Saturday, January 29, 2011

Remembering NIranam

Last week, among many of the terrible things which happened, such as murders, mafia, and loss of faith in the future because of political mismanagement in lots of situations in the country, I lost a cousin. She was 56 years old, celebrating her son's engagement, and between the many journeys from one village or small town to another, inviting and in turn visiting guests, she died in her sleep. She was a lovely woman, very calm and sweet tempered. Her husband probably misses her like mad, because the thing with Jessy was  that everyone loved her. She had epilepsy and was heavily on medication all her life, but there was a gift she had of making every one feel that they were grand, wonderful, was like her reflection of a lambent pool with water lilies. One of  the quiet spots of the Pamba came to a still lagoon behind her father's house, and that is what I remember about being with her and and the horde of cousins who visited Niranam when we were children. We kept intact a certain gang life, recovered summer after summer, till we became adolescents and then, we went to college, or got married, and did not meet again, except by chance in other people's houses. Her house, Malliakal, belonged to my grandfather's middle brother. It was an exquisite house in my memory, with rooms leading to different corners and corridors, always opening out to that enclosed square of water, with the stone steps, the water lilies, the sense of a still calm world which might ofcourse have been an illusion, since there were untimely deaths in their family, from illness or accident, and yet, Jessy was always gentle and happy, as if this stream of genetic memory had been trapped in her case, just like the river which had been sheathed, for a domestic reason.

Behind my grandfather's house, which was called Vazhapallil, the Pamba flowed rich and loamy with sugar cane fields rimming the edge. Tamarind trees grew huge and old, and birds could be heard whistling through the day. My father grew deaf when he was middle aged, and he would ask me "Can you hear the birds?" and I would say, "Yes!" not knowing then that he was drawing on his memory to remember the birds singing. I heard birds like that many decades later in Shantivanam, a monastery and ashram where Benedictines  have left a legacy of living quietly by the river. I had written a book about Henri Le Saux (now reprinted in a collection called Friendship, Interiority and Mysticism, published by Black Orient Swan, 2007) and we had gathered to celebrate the century anniversary of his birth. The sky, the river, the birds, the reminded me of Vazhapallil. We were lucky to live there for brief holidays when we were children.

The third house in Niranam, belonged to my cousin  Annie Paul's grandfather. It was the most modern of the three houses, but tiled and with verandahs, and best of all, it looked towards the Pamba at it's broadest. Now that river, forty years later, has died.  Grass has grown deep into the soil, and sucked the water up completely. In front of the house is a huge mansion, where boats once stood. It blocks the view.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Republic Day

The first cuckoo announced the coming of spring. The newspapers  say Illina Sen, the wife of Binayak Sen, the barefoot doctor to tribals and peasants, is now under police scrutiny for "inviting foreigners to a conference", and yes, I remember my childhood, when my father made us wake at 5 a.m and walk all the way to India Gate, which was a good 15 kms from where we lived in Jamia Millia. Earlier we watched the parade from the roof top of our house, or a neighbour's house, near Minto Bridge, which was adjacent to Connaught Place, now called Rajiv Chowk. I'm talking of the  1960s, where republic day didn't mean the valorisation of the gun, but it was a day like no other, such joy under a spring time sun, with the flowers beginning to bloom at the crossings, and the parade a day of total joy. Families assembled at vantage points, people from adjoining villages arrived in large numbers, and there was no T.V. The Republic Day is the day of The Constitution and we remain a socialist, secular republic because the people say so, even now in the day of malls and patenting brinjal.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Visa to Paris and Berlin

Tomorrow I shall receive my passport with visa to Europe. It will be good to see friends again, always briefly because they will be tied up with their daily routines of work and obligations at home and all that goes with a finite work day. For me time will be more limpid, since I will be the traveller at home in the cities I visit on work. These cities have their own euphoria, with their patterns of events, the certitude of their inhabitants, each impervious to the tourist or guest, expressing distaste for vagrancy, but politely welcoming the stranger, who looks at the city with awe. Each one of us in a new city, entranced by the sights and sounds, the stacatto beat of heels on the tarmac, as people rush to work, busy with their lives, We, as occasional performers build up energy for that one performance, repeated according to invitation, differently each time, choreographing theory with embellishments of our interpretation, keeping aside the penumbra of memory, as we polish away at our public performances. Is thier an audience? One imagines one, as a decade of data collection now crystallises into the evanescent moment of presentation.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sun's Out

