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Friday, December 27, 2019

A growing assembly of absence

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It’s not supposed to be this way. But then, one way to look at it is--the way it is, is the way it’s supposed to be.

Barbara Kingsolver, in what is one of my favourite books of all time, Poisonwood Bible, says (paraphrasing here) that if there is one thing that all cultures, everywhere wish, it is that the young should outlive the old.

But we all know only too well that this is only a hope, and there is never any certainty about who departs first.

This part week brought this home rudely, with two young people I knew passing away much, much before their time (and I wonder even as I write this, what is that hubris that suggests we know or understand what ‘their time’ might be?).

One of the great joys and promises of working in a university is interacting with young minds that are full of ideas, plans and promise. While most of this engagement is transient, there are occasions where one forms connections that are more enduring, offering intellectual stimulation and even a rare kind of friendship. These grow beyond the conventional teacher-student transaction and become more interactive, and allow one to learn in new ways, about different ways of thinking and being. I’ve been fortunate to have a handful of such vibrant connections with individuals who were at one time students but have now grown to occupy important spaces in my mind and in my life.

But with every new connection that one forms, there is also the potential of loss. The more people you know and care about, the more people you are going to miss when they go away—either temporarily or permanently (key Cold Play here: “...they’re just living in your head”), having enriched your life with their presence. Of course, one must be thankful for these connections, as they are what sustain the life of the mind and, as one grows older, that of the heart and soul.

Sunil Bhadri was in the second cohort of students I taught at the University of Hyderabad. Due to a set of unfortunate circumstances, he ended up being in the course for an additional year, which meant I had a little more time to get to know him than I did with the average student. He was always the critical voice in the crowd, raising questions that either did not strike the other students or those they hesitated to ask. Passionate about classical music and veering between a desire to become an informed critic and losing himself in its magic, he ended up instead becoming a teacher of media studies. We met just a few times in the 17 years since he graduated, but he was part of a group that was special to me in many ways—they were the first cohort I had engaged with for more than one semester (I was just a visiting lecturer then), and many of them have stayed in touch over these years. Sunil’s health had been failing over the past few years, but even so, the news of his passing last week came as a shock.  

Barely three days after this came another jolt, another tragedy. This was a student who had graduated only this year, and with whom my engagement was of the present. Abhishek was in the middle of thinking through his life and his future even as he was in the thick of the now, with all its political and social tangles. Our long conversations—often stretching to two or three hours—ranged from the complexities of gender discourse in the post #MeToo era to the nuances of film criticism and the place of art in creating civic and social consciousness. He had secured a place in a prestigious film criticism workshop in Locarno and came back full of ideas to share. While we only met infrequently after he graduated, we had long email exchanges where he always had recommendations for me on what to listen to or watch, often signing off with links to some of his recent discoveries. The last time we met, about six weeks ago, he was full of plans for the coming year, talking about how he was focusing on studying for the GRE and had discovered the therapeutic pleasures of baking. It was important to him that he balance his family commitments with his own ambitions. The connection with Abhishek was even more surprising because I had taught him only one semester, and had been on sabbatical for much of the remaining year he was in the department.

Another colleague in the university, who had known him well, told me just a couple of weeks ago that he was concerned about Abhishek’s health, and that he had told him to take better care of himself. I’d made a mental note to write asking him how he was doing, and in the manner of most mental note-taking, it soon faded into the background. But then, while one might be concerned about numbers outside the normal range on a blood report, one doesn’t really read fatality into it. Even a week ago, I had forwarded an announcement about a PhD program that I thought he might consider applying to.

As one grows older, you learn to live with absences. There is more time allocated to memory than to anticipated experience. But that doesn’t stop you from feeling sharply, keenly, each time a new absence is created.

This is the last sentence in the last exchange I had with Abhishek:

“I'll leave you with a TM Krishna performance I found today and liked a lot.”



Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Tchüss, Bremen!


It’s hard to point to the exact moment when a place loses its strangeness and becomes home, when you can walk into the doorway of a previously unfamiliar room or apartment and feel like you know it: all the switches and plug points and creaky windows, the sound of concealed water pipes and the idiosyncracies of appliances, the smell of the upholstery and the texture of the walls. Or take the streets, where you go from being someone who pauses uncertainly at the pedestrian signal and watch what the others do, to confidently tapping the contraption on the pole like you’d done it since kindergarten. Or the café at the corner where you need to ask, in slow and halting foreign-speak, for the simplest beverage and a pastry whose ingredients are written into its name, but come to putting a couple of coins on the counter and picking up your café crema and walnut brötchen.

