Friday, January 26, 2007

manhole covers and the round world -a meditation on new york sewers 2

first part here.

About forty odd years ago, New York City started ordering its manhole cover inventories from foundries in India and China, rather than from companies within the United States.

Outsourcing, especially 'business process outsourcing' can seem like surreal science fiction. Time shifts. Night becomes day, cars carrying workers speed through the deserted cities chased by dogs, voices bounce off sattelites and span half the world in the blink of an eye. You enter a glass tower and are instantly transformed into someone else. A different accent, a different greeting; a different name. When you return, it is morning again, a city returns to its rhythms. But you are out of tune. You will sleep the day away, to awake again at the witching hour, to be possessed by another identity, become someone else. A shaman at the other end of a toll free phone.

There's nothing of this dizzying, dazzling ephemeral synchronicity in the humble manhole cover. It is a thing of (considerable) substance. Over fifty kilos of iron. Iron which had to be mined as ore, refined, melted, moulded. cooled, carried. Iron, which in every manhole cover, carries along with the visible impress of INDIA, the invisible impress of all the workers whose toil is embodied in it. A manhole cover is a heavy thing to move, it is human in its weight, so perfect is it a metaphor for congealed labour time.

And like that weighty thing, the pound coin, it is both flat and round. Like the world is not. The world is flat, say some, for the age of the fibre optic cable has obliterated the difference between night and day. The world is flat, for all its distances have shrunk, it no longer needs to be a sphere spinning on its axis, in and out of sun and shadow. The world is flat for it is equal now, there are no restrictions on the free competition of the open market. But no, the world is still round and it is still unequal, it still spins in and out of night and day. Ships still cross the oceans of this turning world, some of them carrying manhole covers. Take the amount of work that goes into making a manhole cover, its worth. Add to it the cost, the ludicrousness, of shipping tons of heavy steel discs piled in the hold of a slow moving boat across the oceans of half the world, at an order of magnitude not much faster than when Columbus sailed to the New World. Or when the first slaves did. (And this in a time when human voices and faces travel almost at the speed of light, and humans bodies almost at the speed of sound.)

Add all those costs. It is still cheaper, still worth less, to get manhole covers made in India than in America. The value of one human being's labour is less than another human being's labour for doing exactly the same work. The mysteries of economics are as real as the turning of the round world. And as taken for granted. The world turns, and money flows downwards. (Clockwise or anti-clockwise, trickling down to the sewers,depending on which side of the Equator you are - North or South.) A foundry closes in New Jersey. Manhole covers Made in India are unloaded in Brooklyn. The workers in India - the cost at which they sell their labor and estimate their worth, the price that is set on their life and skill - approximately twenty times cheaper.

The world is round, but it was once flat. People were afraid of falling off its edges. On the maps of the flat world, there were many gray areas near those edges, places of perpetual fog, where the ships did not go - for Here there be dragons.

But the world is now round, there are no edges and no fog. The dragons have moved off the maps of the flat world. They are now to be found in the sewers of the round world, masquerading as blind albino alligators.

to be continued...

Much influenced by the essays of Richard Rodriguez and by early explorations in Thing Theory.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

manhole covers and crocodiles - a meditation on new york sewers 1

This is the 200th post on this blog. (And my 27th Birthday!) Not to be formal or anything, but I guess I need to thank everyone who's visited and kept coming back. This blog has mutated much since it began. It's been an archive of ideas and writings, a great way of wasting time, a space for some emotional catharsis, a site of blatant exhibitionism; and will hopefully continue to be all of the above; but more importantly, it has also been a space for conversations and friendship with some great people across many sorts of boundaries. Something unimaginable before this blog, and deeply enriching. Thank you, everyone. You know who you are.

What follows is the beginning of a (hopefully) longer meditation on, well, large reptiles, large round discs, large cities and small histories.