Suddenly Spring says its coming. We have two months of lovely weather,  ahead,before the dust of summer and the dry hot winds begin. Inspite of climate change, sometimes things happen as they should. Makkar Sankranti yesterday, Pongal today...the cows will be out in Tiruvannamalai, all decked up, and treated as divine.
Here, sufficient to say that dawn came on time and the birds could be heard.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter in Northampton

This season of intense cold reminds me of snow and sleet and fearsome cold in a small town three hours from Boston. I met a philospher there, a woman called Kathryn Pyne Adelson, who taught me that pain and freedom often went together, and that emotions were our birthright. She is a philosopher, and yet as an activist, was always deeply connected to the rights of communities to be what they are. "Regenerative communities" she called them. She and another close friend Frederique Marglin have a centre at Smith College for "Mutual Learning".
That winter, my identity card carried only one appelation or title. It said "Spouse". I used to look at it sometimes, a little distraught, since I had never thought of myself as one. How odd! In any case, every day, I washed dishes, and swept the floor and made the beds, with a little two year old daughter in tow. My older daughter went to school nearby, a spanking yellow bus would pick her up, from outside the Forbes Library. I was also, at that time pregnant with a third daughter.  The kind physician at the clinic, showed me her picture on ultrasound, and said "There she is, sucking her thumb. I have one just like that at home!"  Nineteen years later, I still remember that February to July as months spent in an exquisite campus, with a green house which grew the most amazing flowers, arum lilies being there most visible products in a snow covered environment. Hot spice smelling red, and sometimes striped lilies. Five years later, I saw another glass house in Belfast, where too, I spent February in biting cold weather, with soft drizzles of rain, and an occasional sun. The botanical gardens were well tended here too, a Japanese garden being there greatest delight, and inside the palm trees grew to great heights. In both these places, I was busy reading madly whenever I could. In Northhampton, it was 19th century mission records,  and in Belfast, there they turned up again. Sometimes I visit the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. There too there is a vast colonial library, where I follow up debates on colonial administration, and yes, there is a green house,  with this time, petunias, begonias and hordes of lilies and pansies and dahlias, all winter flowers,growing while the temperature is 28 degrees outside!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Smog and the Metro

The metro connects us pretty well from Hauz Khaz to Visvavidhalaya or Delhi University. What is precluded is the daily fight with the auto driver, over fares,  his stopping to fill gas when one is already late, driving with one hand on the handlebar,  throwing slighting comments to the passenger and risking the lives of all in the path of the driver. And ofcourse taking long detours and driving against the flow of traffic, to avoid a long uturn. Most days autos are just fine, one feels the wind in one's hair, and the driver is happy with his job, and sometimes he plays loud music, which he will turn off if you request  him.

But the metro! The metro is everyone's dream. In Paris, the metro is so old, that  it is filigreed with time, and the stations have art works. Public display of art is routinised with Parisians, they don't fear graffiti, the surveillance is so heavy. Here, college students chat and study, others fall into meditative silence, and no one notices that we are in the intestines of the earth. Meticulous, beautiful and calm. We have not yet developed a history of "incidents" as they call it in Paris. Good behaviour lasted about four years, now there is a women's compartment because Delhi males feel that on their way to Kurukshetra they can manhandle any number of women young or old. So the state has divided up the compartments, so there is one for women, and many for men. As soon as they see a woman, the men usher the women along avuncularly, saying You will get a seat in the lady's compartment. The women's compartment gets jam packed with women with parcels and shopping, and sometimes little boys who figure out they are different, and start bawling or boxing. Still the metro is heaven, away from the winter smog, and the continuous display of metal and machismo on the traffic jammed Delhi roads. The workers who built this gleaming metro, underfed though they were did not have their hands chopped off, and hopefully found work again.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Science and the Arts

