Saturday, December 30, 2006

consider this picture, or my own private american religious denomination

Completely unrelated - Roshan has recovered from his trip to New York, and posted a few good pictures.

Almost, but not quite completely unrelated - This post could be said to be (very tangentially) connected to Saddam's martyrdom, so here's my two bits before the main post starts. That's right. Imho, by hanging the man so speedily, he has been turned into a Sunni (versus Shiite) martyr. As if Iraq needed more 'good' news. Now I'm just waiting to read how Thomas Friedman gets it horrendously wrong.

And now, the post.

Consider this picture.

In the foreground, near the bottom right corner of the frame, is a small idol. A blue caped figure of a Black Madonna, with an infant Jesus in her arms. A white infant Jesus. She seems to be standing on a thick carpet of leaves. This path, off Riverside Drive, is infrequented. Near the top of the frame, stuck on to the iron fence that separates the path from the steep fall behind, are two more figures, looking skywards, representations of a Native American man and a woman. Perhaps they are/were supposed to be the Hiawatha and Minnehaha of Longfellow's famous poem. Behind the fence, almost blending into the undergrowth, are two more Indian figures. On the left, is the muscular hook-nosed figure of a warrior in a war bonnet, standing erect, with hand on knife, seeming to look down at the other figure in the background, the fallen bust of an Indian woman. Behind them, the leaf-less trees of December, and then, far below, the grey waters of the Hudson; and the thin dark band of New Jersey shore.

Not in the picture – a plastic gallon milk jug cut into a bird feeder, hanging from tree branches about ten feet above the figures. it was this last detail that convinced me that this strange array of mass produced figures, moulded plaster and plastic, was a shrine of sorts. That the coming together of four Indians, a bird feeder and a Black Madonna on a disused path by Riverside Drive is not random, but sacred for someone.

What sort of a shrine is this? What does it ask us to commemorate?

Consider the Black Madonna. Perhaps remembering the Italian immigrants to New York of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who revere Black Madonnas in their homeland. Perhaps remembering the Polish for ditto reasons. (Check out the Black Madonna of East 13th Street). Perhaps commemorating Afro-American traditions of art, in which the Madonna is, for obvious reasons, black. (Or maybe not so obvious -all the Virigin Mary figures in dominantly dark skinned Kerala are all shiny acrylic cream coloured.) After all, this shrine is only two blocks south of the boundary between genteel (and white/international elite) neighbourhood of Columbia and the rather poorer Black and Hispanic neighbourhood of Harlem. But the detail that completely trips me up is that baby Jesus is well, umm, sort of pasty. In all the images of the Black Madonna I have seen, whether European or African, the Madonna and the child are the same colour. so this new shiny black madonna, this Madonna for the twenty first century, is a sign of racial integration, perhaps. Or more cynically, a shrine to Mexican maids bringing up white yuppie kids, like in Babel.

Consider the Indians. Do these figures represent the Lenape Indians, the people who are popularly remembered as having done the worst ever real estate deal in history by 'selling' Manhattan to the Dutch for goods worth 60 guilders? (The Seminole Indians, who now own the Hard Rock Cafe business, have declared they will buy Manhattan back, 'one burger at a time.') Does it ask us to remember the decimation of the Indians first by diseases from the Europe, followed by the massacres, and the breaking of treaties, that marginalised them, that allowed the white settlers to pretend/believe that they were taking over a wilderness, rather than a heavily peopled continent that they were responsible for decimating? (Read Charles C. Mann on 1491 – America before Columbus). Or does it remember that despite the decimation, the Indians have had an important role to play in the building of modern New York, even if it is due to racial stereotyping? Does it ask us to remember that Mohawk Indians 'Skywalkers', were important in building skyscrapers (and clearing the debris of 9/11) because they are considered to be unafraid of heights?

