Saturday, September 28, 2013

Nice to Notice

I enjoy the rains. I love the respite, the weekends spent with good books instead of good friends, the alterations of mood and tempo, the bhuta-pakora-chai rituals being played out dozens of times. I love the illusion of a lull that seems to go hand-in-hand with our monsoons. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and as I write this post at the end of yet another wet week the over-riding sense is not that of delicious delight but of a dampness made almost solid. 

In the absence of any honest-to-goodness desi sunshine, I paid attention to the things that kick-started my mornings this week and kept me ticking till I negotiated my way to the coffee machine at work: Little kids, scrubbed and in uniform + pigtails, being led to school-buses by scruffy dads and yummy mummies; taxi-drivers who inhabited the front seat of their Maruti 800 as if it were a throne and maneuvered it to its destination with a lack of urgency that's entirely alien to their species; the surprisingly cool breeze off the sea-link; a grey van bursting at the seams with houseplants; two skinny young men bent double as they cracked up over a joke; discovering I had an extra hour to myself before it was time to head out Thursday morning.   

In the vein of my previous post, it really is nice to notice. So much better than the alternative.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I'm one of those people who likes going places, but doesn't particularly enjoy getting there. Early morning wake-up calls, cab rides to the airport, queues at check-in, hustling to get a seat you can settle in before boarding announcements are made, the long lines that build up in total defiance of the fact that only select row numbers have been called out for by ground staff - it's all too predictable and monotonous and makes even non sci-fi fans think longingly of Star Trek style evaporation and re-assemblage at destination. 

But there are small joys - the occasional well made cup of coffee, spells of quiet, and airport bookstores that sell Harper's well-designed and entirely-too-appealing Agatha Christie books for only 199 rupees a pop. I buy them even when I've already packed another book for the explicit purpose of reading en route. Agatha Christie! 199 rupees! Cover art! Need I say more? 

And so I recently bought myself a copy of 'Murder on the Orient Express,' featuring Poirot with his little grey cells and Belgian affectations. It's a book that makes for truly enjoyable reading, but what struck me most about it was a particular scene early on in the narrative in which Poirot, eating alone in the Orient Express' first-class dining car, spends his time observing his fellow passengers and 'sizing them up.' He looks at them and makes assumptions about what they might be like, playing a detective's version of 'connect the dots' on his day off. It made me think about the last time I had really looked at a stranger, paid attention to her, tried to learn something about her from the way she dressed, spoke or moved, and I couldn't bring a single instance to mind. 

When did I stop looking at people and noticing their oddities? Did this non-seeing start with digital music players and become cemented by cellphones and smartphones? Are people less striking and interesting today than they were when Christie wrote? Do we get enough and more of each other through relentless newspaper and television coverage and web-based chatter? It isn't cultural conditioning, for sure. Indians can never be accused of being too polite to stare. In fact, we've probably raised the global stakes on creepy once-overs and insistent violations of personal space. And yet - in looking at a person, many of us don't really think about her (or him). We slap on a label - cool/not, hot/not, from boondocks/not - and leave it at that.  

Anonymity is a kind of liberation, of course, but have we lost the twin arts of observation and deduction? Should we be more curious about the people around us, what they might be like, and what they might do? Should we be paying more attention to what's happening around us - literally around us - as opposed to exclusively staying on top of the big news stories of the moment? I know I need to do more on all of these counts.

There is one place where the art of noticing and spotting is thriving - the Internet, with its hundreds (if not thousands) of street-style and urban portraiture blogs.Some of these bloggers are good at what they do. Others are somewhat twee and/or labored. Either way, I wouldn't want them to become my custodians of observation. Observation can so personally rewarding, why delegate it to someone else? Obviously, I'm not advocating for making strangers uncomfortable and being intrusive. But developing a certain quality of attention to them could make spaces and places less anodyne. Even if that space is an airport on Monday morning. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Having My Say. Asking my Questions. Same Difference.

What's that quip about how opinions are like _________, every one's got them? 

Well, it's Narendra Modi, and the Prime Ministerial race, and the political discourse in this country, so I feel entitled. 

In response to all the questions about how I feel about Narendra Modi as a Gujarati, I would have to say......I don't. Really. I believe that reducing Modi to a Gujarat phenomenon is a cop-out. The truth is that Modi could have emerged from a number of states in this country. The question that needs to be asked is what it is about our culture, society and politics that makes him legitimate and likeable. Of course there is something to be said for context, for the fact that Modi's won consecutive elections from Gujarat. But to limit the conversation around Modi to Gujarat, as some commentators and analysts do, is to claim a false distance from the possibility - and truth - that prejudice and discrimination manifest almost everywhere in India, every day. These instances are just not on the radar quite as persistently. 