It's so cold, that it takes me time to type out my password, first with gloves, then without, no entry  though,since the electronic imagination notates the exactitude of my typing skills! Bruno Latour was at Delhi University but I could not go to hear him, because I had to stand in the passport queue that afternoon. The passport q is full of intelligent citizens who when asked simple questions at the desk, can never respond correctly. One woman when told to write the date on the receipt, said, idiotically, "What date? Date of birth?" "No! today's date!!" When the officer last week  told me to take out 25! I started looking for a fiver, and he said "Madame, idhar sikkae nahin chalte!" meaning, "We don't accept small coins!" 25 hundred was the fee that he was collecting, and giving me a receipt for. I was in the q for urgent passports because my visa for Paris and Berlin could not be stamped on my old passport which was valid for 20 years from 1999 to 2019. The Europeans only stamp on ten year validity passports. So that was why I was back in the Q. Latour talks of burearucracy and machinery in the same breath. What happens to people who become keys in the system, who open all the locks? Ordinary people call such individuals angels. Sometimes they are nondescript, sometimes they are charismatic and visible, but they exist. People who treat people as people, and not as things. I met quite a few such persons in the Passport office who tided the subjects who felt errors in the text were personal. I got my  passport!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Paul Ricoeur

When I was twenty two my research supervisor introduced me to the books of Paul Ricoeur. My sister in law immediately got the whole set and sent them, from San Fransisco, and thirty years later, I still have them, and read them. I think he influenced me a great deal then, and now, even more so. I started again with  History and Truth. What is significant about this is that Ricoeur sets up the theoretical space for analysing ideologies and polemic. Then, he establishes the validity of universalising philosophical principles, of which classification is one. He uses the Weberian formulation of explanation and understanding, as the two most important principles of philosophical discourse. From this emerges the preoccupation of the dialectical imagination and the possibilities of dialogue. Ricoeur argues that history is about flux and events, but it is also about historicising which is a philosophical event. Because it is premised on this theorising, there is in writing history, selection of events, and more significantly composition. So the objectivity of history depends on the acknowledgement of the subjectivities of the historian. This is the primary premise of Weber's sociology. What happens to ideology and polemics? Ricoeur argues that the ideological cloak shrouds, and there is therefore a deafness to other polemics, other contexts. The significant aspect of this position is really to ask what does the objectification of history do? Ricoeur says that Science reabsorbs the subjective, making humans commodities or objects. And so Art liberates the imagination, and reintroduces coherence and authenticity. Where Science shrouds, Art reveals, but this art cannot be a plagiarism of Social Science, it must depend on its own intuition, its will to be what it  is, is drawn from the source of it's own self, fearful neither of the tyranny of supervision, or of the consumer. Yet art depends on the dialogicity of producer and consumer, and in this interaction, both are made whole.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


I was there for five days. It was sunny and calm, occasionally it drizzled. I spent the time reading a books on maps which involved the questions of the past, but more importantly,what digitalisation does to the making and reading of maps. The spaces of the earth are read by sattelites, what happens to communities and their opinions on this mutual sharing. Is there a private or enclosed space left? I spoke to some of the craftspeople who make a living in  Tiruvannamalai. Selling their wares in a tourist and pilgrim town, they spoke of the networks and links of production. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the map of India has been linked by the trade in cloth, jewels and ritual artifacts. What is happening in Kashmir? we need only look up websites such as Protests in Kashmir to know. 80,000 soldiers map a part of India, where for 21 years the Kashmiri has been made to feel a victim of the Indian state. Between corruption of the army and the politicians, and the threats of the terrorists they eke out miserable life. Every day brings them new sorrows. How can we as citizens ask for greater visibility on the presence of the military in Kashmir or Manipur? In Tiruvannamalai, where the peacefulness is still so great, the caste debates are vivid in every day life, yet in mutual consent, people make a living.