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It’s a beautiful winter morning, crisp and blue, the kind that invigorates and makes me feel like it’s a wonderful world (even though, in the country called home, there’s trouble in the air and on the streets). I can see through the window of this warm café the limited but still noticeable diversity of this neighbourhood. Young people walk by, backpacked and earplugged, older ones trundle their walkers-cum-shopping carts, and parents on their bicycles bundle their children on accompanying mini-wheels or in impossibly large carts hitched to theirs. The bi-weekly market on the small square is coming alive stalls and carts selling fruit, cheese, bread, flowers and meats, all placed around six cast-iron sculptures that seem to be bemoaning the state of humankind. I wave a guten tag to the Syrian couple who runs a falafel and shawarma place round the corner, whose warmth made me a little less cold on my first dark evening here.

I come to the café now and then to feel like I am part of something, a sense of community, maybe. There’s something about the smell of bread and coffee and clutches of people in conversation that makes one believe that even though you’re by yourself, you don’t need to feel alone (I do admit, the opposite is also possible, that even when you are with others, you can feel alone). When you’re far from home there is a need to become familiar, with things, with people, with processes, with places. To make a home out of somewhere that is not. To find a space and occupy it with confidence.

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Getting off the No. 28 Bus at the last stop, I walk down the wide grey street flanked by closed red brick buildings on one side and a brackish stream on the other. There’s an imposing tower, slim and flecked with red lights, that can be seen from pretty much everywhere on campus, and glimpsing which I once got off at the wrong stop and walked a kilometer instead of the usual half. I check the map on my phone and turn right where I’m told. Number 4 Linzer Strasse is supposed to be right there; I can see Number 2 and 3 across from each other but the next one’s 5. I ask the one person I see who’s stepped out of 3 for a smoke; he shrugs his jacketed shoulders and says “It should be right here, no”. The red balloon on the phone map says so too. I finally peel the anxious unfamiliarity off my gaze and read the street signs. Indeed, it’s right there, I just had to look in the other direction. Sometimes the acute sense of one’s foreignness limits the capacity to see, hear and read, it seems.

At the Centre, I’m given keys and stationery, and shown to a room at the end of a quiet corridor. It’s bare but functional, and is occasionally occupied by the one other fellow who like me is visiting for a month. When he is there, we exchange ideas and experiences; when he’s not, it’s me and the network on my computer—social, commercial and informational. The secretary across the hallway peeps in to say a cheery “Allo!” on the days she is here. Each morning, I settle in to make myself productive; access to the much richer library resources help. I work on my talk, give that, and work some more on my paper. I go to lunch with one of the professors, and we take a short cut through a gap in the wire fencing that reduces the path by several hundred metres.

The next day, I use that short cut when I come to work. And it makes me feel just a little bit more like I belong.

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Losing the knot of anxiety in your stomach when you sit on the bus, not being afraid anymore that you’ll miss your stop. Identifying the value of the coins by their shape and weight, not having to fumble and peer and count ineptly at the shop register. Being able to listen to a podcast as you walk, to look up at the stark branches of the bare trees, at the street art and not worry about being too distracted to turn where you need to. Finding all the things on your grocery list without using the translation app.  

And returning the greeting when the girl at the café smiles at you like she’s known you a long time, and says something that sounds much like “cheers” with a delightful lilt....

Just when it’s time to go home, it begins to feel like home.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The question of "Mistaken Identities": A lecture series for our times

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
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This has been a depressing and confusing week, with the news having been mostly bad. The fact that I am far from the action and the hub of sentiment, makes it worse. Having to limit my discussions to the fickle forum that is social media leaves thoughts in a tangle, the anxieties stoked by those within my ideological circle and misgivings heightened by the few on my news feeds who express a contrary view and justify the actions that are causing distress. Like many of my friends, I retreat into a closed nest of words, written by those I believe have thought long and hard about such issues and seem to have the sort of wisdom that provides clarity, if not relief.