The story goes thus. Rich New Yorkers on vacation in Florida bring back alligators as pets. The pets grow from being cute to frightening in a very short while. They are flushed down the toilet. Some survive in the vast fetid darkness of New York's sewer system. They grow, and they spawn. And now there is a breed of blind albino alligators, strangers to light and sun, occupying their own niche in the intestinal ecosystem of New York's sewers.

All kinds of immigrants flourish in New York.

In the 14 Street and 8 Avenue subway station, an alligator in a suit and tie reaches out from under a manhole cover and grabs a passerby. The passerby's head is a smooth, full sack of gold.

New York revels in its own legend.

If there were no albino alligators in the sewers, they would have to be invented.

On rainy nights in New York, the tops of the skyscrapers go blurry in the mist. The celebrated skyline becomes ghostly, unreal. Light bending through water. It is underground that the city feels real, vital. Busker music echoing in the long corridor, keeping time with the tramp of commuter footsteps, bouncing off the grimy walls, off the paint flaking from the roof. The fragrance of clean laundry lingers in the steam rising from the grates. The trains rumble underneath during the tense silences in the movie theatre.

So much of this city is subterranean. The black steel doors clang open. The meat and vegetable stocks, the mineral water bottles of the city's restaurants appear, hauled out into the new day. On the subway, seen through glass darkly, the lines diverge - twist and tunnel away to depths unguessed but graffiti sprayed. Trains pass in the always night, you see a fluorescent stranger in the car across for the few instants that your lives run parallel, she plunges away into the darkness, unconcernedly reading a book. In tunnels under the University, sealed since the end of the Manhattan Project, uranium decays.

Leatherhead, the humanoid crocodile, meets the teenage mutant ninja turtles in an abandoned subway station. A fifty kilo manhole grates back into place on my street. It is round and ridged and heavy and iron. In small neat letters near the rim it says MADE IN INDIA.

to be continued...

Friday, January 19, 2007

the western is an eminently localizable genre, said the dacoit

"Life is a long and terrible sadness".
Yes, but in between you get to wear outrageously cool cowboy duds and float through bright pink lily ponds, so it can't be all that bad.
Watch 'Tears of the Black Tiger.'
This is even cooler than Mithunda. (And surprisingly moving too.)

Ah, life is a long and terrible sadness. :-)
Not completely unrelated - Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

notes from a too-enchanted city

'What can I tell you about New York that you don't already know?'
That wanted to be the first line of a poem but couldn't.
No paths in this city are untrodden.

Poems have 'feet'. Walking is poetry.Each step, a syllable, a letter, an ideograph. Each Avenue, running up and down, north and south, a line in a Chinese poem. A million lines overlaid. And the streets - One Way left to right, east to west and occasionally even going both ways boustrophon; in Roman and Cyrillic and Nagari; Nastaliq and Shikasta. If words had weight, the ruts would be deeper than the subway tunnels.

New York as a grid of a million poems; all it contours mapped by words.
All its corners turned to song.
In which language in the world has New York not been written about?

In sonnets and villanelles. In dohas and nazms. In free verse. In (oh so apt) concrete poetry. But I try to write ghazals and I cannot.

For what can I tell you about New York that you don't already know?


I'm used to being the bard of uncelebrated places.

Delhi is many celebrated cities. First City. Boomtown. Tourist Trap. But also,hundreds of streets and ruins and 'urban villages'. uncelebrated, unrenowned. A city full of people too busy with hustling tourists, petitioning governments, selling goods, doing property deals, making 'Made in China' TVs, making a living; to bother with recording their lives as grand narrative, or celebrating where they lived.

A city with a bard shortage. Swathes of virgin mytho-poetic territory, waiting to be walked, chronicled, mapped, imaged, sung.

The ghazals came easy. As easy as reading them off the backs of autorickshaws.


I don't know how Agha Shahid Ali managed. Bringing the ghazal to New York. To Brooklyn.

In New York I stutter in all my tongues. For what can I say that hasn't been said before? And better? With more insight? Every place I find exciting here is already on Google. Every corner of this city can be found of Google Maps. There are fifty photo essays on abandoned bikes. Even the abandoned subway stations have been Mapped. Metaphorized. Mythologized.

