Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The magic of libraries

The Tech Centre at the Boston Public Library

The entry hall in Harvard's Widener Library

I'm carded!

A sampling of riches
One of my favourite childhood memories of summer in Secunderabad was being able to go to the City Central Library branch near Clock Tower and borrow books, week after week. The selection of children's books must have been minuscule compared to the wide range available today, and Young Adult was a category yet to be invented, but even so, I was happy enough with the rows of mystery books and school stories and the odd Ruskin Bond, all covered in an indestructible green rexine. And the library was a reasonably friendly space--at least that's how I remember it. Apart from this, if we wanted books, and if our parents could afford it, you went to Kadambi Bookstores or the small but busy Sri Rama Book Depot and picked up the latest Enid Blyton for Rs 2.50 or a Children's Book Trust publication for a couple of rupees. And there were the circulation libraries that lined the Station Road where you could rent an Archie comic or a Richie Rich or Phantom for ten paise a day. If you belonged to the Secunderabad Club (or had a friend who was), you were among the privileged few who had access to a pretty good library. In the mid 1970s, a new kind of circulating library came into being, with a place called Rithika in Maredpally, which had the latest best sellers and some literary fiction, a few chairs to sit on and a chatty proprietor who offered suggestions--and this soon became wildly popular among the literati of that part of Secunderabad. It was still fairly expensive, with rents ranging from Re 1 to Rs 2.50 per day depending on the popularity of the book. So if you wanted to take your time over Colleen McCullough's The Thornbirds or James Clavell's Shogun, both well over 600 pages, you might end up shelling out a good twenty five bucks (a lot of money in those days when a masala dosa cost Rs 1.50!).

That Secunderabad Branch of the public library no longer exists, and the City Central Library's main branch in Hyderabad is no place one would want to take a child to...and I must confess I haven't been back to a public library in the city in four decades. Apart from the stacks in the University, that is, where I still enjoy, on occasion, losing myself among the dusty volumes.

One of the great pleasures of life in the United States (and perhaps in some other countries of the 'one-fourth' world) are the public libraries. For academics, the University libraries are a veritable fantasy land: electronic journal databases that are up to date and multidisciplinary (not just science and technology), inter-library loan that works, books on shelves where they should be, with all the pages intact, and reserve systems that are honored.  Even the smallest town has a public library, with programs for children, the elderly, and, very often, other vulnerable groups such as immigrants and persons with disabilities. My children spent many happy weekday mornings at a toddlers' story time at the public library in the small southern campus town where I was studying. We borrowed videos and audio storybooks for free, resources which I could never have bought for them on the graduate student's assistantship that I had. The town of Somerville, where I am staying, has an impressive stone building topped with what looks to me like lamps (symbolizing learning?) adorning the roof.

So like a greedy child, I made sure I got library privileges to as many libraries as I could easily access here in Boston. My host institution, MIT, has a network of libraries of which the Hayden Library, with wide glass windows looking out on to Memorial Drive that runs along the Charles River, is the one that I know I will spend many hours in. Last weekend I found Boston Public Library and acquired a membership there. Walking through their wide airy corridors, I found a huge selection of non-English books, including several shelves of Chinese and of course an entire section of Spanish. On a Saturday afternoon, the armchairs and computer stations were mostly occupied by people of all ages. Of course I had to borrow a book, never mind that I already had three that I had brought with me from India, still unread, several half-read ones on my Kindle, and the many I had already checked out from the Hayden Library and which needed to be read if I were to justify my academic position here.

Today, as I walked through the neighbouring campus of Harvard, I just had to go into the Widener Library, the massive columns and wide steps of which have been featured in many a Hollywood movie. As a visiting researcher, when I fancy a change of scene or if I want to spend time in the reference section, I learned, I can use this library too. So I added that to my set of cards, and proceeded to spend the next two hours sitting in one of their quiet reading areas and...well, reading.

Libraries are where you feel the most humbled and the most stimulated. There's the excitement of finding row upon row of books that you can touch and feel and leaf through, representing the knowledge of the centuries. And the thrill of knowing that however much you read, there will always be more--more to make you laugh, cry, wonder at, and just burrow into.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Domestic transfers

It's a weekend, and so the burden to think and write academically is off--or is it? Some might say the very act of writing is academic; it involves a three-step (at least) translation, from thought to word to type, mixed up with processes of selection, analysis and synthesis, creating or inviting meaning by placing certain sounds, pauses and images in specific order.

No matter.

Here I am, on a Sunday morning, looking out from my small rectangular windows on to a quiet Somerville street. Cars wait attentively in driveways, while cellphone-toting walkers are being energetic in activewear, and the stone-walled church at the end of the street waits for the faithful to break their weekend fast to seek prayer and peace. Now I hear the strains of the choir waft down my way: a pleasant opening to the day.

I have cleaned up my small apartment, done my morning stretches, listened to the news on public television, had a granola cereal breakfast, and feel virtuously productive, having engaged in some of the rituals that I gather are common to left-leaning liberal academics in this country. Except that somewhere in the corner of my mind is the niggling awareness--fast turning into acceptance--that i will now proceed to rapidly lose myself on the internet, as I shuttle between must-respond-to emails and must-click links on Facebook while I also catch up on the news from here, home and elsewhere. After all, I must keep the global consciousness intact!

So, returning to the 'domestic' in my life. For the past two weeks, I have found myself in a space where the word translates into nothing more than a quick making of the bed and a rustled up dinner for one, trips to the supermarket focused on what will fit into my tiny refrigerator and what will not be too much for a single person to consume before it goes bad.

The domestic is on the sidelines of my life here. From the minuscule kitchenette (known as a "Pullman kitchen") to the minimalist shelving that holds no more than a week's groceries and one person's crockery and cutlery, it is designed to not intrude into the "larger purpose" of my existence this fall. I am forced to spend as little time as possible in those activities of basic sustenance. The absence of a counter ensures that I contain my activities on the space available between burners to chop vegetables or mix spices. I am concerned that the aromas of my exotic foods do not disturb or offend as they waft down the two floors to my landlady's rooms. The sink compacts the number of dishes I use. The large kitchen in my Hyderabad home now seems symbolic of the hours I spend there, often doing more than just cooking, but it is a hub around which a significant part of me unfolds.

So the absence of the domestic (or its relegation to the margins) has been disorienting for me. I realize that the domestic--home, family, the routine of cooking, cleaning, conversation around all of that--is what anchors the rest of me. I complain about finding time within that to do my "professional work", or what I enjoy, but it is the scaffolding on which the rest of me builds. It is what enriches and folds meaning into the outcomes of the non-domestic.

I realize that what I need to do is to find--rather, create--a structure for myself that uses the minimization of the domestic and turns it into a liberating force.

I suspect that sounds undeniably academic....

Friday, August 26, 2016

A matter of definition

"So...what do you work on?"

"What's your area of research?"

"What do you do?"

And there's a pause, a wait, barely a few milliseconds, for me to gather the disparate threads of what makes my academic self, and compose an answer that sounds suitably confident and meaningful. I usually end up saying something that I want almost immediately to qualify, to explain, to fill out, to extend, and even, to retract. But the opportunity for introduction has passed, and I am left having painted myself into a corner with a phrase that lacks substance, is incomplete, vague.

My answers are either too broad, or too specific, and either way, fail to capture the questions that drive my curiosity and interest. More often than not, a more fitting answer for that specific context shapes itself in my head many minutes after that opening (and limiting) question, and I kick myself, wishing the words had made the cut sooner.

Trouble is, my questions are in fact all over the place. I can see something that connects them all but that binding cord slips out of reach when faced with the quiz time of an introduction.

Define yourself in ten words or less. 

What are the keywords that index your academic profile? 

Which section of the library will you slot your name into?

I envy colleagues who can, with aplomb, mark their place in academia with a sharp-edged index card, fitting neatly into the Dewey decimal system for future generations of scholars to find and cite. The two or three word phrase that describes their research theme has programmatic legitimacy of the kind that builds knowledge in a systematic, incremental fashion.

My academic profile, on the other hand, resembles scattershot. I have many questions--about life, about learning, about relationships and identity, about our bodies and how they acquire meaning, about perceptions of self and community and the ways in which these messy questions intersect in an increasingly mediated world. One year, I spend months looking at blogs while the next, I'm talking to young people about their ideas of a health and risk. Just as I seem to be getting those dots to line up and connect to form what seems like a research trajectory, a new idea strikes that moves me in a different direction. Or one of three or four  (or five!) different directions.

As a result I constantly feel like a non-specialist, that I can never really lay claim to a specific area of scholarship or expertise. Yesterday, for instance, at a really informal meeting of digital culture scholars, we went around the table introducing ourselves.

"I work on crowdsourcing."

"Digital labour."

"Participatory culture."

"Dating apps and relationships."

"Racism on the internet."

And me? I couldn't find a neat phrase that could sum up the stuff I do. I study social media, community and identity. That's way too broad. Through a feminist lens. Oh...okay. I study adolescent health. So what does that have to do with digitality?  Doctor-patient communication. That's old stuff. Science communication. Oh so you're an STS person.  Journalism pedagogy. What does that have to do with any of the above? Umm..., interdisciplinary conversations. What does that even mean?

But really, I'm not complaining (even though it sounds like it). I am quite happy to be pulled in all these different directions. It keeps life interesting, and allows me to interact with a much wider range of ideas and people than I might otherwise. It also presents interesting connectivities that are otherwise invisible, given the silos people work within.

The only time I feel a bit at a disadvantage is when I am asked to introduce myself to a group of people who are themselves so clearly defined.

And maybe the answer lies in contextual definition. Choosing a label that works with a particular group, in a particular situation. This allows specific nodes to light up, offering possibilities for collaboration. Too vague a definition, and you loose this opportunity. But too specific can also cut out possibilities.

I find it interesting that while the foundation of good research is a healthy acceptance of uncertainty, the growth of an academic profile seems to depend so much on certainty of interests. Perhaps my lack of self-definition borders on dilettantism...but I would beg to differ. There is for me something that does connect everything I do. I just haven't found the word for it yet.

Monday, August 22, 2016

...ten years later, it's a 100! And other stuff.

Public Art on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Downtown Boston
I feel like I've reached this point huffing and puffing, having made my commitment to the long haul and put in my two cents' (calories? bytes?) worth at irregular intervals. When I started, the idea was to hone a discipline of writing, something, anything, and maybe find a critical audience for it. My stats show that in no year did I reach my desired target of one post a week. The past week has made up for it somewhat, I guess. So I'm patting myself on the back (stretch, stretch) for reaching my one-hundredth blog post.

Now that I have marked that milestone I guess I can get on with the actual act of writing the wisdom gained in the spaces of my everyday--yes?

My friend and I sit here with our cooling cups of coffee, touched by the breeze of a late Massachusetts summer morning, inquiring after each other's quality of sleep and the recurrent ache in our bones; we come to the gentle realization that we have grown into old women. Happily so. And think, hey, maybe that's a matter for cross-cultural reflection. (And I park that idea for another post)

But to the point of this particular blogpost, which has been brewing in my head for the past few days and has not quite come to a boil, but might do so in the act of writing, muddling through it with words. How our experience of civic life is defined by our expectations (as is everything, you might say).

"That jackhammer is enough to drive anyone nuts," says my friend, referring to the drilling in the street, which is being re-paved ahead of the winter. She has created a long resume of complaining about excessive noise in the neighborhood--leaf blowers, teenagers bouncing balls late at night, dump trucks backing up early in the morning, even police sirens zooming past in a crime-less street. The noise for me only punctuates a silence that is deeper than any I have at home. 

"People shout across the train car at each other, it's just so noisy in there," she remarks, as we board (what seems to me) a sleek orange tube. Where I come from, loud conversation is all around us on the streets, the buses, the trains, from the person on his cell phone sitting next to us...and this doesn't seem any different.

"They need to re-pave these roads," she say, as the car bumps over a series of minute potholes at a curve. Apart from the few well maintained major roadways in my own hometown of Hyderabad, we are used to bumping along in our cars, over gaping craters and foot-high speed breakers, and the American roads seem like a dream on smooth wheels.

But all that is old hat. Every visitor to the United States from a less privileged country, with a less committed public infrastructure sector, would remark on some of these things. What struck me really was the sense that I had grown used to all the imperfections, so much so that they were not things to complain about--or perhaps more correctly, our expectations of civic amenities--roads, transport, etc.--and of civic life--public behavior--are so low. We are not surprised by people honking on the road or speaking loudly on their cell phones or to each other on the street, and we hold our annoyance in check, most of the time. We grumble our way through our messy roads and rude crowds and tell ourselves that this is just the way things are (or do not even remark upon it). We expect policemen to be mean-tempered and find it pleasantly remarkable when we meet one who smiles and responds helpfully. We expect the traffic to be heedless of pedestrians and are almost afraid to accept the politeness of a motorist who slows down for us. We expect roads to be poorly maintained and congratulate the municipality that does a good job of keeping them in shape--as if that is not just their job they are doing.

Of course, our low expectations are a coping mechanism. How else can we get through the day? Our tolerance for inefficiency, rudeness and just plain discomfort makes it possible for us to continue with our work and our lives without constantly feeling set upon. Besides, the fact that there are so many people who do not even have the very basics keeps us keep perspective. So we rationalize to ourselves--how can we complain about roads that are difficult to drive on when to even have a vehicle to drive is a huge privilege? How can we complain about noise when for so many the noise is their only shield against the screaming inside their heads? And so on.

How do we then balance the need to cope (and therefore tolerate on an everyday basis) with the huge shortfall in civic amenities and civic standards, and the need to push for better public services and spaces? How do we demand without losing our ability to manage with what we have? To keep in mind the possible and the desirable without remaining agile enough to jump over those cracks and potholes?

So as my friend and I finish our coffee and I look at the incredibly blue sky of the opening day, I listen to her grumbles and respond with a smile, and hope that somehow, we can find a way to be exacting without losing perspective. In everything we do.

Friday, August 19, 2016


It's not a new thing but being old doesn't make it any less interesting for me. Or, I suspect, for any of us who are faced with navigating new situations and places without a compass or rule book, when we slowly gain access to a mostly invisible set of codes and conventions, such as looking to the left first instead of right while crossing a road, or having your choices in place before reaching the counter to place an order at Chipotle's. The newcomer sticks out, with her immersion in Google Maps and the hard-to-disguise lost look as she stops tentatively in front of impassive unmarked buildings which solidly refuse to yield either name or number, assuming that knowledge on the part of every passer by.

The sense of first-time-ness is actually quite wonderful, when you are captivated by the largeness of the trees and the cleanness of their leaves, or the clarity with which the skyline marks itself against a blue sky that seems so much brighter than the expanse above your own much-loved city.

But you also find yourself wanting to get rid of that patina of new-ness, of being the outsider in this space, of wondering about which turn to take as you wander clutching your smartphone and hoping the free wifi doesn't disappear on you. I am trying, with every step, to write myself into the map of the campus, to become one of those dots that anonymously and unnoticed, goes about its business in a knowing, familiar way.

So yesterday I spent a whole hour circling a block looking for what the map called 13E--and at some point even the kind lady on google maps gave up on me. I called the office for directions to what the map said was less than 500 ft away, and was told that the building is to the right of a "large black sculpture". Now what do you do when you see three objects of that description within a 200-yard radius? It took another ten minutes and some soft-footing inside some of those impassive buildings before I located my destination. I know that soon I will walk that same path with complete uncaring, my eyes not stopping to look at curiosities inside or outside windows, where the bicycle on the window is a comfortable indicator of how close I am to the office rather than something to capture in a series of curiosities.

The process of turning familiar involves seeing and watching to the point where those processes are no longer required, where the eye and mind are inscribed with a layer of unconscious knowing that allows you then to lose yourself on the street while holding the map inside your head. You can then walk by those impassive buildings with a comfortable knowledge--or a complete uncaring--of what they are and what they hold.

Each time I find myself in a new city where I am to spend more than a few days, I watch myself go from anxious intruder to comfortable occupant (never quite insider, that would take years, or perhaps eons), from a place where I am conscious of difference to a place where my difference is just one more hue in a color-by-numbers palette.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


So it begins. I walk my way to the unmarked bus stop on Melrose's Main Street and get on the bus that swings, so quietly, to the edge of the curb. I find an empty seat--spoiled for choice--and train my eyes on the moving peri-urban scenery, aware of the tiny cramp of anxiety lodged somewhere in my gut. All of this is so familiar, yet so strange, as if I am suspended in some space not home and not outside, neither ghare nor bhaire

The bus smooths its way to the Orange Line train stop, my first encounter with the T, and I feign confidence as I walk through the turnstile and slap my borrowed Charlie on the sensor pad. The train, like its predecessor,slides into the station and again, I find a seat opposite a woman who looks more like the academic I am than I do. She is buried in a freshly minted typescript--the paper I should have written--with pen appropriately poised. I find my way into the book I've been reading and dissolve into anonymity. At least until the transfer to the Red Line which will take me to my final destination. On the platform, I pause briefly to check the direction I need  to take, and an older woman asks me--me!--for directions. I laugh in relief, happy to share my ignorance with another person. We look for the signs and help each other through our slight confusion. I walk down dank steps to the platform where the Alewife train will arrive.

Four stops later I am at Kendall Square, my entry to MIT. It takes me two circumlocutions of the block and a phone call before I find Building E39, hidden behind other brownstones. The office I'm looking for is temporarily closed for a meeting so I head back downstairs to the street, with greater certainty this time. 

When you are willing to look, you find cultural bookmarks everywhere, minding whole pages of discourse that you can tap into, unpack, deconstruct with your sharp analytical tools so that you can return with insights that validate your journey. 

Or to add to a tired pile of verbiage that might gain the label of academic literature. 

A group of teenagers, clean-cut and in matching black tee-shirts carry their guitars and cymbals and sundry other instruments along the platform. Clutches of parents shepherd their new college-entering offspring along the street, stopping now and then to capture, on their cell phones, a memory of this first day on campus. Construction crew of various hues pause as nervous visitors skirt their ladders and cranes. 

I have an hour to go before I'm registered in the system. Nothing like a cup of coffee and a low-fat bran muffin spiced with free wifi to give one a sense of belonging.

It doesn't end there. One has to jump through many hoops, virtual and otherwise, to become part of any system. Fortunately for visitors, MIT has free wifi access across campus so one can be navigated to the points that hold up the required hoops. The very helpful lady at the International Scholars Office gives me a list of those hoops and I make my way to the first, smart phone loaded with google maps in hand. My subtle glances at the screen distinguish me from those who walk about insouciantly, having already mapped their way in and around. 

Next stop: a bank account and an ID, both of which insert me, indelibly, into MIT's archive.

But of course, I know that my very first visit to the web site, months ago, on tentative digital fingers,has already done that. My seeking ghost, when it is sought, already lurks within the cavernous circuitry of the knowledge maker-manager.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Something begins...I'm just not sure what

It's the 15th of August, and Independence Day in India has already waned, while my morning in Boston has just begun: a cup of coffee downed and a sunrise watched, a few pages of a novel read and a wondering set in motion. Wondering about what?-- one might ask.

Lila, in Book Three of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, says, almost bitterly, "Each of us narrates our life as it suits us."

And I think, yes, planning is often done as a "prospectively retrospective" exercise, if you know what I mean.

Here I am, my first morning on what is supposed to be an academic adventure, wondering how I need to plan my time so that at the end of my four-and-a-half months I feel validated, that my family and colleagues will recognize that it has been time well spent, time that justifies my absence from the consuming routine of home and semester. The subtext here is: how to deal with the niggling sense of guilt of being away from my regular "duty".

I'm not sure I have an answer yet, or that I will have one. Like Lila says, we all want to live our lives in a manner that makes for decent telling. Or perhaps more correctly, we would like to tell our lives in the way we would have liked to live it. We want at least elements of a narrative that allows us to make sense of our existence in ways that make sense to the other, that listener to whom we speak--and this is why, each time we tell the story of our life, it changes in subtle ways, melding itself to the sense-making structure that we attribute to our listener.

So how do I plan my time here so that it makes sense to ... my family, my colleagues at the university, to my extended audiences, and yes, to myself? Is it about toting up academic points through lectures given and papers drafted? Is it about making progress on that second novel? Is it about making new connections that run the danger of being just as fleeting and imaginary and anything else? Is it about energizing some creative core with long walks and solitary hours with coffee and a book, with spaces and silences that are so elusive in the daily routine of my life in Hyderabad?

Which of these--or in what combination--will make the best elements of a narrative that I will use, to sum up my time here?

I'm not sure. And I have a suspicion that the longer I spend time thinking about this, the less time I will have to actually live those building blocks of my story.

So that's what I'm wondering this morning, as I sit on my friend's porch in Melrose, watching the leaves on the two large trees dance against the streaked morning sun, feeling just a little anxious about the days that stretch ahead, just a little scared that I won't do enough with them....