Category Archives: Cities

Past present: Revisiting the past through documentary

When you’re curating a program for yourself at an event or conference you’re often doing so consciously and conscientiously: there are things you need to see or attend for work, or for something new you need to wrap your head around. Then there are those times when it seems like you have no agenda except for entertainment and pleasure, which doesn’t mean, however, that your curated program is serendipitious or magical. This is what this week’s Berlinale is for me. I found myself curating one part of my program with some expected resonances: three films involving female protagonists reconstructing or re-discovering the past, and in doing so visit the unstable ground between, and in the creation of, fiction and non-fiction:

1. Kate plays Christine. Robert Greene. 2016.
In 1974 in Sarasota, Florida, a 29 year old newscaster, Christine Chubbuck, shot herself, fatally, on live TV. In 2015, an actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, prepares to recreate that moment and the film follows her journey.

2. A Magical Substance Flows Into Me. Jumana Manna. 2016
In the 1930s, Robert Lachmann, a German, had a radio show featuring “Oriental” i.e Palestinian music. In 2014, Jumana Manna, a Palestinian artist, travels around Israel and Palestine playing recordings from the old shows and recording contemporary versions. What do these songs sound like now when performed by Moroccan, Kurdish, or Yemenite Jews, by Samaritans, members of the urban and rural Palestinian communities, Bedouins and Coptic Christians?

3. The Watermelon Woman. Cheryl Dunye. 1996
Cheryl is a young black woman working at a video store. She becomes curious about black women playing stereotypical ‘mammys’ in films from the 1930s and 1940s. She sets out to discover one who is known only as the Watermelon Woman, a black lesbian actress who had an affair with a white woman director….

I’m excited to see them all and will be writing about them here..

Soft, soft droning

There is a sound in this city, a soft, constant tattoo of hundreds of thousands of fingertips on keyboards. Ragged bitten grimy short Vietnamese precision manicured false brittle not enough calcium in the diet not enough vitamin D pitted nicotine marked. A global army beating its retreat from some unbearable now. Also, wires, fans, battery heat, dead metal hums that are no language just pure industrial noise and perfect background score for falling in between the cracks. Your etsy-ing, your artisanal gins and lake swimming are cute, but I think the logic of despair entails a long moment of flailing in full view on a super fast connection.

 

Verdict by Tenzin Dickyi

Poem #3 in my selection for Berlin liest, this one representing Tibet.

Verdict by Tenzin Dickyi

Ladies and gentlemen,
These trace fossils belong to
our dearly departed Tyrannosaurus Rex.
I say this with surety because his foot prints lead to his open coffin.
These Oviraptors, maligned raiders of Protoceratopsian nests,
are cleared on all counts of assault, battery and theft,
when their legal counsel proves beyond a shadow of a doubt
that they were guarding the nests,
not raiding them. The legal counsel,
in the style of Solomon or Sakyamuni and other wise men,
cracks open the disputed eggs in court.
Out come – not baby Protoceratops – but baby Oviraptors!

These Pterosaurs are not killing fish,
they are cleaning teeth and
learning to swim.

I paste my judgment along my palette.
How my paleontology works for me.

If I take these bones home
and make them a nice bone bed and
water them at regular intervals and take them out in the sun and
encourage them, love them perhaps, they will grow
flesh and thin skin which will thicken into scales
hard enough to leave scale impressions on cliffsides when
they squeeze their way through a narrow mountain pass.
But who wants dinosaurs in their homes?

There are only two ways of looking at the truth.
When the truth is buried, taken out and
boxed up and buried in rock and
no one attends its burial
but says, “how sad, how sad” and “what a world” and the truth is now a fossil,
a fossil of a point of view but a disreputable fossil,
which is to say, a fossil unable to withstand
its burial, the cerement slowly wearing
out of being and with it the fossil
until it is all gone,
then we must employ the third way of looking
at the truth which is to look at the sediment infill in the rock,
which keeps the shape of truth as nicely as
a bookmark keeps its place in a book.