One of the podcasts I was pointed to a while ago but that I got around to catching up only in the past two days is BBC’s Reith Lectures—often unfairly compared to their more glitzy younger cousin, the TED Talks. Named for the first Director General of the BBC, the lectures have been given annually by public intellectuals since 1948, beginning with Bertrand Russell, and including such notables as Robert Oppenheimer (1953), Richard Hoggart (1971), mostly a whole series of “old white men” (and much criticized for this over the years). In response to some of this criticism, recent speakers have been somewhat more diverse, both in terms of gender (the first woman to deliver the lecture was British historian Dame Margery Pelham in 1961) and much later, race (Prof Ali Mazrui in 1979), but some might argue that they still largely represent Western (and male) scholarship. The first woman of colour was Patricia Williams in 1997. In this sense, the Reith Lecture archives could offer a site to build a history of ideas as represented by a certain perception of public scholarship. Digging into the Reith archive, BBC’s Laurie Taylor examines the history of the Lectures and their evolution over the past eight decades, trying to unpack what drove the choice of speaker and the definition of “public intellectual”, drawing on Edward Said’s 1993 lecture to illustrate the point. The lectures have been criticized alternatively for being too high brow and too “dumbed down” (according to The Spectator), and Taylor himself asks whether the lectures in recent times have become less provocative and too wary of giving offense. However, they have also become more inventive in format and varied in theme, with a small increase in the number of women speakers (3 of 9 in this past decade, including Hillary Mantel in 2017).

While the format continues to evolve, for the past few years each speaker has given a series of four talks unified by a theme. The lectures are delivered to an audience, with each lecture (sometimes) taking place in a different location. Now, the talk lasts for about half an hour, followed by another half hour of discussion. Given that the selected speaker is given two years’ notice, the talks are expected to be well constructed, thought provoking, and drawing on long years of scholarship.

Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Image source: www.nyu.edu)
But coming back to why I chose to devote close to four hours over the last two days listening to a particular set of lectures. I had come across the work of Kwame Anthony Appiah several years ago, but it was only recently that I found some of his ideas closely resonant with themes I was exploring--identity, race, culture, cosmopolitanism (incidentally, the title of one of his books). Appiah, now a professor of philosophy at New York University, delivered the 2016 series of lectures on the broad theme “Mistaken Identities”, exploring it through four alliterative prisms—Creed, Country, Colour and Culture. While each of the four lectures offers much to think about, the second in the series (“Country”), delivered in Glasgow, Scotland, seemed to address the questions that had been plaguing me ever since the whole tamasha of the Citizen’s Amendment Bill had begun, and one that seems to take on a particular urgency today. 

Appiah does not dismiss the idea of nation, but calls attention to the violence we do in the process of defining citizenship and fixing its attributes. He calls attention to the growing internal complexity of countries, the impossibility of calling on some homogenous notion of culture to define belonging, remarking, for instance, that “India, China and Indonesia are wildly diverse in their ethnicities, whether or not they acknowledge it,” and that we need to attend to calls for “self-determination” or “territorial integrity” with “caution and inconsistency”. A fundamental “incoherence” in the idea of nation is that the idea of the “we” (as in “We the People”) is always—necessarily—in flux. Can we not, as “cosmopolitans” become comfortable with a fluid idea of this “We”? Can we not, as a people, imagine a more welcoming, inclusive, “We” for that purpose of self-determination? He does raise the confounding question: “How do we hold countries together?” Without offering a conclusive answer, he notes that it must draw from an acknowledgement that we have a multiplicity of histories, a diversity of traditions, that “national identity is not a mineral to be excavated, but a fabric to be woven....” Most importantly, he concludes, quoting Ernest Reynolds, “Forgetting....[and I would even say, historical error] is an essential element in the creation of a nation. Recognize that nations are being invented, and you’ll see they are always being reinvented.”

Can we call upon our country to be what Appiah calls a “liberal state” which has as its anthem, “we can work it out”? At this point in India’s journey, we need a willingness to work it out, to open our doors and hearts to each other.

Listening to Appiah is not only a treat for the mind, but his eloquence makes it a smooth treat for the ears. While Laurie Taylor remarks in his review of the Lectures on the occasion of their 60th anniversary, “The Reith Lectures ... make serious demands...on our ears,”  the attention is well worth it.

Here is the link to the episodes and the transcripts: