Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reflections on the Poem Seequence

I showed the poem-sequence to D yesterday, and he liked it. According to him, the personal tone in the poems does not sound tacky or cheesy. They are not melodramatic. I can see how and where these poems will be impenetrable for an American audience. Or anyone who doesn't necessarily think of the aftermath of the Partition in symbolic terms. I have been trying to articulate to myself the objectives behind this poem-sequence. What are they trying to do. It is not that I want my explanation to do the work of the poem. It is more like I want to articulate it to myself so that I know where I want to go from here, and things look a little clearer to me. So here it is:

Part folklore, part personal narratives, part oral histories, these poems attempt to interpret the fairy-tale tradition in Bengal through the lens of the experience of Partition from the perspective of women of three generations. I am not re-interpreting any fairy-tales straight up here, but I am trying to explore what roles fairy-tales have played in the lives of these women. Where did fairy-tales lose their relevance in their lives? Where did it stay relevant? Were the fairy-tales equally relevant to all three women? Obviously not. There is a tension there in their relationship, and I have tried to reveal that anxiety through their relationships to the fairy-tale tradition. Yes, in the process I end up making fun of Rabindranath. His Introduction/Preface to Thakumar Jhuli (Tales from Grandma's Bag). The thing is, in Rabindranath's Preface, as in the very name Thakumar Jhuli (or Thandidir Thhole), the figure of the grandmother is an allegorical one. She functions as the repository of culture, one whose job is to tell stories. The way she has been written makes her own personal history, her own biography irrelevant to the stories she is telling. I am trying to give this figure of Thakuma or grandmother a little bit of personal history. And for someone of my generation, if I have to look back on the lives of my grandparents, there is no way I can ignore Partition or the ways in which it disrupted the essential fabric of their lives. In other words, I will have to take into account, how the trauma of Partition might have influenced the stories my (our) grandma (s) would tell. I am trying to do that here a little bit. Pushing the boundaries of that grandma figure, pushing the boundaries of the social history of the genre of Bengali fairy-tales.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Note To Self

I am feeling a little bit distracted. I have noticed, this sense of aimlessness often takes over me when I am in the middle of too-many projects. I need to tell myself to cool down, to focus, to concentrate on the work and not the results or the consequences. It is during these times that I also tell myself Walt Whitman took thirty years to yank out Leaves of Grass. Honestly, I don't know if I have the patience to work on one single project for that long, to dig that deeply into something. But I have observed, my mind works best when I divide the work into smaller, manageable chunks, and devote every day into it. And that's what I am trying to do right now. I also think of my own work in terms of longer projects, even when I am working on a short-story or a single-poem project. I don't know whether that is good or bad, but that's how I work. At least now. So, for now, I will just concentrate on the work itself, let the projects themselves decide on their own pace and length, and keep on working hard. Tomorrow I need to go to Benson to pick up some books for the third chapter of my dissertation.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


It's amazing how much of my work-related stuff I figure out when I am actually not working. Like last week in LA. I was taking a walk with my dear friend, MS, a very talented scholar of American Studies. Somehow we ended up talking about Judith Halberstam's book Female Masculinity. MS pointed out to me, that in this book, Halberstam writes as if all forms of female masculinity are liberatory and empowering for everyone at all times. And it is not so. If we begin to see the intersections of race, colonialisms and anti-colonial nationalisms with gender ideologies, the process would become much more complicated. Now, I agree with her whole-heartedly. But I have been struggling for months to put it this simply. It is MS's use of the words "empowering" and "liberatory" that did it for me. Thanks, M. The bottomline is, scholarship, writing etc. etc. although they look and feel like solitary acts, are in reality, extremely collaborative. No art-making, no knowledge production happens in COMPLETE isolation. Period.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thinking Aloud: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden

I had avoided Frances Hodgson Burnett for a long time. I had worked a little bit on the film adaptations of her book The Little Princess, and then didn't really dare to venture out to her other books. Or even The Little Princess. The colonial ideologies seemed too much on the face, and her little girls too stereotypical. Then,I picked up a copy of The Secret Garden from Half-Price a month ago. And I read it. Why? Because I figured, I should just try to process the colonialist shit rather than avoid it. Now, The Secret Garden does have its share of very direct colonial-racist representations. Indians are of only two kinds--the spoilt "Rajah" s and the ever-acquiescent, too-docile servants. The protagonist Mary loses both her parents in a cholera epidemic. Again, another of the stereotypes: India as the land of deathly diseases. And guess what, Mary is a spoilt brat. Why? This is what Burnett herself has to say about it:

She never remembered seeing familiarly anything but the dark faces of her Ayah and the other native servants, and as they always obeyed her and gave her her own way in everything, because the Mem Sahib would be angry if she was disturbed by her crying, by the time she was six years old she as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived (4).

Basically, some of the Indian "darkness" had rubbed off on Mary. A good part of the book is thus all about re-whitening Mary. And of course, who accomplishes that task? The honest, upright working folks of Yorkshire. Now, this is where the book gets really interesting. The white working-class has been represented as somewhat of an anti-thesis of the Indian servants and workers. The white working folks are honest, straightforward, with distinct senses of their own selves and most importantly, not willing to give in completely to the whims of their masters. What interested me personally in this book is that, there are long chapters about the inner-lives of the servants who works in Mary's uncle's mansion. There are long and complicated accounts of her relationship with them. Now, this is not the terrain of the classic Victorian novel, where the interactions between the servants and the employers are only hinted at. The servants in Victorian novel are mostly shadowy presents. But in Burnett's book, they are well-developed characters. Now, all of them, including Mary, end up working for the final rejuvenation of the white, aristocratic patriarchal authority. And it seems from reading the book, that white aristocratic women and the white working class, men and women alike, exist to assist and facilitate the smooth functioning of the white, aristocratic patriarchal order. But it's not that ideological thrust that fascinated me in this book. What fascinated me was, how a writer can have interesting portrayals of marginal characters, and still end up in an extremely problematic place. Yes, this book is making me think a lot about the relationship between craft and ideology. I don't have any answers yet, but I am trying to think about certain things which are avoided both in literary criticism and creative writing pedagogy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

MLA 2011 Presentation: Note to Myself

I spent the last weekend in Los Angeles for the Modern Language Association (MLA) Annual Convention. Apart from the fact that I spent time with some of my old friends and scored some free books, I also presented a paper on Ramabai Espinet's novel The Swinging Bridge. During the Q&A session, I got into a little bit of trouble for using the words authentic Indianness. I had written it with the customary quotes and everything, but this is one of the things that people do like to pick on. I mean, honestly. My paper was talking about lots of things--plantation capitalism, gender, impossibility of writing certain histories blah blah blah. I mean, things that I would love the others to pick on. But no, most folks have to pick on that one minor ethnicity question. What to do! But one thing I realized, and this I think is going to be important for my work:

There is no authentic notion of Indianess (or blackness or brownness or anything really), but there is a dominant notion of Indianness. I mean, why "is" and "a, there are multiple dominant notions of Indianness.

So, note to myself: the next time I go back to that paper, I need to make it clear.