And just what does it mean for these figures to come together? The Madonna and the Indians? Perhaps it is just homage to Longfellow's strange project of fixing (and distorting) Native American histories into the manifest destiny of white, Christian America? Consider this -

“The poem closes with the approach of a birch canoe to Hiawatha's village, containing "the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face." Hiawatha welcomes him joyously and the "Black-Robe chief"

    Told his message to the people,

    Told the purport of his mission,

Hiawatha and the chiefs accept their message. Hiawatha bids farewell to Nokomis, the warriors, and the young men, giving them this charge: "But my guests I leave behind me/Listen to their words of wisdom,/Listen to the truth they tell you." Having endorsed the Christian missionaries, he launches his canoe for the last time westward toward the sunset, and departs forever.”

Ah, I am being too cynical. What is not in the picture is that the high ground on which this shrine, and Columbia University are built, was the site of the Battle of Harlem Heights, one of the many battles of the New York Valley Campaign fought between the forces of George Washington and Lord Cornwallis during the American War of Independence. What is also not in the picture is that this campaign was pretty disastrous for the Americans versus the British forces, which kept pushing them back. Harlem Heights was one time when the Americans managed to hold their ground. (And not a victory, as is remembered at the Broadway entrance to Columbia.)

What is not in the picture is that the shrine is located equidistantly between two radically different memorials to the dead. One is the grand (and imho, soulless) Grant's tomb, built for Civil War Hero and President, Ulysses S. Grant. The shrine is also on the same path, and only about a hundred feet or so away is the 'Amiable Child Memorial', a small memorial erected for a child who died too young, and one which has been cared for for the past two centuries.

So here between the memorial to a small child who died too young, and is remarkable only for being remembered, and the massive tomb of a President (the epitome of the high and mighty with whose doings traditional history is concerned); at the site of a battle ground where 'America' (and what it stands/stood for) held out, rather than retreating against the forces of Empire, stands a shrine. In a time when America is Empire, when it has besieged itself, what does this shrine, this space on the side of the road mean?

For me, this shrine stands for all that America has lost, all the good that still tenuously is, and all the beleaguered possibilities that the idea of America still holds out. An America which will acknowledge not just what the American Indians have lost, but what they have contributed (including, as Robert Pirsig and Charles C. Mann have argued, the very ideas of political liberty and individual equality). An America where Sherman Alexie can be just another great writer rather than being sometimes having to be a 'Native American' great writer. An America where black and white (and Indian and everyone else) could truly come together. An America where all will be fed, by the land's abundant bounty, including the birds.

I will worship at this shrine. I will play music. Yesterday, in Brooklyn, I heard the music that I will play. The music of New Andalus.


There was an Indian at the blowout. Not a desi Indian, of which there were several, but an American Indian, who plays on one my roommate's soccer team. We got talking about various things, and told me that it was significant that Columbus sailed in the year that Granada was conquered. By expelling Muslims and hence formally severing ties with Spain's Musilm past and with the Muslim world, the Spanish throne and church wanted new routes, outside the control of the Arab world, to the goods and spices of India and the Far East.

1492. The year that Columbus tried to find the sea route to India and 'discovered' America instead. 1492. Also the year when after the decree expelling the Jews and Muslims from Spain were issued. 1492. The year the world started changing something crazy. In Spain, in the Middle East, in the Americas, in India. what do begin I say of the Portugese attack, beginning 1498, on the Indian ocean world?

Those who were exiled from Old Spain, from their world as it was before 1491, took the music of that world with them. The music that till date, in North Africa and on the Levantine coast, is known as Andalusi. Music of beautiful heartache and perpetual exile. Music that would make complete sense in the Americas, land of exiles; those who fled, and those who came as slaves, and those who became exiles in their own lands. Music of misrecognition; Andalusi music plays in the Arab world, Native Americans are 'Indians'.

