Thursday, December 29, 2016

One hundred cups of coffee

It's been raining through the afternoon and even now I can hear the wind rush through the streets as it makes its way to or from the sea, carrying with it the varying moods of the New England winter. My landlady, Vera, told me this old regional joke: "If you don't like the weather in New England, well--just wait a minute!" And each of us travelers must discover the import of that in the gloves and scarves we carry in our bags and refrain from discarding too early, or, for that matter, putting away our short sleeves and sandals before the leaves turn, just because the calendar has announced the advent of cooler weather.

I've been packing all day--make that two "all days". Stuffing things I can't bear to leave behind and things that seem to have grown arms and legs and girth. Books that probably would have cost me less to buy on Amazon and delivered to India than to box and ship--clearly, sales at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse do not carry a warning sign on bargains (they should have said--"THESE BOOKS HAVE WEIGHT AND DO NOT TRAVEL ACROSS SEAS LIGHTLY OR CHEAPLY!"). I tell myself that books are priceless anyway, and if I've saved them from being left on the shelf, un-bought and probably in the long term, pulped, well, then I owe it to them to take them with me.

So the books have been boxed and the suitcases have been stuffed, and I am sitting here feeling somewhat in limbo. Goodbyes have been said and notes put away for future reference. As I rummage around the corner of my living room known as the kitchen, wondering if I should take the trouble to cook something that will get left over or just snack on an apple and a tub of yoghurt, I pick up the box of coffee filters to check how many are left.

There's just one.

Just enough for my last cup of coffee tomorrow morning.

I've been through several cartons of milk/half-and-half, and a few pounds of coffee grounds, but I haven't had to buy another box of filters.

It's like Trader Joe's had it perfectly packaged for my stay here, taking into the reckoning absences from Boston, and accounting for all the rest.

We often have the impulse to take stock, to tote up our gains and losses and see how far we have traveled between then and now. Four and a half months is not a long time by most standards, and, like most experiences, it seems long in the living and short in the recalling. I've had plenty of time to read, reflect, weigh new ideas and discard some old ones, look out windows of libraries and walk under the gold and russet leaves of oaks and maples, and just think, and be, without the disciplining frame of a routine. So here's my tally:

20 blog posts
8 interviews
4 presentations
2 articles
1 course audited
...and countless enriching conversations

And yes, 100 cups of coffee (not counting the ones served up by Starbucks and Peet's and the like).

When I open up that brown box tomorrow to take out that last paper filter, it will seem so final, so...over. Maybe that's why I haven't been able to pull myself away from the desk, or this uncomfortable chair on which I have sat typing one post after another, looking out the window where the old church stands solidly in the light of a single street lamp. I realize that while I've been thinking, the rain has stopped and the wetness on the road has turned into a slick, shiny layer of ice.

Less than a day before the New England iciness yields to the mild Hyderabad air.

Less than a day before my coffee comes strong and thick and aromatic, dripping through the perforations of my south Indian steel filter.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Walking the infinite

I had walked down the passage many times, narrowly missing rushing students and their bulky backpacks as I dawdled, reading the notices pinned on the soft boards along its length or the announcements sliding across the display screens at every archway. It seemed to me like just another corridor where no one lingered, apart from under the tallness of the Great Dome at one end or midway down in the sudden, imposing expanse of Lobby 7 before it narrowed again to lead you decisively toward East Campus.

So when students casually kept referring to "The Infinite" I had to ask, "But what is that?"

It is--only somewhat fancifully--referred to as MIT's spinal cord, this 825-foot corridor that runs east to west through some of MIT's main buildings, passing by the administrative offices and student affairs and several departments and labs. Apart from the fact that it is among the longest (but considerably shorter than that of Freie University, says Wikipedia) university corridor, it is known as the site of a biannual solar event, when the dipping sun aligns perfectly with the large window under the central dome and sends a ripple of light along its length--a phenomenon that the community has dubbed "MIT-Henge".