New York feels like a Greek Tragedy. A self-fulfilling prophecy. The poets
come because it is New York. It is New York because the poets come.

What can I tell you of New York that you don't already know?
(For if you didn't know it, it wouldn't be New York.)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

feeling unreasonable

I have been meaning to write about a few things, but have been, in turns, too lazy, or too busy to do so.

I have been meaning to write about nearly setting off a bomb scare next to the Treasury Building in Washington DC. I left my bag in a bar. Can you imagine the scenario? Bar full of DC lawyers and government staffers - brown man, with a scruffy beard, and whispering conspiratorially in a strange foreign tongue just before he leaves, leaves a bag... oh my god!

I have been meaning to write about being completely pissed off (and occasionally approving) of the displays of 'culture' at the National Musuem of the American Indian in DC. 'This is the (pick your tribe) view of the universe divided into (pick your number) binaries.' Is. Culture exists in the timeless now, and has nothing to do with history. Indian culture, that is. Who would make such a claim for the 'West'?

I have been meaning to write about how extremely extremely distressed I was by watching 'Letters From Iwo Jima'. I haven't seen Apocalypto but with all that I have read around it i begin to see a pattern. A pattern tells me that when Hollywood starts making films in foreign tongues, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Because it bestows a claim of authenticity like nothing else does. A claim of empathy, which makes people call "letters...' the best film of the year, and a heavyweight Oscar contender. And yet - I personally found the film to be slow, tiresome and hugely problematic. Though the film is in Japanese, and with mostly Japanese characters, the only two 'noble' Japanese commanders are both people who have spent time in America. All the other Japanese officers are either villainous and scheming or completely psychotic, or both. Not to mention, murderously inept. As is the Japanese soldiery, dying like flies. Betraying no instinct of self preservation in battle. Except for the Saigo character, who actually survives three major assaults, but who is a bumbling fool at everything but survival. Watching Letters... could make you wonder how the Japanese ever won anything in the Second World War?

Is there something common to all the three things I've been wanting to write about, but haven't? To my becoming a potential bomber in a DC bar, to the 'culture' displays of the Native American Museuem, to the 'authentic' portrayal of native violence and irrationality in Apocalypto and Letters? The assumption of superiority by 'the west' (much as i hate to use the term...!) on the basis of being calm, ordered and rational, is implicit in all of these.

Sorry, that's not the most original conclusion in the world, but it has been pissing me off a little. So am taking this opprtunity to post two extract from one of the last intelligent things I wrote for grad school, which is about magic/science and un/reason. Trust me, there are connections!

...But we have still not spoken of technology, of the material presence of modern science and its products and practices in the world. Let us consider, for example, the X-Ray, as Richard Panek does in his book 'The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes'. Briefly, in 1895, working in his laboratory, Wilhelm Roentgen came across a new type of effect which he attributed to an unknown type of radiation (Hence X-ray). He worked on standardizing the production of this effect, though he still couldn't explain it, and then asked his wife to insert her hand between the Cathode Ray tube and a photographic plate. 'A substance passed between the tube and the plate – must have passed, because even though the subject itself was invisible, the effect was undeniable. An image of his wife's hand was slowly burning itself into existence.' This image, with the skeletal structure of the bones of the hand clearly visible, was published in newspapers worldwide in early 1896. No one knew what X-rays were, no one knew what the X-rays did, but they became a sensation, taking on a life of their own in the world. 'An early account cautioned readers who would fool themselves into thinking that if they “go inside the house and pull down the blinds and wait till its dark,” they might feel quite safe in sinning”: “There are the x-rays you know – and nobody knows what other invisible pencils may be registering all our actions or even thoughts -or what's worse, the desires that we don't dare think. They, too, must leave their mark somewhere.” '

This account has an 'uncanny' resemblance to Schelling's definition of the unheimlich as deployed by Freud – 'Everything is unheimlich that should have stayed hidden and secret but has come to light.'...