Yesterday, at Bam Cafe, the Arab ensemble Turab played with the Spanish flamenco group Gazpacho Andalou. What had been sundered was made whole, and made anew. It was fun, crazy, insane, hand clapping, dance inducing sing along beautiful, and I understand neither Spanish nor Arabic. This is what the invite said -

North African rhythms and folk songs are fused with the spirit of Flamenco when Arab ensemble Tarab takes the stage with Flamenco group Gazpacho Andalú. With Andalusian, Sephardic, Islamic, and Gypsy influences, Tarab and Gazpacho Andalú strive to instate New York as New Andalucia.

New York as New Andalus, where the culture of tolerance (however romanticized) made Al-Andalus what it was (however romanticized) to be made anew in the New World, in New York, in the land which stood for, perhaps still stands for, new beginnings.

I will play the music of New Andalus at the leaf carpeted shrine of plaster and plastic figures, in that space on the side of the road. Call me an incurable optimist if you will, but in times like these, when the world has been going crazy all over again, sometimes all one can do is hope.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

the post that wasn't

was about bright lights in union square (videos here and here), christmas eve in newark with the grey reverend and the hindi blues (i can sing 'em), 'chinese food on christmas' in the upper east side. the post is gone, but the photos are here. enjoy.


I just managed to erase a post I'd just wasted the past two hours writing.

Monday, December 25, 2006


She is Liberty
And she comes to rescue me
Hope, faith her vanity
The greatest gift is gold

U2 released In God's Country in 1987 (the link is to the video). In the 1999 film Three Kings, a sardonic look at American motives in the first Gulf War, this was the song on when the end credits rolled.

Having done the whole tourist thing with Roshan, having had to pass through cattle shed airport security just to get to see the Statue, the song kept playing in my head. Nearly twenty years later, unfortunately, it still makes perfect sense. (Even if U2 don't anymore).

Back at the South Ferry dock, the picture was fortitious, a decisive moment. Those cranes on the Jersey shore, they could be oil rigs. The sun sets sanguine. Those famous four lines of Emma Lazarus's sonnet sell on eight dollar mugs. You can't climb the statue anymore, since 9/11.

Naked flame
She stands with a naked flame

Saturday, December 23, 2006

the blowout

it happened. finally. the promise of the alcoholic reindeer was kept, becuase elizabeth baked some and brought 'em. no one threw up. the strategically placed mistletoe went underutilized. the booze ran out at 2 am, which is astounding, given the amount there was. the cohort didn't notice, because they'd discovered grappa. D got vinegar in his eye. A shirt caught fire (too many candles). the doorknob fell off and was fixed by art historians with butter knives. the desis only talked to each other. the philosopher danced to rhythm is a dancer, as requested. regula numero uno/rule number one/'don't shit where you sleep' showed much signs of abuse.

it was grand. the last blurry pictures are from nearly 4 in the morning. for those who missed the fun, check out this completely insane music video, and cheer at the sliding butter chickens!

Merry Christmas, all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

a hundred percent khichdi

This post has been knocking about in my head for a little while, but know that I'm done with my Farsi exam, I'm relaxed enough to write about it. I'm still not back in the real world, though. This is, well, derivative from Farsi class.

I always thought that the expression used for percentage in news-channel and film Hindi (as in the expression sau fi sadi/a hundred percent) was derived from Persian. But it's not, or at least not all of it. The Persian expression of the same would be sad dar sad.

The 'fi' is from Arabic, as I discovered while having a drink with an Egyptian friend of mine after Farsi class. She speaks Arabic, I speak Hindustani/Urdu, so we both come to Farsi from divergent angles of bemused familiarity, which perhaps makes it a little more frustrating to learn that if it was completely foreign, which explains the drinks. 'Fi' is the the Arabic for 'in'.

Now 'sau fee sadi' is an (usually dramatic and declarative) expression of purity. And this little phrase is made up of a Hindi/Indic component (sau); an Arabic component (fi) and a Farsi component (sadi). So our desi expression of utmost purity is actually a khichdi, a mongrel, a hybrid. (Bruno Latour would love this!)