Heathen Me

I was raised atheist. I have grown up around people who mostly believed Religion Is the Opium of People. There were plenty of evidence in our everyday life to prove that. I still believe in that, except for the fact that I think, the whole religion thing is slightly more complicated. Religion has functioned as an opium to people. It has also functioned as hope, and most importantly, as a tool of resistance. I am interested in seeing how different communities and individuals have often used religion as a rhetorical tool to argue about things which had very little to do with God. So, right now, I am an atheist who takes the ability of religion to mobilize people very very seriously. I mean, any basic reading of any kind of historical anthropology would tell anyone that this whole idea of God is a human intervention.It's kind of dumb to not realize that. And even if there IS something called God, who has the immense super-natural power to turn things around, I must admit, his sense of justice is extremely fucked up. I mean, he has no sense of justice at all. Anyone whose sense of justice and wellbeing is so fucked up, or totally non-existent, I kind of think, it's an insult on my intelligence and being to believe in him. So, I don't believe in the existence of God. But that does not mean I don't believe in the super-natural or the divine or the numinous. What can be more numinous than human creativity? What can be more divine than the human ability to tell stories, to play with colors, notes, tunes and create art? What can be more spiritual than the human efforts to create a better world for all? There is nothing natural about human creativity. In fact, most of the social hegemonies, in every kinds of human societies, have been structured to turn human masses into un-creative, acquiescent, obedient bodies. But human spirit is such that it rebels against such structures. This is what I consider to be super-natural. Something that eludes our sense of dominant, common-sense rationality. Not some idea of a BIG MAN sitting on a chair ruling the world. And because I believe in human creativity, I am also mindful of the fact that all forms of religious practices have inspired human beings to create art, to create stories, to create literatures. They have given human beings tools to argue with power-structures, to question authority. I respect that aspect of religion, I want to understand it more. But at the same time, religions themselves have exercised authority, created their own forms of power structures, allied themselves with other forms of power structures, and have been extremely useful in oppressing people in very systemic ways, conducting genocides, communal violence and riots and overall making life a living hell. In short, religions are nothing short of ideologies, and for me, it's little hard to see any kind of redemptive power in religious organizations and institutions given their problematic histories.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Should We Really Be All That Happy?

I must confess that I have wished very very few people a Happy New Year this year. I didn't put up anything especially "happy" in my FB status message, I didn't celebrate any new beginnings, new meanings, hope, harmony and humour. Partly because I am not seeing many "new beginnings" in the world around me. There are several kids I know personally who are dragging on with the same shit, the same lack of resources. There are several people who are dragging on with the same bad marriages, many many more suffering from acute lack of opportunities. I can keep on adding to this list, but I don't think that would be necessary. You, my readers, get the point. What I am trying to say is, I am a little suspicious of this popular impulse to evade the negative, the avoidance of conflict and this general denial that "happiness" is a complicated state of being, which if not totally dependent on material resources, can't really thrive without it. And yes, there is a big difference between access to adequate material resources and consumerism. The groucho that I am, I can't help thinking this happi-happi-happiness that is blowing over the blogs, FB status messages, web articles, is ideological. Especially since the country I happen to live in is suffering from one of the worst recessions. The one where I come from is conducting a few genocides of its own citizens. I honestly don't have much hope for humanity at this point. But on a very personal level, I hope to retain enough courage to take up/confront contradictions and conflicts as they appear in my life, and not fall back upon platitudes. I dread the mental state that comes from being a shirker. I am not saying that we all turn into sour-faced little robots overnight, and I do think, sometimes laughter is the best form of subversion human beings can throw at the face of the powers that be. But there is a big difference between laughter that subverts and the "how-may-I-help-you" service-sector smile. I see a whole lot of the latter in my everyday life and not enough of the former. Almost along the same lines, I appreciate those who acknowledge and record the little ways in which human beings resist conformity in their everyday lives. I have enormous respect for those who try to live their lives creatively in their own ways, try to create things and spaces in ways that would speak back to power in all its complicated embodiments. I believe in celebrating the everyday pleasures of life-- good food, good coffee, good chocolate and so so many other things. But all those "good" shouldn't really eclipse/obfuscate the fact that even as I am writing these words, there are so many who will never know what good food looks and tastes like. I think, the anger, the hatred that human beings have collectively shown towards that non-seeing and non-tasting is beautiful. Sometimes even more beautiful than good food or even the bestest of the arts. I hope never to lose the frame of mind which leads me (and several others) the beauty of the anger that tries to transform. And the ability to see that anger, to feel that anger doesn't come to us automatically. It almost invariably follows the ability to see the horror of inequality, systemic forms of oppression, deprivation. Yes, I am talking about balance here. The balance between the ability to see both the beauty and the horror of everyday existence. The balance between the ability to feel both enraged and inordinately happy. For myself, I am naming that balance dialectics.