The X-rays are an unusually resonant metaphor for the uncanny, for they brings to light all that has been covered up, hidden. Or rather, they promise to. No one, in 1896, is quite sure how they work, or what they do. But they has been brought into the world, they have strange effects that cannot be predicted, or controlled, or even understood. Prolonged exposure causes cancer. The X rays seem to have a will, and purification/repression here breaks down under bewilderment and terror and uncanniness, language ascribes agency to cells and rays - they can be malignant. That things can have agency, that they can have a life, is what purification/repression wants to keep hidden but which here comes to light.

'“ In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton, and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up...”' Freud quotes Jentsch at the beginning of his analysis of a story by E.T.A Hoffmann, but then he begs to disagree, arguing that this is a relatively unimportant element in the story. The main theme, according to Freud, is the theme of the Sandman who tears out children's eyes, which Freud links to repressed castration anxiety. Freud was, after all, a man of science.

'Our analysis of instances of the uncanny has led us back to the old, animistic conception of the universe. the subject's narcissistic over valuation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the omnipotence of thought and the and the technique of magic based on that belief; by the attribution to various outside persons and things of carefully graded magical powers, or 'mana'; as well as by all the other creations with the help of which man... strove to fend off the manifest prohibitions of reality.' Freud then gives us an evolutionary argument, saying that 'each of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to this animistic stage in primitive men, and that everything that now strikes us as 'uncanny' fulfills the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity...'

But these are not residues. Magical thought has never left the world. It only seems to have been banished by the repression of purification, the divide between nature and culture, subject and object, but it is there, just beneath the surface. To quote Latour, 'How could we be capable of disenchanting the world, when everyday our laboratories and our factories populate the world with hundreds of hybrids stranger than those of the day before? Is Boyle's air pump any less strange than the Arapesh spirit houses? ... How could we be chilled by the cold breath of the sciences, when the sciences are hot and fragile, human and controversial, full of thinking reeds and subjects who are themselves inhabited by things? '

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

a rabbit in the headlights?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

venkatesh-parvati-investment banking, or there's something the matter with TamBrams

I like to think of myself as a non-bigot, someone who doesn't subscribe to ethnic-racial-religious-regional stereotypes - but there's something the matter with Tam Brams. (Tamilian Brahmins for the uninitiated. This site tells you everything you need to know. And let it be known, some of my best friends are Tam Brams - the wrong kind, of course.) And this has nothing to do with their love for bhindi. And everything to do with their plan of world domination.

World domination? Meek, bespectacled, vegetarian Tam Brams planning to take over the world? It might sound hard to believe, but consider my moment of revelation -

It's past 2.30am on the 1st of January, Houston Street is full of inebriated people celebrating the New Year, friends and I have just come out of an overpriced club after listening to some avant garde music and loads of unspeakable salsa - and then suddenly this bespectacled man with female companion passes us, declaiming earnestly, and the words we catch are 'Venkatesh, Parvati, Investment Banking'. At 3 in the morning, on New Year's Day, when the rest of the city, and the rest of the world was busy celebrating,and trying to get laid, this guy was earnestly talking business to the woman walking with him. And the most horrifying thing of all - he sounded stone cold SOBER. Scary, huh? We stopped dead in our tracks and didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. AA kept complaining that the man had ruined his pleasant sleepy buzz for the rest of the evening. We went and had some tea to recover from the experience. it goes without saying -the guy could only be a Tam Bram.

And then, I saw THIS on Youtube. Some three year old kid in Sunnyvale, CA who has learnt the names of all the US state capitals. All fifty of them. (And this, I am told, is a fairly widespread phenomenon; sprung on unsuspecting foreigners on South Indian trains. Proud Tam Bram parents making their children do the US state capitals performing monkey trick.) Not only that, this kid has been taught standard Spanish phrases as well, and the days of the week. And the spelling bee, where's he's learnt to spell 'GOOGLE'. Jesus Christ!