My friend shook her head and said, You guys are crazy.

Yes we are. Sometimes we're a little too crazy; but i miss the creative mish mash hodge podge over the top blend of life and language in Delhi. And reading Neha V's latest posts make me ache with missing Delhi in winter.

But in the inimitable words of Nida Fazli in that beloved mongrel tongue -

Naksha utha ke koi naya sheher dhoondiye
Is sheher main to sabse mulaqat ho gayee

Pick up a map and look for a new city
In this town everyone's already been met

So now I'm looking forward to nearly a month of quiet time, exploring New York. Last evening I was lent a copy of The AIA Guide to New York City. I have a feeling the blog is going to be rather active over the winter break. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

from nerdistan, with love

Postings from the real world will start soon, once i finish writing these darned papers.

Meanwhile, feeling quite happy because I just finished wrassling with /orchestrating a conceptual monster of a paper in which the cast of character included, in order of appearance - Max Weber, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Claude Levi-Strauss, Albert Einstein, Jules Henri Poincare, X-Rays, Sigmund Freud and the 'all time piece' (as we'd call him in Ramjas Hostel) Bruno Latour. And I managed to do all of this without even writing about The Prestige, which I really really wanted to. If from this you have a hint of what I was upto - you're an even bigger nerd than I am. Boo.

In the middle of writing papers, I've also developed a huge fascination with Youtube. (And one of my flatmates is having trouble writing his papers becuase he's discovered the Best of Craigslist) If you've ever tried to find this blog by googling synchroni-cities, you'll probably come to this before - The Pink Floyd Movie Synchronization Story. It's been circulating for a while on the internet. Someone (presumably while smoking lots of pot and trying not to write term papers), discovered that if you run The Wizard of Oz while playing the Dark Side of the Moon as soundtrack simultaneously, it has strange and wonderful effects. And of course, someone has uploaded the results, in seven parts, on Youtube, as the Dark Side of the Rainbow. Even without pot (and with loads of caffeine in the system at four in the morning, the results are, well strange and wonderful. Especially Part 3 (Great Gig in the Sky) and Part 7 (Brain Damage/Eclipse). Though just about any song by Radiohead to anything on tv turned to mute works just as well, imho. Here's proof.

Coming soon - 'the lost weekend' pictures

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

date palms and al-andalus 2

One of the recurrent motifs in the 15th century mosques of Ahmedabad were date palms with vines growing entwined around them. Given the astounding syncretism of the architecture of these mosques, it wasn't too hard for me to read the motif as a symbol of a larger syncretism, of an actively encouraged coming together of Hindu and Turak in the times of the Sultans of Gujarat.

Given what Gujarat was like the last time i visited (two years after the riots/pogroms of 2002, in March 2004), living with that historical imagination can cause actual physical pain.

The most famous of these motifs is, of course, the jaali of the Sidi Saiyyid Mosque, built in the last years of the Sultanate, just before the Mughals came. The terrible, overwhelming frenzied beauty of the vines, overshadwoing the date palms, seems be the anxieties of the Sultanate, about to be overwhelmed by Empire, rendered in stone. (And today you could read it as an ominous foreshadowing of so much else.)

I remember the date palms today because it's the 6th of December, and I'm far from home. It's been fourteen years today since the Babri Masjid was destroyed. And in so many ways, it hasn't stopped happening, especially in Gujarat. (the link has a chronology of events). It's still an occasion being used to generate political mileage.

I was twelve years old when the mosque was detsroyed. Why do I keep rememebering it?

Because though I know it is a fantasy, an idealization, I do remember the world being a better, less fraught place before that date. And though it never was, really, I can't help but feel the sense of having lost something. And now my entire (not quite) intellectual project, the reason I'm here doing a PhD, is because I am still mourning my own personal Al-Andalus...