Now that I have let this rant out my chest, Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Not Satisfied With Language

Often times I am not satisfied with words or terms we have. For example, I often think, the word racism is too paltry to describe the immense horror that empires have unleashed on peoples and communities throughout the world. In the same way, sexism doesn't do it for me in most contexts. I want something more, something more specific which will allow me to express the complexities of it all. I am often suspicious of using terms like "strong women." In the same way, I am wary of the term "intelligent." In the first case, I want to ask, Strong yes, but in what way? I know lots of women who are strong, who manage their families with iron-hands, matriarchs so to say, and they very strongly defend and reinforce patriarchal norms in their spheres of influence. So, whenever anyone uses the term "strong women", I gently want to point out, "strong doesn't necessarily mean de-stabilizing patriarchy. Women can decide to be of service to patriarchy in very very strong ways." And in case of "intelligent", too, I want more qualifiers. I don't think "intelligence" and "intellect" are the same. I am someone who values intellect much more than intelligence. And even in there, I want to think of the kind of intellect one possesses, its social, historical, ideological implications. If there is one thing that comes out of it, it is this: I am dis-satisfied with everyday language. I want to push our everyday language to explore the complexities of human histories a little bit more. The older I grow, I think, it is my lack of contentment with everyday language and its ability to explore the deeper realities of human life that I am propelled towards literature, towards theory, and last but not the least, to write myself. Stories, poems, memoirs break open terms like racism, sexism, homophoebia...I mean, the words which have evolved primarily out of a human rights based approach. Rights discourse is a beautiful thing, I don't want to live in a world without it. But I also don't think it expresses adequately the immense complexities of systemic oppressions, resistances or even human existence in general. So we write. Create art.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lemon Rice

Yesterday I was too impatient to put up the recipe of the lemon rice I had cooked. So here it is:


Basmite Rice
Lemon, 1
Coriander Powder
Chicken Stock

--Melt the butter in the pot.

--Sprinkle all the spices, leave them for a little while. Occasionally stir. Soon enough, they will begin to emit a beautiful smell.

-- Now squeeze in the lemon juice from the lemon.

--Let the juice mingle with the spices.

--Pour the rice. Stir, until the spices get well mixed with the rice grains.

--Keep stirring for 5 mins or so.

--- Mix water.

--Let the rice boil.

--- Now eat.

The Poem Sequence II

I have finally finished the sequence of poems I had been trying to write on the history of reception of the fairy-tales. Today I need to type them and save them as files in my computer. What I realized while writing this sequence are:

1. I am trying to problematize the exoticization of "folk-poetics" that has been an integral part of an older process of male, bourgeois class-formation in nineteenth century. It is coming back big-time in our neo-liberal era in modified forms.

2. In lots of ways, this exoticization comes very close to a museum aesthetics. This particular aspect opens up some more space of subsequent exploration in my manuscript.

3. My poetic sequence is trying to imagine certain things, certain spaces, certain voices. There is no trying to capture the "authentic" in here.

4. I haven't lived through the partition era myself. Neither have I lived through the immediate post-Partition era, the attempts of my parents' generation to piece together a life from very little. These periods came to me through stories that circulated around me, through silences, through books. That is, my own perceptions of this period is extremely mediated. I am trying to bring alive on page these many forms of mediations than any "authentic" voices.

5. I am more interested in showing the problems in the process through which this "folk-voice" has been put together rather than bringing this "folk-voice" into the page.

