Monday, November 27, 2006

best fortune cookie fortune ever

You have tasted the bitterness as well as the sweetness of coffee.

At Xing Xing (?) Vietnamese Restaurant, Chinatown, Boston, lunchtime, the 15th of November, 2006.
Recovered from my wallet this jetlagged morning.

Friday, November 24, 2006

travelling month

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.'

Thursday, November 16, 2006

fall poem

Inspired by the Mountain Goats ('My love is like a cuban plane...'), and by feeling not quite satisified with the pastoralism of autumn sorrow, a la Robert Frost.


My love for you is like a plastic bag
Stuck in a New York tree. Visible
Only after the leaves have fallen.
Whipping in the crosshatch canyon winds
Like the tattered flag of a pirate ship
Wrecked in a long forgotten B-film.

My love (for you) is non-biodegradable.

15th November, 2006, Cambridge, MA

Friday, November 10, 2006

brooklyn superhero supply company

Yes, it really does exist. And is affiliated to 826 NYC, a 'nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.'

Inspirational it is, almost at gunpoint; you have to have a superhero name and read a superhero vow before buy anything from the store, especially the gallon can of Omnipotence. Had a strong bout of missing the younger brother in the store. The whacky humour of the place woule be exactly up his alley.

Okay, so sometimes we don't speak the same language (particularly if Mughal-e-Azam is involved), but most of the time we are on the same page, as they say in these parts. Together we have renamed whole bastions in abandoned forts, wondered at sheep the size of 'junior llamas', been gloatingly nationalistic at cricket matches.

He has been among the first and most unflinching critics of my film-making, photography, writing and (invariably disastrous) love life. He has introduced me to the multiverses, to graphic novels, to Calvin and Hobbes; to good music, to robots called MUNDU, and home-made mag lev trains. It is humbling to watch the dexterity of his hands and mind at work. I have introduced him to Tolkien, to Douglas Adams, medieval ruins, photography, and other stuff.

If it hasn't been clear from the above, the dude is currently sixteen, and has, of course, been younger than that for much of my knowing him. I don't know many sixteen year olds; he might, in fact, be the only sixteen year old I know; but I get the feeling I might not enjoy their company as much as I do his.

Would they, for example, get my excitement about having heard the 'the best love song ever', (with the 'best title ever' -International Small Arm Traffic Blues by The Mountain Goats) when I read the lyrics out to them over the phone. He did. He does. He's the dude. He gets -

Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania
Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania

Trucks loaded down with weapons

Crossing over every night

Moon yellow and bright
There is a shortage in the blood supply

But there is no shortage of blood
The way I feel about you baby can't explain it

You got the best of my love

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

under the young feet of passersby

Chatting with a friend back home this morning reminded me that the best poetry I know of leaf-fall/autumn is three lines in Urdu by Ali Sardar Jafri, part of a much longer poem called 'Mera Safar'/'My Journey' which is about death and reincarnation, immortality and return.

... rahroo key jawaaN qadmoN key taley sookhey huey pattoN sey merey hansney ki sadaayeiN aayeNgi
dharti ki sunhari sab nadiyaaN
aakash ki neeli sab jheeleiN
hasti sey meri bhar jaayeNgi
aur saraa zamaanaH dekhegaa
har qissaH mera afsaanaH hai
har aashiq hai sardaar yahaaN
har maashooqaH sultanaaH hai...

which I render, in very bare (leafless?) translation -
...From the crunch of dry leaves Under the young feet of passersby Will come the echoes of my laughter
All the golden rivers of the earth
All the blue lakes of the sky
Will be filled with my being
And the whole world/age will see
That every tale told is my story
Every lover here is 'Sardar'
And every beloved is 'Sultana'...

(The whole poem in Roman Urdu here. For a (not very good) English translation of all of it, scroll down on this page.)

Words remembered, wind and light and blue blue sky, and a long hoped for defeat; and watch the heart lift off, and careen like a string cut kite.

(ps - Today is wet and miserable and rainy, but who cares?)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Prospect Park. Fall.

I haven't been to Vermont yet, but Prospect Park was enough to blow my mind.
And remind me of almost every Robert Frost poem ever. Especially this one, which I attempt to pay homage to in one of the photos -

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...

Monday, November 06, 2006

new york graffiti

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Jihad Rides the Subway, or Being Osama in New York

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 Greenwich Village.

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 Columbia and takes the 1 train downtown.

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 Christopher Street is the first. He laughs and says, You need some bombs to go with this.

- 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 Sixth Avenue, I stand out. On an average, there’s a comment every twenty steps.