The rather ‘unmonumental’ monuments of South Delhi seem both out of place, and out of time; and for those who, like this writer, read too much Tolkien as children, they have a powerful affect, an evocative sense of worlds and times irrevocably lost. Add Tolkien and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, both of which happened to me at age twelve, and you can perhaps understand why my relationship to the Islamicate remains of South Delhi has been a highly Benjaminian one, both ‘historical materialist’ and ethically and emotionally charged. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin quoting Flaubert, I know the sadness it takes to resuscitate Carthage.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Date palms, or Sometimes we are all our own Andalus

This post is actually remembered from a couple of weeks ago, when I was utterly utterly miserable; so miserable indeed, that I finally understood what Douglas Adams meant by the phrase/title 'The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul'.
Much of this had to do with my sheer disbelief at the fact that it was actually dark at teatime, once Daylight Saving Time came off. What do you mean 'good afternoon'? I felt like snapping at people. It's dark already. The day is over. What the f*** am I supposed to do?

I'd usually end up being miserable enough for my flatmate to look at my face and get worried, only to be reassured by the fact that I was still eating normally. And oh yes, reciting maudlin Urdu poetry to myself. Over breakfast.

Then I went to England for a few days. where, if anything, it gets darker sooner this time of the year, and the sky is a lowering gray overcast which makes you feel like sinking under its weight. 5 o' clock had never been more unbearable.

(Of course, one of those times I was saved by good friend KW's birthday party starting at 5.30, with us breaking out Belgian beer and calling our old college/film-school mates from London, one of whom happened to be shooting for a film in a town on the Jaipur Bikaner highway called, err, Chomu. The rest of the evening was a memorable blur of great cooking and great Sikkimese-Punjabi-Japanese-Nigerian-Nepali-American-British-Desi company; Mohammad Rafi and Regina Spektor and me, yet again, singing BC... but that's another blog post.)

My last English 5 o clock was at Heathrow, and this just had to be the worst ever. Douglas Adams was right about airports too.
"It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, 'as pretty as an airport.' Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort."
And my flight to New York, at the last minute, was announced as being two hours late.

It got so bad then it could only improve. And it has. Right now, despite the fact that it's end of term and the work has piled up something crazy, I'm enjoying the entirely new sensations of it being so cold that your ears hurt if uncovered for a few blocks and your eyes water in the wind... If you see a bearded guy in a black pea coat singing as he walks on the pavements of New York, it's probably me.

But while at the nadir of despair, I remembered this fragment of poetry, remembered from one of the most moving books I have ever read. A fragment written from a man far away from 'home', in exile, in a land that would, in due course of time, become in so many ways, a metaphor for loss and exile. A man writing from Al-Andalus.

A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,
Born in the West, far from the land of palms.
I said to it: How like me you are, far away and in exile,
In long separation from family and friends.
You have sprung from the soil in which you are a stranger;
And I, like you, am far from home.

And in a quizzer logic chain of references this led to the thought/phrase
Aasman se gire, khajur main atke
(Fell from the sky, and got caught in the date palm.)

which of course, led to Kabir -

Bada hua to kya hua, jaise ped khajoor?

Panthi ko chhaya nahin, phal laage ati door.

So what if you're as tall as a date palm?

No shade for the traveller, and the fruits are too far.

Sometimes all you need to set you right is a little bit of self mockery.

(Actually, there was another reference too. Remembering the consciously syncretic motif of the vines growing around the trunk of the date palm, found in the beautiful mosques of 15th century Ahmedabad. But that's a lament that I will save for tomorrow, when it will make more sense.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

friday night

- do you always carry the camera with you? - No, sometimes i forget. but otherwise, yes. - why? - it's my way of staying sane.

Because everywhere in the world is full of beauty and sadness.
Because having a camera makes me stop in my striding past, to try and look, and sometimes see this.
Because I could go on and on, but just look at the photos,for now.
More coming soon.

Friday, December 01, 2006

memories, like jinns...

Verify your Idenity, originally uploaded by Anand VT.

