Archive for November, 2010

Nov
148

Haunted Wife

My first few days as a traditional Bengali housewife in Kolkata have made me understand ritual in a whole new way. I could spend the whole day opening and closing windows — stretching to reach the rusty latches. (In Bengali: chitkini.) Or perhaps, locking and unlocking cabinets in the large standing armoires, or almaris. I want to choreograph an art installation around these movements, a dance piece. But I am also fighting the impulse to do these things obsessively, to define my own movements in this place.

When we first reached the flat in South Kolkata, the rooms looked bleached and empty, as I knew they would. It was dark already and I went directly to my grandmother’s room where her prayer shrine was in disarray. The pictures and statues of god replaced by a large framed picture of her, scattered incense ashes. The apartment was clean but musty, as any place will be after being locked up with the curtains drawn for four months. The elevator is broken so the drivers carried our bags up the stairs and we piled them into my grandmother’s room. The young man who used to help my grandmother was there and he showed us how to make the slip knots for the mosquito net, and we made sure the refrigerator was on. There was much more to ask: how to connect the gas to the stove, how to run the manual washing machine, where the plates and glasses were, but my head was mired in the gaping hole my grandmother left behind.

We went to get some food with my uncle and when we came back, again the apartment seemed askew. I felt like child who had been left home alone and a thick panic began to tighten around my neck. What the hell was I doing here?


The last time I spoke to my grandmother on the phone was early January. She was recuperating for a second knee surgery. She scolded me for not calling and then we spoke a long time, both about serious issues and laughing about not so serious ones — as was our manner. I told her that I would be there very soon. For years I had said I was going to come and live in India, that we could take care of each other. She joked that she wouldn’t last that long. I told her that she didn’t have a choice.

The universe had other plans.

I was in Mexico when she fell ill with pneumonia, celebrating a wedding that honored the dead in the same breath it honored the living. The exquisite sorrow of mourning is leached into nothing over the phone. Spared the details, you go on living with the living, leaving the dead hovering somewhere behind your heart. All of my grandparents, my ancestors, dead and after I put down the phone the idea seems preposterous. The image of a funeral pyre impossible to conjure.

In the apartment, I yelled at Robin for leaving his wallet on the front table, for scattering electronics across the floor. Under my grandmother’s rule, you locked everything of value up to keep from tempting the servants. It was your own fault, she told me, if they stole something. He said, “But there is no one here but us.” And that was the real issue wasn’t it? The distance finally seemed to unravel and the truth of her absence finally seemed to sink into my flesh and bones.

I sat down in her straight-backed chair then and tried to think of some way to mourn her properly, some way to choke through the panic and gloom. But then it all drained out of me. The sturdy back of the chair, the orange rug she used to pray on, it grounded me — something shifted and the apartment seemed to open in my mind. This was our space to take in a new direction, to take care of and fill with life. I would respect the hundreds of keys she left, but I would also unlock the cabinets and fill them with books and clothes and media.

Since that night, I’ve been sitting in her chair for a few minutes each day. For years, I’ve been looking for something that would spark the beginning of a meditation practice. It seems to be one last gift my grandmother left for me.

Otherwise, Kolkata is as charming and disheveled as ever. At night, the sounds of the neighbors late-night dinners fade into silence and then the colony of crows in the trees outside our veranda wakes us up early. On our morning constitutional walk around the lake, there would suddenly be a menagerie of brightly colored gods and goddesses under a tree. Rash Behari Avenue is bustling with people and food stands and vegetable sellers. Papaya and guava and a type of water apple are in season.

Tomorrow we leave for Ahmedabad for 10 days. Then we return to truly make this place our home.

Nov
5

The New New Delhi

In 1998, I flew to India for the first time on my own. I was 20 years old and had been living in Philadelphia for the past four months. In the apartment I lived in with three friends in West Philadelphia, an itinerant drug dealer named Melvin crashed on the couch. We bought cases of Olde English. A 40 oz. broke in the freezer and we left its remains there, the brown-ice crusted shards of glass like moraine deposits.

When I landed in Delhi then, I had an eight-hour layover before moving on to Kolkata, during which I got violently ill. The world unstable and my body twisted within it, unable to find any balance. Perhaps it was something I ate, but I couldn’t help think that it was metaphysical. It was like time travel—my body and mind just couldn’t adjust to the extremes of America and India. Delhi, in my memory, was hung with thick fumes, gray and jittery with traffic. It was a very bad taste in the back of my throat.

How things have changed.

The new Delhi International airport, or T3, is shiny and hung with all kinds of art: murals of India and a giant relief of mudras hanging above the immigration stations. The parking garage was buzzing with new cars. Later, we took the Delhi metro, which gets you basically anywhere you want to go in the city. The women’s only compartments are marked with a flowery pink logo on the platform, but we rode co-ed (a little intense).

Everywhere there are throngs of young people with backpacks, headphones and mobiles — dressed in funny t-shirts and jeans. The epic smog even seems to have cleared up some, allowing for blue skies and puffy clouds. The excitement that I first felt when I visited in 2003 remains, swelling. Delhi’s recent push for the Commonwealth Games making everything here a little cleaner. The future certainly looks bright, but it’s the way that rubs against the ancient that make India so incredible.

Our first morning, we decided to walk from our hotel — located in Sunder Nagar, a fancy gated community in South Delhi — and immediately ran into a crumbling Mughal-era mosque and one of Delhi’s many gates. After crossing a busy and noisy street, we passed through an old wooden gate and suddenly everything seemed to fall away, leaving the cool dusty ground and an old well for washing. The fading green and blue tiles matched perfectly the parrots that nested behind the bricks of the main building. One forgets what ancient really means in America, it felt good to breathe it in–try to wrap one’s imagination around what came so long before. Walking along we happened on the National Gallery of Modern Art and checked out an amazing exhibit tracing the trajectory of modern Indian art from Colonial times. I wanted to write/read a novel about almost every artist listed.

For all it’s glamor and newness, Delhi is still completely overwhelming — in the same way New York is if New York had no traffic laws or cross-walks. Crossing the street here and riding in auto-rickshaws scares the hell out of me. On our first day, we had to try to cross several lanes of head-on traffic on foot, almost had a direct collision in an auto-rickshaw with a van, and saw at least two accidents. One was late at night when a bus clipped a small white car that was backing out, busting out the car’s taillight. It was the car driver’s fault, and after initial impact, the car stopped for a second before turning and zooming away. The bus driver left the bus parked in the middle of the street and came running after the car yelling a string of colorful Delhi expletives. India is the country with the highest number of road accident deaths, and Delhi has the highest in the country. I’m not surprised, but I am terrified.

The sun sets each day between 5:30 and 6 — unchanging throughout the year. This is the hardest time of the day for me, and the hardest thing so far to get used to. In the dark, everything turns hazy and dangerous. I was trying to go hear sunset Sufi singing at the shrine of saint Nizamuddin, but we were delayed leaving the Fulbright orientation and by the time we reached the area, dusk had turned into actual night. The rickshaw dropped us off at the entrance of the neighborhood, which was bustling with people but poorly lit. There were cars and carts pushing us to the sides of the street where crippled beggars huddled and hundreds of men and women in traditional Islamic clothing bustling about. Suddenly we were very, very out of place. This was no Connaught Place with Adidas stores and McDonald’s on every corner. We quickly turned around and headed back. I forgot that feeling of being in a strange place and coming up against these boundaries. The shrine was closed, so I hope to return again.

In general, I have to come up with a strategy to deal with this time of day, not only is this when the jet lag is the worst, I know in Kolkata it’s when the mosquitoes come out. I always get the blues at this time of day and want suddenly to go directly to bed. There is also the fact that women virtually disappear from the streets at this time — so I think part of it is feeling trapped. Hopefully once I’m settled in Kolkata, I can set this time to do some yoga or something — once I get over the hump, everything seems fine again later in the evening.

As I knew it would be, this trip has already been most memorable because of personal connections. Professor and writer Pranav Jani joined us for breakfast on our first day. Pranav, who is living/researching in India for the year with his family, has been a huge supported of Indivisible and was trying to help us get out to Ohio State this Spring. It was great to talk to someone who has been doing what we are about to embark on. He recommended the book Modern India by Sumit Sarkar, as a great text to help put this year in context.

I also attended a wonderful reading at the India International Center — a kindof country club for artists — featuring Hong Kong-based poet Agnes Lam and Indivisible contributor Sudeep Sen. The event was chaired by the very daper Professor Alok Bhalla, who gave a wonderful talk on the concept of the “ethical imagination” in poetry–or the role of the poet in the very grim world of today. It was great to meet Sudeep, who has been very supportive of my poetry as a voracious editor. He and his house guest/collaborator — the Irish painter Janet Pierce — convinced the extremely jet-lagged Robin and I to hang out with them late into the night. Along with a tasty Bloody Mary, an excellent dinner that topped off with delicious fig ice cream, a breathtaking midnight stroll in the Lodhi Gardens — we went back to see Sudeep’s incredible library at his home office for Atlas and Aark Arts Books.

It’s funny how in barely three days, some of my initial thoughts of how my time in India will go have already shifted. I had this fantasy that I would live a Spartan existence here in terms of food and drink — subsisting on fruits and light daals. I figured this move away from the gluttony of my life in San Francisco would allow me to cut back on everything, including drinking. Of course I know that those kinds of changes have nothing to do with place and everything with personal choice, but India is rich with three-hour meals and various pleasures … so my serious life change might have to wait awhile.

Nov
0

On The Road …

After 10 years of living in San Francisco, I’ve hit the road for a year of adventures, mostly focused in India. I owe the privilege of taking this year off to my partner-in-crime Robin Sukhadia, who will also be documenting our journeys here. Robin is a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow and will be studying arts education sustainability through a series of music education projects in Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Robin and I, second generation South Asian Americans, have always wanted to go live in the Motherland and on the eve of our departure from America, are equally excited and terrified.

I have worked as a journalist, editor, and teacher since graduating from college in 2000. I gave up an incredible job as a teaching artist with the San Francisco WritersCorps to undertake this journey. Ever since we finalized our decision to move to India at the beginning of this year, I have been dealing with the question: “(But) what are you going to do there?”

The short answer is write. For the long answer, stay tuned…