- 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 New York where the grid runs out, I ask a cop for directions to Jones Street.

- 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 Manhattan till long after midnight. Everywhere, the apparition of the jihad is treated with amusement and laughter. I am made to pose for photos. There’s maybe one ‘Fuck Osama’ shout the entire time.

At around eleven thirty, while at a pizza parlour with Elizabeth, Gautam and Psingh, a bunch of kids who couldn’t be older than fourteen walk in and one of them asks, Is that a Levi’s jacket?

I can’t get over this. No comments on the turban, or on the kurta, no Are you from Afghanistan? Just

- Is that a Levi’s jacket.

- Yes.

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 Delhi less than a week before leaving.

- 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 New York

me: I walked the streets of new york yesterday, dressed as the embodiment of the jihad...

AT: dangerous

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 New York? And, Would I have done this in Delhi?

(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 Delhi for taking photos in Connaught Place, so I would be a bit more circumspect. But probably. For in Delhi, while at Delhi University (DU), I used to wear the pakul, Ahmed Shah Massoud style, and claim the identity of Khushzaheen Khan (Khushzaheen being a direct Persian translation of Anand Vivek). This was the exhibitionist external reflection of a profound internal ferment – for going to Pakistan was the first realization of how Hinduized the public culture of supposedly ‘secular’ India was, and how much of the Islamicate (as opposed to necessarily Islamic) heritage of Delhi, and of India, was ghettoized and feared and unacknowledged. It was only after visiting Lahore and Peshawar that I truly began to see Delhi, and tried to reclaim and make part of my being - a lost past and a culture and a register of language. (The current iteration of which project of identity is the gratuitous use and attempts to popularize the phrase inshallah, but more on that later.)

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, India’s own specific histories of communalism and discrimination became conflated with the global hysteria against Islam and Muslims, the beard was my perhaps daft and totally inadequate move at dissimulation, my standing with the sons of Cain. I still keep the beard, mostly because it makes my face look better than it would otherwise. Or so I think.

But at the end of the day, in India I am an upper middle class, upper caste, English speaking male with a Hindu name. When push comes to shove, I am never going to get into any real trouble with the state/authorities. I will never have to feel personally wounded by this sort of everyday shit, which made Khushzaheen return for a little while. Things would be different if my name really was Khushzaheen. I definitely wouldn’t have the beard.

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 Brooklyn. For being Muslim. Things aren’t good with the world. Stereotypes need to be punctured, images and imaginaries of the ‘Other’ transgressed.

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 New York, not so far from the WTC.

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.

Friday, November 03, 2006


Last week I found myself shocked by the realization that I’ve only been in New York for slightly over two months.

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 Delhi in the winter of 2000-01.

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 Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past.

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 Delhi, that other photographic subject of mine, abandoned by history, outside the flow of recorded/recordable events, flotsam. To take a photograph is to already mourn a passing, a moment always past, always outside the flow of time. What does it mean to put a frame, to isolate what is already ‘timeless’, to return to that phrase. What sort of a double exposure is that? What strange desire to stop time?

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 Europe in the past hundred years. In the July revolution an incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive. On the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris. An eye-witness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows: Who would have believed it!
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 Delhi too last week, the seemingly endless spate of demolitions and sealings that seek to alter the histories and geographies of the city. Schools and shops were closed for a three day bandh. The clocktowers are all defunct. But they threw stones at the Metro. As a symbol of progress, as a sign of the future having arrived, of the time of Delhi moving too fast for its people?

On the Q train from Brooklyn last Sunday morning, I noticed that my wristwatch was suddenly an hour ahead of the time on my mobile phone. Daylight Saving Time had ended, and I had unwittingly gained an hour while sleeping. Destinations were an hour further away, we laughed at this unexpected, precious fullness of time, a twenty fifth hour added to the day. An hour spent in Strand, browsing through books, and jumping with joy in the wind and light of a bracing cold fall day.

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 Mecca. A single, silent worshipper on a near deserted, long past midnight street. A different order of time.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Ten pages of some writing on wandering Delhi past midnight which I'd been commisioned to do, ten pages which took me three days to write, already 'in exile' of sorts of Calcutta, ten pages of some decent writing, are now being curtailed to a two page box.
Well, now I'm free to put some of it on the blog as sampler, so y'all know what you're going to miss out there in the public domain. If you want more, mail me.

Say you’re in NOIDA (Nyoda, Naveda), across the river and in another state, and it’s way past midnight and you can’t sleep and dancing the night away at Elevate is not your scene. Lose not hope.

