and become cellos, but senile old women have dug up rose gardens at 3 in the moonlit morning in some strange country, warplanes have been shot out of the sky over what surely wasn't Nizamuddin by Stingers, and a childhood friend has been held captive on an island amid a sea of floating refrigerators, and all of this happens in vivid, precise detail, in landscapes I've never seen before, the newspapers have headlines I've never read before, and the light? The light seems to be from a different planet altogether; or maybe it's just the Dutch Light which has supposedly vanished from the real world, but shines forever on neverneverland.

Sapnon ka sheher. City of dreams. And yesterday a plane crashed into a building, again; on the Upper East Side. In what could have been a scene from Stefan's dreams. Or what could have been, a few years ago, a scene from mine.

… They come visiting at the oddest of times – when I am walking in Connaught Place, for example. All of a sudden an A-10 Thunderbolt appears, ten feet above the long façade of classical pillars fronting M block. Everything is silent and everything is stationary, and the Thunderbolt’s long wings and elevated engines make it look a bit like a silhouette of Mickey Mouse with an overlong, overstiff moustache painted on, in frontal perspective. But then the muzzle of the Avenger cannnon under its nose starts twinkling. Red tracers shoot forth, thirty millimetre shells, four thousand per minute, a thousand in the fifteen seconds the plane takes to pass over Central Park and Palika and vanish down Parliament Street.

The scene becomes a collection of erupting fountains. The rush hour crowds, the pavement trinket sellers, the couples hand in hand, the office goers briefcases in hand, the tourists handkerchiefs in hand held over their noses; all erupt out onto the road, vaulting over railings, the controlled chaos of rush hour goes completely out of hand. Blood spurts and gushes, dismembered appendages describe lazy spinning arcs towards the pavement, where the worn red flagstones are also erupting into fountains of sandstone chips.

The traffic has ground to a complete halt, which, in this part of the city, is slightly unusual. The tarmac on the road has been ploughed up marginally faster than it would otherwise have been. A couple of more cars have been FUBARed than the Blue Line buses generally manage to. There are gaping holes where some of the shimmering mirror panes of the Jeevan Bharti building used to be. Holes, once again. The reflection of the world is incomplete. Through one of the holes, a frightened face peeks out, a face whose desktop computer has been pulverised. He’d been asking for a faster processor and a bigger hard disk for months.

A wail rises from the pavement, into the rapidly darkening sky, its edges blurred with smog and smoke. It blends with the long drawn out, sonorous and slightly metallic sound of the amplified azaan being broadcast from the nearest mosque. Allah hu Akbar. God is great.

Angel nearly puked when I first told her about these bombings, strafings and general aerial mass butchery of the residents of Delhi that happens regularly inside my head. Too many Hollywood movies, was her first diagnosis. Anybody who can proudly boast of having seen Terminator 2 a dozen times is bound to have violence implanted in his brain, she concluded. When I stopped watching all movies and even playing the occasional game of Doom and Quake and Strike Commander, but the regular Pearl Harbours wherever I happened to be didn’t; she switched to subtler reasoning. Now she tells me to go see a shrink. She says the fighter planes are all a sign of the repressed violence in my pseudo-Gandhian psyche. She also talks of anarchic impulses, the bombings as a symbol of the destruction of the institutions of the repressive state, the necessity of destroying which I never hesitate from endorsing in public. Switching to Freud she talks of repressed sexuality too…

(excerpt from, ‘ Flight; aka A Short History of KLPD’, written by hand, Delhi, January 2000)

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Noo Yawk Zoom

As photographers, is it the cities we live in that determine our aesthetic choices; or is it just the equipment we have at hand?

I've never been in New York before, and I've never had a camera with an optical zoom equivalent to 36-432 mm in 35 mm terms, so it's hard for me to say.

But this camera fits this city well, or so it seems. The pictures above are all examples of what I call the Noo Yawk Zoom, where the long focal length not just brings the (often vertically) distant closer; but also 'squeezes' the distance between the foreground and background, bringing disparate elements together in strange juxtapositions. Except that they're not strange in New York, they just exaggerate a logic already inherent in the city, celebrated in the city. As in the song 'Englishman in New York' by Sting, its opening apparently inspired by the diversity of sound in just walking down one street in this city.

So a baseball game, a mock Gothic castle, a forest and skyscapers in one zoom shot from Central Park, looking south. A green copper church steeple, a surveillance camera, a wooden water tower and a glass clad skyscraper in one zoom north up Amsterdam Avenue.
A thick forest of masts on the Hudson. And a smiling sculptural sun framed by road signs.

Delhi? Well, in Delhi juxtapositions get pretty wild without trying. A 40-80 lens works just fine.

Soon up on the flicker page - a series on 'parked bikes as sculpture', and the 'junk/abandonment' thematic continuing from India...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

In bookstores and subway stations

Riffing on Dylan, again -
In bookstores and subway stations People talk of situations Read books, repeat quotations And we're no further from war...