Modi's success and his growing personality cult parallel the rise of a certain rhetoric of growth and prosperity in India, and the crystallization of the idea that quality of life can be measured in very specific ways - roads, public transport, industrial investment. These things are important - but the reason they dominate our popular notions of development so disproportionately is because there's a large number of Indians who believe that they need to make a choice between populism and effective government. They're interested in the idea of secularism and collective progress only tangentially, because no one - no political party, and almost no mainstream media outlet - is creating dialogue around equitable growth and what it means for us all as a people and a country. Social welfare and justice are not constructs that come fully formed from some mysterious ether. Some one needs to take responsibility to explain why they matter, and to frame the smaller pictures we're so fond of as an electorate in terms of a larger vision or idea. Otherwise, why be surprised if this purported 'big picture' lacks takers? 

In any case, it's hard to dispute that Narendra Modi's been able to use this seeming scarcity of political choice to his advantage. The fact that he is able to set the terms by which other parties and their policies are judged is largely due to a massive failure of imagination on the part of the Congress. India's G.O.P. still has a year to re-present the issues, but will it demonstrate the intent and the initiative? 

One more thing. I read an incredibly silly column in the Mumbai Mirror today about how Indian Americans worry about 'explaining' Modi's rise to power to their friends in the US, given the State Department's refusal to issue him a visa. I'm confounded that this is a talking point that merits actual inches in newsprint. Choices about whether or not Modi should run India should be based on what people think he can or can't do for this country, here. Why do we believe that our leaders need endorsement from institutions abroad? Why this continuing preoccupation with how we 'look' to others, instead of how we see ourselves? 

That being said, I have no idea about which way the winds will blow. I am prepared to be surprised either - and every - way. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Perfectly Impractical

I’ve written earlier about my interest in poetry. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends about the inherent ‘value’ of certain disciplines, and while my position on the essential importance of literature and the liberal arts has been consistent and earnestly argued, I worry that I’ve occasionally come off as a bit of an apologist. I’ve made the mistake of appropriating the construct of ‘usefulness’ and applying it to these disciplines – purely for argument’s sake (or so I told myself).

But the thing is, there’s always been a tiny, insistent and annoying voice emanating from an unknown recess in my mind that’s been asking me – ‘What if you’re mistaken? What if this stuff really, actually, doesn’t count?’

I’m happy to report that those doubts have now been laid to rest. I’ve been taking ModPo, an online course in poetry run by Prof. Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania on It’s only been a week, but I’m intrigued, inspired and engaged. Most importantly, I think I finally get it. At least as ‘it’ relates to poetry.

I’ve realized that great verse can make something of a moment, a mood – compressing something vast into something bejeweled and small, or expanding something small into something large and expansive. It can make the stuff of reality more vivid, moving, inspiring, complicated, fraught, surreal. It can change the way we look at the possibilities offered by language – and while I’ve always been curious about how language can shape perceptions, I haven’t paid enough attention or given enough thought to how language can shape relationships. Or to how the form in which we speak is almost as important as what we say. 

Maybe other people come to these realizations in other ways. The point is that for me, and for several other people taking this course, insights into the power and potential of language and linguistic structure seem to be coming thick and fast. Which is wonderful. And which is enough. Enough reason for poetry to be practiced, to be taught, to be learnt and analyzed and to maintain a space in public life. 

The same probably holds true for whole host of other disciplines – history, philosophy, aesthetics, ethics. Are they useful? Maybe not in the practical sense. But practicality is overrated.  It’s easy and maybe even logical to cut funding to these departments and direct it towards – I’m not sure – Engineering? Medicine? Economics? The world runs on usefulness, skills, employability, applicability, numerals, results.  But shouldn’t there be some space for students to explore things purely for the sake of pleasure, curiosity and passion? Do we want to build institutions that only wield one yardstick of worth and accomplishment? That tell us that being inspired is somehow, optional? That teach us all of the answers but not how to ask any of the questions? Do we want to take a punt on ideas originating only from certain kinds of intellectual spaces? Do we want to assume that inspiration will always travel upwards and downwards (never sideways), creating a virtuous loop of invention and innovation?

There’s someone taking my course who is currently in a hospice, and using the time he has left to study language and philosophy. I find that moving, and it reiterates my belief that there are the things that make life possible, manageable and workable, and then there are the things that make life worthwhile. So much of what we care about – truth, art, beauty, fiction, nouvelle cuisine, architectural conservation - is strictly speaking, unnecessary, and yet we would be so much the poorer without them. These things don’t exist and thrive in a vacuum. And by uprooting the academic and institutional ecosystems that nurture them and make them possible, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall. No matter what the spreadsheets say.
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