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, Delhi will shine before you in the bright lit marble of the Lotus Temple and the dome of Humayun’s tomb, visions of a promised land.

It’s quite a ride for just ten rupees. Keep the change handy. Welcome to Delhi.

Long years ago, when Babur came to Delhi, he did a midnight peregrination on horseback, visiting the moonlit tombs of Sultans and saints, all the way from Nizamuddin to Mehrauli. Many of the memorials he visited are still around, and Delhi has nearly five hundred years more of building (and history) since, and is now a city of fourteen (eighteen?) million, not all of them inhabiting the same time zone. Your ride is likely to be far more interesting, and you don’t even need your own horse or contemporary personal transportation equivalent, though that’s preferable. You need to be good with haggling with autos, which are surprisingly plentiful and prowling for passengers at night on the main roads, and available in vulturine flocks near railways stations and bus terminals. The DTC even runs night buses on select routes. And there are always the taxis, expensive but reliable, and just a phone call away.

Head north from Ashram Chowk up Mathura Road to Nizamuddin. From here you could head east to the 24 hour dining comforts of Comesum Plaza at the Nizamuddin Railway Station, which verge from the merely stale to the outrageously inedible – like the Chinese samosas, stuffed with soya burnt chowmein. So unless you’re a gastric masochist or a late night railway station ethnographer, you’ll head west, to the basti around the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. It might seem deserted and empty when you enter, the restaurants on the outside close by around one in the morning, but if you head further in, the smaller tea shops and restaurants, closer to the dargah are open till two or three. The food is invariably delicious, if a trifle greasy, and definitely non vegetarian. The kababs and tikkas are long gone by this time, the charcoal grills shut down. But the handis of qormas and rumali rotis are going strong. Eat your fill, drink chai or Pepsi, and head in to the dargah to offer thanks to the man around whose dargah the settlement is built, as is the whole tourist-pilgrim economy centering on it which the restaurants cater to.

Nizamuddin Auliya, the most revered of Delhi’s Muslim saints, is also among the most famous of its insomniacs; it is said of him that he had flown from Delhi to Mecca and back in one night. His dargah is among the most important shrines in the sub-continent and is quite crowded during the days, but at midnight the marble courtyard around his mazaar is almost deserted. Sit here for a while, in contemplation, it is among the most restful places in Delhi. You will hear the faint strains of qawwali. The qawwals who live adjacent to the dargah practice at night, and sleep in the mornings to surface only in the afternoons, refreshed for evenings of performance. You can sit and listen to the faint strains of the their rehearsal, while sitting in the courtyard between the mazaars of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau, leaning on the marble filigree screen surrounding the grave of the Mughal princess Jahanara, and believe again that there is magic in the world. Or you could go up to their residence to ask permission to listen closer. They are hospitable folk, always glad for a friendly ear, you will be welcome. They live in the basement of a tomb.

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 Delhi family ritual of eating ice cream and sitting in the lawns of India Gate, cool after the heat of the night, has become quite extravagant in recent years. There are balloon sellers, chana jor garam and bhelpuri sellers, chai and coffee wallahs. You can lie on the lawns looking up at the imposing bulk of India Gate, and suddenly a bunch of balloons, ethereal and translucent in the floodlit night, will cross your vision, as fluorescent arrows rise into the sky and fall like shooting stars. Don’t make a wish though, they come from the catapults of the sellers of made in China toys, who have many other radium delights on offer to light up your nights. India Gate at midnight is spectacular in more ways than one. The Rajasthani mehendi waalis have become tourist attuned enough to offer you ‘temporary tattoos’ on the shoulder if you’re not obviously feminine and/or desi. The preferred design is a highly abstract and improbable fish. On days when the security detail is a tad relaxed, and there are some, children splash in the shallow pool at the base of the empty canopy where the statue of King George once stood. The sheer joy of splashing in cool water after a hot day is infectious, and it radiates outwards along with the shrieks of delight. On nights like this, the lawns of India Gate are the happiest place to be; a place of wonder. Wonder at the beautiful vista, the double line of lights that is Rajpath, an arrow straight two miles all the way to the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan rising in the distance, framed by the Gate. Wonder at how a vista of imperial pomp has become a truly democratic space, where the awaam of Dilli come to have a jolly old time. The British Empire and its stiff upper lip traditions are forgotten anachronism, furthest from anybody’s minds in the laughing bustling nights at India Gate. Almost as much of an anachronism are the bioscopes with their screechy scratchy tunes and calendar art tableaus viewed through portholes. India Gate is among the last places in Delhi where you still see them, drawing curious audiences even past midnight...

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