The concluding part of the Nottingham talk, titled (a little too grandiosely), The Return of The King, or How Ghosts of the Medieval Are Resurrected in Contemporary Delhi'...

...The ‘out of timeness’ of the ruins of South Delhi turns out to be an erroneous notion. In a profoundly Benjaminian sense, these ruins exist not in an empty, homogenous time of all good monuments, away from the happening of history; but in time filled with the presence of the now.

I want to briefly talk of yet another role ruins play in Delhi, as repositories of memory, particularly of the memories of later trauma. Ruins may not be out of time, but theirs is a different order of time. Though the ruins may be disconnected from normative 'archival' histories, though the kings may no longer be able to return, they remain sites of memory; partly because of the policies of colonial and postcolonial archaeology and heritage preservation, which elevate these as sites worthy of remembrance, but also, I would like to think, because of an alternative sense of historicity, which I have briefly tried to indicate.

In the North Delhi ridge where much of the bloodiest fighting happened during the ghadar of 1857, stands a 14th century Tughlak hunting lodge. In current popular memory and practise, the lodge is associated not with Firoz Shah Tughlak, who built it, but with a saint who vanished without leaving a physical trace, the Pir Ghaib, for whom the ruins take their name. According to the retired tailor who takes charge of the offerings here every Thursday, it was his grandfather who first started coming here, returning from haj immediately after the tumult of 1857, and camping out here in what was then the wilds, communing with the vanished saint. What the grandson doesn’t say, but what surely is an important subtext to this story, is that Muslims expelled from Delhi by the British Army were not allowed to return for five years. The people who come to Pir Ghaib are largely non-Muslim Gujjars from the village of Chandrawal. The land of Chandrawal was expropriated and the village itself shifted from its traditional location closer to Pir Ghaib by the government after 1857, as punitive action for its role in the violence and the burning of the estate of Thomas Metcalfe.

In what is now very much the centre of the city stand the extensive ruins of a fourteenth century palace complex, also built by Firoz Shah Tughlak. Like Pir Ghaib, this is in the custody of the Archaeological Survey of India. But every Thursday, rather than sightseeing, people come here to deposit letters, and are admitted free of charge. These letters mirror the form of shikwas, letters of complaint and supplication addressed to rulers, a well-established normative mode of grievance redressal in the medieval Islamicate world. These letters echo the shikwas that Ibn Batuta tells us people threw into the palace of Muhammad bin Tughlak, which drove him to such a rage that he depopulated Delhi.

The letters at Firoz Shah Kotla are not addressed to any temporal authority, but to the jinns who are supposed to reside here. (jinns, according to Islamic theo/cosmology, are spirits created by Allah out of smokeless fire, and are found in desolate places such as forests, graveyards and ruins.) The form of the letter is a mixture of the religious and governmental. The supplicants, irrespective of religious affiliation, address the djinns ‘Salaam Aleikum baba’ and the phrase, Aapke darbar main haazir/present at your court, usually precedes the grievances for which the supplicant wishes the djinn to be interceding with Allah. At the end of each letter, the supplicant gives a name and address. Most of the letters deposited are not original handwritten manuscripts, but photocopies thereof. The medieval alcoves and arches of Firoz Shah Kotla, are in a sense, an alternate archive of the contemporary city, an archive of disquiet. From my initial fieldwork it would seem that the practise of writing to the jinns starts in the late 1970s, when a fakir named Laddoo Shah came and started living in these ruins at the end of the Emergency of 1975-77, a year after the demolitions at the nearby Turkman gate.

There are no memorials to the suffering of the people of Delhi during 1857, during 1947, or during the emergency. There will be no memorials to those displaced and victimized by the massive and violent upheavals that Delhi undergoes today, in the run up to the Commonwealth Games in 2010, in its transformation, as the campaign goes, ‘From Walled City to World City.’ Perhaps it is not surprising that like the djinns, the memories and disquiets that ‘Delhi’ has not time for can be found in its ruins.

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