The dinosaur takes the alternative to extinction.
He cuts a deal, keeps his clavicle, forsakes divine right, and agrees to electronic
surveillance.
The meteorite has a name and a makeshift home, a cradle rounded
like the smooth grave inner face of silvered spoons.
Perhaps it meant no harm.
Perhaps.

From Big Bridge

Destitute by Manohari

Destitute by Manohari

I am a three – day refugee
successful in saving my life;
a poem wells within it.
Those who saw my house say
its nose is broken
I understand
that the flower plants I nurtured
have been eaten by cows
Here
I own no sky
Even the air I breathe
belongs to someone else
Having lost ninety thousand stars
and the sky
and you
How can I write poetry?
Having lost my butterfly
and the lizard that dwells
in a cranny of my bed
how can I write poetry, o moon!

Translated from Tamil by S. Pathmanaban, in an anthology of Tamil Sri Lankan poetry, found online.

Poems for South Asian refugees and asylum seekers

Every year Berlin’s International Literature Festival has a public reading event. This year’s focus is the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers from Europe and around the world. I’m going to focus on South Asia. I’m creating a list of poems on themes of loss, journeying, return, home, by poets from Kashmir, Bangladesh/Bengal, Sri Lanka/Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Tibet, Myanmar/Bangladesh. Please share your favourite poems from these regions, in English translation of course.

I haven’t decided where I’m going to do this but I will soon and I hope my Berliner friends will be there (either outside the Indian embassy, or perhaps in my new home, which may be somewhat symbolic/dark/poignant…hmmm..)

Berlin 1

I’m standing at the Eberswalderstrasse U-bahn intersection and looking up at the early evening light gliding over the cornices of buildings and spy two young women on a balcony looking down at us, smoking, laughing and drinking- someone is always drinking something in Berlin, it’s a city for a beverage-lovers – when I begin to think about why I never write about Berlin although I’m usually on the edge of that feeling of almost-writing about it because the city seems to inspire … interiority? solitude? expression? though you eventually find yourself thinking about the conditions for sustaining creative expression rather than just shooting from the hip on a Sunday afternoon and how the myth that has grown around how easy it is to live here equaling the sustainability of expression and its completion is like a small, aggressive tumour in the collective consciousness, and you ask if that means that this city is an inspiring place at all, or just a convenient one, which leads you to realise that every city you’ve lived in is actually only the Gestalt of everything you’ve read, and what your friends say, about it, how people talk about the weather, the food, the political and arts scene, how bad the transport and pollution are, and whether its safe or not and how easy it is to leave it on the weekends or for short breaks, which, as we know, are the things that make a city live-able and so I look up at the girls and wonder if they’re from here – but who is from here anyway – or if they’re part of the revolving door that this city is now: streams of young Americans – political, gap year, searching, IvyLeague; or the Euro-AirBnB set here for the weekend and relieved to be back in Uppsala or Barcelona or Bristol on Monday night with their envy of how impossibly cool Kreuzberg is but ultimately relieved to be back, to be back home.

Kyu-Wait

 

We’re going to Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, we’re going to Kyu-Waaiittt my mother would sing-chant in the days before we would travel to see my father. My mother is a champion of cute little portmanteaux of sounds and words, of cut-up techniques applied to parts of speech, word sounds and pronunciation. Kyu-wait, q8, Coo-Ate were signs of our excitement at seeing him again, and about what the city-state symbolised. We were just on the brink of escaping respectable, middle-class poverty thanks to my  father “raking in the moolah” – my mother would permit herself these vulgarities only in the context of Kyu-Wait.

My parents are doctors, my father is a Urologist and transplant surgeon; he was invited to help rebuild the practice at the Urology department in one of Kuwait’s big teaching hospitals. Dr. George Someone was the much-respected Iraqi head of department who had to flee when Saddam invaded. There was something conveniently honourable in what my father was doing – helping rebuild the hospital’s practice and simultaneously earning tax-free, beautiful money, which in the early 1990s was 100 Rupees to the Dinar. You could get a little giddy doing the conversion. This t-shirt costs as much as a buffet breakfast at the Taj in Nungambakkam. This loaf of machine-made sliced bread would buy us 10 bakery-made loaves in India. These 100 Dinars are going to buy us a holiday.