6. I know this sequence is far from complete. But I can rest for now. I need to do a little bit more research before I can write the other poems. In short, this is going to be a LONG project. Will need lots of patience, perseverance and er, hard work.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Nopales Con Pollo

I want to write down this recipe before I totally forget it. A couple of days ago, I bought some cactus from the store. This is my first time experimenting with them.

Cactus (chopped into small pieces)
I Medium-sized Tomato, chopped into small pieces
10 pearl onions, chopped
Chicken Sausage, shredded
Garlic, 4 fat cloves
1 Green Chili, slit in the middle
Dil Leaves Powder
Oregano Powder
Parsely Powder
Cumin Powder
Black Pepper Powder
White Pepper Powder
Chili Powder
Shredded Cheese

--Heat olive oil in a pan. Then pour some parsley powder, oregano powder, cumin, black pepper powder, paprika, chili powder. Let the whole thing mix for like 20 seconds.

--Then throw in the tomatoes, the onions, the garlic. Saute. Let the whole thing turn into a mush.

--Add the slit green chili.

--Then throw in the sausage. Stir the whole thing together.

--Now throw in the shredded cactus. Stir.

--- Add the mushrooms. Depending upon how seasoned you like your food, sprinkle some more of the spice powders.

--Stir the whole thing for around 5 minutes. Or until all the ingredients get mixed beautifully.

--Then cover the pan with the lid. Do not add water. The cactus pieces will bleed enough moisture. So, unless you want it real soupy, do not add extra water. Let it cook for 15-20 minutes.

--Then turn off the heat. Put the whole mixture in a glass pot. Cover the surface with shredded cheese. I used cheddar, because that's what I had in the refrigerator. Anything else will be fine too.

--Bake it in the oven for 10 mins.

I ate it with Lemon Rice. I believe it will go well with ordinary white rice or other varieties of rice too. It was GREAT!


Writers need to be good readers. "Reading" is one of those skills that no writer can choose to bypass. As I spend more and more time inside workshops being a student and a teacher of writing/literature, I am learning to identify students who are readers and those who are not. Lack of reading experiences do show up in one's writings in ways more than one. It is not something which I would be able to analyze in perfectly clear terms. Rather, it is one of those intuitive things which jumps at me from the page. But when I say "reading" is an essential skill for writers, I do not necessarily mean reading books and magazines and such. I also mean an ability to "read" the world around, to take apart what is familiar, to begin to see what is not apparent in the naked eye and to put it back together again in one's own text. I would also say this ability to "read" is also another way to think of a writer's sociological eye. That perceptiveness which allows a writer to see the workings of bigger social structures and historical forces within apparently insignificant everyday actions. A lot of it is, obviously, transmitted through details, but I would say, it's more than just details. It's about what one chooses to write about and why. It's about the essential philosophy behind one's aesthetic efforts. I must admit, my own time in the PhD program has been extremely fruitful in that way. I have read things which I would not have read otherwise. I have developed new interests, I have nurtured the old ones. I don't know if my PhD will contribute to anything, but it has definitely made me a better "reader" of things--literary and non-literary.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Turner to Manet Exhibition At Blanton

Just coming back from this Turner to Manet exhibition at Blanton. There were lots of stuff there to think, reflect upon. But for some reason, my mind is stuck upon two paintings I saw.



The first one by Edouard Manet, the second one by Jules Breton. In the first one, there is the dandy and there is his nocturnal adventure. Or maybe not. But these are not the middle-class, domesticated women. But here we have the cabaret dancers, the prostitutes. I am struck by the expression in the woman's face. One can call it despondency.I will call it alienation. Alienation from anything that is going around her. There is a beer mug in front of her, almost full. But her fingers are not wrapped around it. In fact, we cannot see her two hands fully. Title: At the Cafe