One photo, from the Canal Street Subway station. One, from the Columbia Bookstore.
The graffiti makes an iconic image into something even more disturbing; whereas the film (of which this is the poster) methinks, will work (or hope to work) towards problematizing it.

And even the liberals here have to be even-handed, equally representing both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But how can you be 'even handed' when a 'situation' is unequal and unjust?
How can you be even handed when the subway graffiti conflates American military victories with Israel(yes, I know it's an eight pointed star, but what does it make you think of?), a logic too easily understood everywhere in the world today?

This country...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

if dylan didn't go to grad school, how did he know?

how did he know how it often feels?

Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping. My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet, I have no one to meet And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.

I have also recently, and only partly in jest, been compared to Dean Moriarty.
Now this in itself would have been a matter of (some) pride not so many years ago. After all, there are chunks of On The Road I can recite, verbatim and breathless- The only people for me are the mad ones the ones who are mad to live mad to talk mad to be saved... and so on.

But now, well, let's just say that towards the end of the book, Dean Moriarty is going the holy goof way, he's tired and he's BEAT... and these days I know just how that feels.

Hence today a long ramble through the Upper East Side, Central Park (watch the video), and along the Hudson through Riverside Park.
Including an incident where sheer Delhi cussedness (minus anger) made Noo Yawk aggro back down with a 'You know what, I'm getting out of this situation.'
'You should'.
And they say this town is tough. But more on that later.

On a happier(?) note, here's why Douglas Adams is really important for linguistics -
Linguistic time is self-refrential, says Emile Beneveniste. Dan Streetmentioner agrees.

the blessing of the animals

Mowgli should have been there, but it was a few months too late.
There were hundreds of dogs, only some of them seeming reluctant about the whole deal. Gaurav and I figured they were atheists. Or maybe they were just afraid of confessing where they'd buried the bones.

The eagles and the doves hung out together. And then there were the llamas.

Bless 'em all.

Monday, October 02, 2006

the calligraphic state, and the tourist trap

Just finished reading Brinkley Messick's astounding book, The Calligraphic State.
Was reminded of, made to think about Delhi in immensely productive and complicated ways.
Any doubts as to why I am here have officially been dispelled.

...In Yemen, says Messick, in the absence of ‘colonial rupture’, it has appeared possible, as the preamble of the Constitution says, to “preserve… character, customs, and heritage”, while adapting to the standards of the community of “interlocked” nations. This seems, at first sight, to be too smooth, especially given the analytical depth of this book.

But then we all have subject positions. I come from a city, and a country where the ruptures with the past wreaked by colonialism, and then the specific ruptures from the Islamic(ate) past wreaked by the post-colonial state, are well known. Messick’s book is important to me in thinking about the strange survivals from those ruptures, of ‘texts loose in the world’, in order to place them again, and ‘embody’ them again, within evolving traditions of thought practice.

To give an example of a site/practise I am forced to think about. In India, ‘Islamic’ law and its practices have no legal standing, except in and as personal law. However, the process of shakwa (shikwa in Hindustani/Urdu), carries on in the strangest ways. In the ruins of a fourteenth century palace in Delhi, administered by the central Archaeological Survey, people write shikwas in the form of letters with standard salutations, and leave them in various alcoves and niches. These shakwas are not addressed to any temporal authority, but in the ruins of a ‘medieval’ polity, as it were, they are addressed to djinns, invisible spirits who are supposed to dwell here, with the standard form of ‘I/we are here in your court to ask for…’ However, like with all documents offered to government offices (Messick makes us aware of the ‘fragility’ of the original document and the necessity to have it in one’s possession) it is not the original handwritten letters that are offered, but photocopies. These are letters of intercession in a divine court, but the form not only remembers, the ‘pre modern’, as it were, but also current practice of approaching government offices. The practice, as far as I can ascertain, has a very recent history, dating back to the displacements of ‘The Emergency’, thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, older court records from the ‘princely states’ of what is now Rajasthan, in the Arabo-Persian Nastaliq script that very few read anymore, have become ‘loose in the world’. Those who make miniature paintings for tourists use these high quality papers to paint faux Mughal scenes over, keeping a few bands of calligraphy on top to simulate Mughal folios. It is not uncommon to discern the words ‘advocate’ and ‘appelant’ over amorous couples painted in an erotic register codified in the eighteenth century.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

new camera

Bought this Friday, a beautiful canon s2is.
Some photos from the 'hood -
The Hungarian Pastry Shop, where I sometimes read, and drink the most amazing Viennese coffee (except when I' obsessively taking photos with the new camera.)
Archangel Michael and the giraffes by the Cathedral of St. John the Unfinished.
Myself drinking chai on Columbia campus. Yes, despite all the sunshine, it's beginning to get cold.

More up soon, on the flickr page and maybe, shudder, shudder even ringo. Sorry if you got ringo spammed by me. But more on that later. The animals will be blessed today.
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