Friday, August 28, 2009

In Search of Lost (Units of) Time

This one's for Arun Uncle, who as I just found out, is a fan of Proust. It's also something I've been wanting to write on for years now, and had forgotten about, till it all came back to me now...

I always thought a "pal", as in Aane waala pal jaane waala hai, was the Hindi equivalent of a moment. I was gobsmacked when I found out, several years ago, that a pal is actually a unit of measurement, measuring the passing of time. A pal is thus closer to being a second than a moment. A second and a moment are often interchangeable -- "Just a moment", "Just a sec". Our conception of what a moment is, the time of the ephemeral (momentary) but also the time in which something of significance (momentous) can happen, is linked to the second. It takes a second to say goodbye...

But what if we indexed our idea of a moment to another unit of measurement? What if our idea of the ephemeral (and the significant) was not the second but the pal, that forgotten unit of time? What if our idea of the moment, like the pal, was twenty four seconds long?

A pal is twenty four seconds long? Are you as gobsmacked as I was when you found out? Are you as gobsmacked as Babur, suddenly master of a strange, strange land; where the hours and minutes he was used to didn't work; there was a whole other system of keeping time (or letting it flow) time which he wrote about in his memoirs -- a pal is twenty four seconds long, sixty pals make a ghadi [24 minutes], sixty ghadis make a full day. the terms, pal and ghadi continued in everyday parlance, but their meanings were forgotten. Your tongue remembers but you do not. A pal doesn't seem all that different from a second now. The past is more a foreign country to us than India was to Babur.

Main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon...
A moment twenty four seconds long entirely changes our idea of the ephemeral, blasts it apart like Walter Benjamin's "dynamite of 1/24th of a second"[I'm paraphrasing here] once burst the prison world of our perception apart with the technology of the moving picture (films are/were shot and projected at 24 frames per second). Usain Bolt could run two hundred metres in that time,with a few seconds to spare. A gaze held across a crowded room for even half those twenty four seconds, a single wave rolling onto a beach and receding, a high note held long and defiant in a song's dying breath -- with that kind of moment the ephemeral becomes eternal. Ek pal ko amar, ek pal mein dhuaN, as Faiz wrote. Eternity one moment and smoke the next...

Zindagi ki na toote ladi, pyaar kar le ghadi do ghadi...
While the video I've linked to is outrageously (and unintentionally) campy; a ghadi, or twenty four minutes seems to be about the right length of time for doing love, for making love. Or for concentrated high intensity work time. Or the length a good refreshing "power nap" needs to be. A twenty ghadi weekday sounds like it might be a better deal than an eight hour workday, even if they are both exactly the same length of time. But are they the same length of time? If our seconds were pals and our hours were ghadis; if our seconds were longer but our hours were shorter, wouldn't time itself be different?

Monday, August 17, 2009

extract from the archive -- the palomides poems, march 2008

warning -- EXTREMELY derivative

Palomides is that most forlorn thing, the footnote to a love story.

-Altair McIolar, Who loved 'em and they left him

So, Palomides. The Saracen Knight of the Round Table. The Muslim at King Arthur's Court.

Holy fuck, right? And you thought the Connecticut Yankee was a wild idea, huh?

I see him sometimes, wandering lonely as a cloud over the green and pleasant hills around Camelot, the damp air chilling his chain mail and clouding his sighs. He misses the creak of water wheels, the heat of the sun on his back, the completely inadequate shade of the date palms. How many years has it been since a call to prayer washed over him while he was making sleepy love at dawn, while the sky turned, ever so briefly, to liquid gold? How many years has it been since he made love?

A good few, it is my suspicion. I mean, as if it's not enough that the man has set himself up for a gross of Comp. Litt. PhDs about the Muslim/Other in Medieval European Literature, he then has to go and set a dozen conference halls afire by falling in love with Isolde. No, that can't be, you say. For Isolde's story is sad enough already. In love with Tristan, she is married to his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. And guess who brought her there? Why Tristan himself, Sir Tristan Born-In-Sorrow, sailing in on the Ship of Fools. She stayed below decks the whole voyage. He stood at the helm through wind and storm.

Love requited but unconsummated. But there are still sadder things. Like Palomides, in love with a woman whose heart is already given to one man, and her body pledged to another. Palomides without a hope in hell. Palomides who vents his grief and fury and rage at the unfairness of love and fate by charging full tilt at Tristan in jousts. Tristan his best friend, his worst enemy, the only one who comes close to understanding his pain. Tristan with whom he drinks at night till they are either giggling or crying in each other's arms. Tristan who wins their jousts more often; but always hugs Palomides after.