The first association with the Gulf was money, of course. Sitting on billions of barrels of oil, and with fields burning in the desert, oil and what it means shape every point of reference. Many Indians, epecially South Indians, will pronounce it ‘gelf’, mocking the Kerala accent. The Gelf was full of people from Kerala, so much so you couldn’t get a plumber or carpenter anymore in Kerala, or so they said.

I was almost 16 years old in January 1991 on the eve of Desert Storm, the son et lumiere show over Baghdad. ‘Scud’ and ‘Cruise’ made it feel like we were watching Top Gun in real life; though secretly, late at night in bed, my fertile imagination would make plans to survive World War 3. (Someone at school said that their father said it was going to be World War 3). My grandfather’s stories of the Second World War in South and  South East Asia made me dread the idea of conflict. Watching the TV coverage, I had no idea that a war in the sense of the World Wars wasn’t actually happening. Years later when  I read The Gulf War Did Not Take Place I felt robbed, somehow, of that mixture of dread and excitement.

1991 was marked by a vivid, grisly memory of a young man called Rajeev Goswami who set himself on fire to protest the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of affirmative action in favour of Dalits and ‘lower’ caste people applying for government jobs.  Cities erupted in violence; ‘forward caste’ youth felt that the Mandal initiatives would close down opportunities for them. There is no fear more justifiable -or powerful – than that of a parent for their child’s well-being.  The Mandal violence surfaced the prejudices of many adults around me who were concerned that there simply wouldn’t be enough seats in universities for their children. I somehow could not appreciate this idea or the fear underlying it: perhaps it is a sign of privilege to believe that you’ll always get by. Life in middle class India can be exhausting in the anxiety that nothing will ever be enough, things will run out, there won’t be enough to go around, you’ll get to the end of the queue and then the office will close for lunch. What Mandal actually made apparent was that for progress to happen, inequality just needs to be more equally distributed.

December 1992 was when the  the Babri Masjid demolition occurred, and the following March, the Bombay Blasts. Indian’s economy had just ‘opened up’ around that time; this was most palpable in how television broadcast content exploded; from three channels we got five, then seven, 15, and then everyone stopped counting. Well-meaning adults advised me to do get an MBA – a new economy needed people who could manage it.  Amidst all the opening up and liberation, there were dark currents that you couldn’t see but only sense.

As part of the terms of my father’s employment in Kyu-Wait, the university would either cover our education in Kuwait, or fly us to visit him three times a year. My mother, sister and I stayed behind in India, it was just an awkward time to move -my sister was in the 8th grade and I had just joined college in Madras. In any case, who went to Kuwait to go to school anyway? As much as we could all appreciate Gelf money, we held fast to our snobbery: the Gelf, was, eventually, a place for money, not culture or education. You went there to meet practical needs, and the things you just could not do in India in the 1970s and 80s – make money legitimately.

My first glimpse of Kyu-Wait was actually at a boarding gate in Bombay’s international airport. I was shocked at the diversity and quantity of Indian expatriate labour in the Gulf. All Indians are familiar with domestic labour but the idea of importing this hadn’t crossed my mind. In 1993-94, traveling to the Gulf out fragile and shaken Bombay was fraught. Security was high, everyone was tightlipped and holding something in; coming back was even more fraught. I’ve had that particular passport squinted at by immigration officers in South East Asia, Europe and North America wanting to know why I had so many visa stamps in Arabic. Eventually we’re all the same when it comes to the dark-blue passport, all subjected to the same pre-boarding checks, the HIV tests.

The Gulf was where people went to buy things, and I think they still do. My generation and class of Indians has a perverse, contradictory craving for material things, and simultaneously mistrusts the desire for these things. So there’s a reason why malls paralyse and annoy me. Malls are an especially broken metaphor for progress and development. You cannot not see the South Asian labourers working outside them, or on them. Strangely, though, you couldn’t actually tell that the workers on the sides of the roads were South Asian, or even human – they could be robots under there –  because they would be completely covered to protect themselves from the sun. But robots don’t shuffle or get tired, or stop and stare at the cars whizzing by. The workers on the sides of the roads wore orange jumpsuits (this was a good decade before Guantanamo started receiving illegally detained Arab men), their faces were wrapped in  keffiyehs, only the eyes visible. My mother would point them out and get agitated (I get this from her). See, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, see our people having to do this, be treated like this. Why can’t we take better care of our people? How hard they have to work, how are they being treated in this country, who looks out for them, do they have unions, where do their families live? There were no answers, only just the nameless relief that we were inside looking out. Looking out of the back of the car after we’d pass them, it would seem like they would evaporate into the mirage, as if they had never been there.

