Wednesday, October 28, 2009

you are (not)

This post is dedicated to my friend at Buoyantville, whose generosity introduced me to the work of Antonio Munoz Molina, which I quote here.

You are not an isolated person and do not have an isolated story, and neither your face nor your profession nor the other circumstances of your past or present life are cast in stone. The past shifts and reforms, and mirrors are unpredictable. Every morning you wake up thinking you are the same person you were the night before, recognizing an identical face in the mirror, but sometimes in your sleep you've been disoriented by cruel shards of sadness or ancient passions that cast a muddy, somber light on the dawn, and the face is different, changed by time, like a seashell ground by the sand and the pounding of and salt of the sea...

You are every one of the different people you have been, the ones you imagined you would be, the ones you never were, and the ones you hoped to become and now are thankful you didn't.

And your room is different, the city or the countryside you see from the window, the house you live in, the street where you walk, all of it growing more distant, disappearing as quickly as it's seen through the glass, there one moment, gone forever. Cities where it seemed you would live forever but left, never to return, cities where you spent a few days only to preserve them in memory like a clutter of old postcards in bitter colours...

Perhaps what changes least, through so many places and times, is the room you take refuge in, the room that according to Pascal one should never leave if one is to avoid disaster. "Being alone in a room is perhaps a necessary condition of life," Franz Kafka wrote Milena...

All human miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone. I saw Lorca's room, and I wanted to live sometime in a room like that. The white walls, the floor or large flat stones like the ones in my boyhood home, the wood table, the austere but comfortable bed of white-painted iron, the large balcony open to the Vega, to the sweep of groves dotted with white houses, to the bluish or mauve silhouette of the sierra with its snowy peaks, tinted rose in the sunset. I remember van Gogh's room in Arles, just as sheltering and austere, but with its beautiful geometry already twisted by anguish...

I wonder what the room in Amsterdam was like where Baruch Spinoza, a descendant of Jews expelled from Spain and later Portugal, he himself expelled from the Jewish community, edited his lucid philosophical treatises and polished the lenses from which he earned a livelihood. I imagine it with a window that lets in a clear grey light like that in the paintings of Vermeer....

-- From Sepharad

Not entirely disconnected, this poem by my friend at Buoyantville, first revealed in the middle of a raucous party, on a Blackberry --

... This homesickness for the other, where
Does it begin? And why do we value
The familiar comfort of a quite room

So little? What answer to your question
What would have been the content
Of our fates hadn't the path forked?

We say to ourselves this stranger will
Lead us back to paradise that we have lost...

more here

Sunday, October 25, 2009

the small voice of history, uncannily present

This is an extract from a paper I gave last week at the South Asia Graduate Student Forum at Columbia.

... Nanhe Miyan is the name of the first jinn which is encountered on entering Firoz Shah Kotla. His place is a small alcove just off what would have been a large entry gate to the citadel... Nanhe Miyan was a name known in eighteenth century Delhi and Lucknow, as Intizar Husain tells us in his literary memoir of Delhi, Dilli Tha Jiska Naam[That Which Was Named Delhi].

“There were some special named jinns who had achieved a lot of fame among the ladies. They were Shah Dariya, Shah Sikandar, Zain KhaN, Sadar e JahaN, Nanhe Miyan, Chahaltan; but the most fame was achieved by Shaikh Saddu. Mention of this can be found in the satire of Sauda [1713-1781]. Rangeen [1755-1835] has also given a reference to this –

Kisi ko ji se hai iKhlas Shaikh Saddu se
Kahe hai aap ko Nanhe Miyan ki haram koi

Someone is sincerely devoted to Shaikh Saddu with their life
Someone calls themselves the sanctuary of Nanhe Miyan

It seems that the celebrity of Shaikh Saddu and Nanhe Miyan was from Delhi to Lucknow (Husain 2005, 115-116).” What might have been the subject of satire in late Mughal Delhi and Lucknow, and later, a subject of censure for the reformist Hali in the 19th century (see Minault 1984), is a source of wonder to me. In a city destroyed repeatedly, the name of a jinn survives. And what an apt name it is too. Nanhe MiyaN. Little Mister. The small voice of history. The presence of the jinn makes possible an archive of the disquiet of the contemporary city, the stories of grief and loss and longing, the stories of the everyday injustices of working class life, which never make it to the newspapers...

Monday, October 12, 2009

i must be a car

While looking through a notebook from summer two years ago, looking for field-notes, I found this small piece written as a writing exercise. It's whimsical, hence here, over two years later...

I failed to notice the children. Latr, while drinking tea, he told me -- there were children there. In their mother's arms. Underweight. Too quiet. Bandaged.
I saw the photos stuck on the soot blackened walls. I saw the bats. I failed to notice the children.

"You have to be a father for that."

I did not see the birds today, sitting on the shimmering wires, reflected with clouds in the roadside pools. I did not notice them flying off when footsteps rippled the water.

Maybe you have to be a bird for that.

I did see, while passing in a car, a battered wheelbarrow and a broken jeep, standing together in the rain against a peeling wall. Rahat Nusrat was playing on the radio.

I must be a car. I must have a heart of rusting gears.
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