But Palomides is still the more perfect knight. For his love is a constant flame, he burns with a passion for which lust is not a fuel, for he has no hope of EVER getting the girl. And yet he loves her. So he is the ultimate realization of the chivalric ideal, of the purity of desire, without hope of return.

Yes brother, that is some fucked up shit. I feel for the man, you know? I feel for him when he stops by the bank of one of those little burbling brooks in that faraway green fairytale toyland country, and dismounts his horse; the pain in his heart so sharp he can't breathe properly anymore, let alone ride. Off comes the helmet and you see the turban squashed underneath, but still defiantly worn, shining crumpled and white against the wrinkled walnut of his skin, the still-black of his geometric beard. As he washes his hands and feet and behind his ears with the brook's chill waters, as his breath becomes less ragged, as he unfolds a rug to pray by the side of his grazing horse, the peasants gather to watch. His backside in the air, his forehead on the ground, his eyes closed, muttering incantations under his breath – do they envy him his freedom, the open sky for his church? Do they envy, do they fear, his armour and horse and his lance; the conditions of their oppression? Do they envy his stranger-ness, his having known lands they will never know, for they can never leave? Or is not envy at all, but something else altogether?

For when he opens his eyes and rises, they keep standing. No one moves, no one waves a pitchfork, no one smiles. They keep standing and staring and he rides up to them, and says, 'I seek for a place called Dasht-e Tanhaii. Do you know where I could find it?'

They shake their heads. He rides north. He will ride till the pain grows unbearable again, and he has to stop to soothe his mind and heart with prayer. Better to face dragons than to live with this pain.

Which is why he quests for the Beast. The Beast they say dwells in the Wilderness of Solitude, The Desert of Loneliness, the Dasht-e Tanhai; speaking Persian to Wordsworth's daffodils.


Some days I feel like Palomides, and there is no escape. On some others, I feel like Ibn Batuta. Every city ahead is filled with gold and opportunity, new women to love and leave and complain about and forget.

But most days I'm just me. I sit out by my tent in the Dasht-e Tanhai, counting the sunsets. The days are warm yes, but happy, immersed in heat and toil. But at night the constellations wheel overhead, each a smile I will never wake up next to again. The ache is so much clearer in the desert night.

I wait for him. For I am 'The Beast' he is searching for, the one who's been writing poems in his name, The Palomides Poems. I need him to find me. We have so much to talk about.

Friday, August 14, 2009

a morning prayer

Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki
Kaise maiN bhar laooN Jamna se matki?

The path to the water is very difficult
How do I bring water from the Jamuna?

I begin most mornings with these lines now, attributed to Amir Khusrau (d. 1325) disciple and companion of the famous Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. (On Khusrau and Nijam, more here.) I seem to have heard various recensions of these lines all my life (including this bizarre and disturbing variant), but never thought about them, never thought through them till one morning, when I felt I needed prayer like I had never needed prayer before, these were the lines that came to mind --

Bahut Kathin hai dagar panghat ki
Kaise maiN bhar laooN Jamna se matki?
Paniya bharan ko maiN jo gayee thee
Daud-jhapat mori matki patki
Khusrau Nijam pe bal bal jaooN
Laaj rakho more ghoonghat pat ki

The path to the water is very difficult
How do i bring water from the Jamna?
When I had gone to fill water
In the melee my pot fell and smashed
Khusrau gives his life to Nijam
Keep the honour of my veil

These brief six lines contain so much in the tripping staccato cadences of old Hindi/Hindavi. Like much of the Hindavi poetry attributed to Khusrau, this poetry is "anti-communal", non-sectarian, not identifiably Muslim or Hindu at all. Like in much the petry attributed to Khusrau, the world depicted here is a woman's world; for it is they who would traditionally bring water from the wells. The lines make me imagine the banks of the Yamuna, steep and slippery with mud, treacherously worn by the tracks of buffaloes and boats, and a dawn traffic jam of women fetching water for their households. Melees could ensue, particularly in summer, with the Yamuna a slow muddy trickle, and much tramping in swampy mud involved.

And yet, the image we have of women drawing water from wells and river-banks is that of perfect poise and balance. Women managing to walk gracefully straight-backed with many pots of water balanced on their heads, and still managing to keep their faces covered, veils demurely held between their teeth.

Like Khusrau once dressing as a woman to cheer a mourning Nijam, it is the image of those women, and this prayer, that brings peace to my mornings. In the shit-storm that is the world, I pray to be given the strength to carry my burdens with some measure of grace, to live in the world without the veil of my honour slipping; without succumbing to the anger and the lust often boiling underneath.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

irony and power

Friend NN told me a story about the Emperor Jahangir. Once Jahangir was passing through the streets of Lahore on his elephant, when he saw a few children playing in the dust by the side of the road. He asked the mahout to stop the elephant, and got down and talked to the kids,asked them what they were doing. Then he started weeping, got on his elephant, and left.

I told him a story in return. Not a story, really, but a fact. On the Buland Darwaza, in Fatehpur Sikri, that aptly named massive gateway, Akbar, Jahangir's father, had this inscribed --

Jesus son of Mary, on whom be peace, said, "The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no house upon it."

While later commentators have found it remarkable that on on the massive ceremonial entrance to one of the biggest and most important mosques in his capital city, Akbar should have a quotation from Jesus; WD here indicates how much this is very much part of the Muslim tradition, and not all attributable to Jesuit influence. However, I'm more intrigued by where the inscription is.

On one of the most massive and permanent structures built in sixteenth century India, the inscription talks about the finitude and transience of human life -- The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no house upon it. This is such exquisite, finely wrought irony.

What does it tell you about the world we've lost that Emperors could once have such an ironic relation to their worldly power? Crying at their fate at being emperors when seeing the carefree play of children in the dust. Building the biggest gateway on the subcontinent and almost mockingly writing atop it, the world is a bridge build no house upon it. Perhaps Mayawati needs to pay attention :)

not entirely unrelated

Ya mujhe afsar-e shaha na banaya hota
Ya mera taaj gadaaya na banaya hota...

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Friday, August 07, 2009

muslimness in hindi cinema

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'Muslimness' in Hindi Cinema: The Ambiguity of the (Anti)National Self.

Anand Vivek Taneja

I saw this scene many times when I was a kid. In some darkened movie theatre, my hand smelling of stale potato chips, Paradise or Roxy in Calutta or Regal in Ahmedabad, Dharmendra reaching out to Asha Parekh, Rajendra Kumar in Palkhi reaching out to Saira Banu, tears glycerining from eyes...

In the cinema, the girl would snatch away her arm, turn and sprint, shaking with her grief. Or the wronged man would turn away and, voice traffic jamming with emotion, bravely grit out, 'Aapki... aapki suhaag ki zindagi … aapko … aapkomubarakhobegum,' before walking away, never running, always walking away quickly. As the music rose I would feel Minakshibehn begin convulsing next to me...

    • Ruchir Joshi, The Last Jet Engine Laugh, 167

Consider Palki, as the film begins. The year is 1967, two years after a war with Pakistan. The man singing poetry into the mic wears a black achkan, an article of clothing associated with the students of Aligarh Muslim University, who spearheaded the Pakistan movement in the 1940's. The man's name is Rajinder Kumar. He is a Punjabi Hindu born in Sialkot, Punjab (now in Pakistan); and made his debut in the Bombay film industry in 1950, three years after Partition and Independence. He is known as “Jubilee” Kumar, for there have been times in the fifites and sixties when six or seven of his movies have been running simultaneously, each of them doing over twenty five weeks of solid collections at the box-office all over India. The phenomenon of Jubilee Kumar is linked to his playing tragic characters, often poets, in films known as “Muslim Socials” – films in which the speech, dress, mannerisms and milieu of the principal characters are all “Muslim.” We saw him just now singing a ghazal in Urdu, surrounded by other poets dressed in 18th century Lucknowi attire, all of which metonymically evoke what we can now only recognize as “Muslimness” – as a brief prelude to a monumental cityscape that viewers of Hindi cinema in the 50s and 60s would have found very familiar. As the camera pans over and tracks through ornate but crumbling gateways and mosques built in the 18th century, Jubilee Kumar sings the praises of the city of Lucknow, the capital of Avadh, the glorious successor state to the Mughal Empire, and compares it to heaven on earth, in the present tense –

Ae shehr e Lucknow tujhko mera salaam hai O City of Lucknow, I salute you

Tera hi naam doosra jannat ka naam hai. Your name is the other name for heaven.

As the credits roll over this paean to Lucknow, a heaven which looks distinctly worn and shabby, once doesn't see exclusively Lucknowi or Muslim names, but rather the astonishing diversity of the Bombay film industry – a Punjabi leading man, a lead actress from Hyderabad, Goan-Christian assistants, a Kashmiri Pandit co-director, a Marwari financier, a Parsi principal photographer. Why did this genuinely multicultural industry, located in city with a very different ethos and histories, make so many movies like this one – celebrating the idealized life of the Muslim community and the culture of a city far away not just in space, but also, it would seem, in time (but still, as the microphone and cars indicate, somewhat anachronistically present)? Why did “Urdu, Avadh (which is to say Lucknow) and the Tawaif” become, “the spiritual home of Indian cinema (Kesavan 1994)”?

more here

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