The second one is by Jules Breton. Breton has often been called the "peasant painter" and had been criticized for idealizing the peasant life in nineteenth century France. Although, I liked what I see here. Three peasant girls, with carefully sculpted faces. That does not seem that "realistic" of course. But they are not static peasant girl of the pastoral. They are walking, in motion. Not only are they walking, but they are talking amongst themselves, as if sharing a secret. It is this moment of solidarity between these three peasant women that Breton hints at which I liked. I would have loved it more if he had represented them with open lips. But what stood out to me is that the artist here is struggling with the classic pastoral and is trying to do something different. I don't know anything about Breton as an artist. In fact, this is the first time I came across his work. But what I see here is enough to make me want to know more. This is what I came across when I did a search on his name. Well, that will have to wait for a while. By the way, the title of this one is Returning from the Field.

Then there was a lengthy discussion on Impressionism over cappuccino, cheesecake and tiramisu at the Museum cafe. This is how me and my friends welcomed 2011, although none of us, it turned out, has processed 2010 yet. And as for me, I don't think I have been able to process even1492 or 1947 yet

Writing Family

I am getting interested in poetry-projects which explore family as a site of creative exploration. It is difficult to write about family for me, not because my family was abusive or anything dramatic like that, but I find that within families, the rhetoric of love operates in complicated ways. On the one hand, members of a family are supposed to love each other blah blah blah. But also on the other hand, love is the site through which the family performs social control. In fact, I would argue, within families, love operates as a site of domination rather than liberation. Intricately related to the familial rhetoric of love, is also the cycle of never-ending gratitude. Yes, family members help you out during times of stress. In return, they expect eternal gratitude. As individuals, we are often compelled to depend on our family's resources, particularly because there are very few social networks/collectivities which provide us with the kind of support our families do. Yes, I am saying the inevitable. Family is a social mode of resource allocation. In the recent years, I have noticed more and more that people form families and stick to families not because there is a whole lot of great love between them. More often than not, these are economic decisions. I mean, it's not hard to decipher, is it? A cursory look at the tax laws, other economic benefits would prove the point. Of course, not all families receive the same kinds of benefits. Totally truly true. But at the same time, the structures have evolved in such a way that there is no perfect family anywhere. At least I haven't come across any. I have met individuals who demand that their family lives are perfect, but to my judgmental, cranky self, it just appears that most of them are invested in mystifying the process of familial domination, rather than peeling it open.

Writing about family entails that one examine the rhetoric of love that underlies it. It's easier to write about abusive families because they are read as anomalies anyway. I am not saying it's easier for the individual concerned to come to that space where he/she can translate in language his/her trauma of living within an abusive family relationships. But in the last thirty years or so, there has evolved a language in which one can write about abusive family relationships. What is harder is to write about the perfectly normal families, families which are supposedly filled with love. It's harder because one has to break open the love-rhetoric, one has to show how love and domination can and do co-exist. And I will go so far as to say that human beings as a collectivity haven't yet been able to evolve notions and patterns of love which would be free of power and domination. And once one recognizes that, the big question is, how does one resist? How does one snatch oneself out of this eternal chain of familial gratitude which had been evolved to curb individual growth? And in certain cases, even collective growth? My own answer is, well, we need to learn to be ungrateful. But that's fucking hard. None of us (me included) wants to be identified as the ungrateful, irresponsible one. And sometimes, there are real concerns. I mean, I wouldn't like to see my parents or any of my other family members suffer in old age. I wouldn't like to see any of my cousins starving. And if my putting in something will help them, I will try to do that. In my everyday life, I am close to being the ungrateful, irresponsible daughter, sister, cousin, niece whatever. But I am not fully there. I am too polite, too soft to complete the circe of distance between myself and my family.

That's why, in my writings, these days, especially in my poems, I am trying to create this persona who is an ungrateful daughter. She is ungrateful because she dreams of something bigger than familial love, something more intense than kinship. She doesn't expect much from family. She tends to leave rather than stay entangled. It's hard to write about such a persona, because the language is not yet available. I am trying.