I wish I had known this earlier--I missed the last occurrence, in mid-November, by a few weeks. But learning about this made me walk the corridor with a bit more curiosity and appreciation for the design outlook (this set of buildings is credited to architect William Bosworth) that drives many structures on this campus. The Great Dome is iconic of MIT, and clearly, so is the Infinite, and both are pretty much part of the everyday rush between class and coffee shop and laboratory and library that characterizes student life on any campus.

Over the past four and a half months, the Infinite has for me been a pathway from the light-filled (okay, only on sunny days) and airy Haydn Library to a much-needed cup of Peet's brew under the lobby of main entrance, the Grand Dome. When time permits, I grab a table and watch the traffic go by, students solitary or in clumps, some finding a spot in one corner or another of this large space to hunch over assignments and readings, others in tight knots that conspire team projects. I've chanced upon an acapella group rehearsing Christmas carols and engineering students displaying posters...and of course, on that post-election Wednesday, draping their anger and anxiety on the massive pillars.

But if the Infinite is MIT's spinal cord, the other hallways that radiate from it are like neuronal pathways gathering and sending out stimuli. You have a sense that ideas are constantly cooking, that synergistic plans are being hatched, from the Vannevar Bush room to the Eastman lobby, the names that spell invention seem to be everywhere.
When you are inside the hub of innovation, inventiveness seems an ordinary, everyday affair. The environment seems to seethe with ideas and the possibility of their realization. You're encouraged to dream, and to make, and to show what you've made. You're encouraged to walk the Infinite--and soon you come to believe that it takes you places beyond that mere fraction of a mile.

Those who study architecture know how keenly spaces can shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in our immediate communities and in the world. Those who work with words know how keenly names can shape the way we think about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

There's a certain arrogance in calling an 825-foot hallway the Infinite.

Or perhaps... a certain imagination.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Bookended by art: or putting life into cities, one wall, one frame at a time

This morning I found on my Facebook wall a post by a friend, a photograph of a public art project along one of my hometown’s most popular promenades, Tank Bund: a large “Love Hyd” written in a combination of Devanagiri and English script. Earlier this year, some parts of Hyderabad city came alive with paint as artists from around the world reimagined broad swathes of street-facing walls and leaving passers-by a legacy of vivid images.

Picture courtesy: Sadhana Ramchander
I was sorry to have missed all that, but am looking forward to catching up with the new colour as I get back to my daily commute.

The past few years have seen a renewed interest in public art, an acknowledgement that cities are spaces of life and experience, not just places for commerce. From locations as far apart as Taipei in Taiwan and Kobe in Japan and Long Beach in Hawaii, there have been attempts to revitalize city centers particularly in regions where a post-industrial economy has led to slow economic death and loss of manufacturing jobs, with gentrification becoming an almost inevitable option.

The city of Worcester in central Massachusetts is one of New England’s oldest settlements, and lays claim to many historic firsts, including the first valentine. Residents will also tell you that the monkey wrench was invented here, as was the smiley (no, it wasn’t Forest Gump!). In the first half of the 20th century, the city grew into a major manufacturing hub, supplying parts to the aerospace and other heavy industries and providing jobs to a large immigrant population. After the second world war, however, the city began losing its competitive edge to less expensive factories elsewhere in the country and overseas, and gradually fell into decline, hollowing out its once-vibrant downtown area and sending its population out in search of livelihoods.

Worcester emerges from a gently rolling landscape as you drive east from Boston, as an innocuous clutch of brick buildings and an inevitable sprinkling of church spires and weathervane-topped towers that characterize almost every New England town. But then you turn into the streets of the quiet downtown, and the colour on the walls hits you. A many-times-larger-than-life bird of paradise, the luminous face of a pony-tailed toddler, a bursting-off-the-wall golden yellow smiley, a totem of female faces reminiscent of Mayan folklore…and many more.

“It was all about inclusive revitalization,” explains Joshua Croke, a young art graduate who is now Executive Director of Action!Worcestor, an NGO that aims to “connect people and create community” through a variety of urban revival projects. The murals were an outcome of Pow Wow Worcester, a week-long street art festival that brought together 12 artists from around the world to use the walls as their canvas. “We wanted to bring user-experience design to urban redevelopment,” continues Joshua, “and to see how we could create an urban environment that people would want to use, not just go through on the way to somewhere else.”

