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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Long way home

Travelling back from the new city to the not-so-new-yet-not-quite-branded-old at the hour when some buildings glitter and others take on a cold, dank hue, I am offered unaccustomed views into the life of this predatory, leaching, leaking metropolis that my daytime commute obscures. If that is a sentence too full of qualifiers, well, sorry, that’s the nature of urban habitation these days. Or perhaps habitation anywhere on this planet.

Night has its unexpectedly revealing ways. It wakes you, when you least expect to be woken, and presents you with fears that you never knew existed. It can nudge you with a seductive brush into confusing dreams with reality. And it can render transparent the sheen (and the dust) that the day layers over the lives of others.

So it is that one evening, late out of work and wishing to beat the roadway traffic I am persuaded by a kindly colleague to take the train that passes for rapid transit. It takes the back route that ploughs through the underbelly of industrial estates, forgotten now by all except those who have made their homes along the walls and gutters and the faithful railroad that has no option but to run new cars over the old lines. A diverse array of workers—blue-collar, white-collar, collar-less—people the compartment along with a range of those who travel daily in search of diplomas and degrees…or just in search. I am fortunate to sit by the window, and I slide a sly glance over at the young man across from me. He is shut off from the sights-sounds-smells of the immediate, plugged in through shiny blue earpods to a sonic world of his choosing. Two others jostle in the single seat next to him sniggering at something on their phones, a WhatsApp forward perhaps? They look furtively at me, clearly unbelonging in my tightly clutched bag and marble-printed silk, unconvincing in my adoption of a slower, more reflective mode of travel, one that forces you to stare life in the face instead of beeping it out with impatient honks and swift overtakes. I move my gaze to the grilled window through which the peripheral city air blows in, carrying the remnants of many workdays—thing-making, metal-beating, brick-laying, beam-hauling, garbage-clearing, load-lifting, truck-driving. All the multitudinous ways in which the city makes work that makes a living—barely. Houses—homes—lie folded in untidy rows on either side of the running track, their interstices sometimes wide enough to allow a shiny bike, a resting auto, a hopeful car; at other times narrow enough for skipping children to find their way home from school.

I wonder if I can find this clutch of life on Google Maps, an old wrinkle in the young skin of Cyberabad?

At other times all it takes is a different turn, one that follows intelligent navigation instead of time-worn instinct, to find oneself in the middle of something that seems straight out of some futuristic architectural vision. Except that this is right here, right now. Steady lights on all fourteen floors, the smart set waiting on the sidewalk (yes, there actually are such things in this part of town!) for the next cab, wondering whether to go straight home or stop at some new-age adda for a drink and good natured cribbing about the tedium of coding. Across the broad avenue two large earth movers work overtime, lifting rubble and making space for more towers, more lights, more homes, more offices, more shops, more cafes.

More.

As for this clutch of life—such as it is—I’ll have no trouble locating it on that intelligent map.

I need to get on the train more often. To see the city that I’m losing sight of, to trace its lines on a map whose features are disappearing beneath the neat, unerring stream of data that’s redrawing it anew in ahistorical clarity.


Tuesday, June 06, 2017

What are you smiling at?


There's this photograph in an article in The New York Times, a group of people taking a selfie, smiling (some more enthusiastically than others) at the phone held up to their faces. It makes me wonder, as we sometimes do, in completely random ways, about completely pointless things, about that selfie smile.

Who are we smiling at?
What makes us smile?
What does the smile say?
What do we hope the smile achieves?

Or...are we thinking at all? Has smiling for a selfie become one of those automatic responses that we can put down to our internet-enabled consciousness?

Image result for cheshire catOur smiles then populate our social media feeds and personal digital albums, toothsome, reluctant, wistful, joyous, sometimes a bit embarrassed, crimson-lipsticked or quickly plumped and moistened, a bit crooked or self-consciously straight, even forgetful and resentful...or just automatic. Like Carroll's Cheshire Cat, they waft around to be looked at and thought about, dismissed or dwelt upon, acquiring meaning in memory even if they were nothing at the time, other than the perking up of facial muscles in the face of an upheld phone ("Hey, let's take a picture!"). The context and the body of presence disappears, and the smiles remain, to become the core of remembering. Most often we can't even figure out what we were feeling so that we can footnote TFW.

Is this any different than the smiles we produced for that old-fashioned camera stuffed with film to be exposed in the darkness of a studio and then cornered into the pages of a photo album and left to yellow and fray and come unstuck? Photographs that we knew we would pore over in family gatherings and cohort reunions, calling together the contexts from which those images arose?

Is there something different about the enthusiastically called upon image that poses for itself, that becomes one of hundreds (and over our networked lifetimes, thousands) of moments that find themselves floating in binary space, that can be rearranged chronologically to pop up, five years later, on a Facebook feed asking you to share your memory, yet again?

But back to that smile. It must be different when we smile for our own cameras, holding those not-quite-mirrors up to see for ourselves what we look like, and when we smile for another's high-handed phone, with or without a selfie-stick (they have become quite the opposite of de rigueur!). The smile in the first instance is a reminder to ourselves about who we are or who we hope to be/become, to ourselves and to our various relational circles. In the second maybe it is something like a badge of belonging, to a place, a moment, a community, a marking of our occupancy of a point in a shared timeline.

When we look back at old photographs, whether on a screen or paper, we search for those de-familiarised portraits of our selves, our eyes linger just a bit longer on the face which used to be ours, whether it is framed solo or in a group. It's as if we can read ourselves by looking into those captive eyes. To be sure, we also try to read others the same way, but there is an additional interest in trying to figure out the person we once were, within that moment that caught the smile.

So perhaps that's what we mean to do, all along. To smile at that future self, transmitting something like hope and its fulfillment in that instant... we're banking that smile, in a sense, and for a moment of pleasure in return.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Fringe benefits

It's on the edges of formal meetings (and for that matter, even informal ones) that one chances upon moments of learning of a different kind; in those unexpected overflows of energy and fellowship that escape the confines of strict agendas and constricted sessions.

So it was that I joined a handful of others at the brave hour of six-thirty in the morning, in search of birds and tiny beasts, on the quirky yet charming campus of the (hopefully named) School of Ancient Wisdom, itself a place on the edges (of Bangalore city). We were led on this treasure hunt by Suhel and Vena from the Nature Conservation Foundation.

"There are no useful lessons to be learned from Nature," notes Suhel, with more than a hint of wry humor. Meaning, of course, we should not be looking to nature for answers to human problems or to address The Human Condition. Even though we (humans) may be responsible for much of the problems of nature.


"Bird watching is a bit of a misnomer," Suhel says, as we try hard to spot the coppersmith that had flown into the topmost branches of a flowering jacaranda. "It's more like bird hearing...or listening." But then, following his expert pointing finger, we do see the creature, twisting its neck this way and that as it called out to a potential mate.

We stop under a fig tree where we get into an extended discussion about the value of the species to the forest ecosystem, including the curious way in which a type of wasp helps pollinate it. No wonder, then, the last time I broke open a wild fig fruit,  hundreds of eager young wasps scurried out of a hollowed interior. "The domestic figs are specially bred, that's why they don't carry insects," Suhel explains.

A small bridge over a goldfish pond offers us a bird's' eye view (bad pun?) of the Jesus spider, lazily skimming its way across the water. Suitably impressed, we walk further into this modest tangle of greenery, and the naturalists point out the expertly tailored nests of the fire ants and the conical sand pits where the lion ant awaits its prey (I hear: "In the jungle, the sandy jungle, the lion ant sleeps tonight"--sorry, wrong lyrics right song!)

The lynx spider 
Soon Vena directs our urban gaze to a tiny, tiny frog clambering up a rock--so tiny I mistook it for a bug. She's been hanging back, peering at tree bark and bending over bushes. She waves us over to look at a lynx spider, its six bulbous black "eyes" (I imagine) watching us watching it. 

The tiniest frog I ever did see!


On the next bush are a couple of farmer ants, minding a mealy bug (at this point I have the Ugly Bug song running through my head). "These are the original pastoralists," quips Suhel (didn't he just say there were no lessons...?).





The ant minds the mealy bug

The short walk gave us glimpses of bulbul, golden oriole, magpie robin, swallow, crested heron, and several other birds I can't remember the names of.  Suhel tells us about the long and arduous journeys of the migratory birds and others chip in with pieces of naturalist non-trivia.

As we near the end of our circuit Vena chances upon an orb web in the making, its creator quivering in slight nervousness as the ground beneath vibrates under some half-dozen trampling feet.



We ooh and aah as silently as we can, watching the faint outline of the concentric circles of spider silk catch the light of the speeding sun, before we turn our steps softly towards breakfast.