My father lived on the 15th floor of a building overlooking absolutely nothing. He lived in university accommodation in Shuwaikh, which at that time was a bleak edge beyond which was only the port and the sea. Further away from downtown, Shuwaikh were not so scrubbed clean of the memories of the invasion. In front of one of the other residential buildings was an ochre sofa with big cushions; one side had been ripped out, and the other had a little sculpture of hardened human shit. The Iraqi soldiers did all kinds of mad stuff here, my father would say. There was a lot more of this when he arrived, he told us. He would be walking down the street to the local store and come across a kitchen sieve or a toilet seat; driving down the road you’d see clothes and shoes and personal belongings blown to the side and wrapped around the roadside brush. My father talked of sightings of abandoned Lexus and Mercedes cars, an infamous tanks, shell casings alongside the roads. We just ran, we left everything, we tried to take things, we had to leave things.

The university’s residential campus, like the rest of the city, felt empty, anorexic, a little numb; it felt like there was some vital ingredient missing. There were, however, huge, Olympic sized swimming pools, tennis courts, gyms, malls, luxury cars. There is a low-point in every summer holiday when you wish you could either go back to school, or have your friends magically appear and share in your holiday. Kuwait was an incredibly boring place for a 18 year old with no car and no friends to hang out with.

Meeting other Indian families was the primary source of social interaction. One of the main reasons for this was to get access to alcohol. Alcohol was not legally sold in Kuwait but there were obviously huge black and grey markets in it. Being new in town, my father had no way of procuring branded alcohol so he depended on the generosity of friends and expat colleagues who had ‘connections’. At dinner parties with other Indian families, the de rigeur first order of conversation was about who had the best Scotch and where they got it from; it was like an aperitif before the Scotch itself; it was as predictable as the conversations about the peculiarities of living in post-invasion, newly liberted Kuwait itself.

Not so far from Makkah though we were, to us Indians in Kuwait, Dubai was the real one. Things, we heard, were slick, foreign,there were things to do in Dubai. Gangsters lived in Dubai; the schools were better there; you could go on desert safaris in Dubai, there were bars in Dubai. Dubai was fun. Dubai was a fantastical elsewhere, Kyu-Wait was the drudgery of here.

*

I recently read Manan Ahmed’s personal memoir of not-Dubai and it set me thinking about my experience of having a father working in that part of the world.

 

Love, law, war. [Writing]

It took a long time to write this.

It took an even longer time to live it. I remember that some day in that time of living it, I went out and bought three pairs of shoes in South Extension II market: there was a maroon pair, with vertigo-inducing high, block-y, heels that I wore, most likely, twice. I regretted buying the other two almost immediately after  did.  Since then I’ve learned, pleasantly, that I’m best in flat, hard-coloured shoes with just one distinctive detail.  The idea that I bought three pairs of shoes in a lunch break induced a weird head-rush. That this is how I would deal with eye-popping anger. It was either that or three cigarettes on a barsati in South Extension II.

Hot Flash

A dwarf called Warren runs the Internet of Things facility and I am in love with him. You can never really rationally explain why you love someone, you just do. Warren is in trouble with his refrigerator.  The refrigerator started messaging HOMELYNX about how the cucumber supply was going down faster than usual. For one thing, there shouldn’t even be cucumbers in the refrigerator, and while the most recent supply could be rationalised by the tubs of hummus, labneh and borani – guests – it was still going down very fast. Had anything else reported something irregular about the cucumbers?  It turns out that the waste disposal unit could verify that cucumber peels had been identified and the toilet could detect traces of it; so we know they hadn’t been thrown out of the window at an unsuspecting passerby. That would have been funny, actually, especially if there was such a thing as a window or a passerby around here. No, all you have here is the hum and rinse of electricity through your hair.

The thing is, Warren doesn’t even eat cucumbers, they were left over from the crudite plate at the farewell party for the Chief. Not wanting to waste them, and knowing I love cucumbers, Warren just put the extras in the fridge. Some things are perfectly rational and explain-able but the problem with rationality is that everyone has their own version of it.

Warren maintains a section of the main server farm, MEM046Z where the Internet of Things is made, and he isn’t supposed to fall in love. He certainly isn’t supposed to fall in love with someone he met online who can only stand to eat cucumbers and yoghurt all summer and thinks she is a Timurid’s Wife. The Internet of Things is a high security facility and no one is allowed to enter except authorised personnel and certainly not any Central Asian types – real or imaginary.

The irony doesn’t escape us that it all started with the very same tattling refrigerator having a Twitter exchange with @thetimuridswife. I also love melons and ice-cream and the refrigerator was telling me about the history of ice-cream making, and kulfis in particular, long before modern refrigeration.  (Kulfi has been appropriated by the Indians but it actually came from Central Asia.) If you pulled up the logs you’d see Twitter exchanges about flavours and their pairings, tweets that made sense to no one else but the two of us. It started with the refrigerator tweeting ‘beetroots & mustard’. Then, I tweeted

@thetimuridswife parmesan and chocolate

hesitantly, and waited to see what would happen. And then it came:

@coolhuntings23 blue cheese and pear

@thetimuridswife chocolate and onions

@coolhuntings23 green beans and oranges

There are no secrets with a dwarf. The dwarf had hacked into the refrigerator’s Twitter ID and was tweeting as it, without the refrigerator realising it had been compromised. It had always been him, and me;  the refrigerator was just a.. Trojan horse.

Over a series of Twitter exchanges I told Warren all about my travels and reincarnation. I am a Timurid’s wife and the fleshy concubine to a Sassanid warlord in ancient Samarqand, “a city so steeped in poetry that even medical doctors wrote their treatises in verse.” As a result I am something of a secret agent with very high levels of security clearance. Uzbek, in those days, far outstripped Persian as a language. Persian had one word for crying; Uzbek had over a hundred. Crying like a baby hiccuping, crying as if you have lost your keys, crying as if your parents have died, crying over beautiful poetry, crying for the way you used to love someone and don’t anymore. Samarqand was so far advanced in the sciences, art, architecture, medicine, astronomy, poetics… . Warren thinks that sometimes I’m doing other people’s share of make believe as well.

He lied about there being another person in the house eating cucumbers. He said he had changed his diet but it turns out the feeds from the heat sensors revealed a second person in the house. Once they all started pooling all their data and looking at everything that wasn’t Warren, they found me.  I couldn’t help it, I’m menopausal, and all that seems to keep me cool is a diet of cucumbers and yoghurt. (Dill and garlic in the mix never hurt)

It wasn’t easy to hide from a house; it’s like being 12 again and all the girls are whispering about you behind your back and you absolutely know they are but can’t seem to get even the smallest piece of information from anyone about it or make them stop. It is like the time your best friend found and read your secret diary.

Warren said we should just continue as normal – quietly, he going about his work and me reading, studying and writing. In the evenings we would eat and cheat at cards and giggle over other people’s data streams. It was only a matter of time before they came for us. Till then he told me to play with his hair and tell him about the siege on Samarqand.

 

Sharing the Urban by Gautam Bhan

“Sexual violence then becomes one particular expression of a broader structure of violence, amplified by other entitlements of class, wealth, institutional authority, religion, caste, ability, sexuality and gender. In such a context, our understanding of and responses to sexual violence must broaden. The lack of safety for women on a city bus must not be separated from the devaluing of public transport in general—the insufficient number of buses at night being one sign of poor investment in the most commonly used means of mobility in the city. We must also remember that the idea of being “unsafe” takes different forms across our different identities and bodies.” Gautam Bhan on new perspectives on rape.