Joshua and his colleague Kyla Pacheco walk us (the group of Fulbright scholars visiting the USA from many countries) through some of the city streets to experience the murals for ourselves, telling us stories about the artists and their approach as we take in one large painting after another. One of the side streets has a fifty-foot horizontal mural that spells “Love You, Marry Me” in a psychedelic rush reminiscent of the 1960s. “This has become a really popular spot for marriage proposals,” says Kyla. “And the business around here have really benefitted, as the couples then plan to have their weddings in the area, too!” The mural, painted by Berlin artist Tavar Zawacki (known as Above), was done in under 3 days.

We walk a few blocks down past a preschool playground bordered by a chainlink fence through which another portrait can be glimpsed. A little girl, all bundled up against the cold, waits with her carer. Kyla points up at the portrait; it is the luminous face of a little girl, her curly hair parted into two bouncing ponytails. This one was done by a self-taught artist from New Zealand, Elliot (known as Askew1) whose approach, Kyla tells us, is to have long conversations with the members of the community before he settles on a subject. “And that’s his subject,” she says, as the little girl (seen walking away in this picture) waves to us and returns to the playschool. 

Pow Wow Worcester was just the beginning of a much longer urban renewal effort, acknowledges Joshua. “The idea is to remake the downtown area into a space that hosts activities for families and children, a space where people can come together as a community.” “During the mural painting, the community really contributed with accommodation for the artists and meals—and the artists themselves did it for free…it was the people of Worcester saying we want a new city!”

Kyla and Joshua seem to represent something of that new spirit of an old city; talking about it with an earnestness and passion that express their commitment to the revitalization project and to the community.

Worcester is no stranger to art, however, as it is also home to one of the state’s—and the country’s—oldest art museums, having been established in 1989. Benefiting from a major endowment from a local philanthropist, the museum not only acquired a number of paintings of European and American masters, but also funded a major archaeological dig at Antioch (in collaboration with Princeton University) that brought it one of the largest collections of Roman murals in North America. We had the privilege of being introduced to the Museum by its former director and one of its most celebrated and beloved curators, Jim Welu now in his mid-seventies.

Jim is a storyteller in the old mold. As he took us through the rooms, he told us the stories behind the acquisitions, the paintings, and the painters. He shows us how, from a certain angle, you can see the ghost of an earlier image that was painted over by the artist, and what the X-rays of the painting can tell us not only about the image but the contexts in which they were created. We stop in front of a 16th century oil on canvas by Piero di Cosimo, “The discovery of honey by Bacchus” and he proceeds to explain the painting to us. It’s not just the stories that hold you, it is his obvious passion for the subject. “I could talk about this all day,” he confesses, smiling.

He’s patient with our questions, which border on the philistine. “Why is it that women in these 17th century European paintings never smile?” asks one of our group. “Maybe they didn’t have great teeth!” he ventures, drawing a ripple of laughter. “Or maybe they were wearing painful corsets.” He pauses, and then says, ruminating: “It’s amazing what we are willing to do for beauty.”

You glimpse the possibility of many good conversations with this man.

After gawping at the Gaugin (which was owned by Degas before it came to this collection) and two of Monet’s works (Water Lilies and Waterloo Bridge), and several others, we wind up at Jim’s elegant home where we have the opportunity to chat with him some more and hear some more stories—about art, about American politics and baseball, and about growing up with a father who made ice-cream and sold it at 5 cents a scoop. “He realized he was making no money, and so he decided to raise it to 10 cents a scoop,” recalls Jim. “My brother and I were horrified, protesting that the other kids were just like us, that they couldn’t pay that much!”

Having spent these past four months in Boston, Worcester had seemed to me a small town, and I confess, one that had held no particular fascination for me. But between the art on the streets and the art in the museum, and of course the delightful company of Joshua, Kyla and Jim Welu, I realized that every place has a charm that is waiting to be discovered. And all it takes is for you to meet the right people—who can show you its heart, because it occupies a special place in their hearts.