There are historical reasons for all of this of course. The Anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu has made it harder for Tam Brams to get jobs within TN. (And after watching the videos, you realize why there's an anti-Brahmin movement!) And hence they have become this globalized elite egghead diaspora,making their children learn languages and formulas of power and privilege wherever they go. BPO is the new Vedas. And since they can't have TN, the Tam Brams are just planning to take over the world. The Tam Bram version of the Leonard Cohen song would be, First we take Silicon Valley...

A Tam Bram preschooler is already being groomed to take over America. One of several thousand. Udupi is going to be the new McDonalds. It probably beats the world having to deal with a Texas village idiot, but it's still a scary thought.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

2006, and all that

This is a piece about the year gone by which I've been meaning to post for a long time, but didn't get around to, because the time was never right; and when the time was right (New Year's Day), I went haring off to Baltimore and DC (where I nearly set off a bomb-scare, but that's another blog post).

When 2006 rolled around, at the stroke of the midnight hour, I was huddled in a sleeping bag on the middle berth of a drafty sleeper coach on a train heading south from Delhi to Aurangabad. It was quite a departure from the usual ringing in of the new year with friends and inebriation and dancing. Unusual enough for me to be superstitious - if I have begun the year traveling, then the rest of the year will see much traveling, I believed.

That's been true. Last year, I spent time in many cities and towns I'd never been to before. Aurangabad, for starters (I had once stopped in the town for a few hours to catch a bus to Bombay, so I'm counting it anew); Meerut; Sardhana; Hyderabad; Calcutta (of which my memories before this year involved being a four year old stuck in a traffic jam on Howrah Bridge during a flood, so am counting that anew too); London; Nottingham (and Southwell); New York; Boston. For the first time in my life, I have traveled outside of Asia; and now my new home address is half the world away from the last one. Yes, it still feels like a big deal.

Returning from that particular New Year journey, flying out of warm and sunny Bombay after a week of Aurangabad, Daulatabad, Ellora, Khuldabad, Ajanta and Bombay; I landed in Delhi on its coldest night for a hundred years, the temperature at just above freezing. Which was freaky, but what was freakier was that the cold didn't last very long at all. February was the warmest recorded in many decades, with the temperatures already heading in to the thirties. The summer was even more of a bitch than usual. The rains flooded some parts of India; but were patchy and insipid in Delhi. But things didn't stop there - a week before I hit London and New York, they had blistering heat waves; and now it's January, and New York hasn't yet seen snow, and maybe two days when the temperatures were actually below freezing. No one is talking El Nino anymore. Last year it was hard to ignore Global Warming.

Ah, but if it was only external weather that was freakish, extreme and unpredictable. Last year my internal weather, the seasons of the heart, mirrored the turbulence of the outside seasons. It was a 'never before' year - never before have I been so violently angry, so deeply sad, and as consistently melancholy as I have been last year. I have never really known loss, and how it can tear up your insides, like I have known last year. But it's also been 'never before' in good ways. It would be hard to find a year in which I have met as many wonderful, interesting people; started as many fascinating conversations; laughed as much with friends. There were many moments (and some whole months!) last year which would count right out there on the happiness scale. And I haven't lost my temper once in the past six months or so (despite British customs trying its best). But sorrow can still sometimes come and catch me off guard, when everything seems to be going well, like a freak blizzard in summer.

This year my prayers are simple. Let the weather (internal and external) be moderate. Let the snow fall in its appointed time.

This new year was welcomed in waiting with friends for the F train, underground at 14th street station. The rest of the evening was much more exciting (yet another blogpost), but the New Year had begun standing still while wanting to be in transit. The next evening, as my friends and I waited endlessly at toll booth traffic jams on our way out of the city - they said, 'This is all your fault.'

The kites are from Aurangabad, January 1, 2006. The photo of the fog is from Delhi, January 1, 2007; taken from this post on Vaibhav's blog.
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