Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bo0mbay- in conversation with Kamu Iyer

Bo0mbay: from Precincts to Sprawl
in conversation with Kamu Iyer

Architect Kamu Iyer’s most recent book is ‘Bo0mbay: from Precincts to Sprawl’, in which he dispels the notions of the city growing only organically. Right from early childhood, he talks of growing up in a ‘planned precinct’, where the city held back its chaos, while order, inclusivity and contemplation ruled. In these areas of Bombay, planning order and social order went hand in hand. This allowed for the absorption of migrants from several parts of the Indian sub-continent to come to the megapolis to seek a life. The buildings which came up in these several precincts defined the urban fabric of the city for almost fifty years, until very recently; where they are being systematically undermined by what Rahul Mehrotra has called ‘impatient capital’. But in their heyday, from the late twenties to the late fifties, the architecture that emerged was open and expressive and self-similar, not hidden behind gates, watchmen and CCTV’s.

Iyer’s childhood, as he describes in his book, was spent in the areas of the Hindu and Parsee Colonies in middle Bombay. In the fifties, he went to architecture school, where he was taught and later worked with the very architects whose designs made these precincts. The 'planned city' that emerged from the initiatives of the City Improvement Trust was a tram ride away from the imperial piles of South Bombay. The colonial expressions in and around the erstwhile Fort had run out of steam by the first decade of the last century. In a sense, it is urban design, rather than architecture that forms the final contribution of the colonial state to the city of Bombay.

In 2000, Iyer edited ‘Buildings that Shaped Bombay’, a monograph on the work of G. B. Mhatre, whom he had as a teacher in college and whom he briefly worked with. Mhatre was perhaps the best architect whose canvas was the planned precinct, whether the Oval Maidan stretch, the Marine Drive, the Pherozeshah Mehta Road or indeed the Five Garden developments. Iyer has lived in a G. B. Mhatre designed building for the large part of his life, and the lessons learnt, both subliminally and through active critiques and debates on what architecture is appropriate have governed his professional life and his practice.

His education stood at the cusp of change from the slow decline of (locally adapted) Beaux Arts practices, when the architectural education was still ensconced in the Art School, to the emerging Modernist possibilities being explored by the various practices prolific at the time. Iyer’s practice continues in the present, more than half a century after he started his firm ‘architects’ combine’ with friends from architecture school. He is both prolific and critical in his designs. He has, in this book, several sharp observations about the present, the city turning from a fabric of precincts to the bo0m of sub-urban sprawl, where real estate monetization and self-help appropriations exist side by side.

I am very pleased to engage Kamu Iyer in the conversation that follows where he elaborates on several of the themes I have mentioned. While his new book tells us the tale of the Bombay of over three quarters of the last hundred years through his perspective and reminisces, his observations also present us with an alternative genealogy to understand the city as it is today.

Published by Popular Prakashan, 2014

“I have always lived in apartment buildings that stood on individual plots but I had friends who lived in other types of houses. Arun Ranade lives in a chawl at Girgaum, Vinodini Gajaria ,till her end, lived in a chawl among a group of them in a gated community called Halai Bhatia Mahajan Wadi, Jehangir Choksi lived at Cusrow Baugh, a housing enclave for Parsees and J.B.Fernandes, an architect associated with Ridley Abbot the designer of  New Empire and Liberty cinemas, lived at Khotachi Wadi, an urban village in the heart of Girgaum. 

The variety in house typologies, all of which exist even now, make layers that add to the richness of the city. Bombay is a palimpsest in which the imprints of successive typologies of housing and their individual histories overlap. They did not evolve in a sequence. Most grew independently and simultaneously. But the apartment building which, appeared first in Bombay, has changed the most. It is constantly outgrowing it's form.” 
(excerpted from ‘Bo0mbay: from Precincts to Sprawl’)

The Dadar Matunga planned precincts, from Google Earth
What are your earliest memories of Bombay? We take a lot of its urban fabric, especially the developments of the thirties and the forties for granted. Even today, they form the backdrop of our lived experience. Was that also true for your growing-up years or do you have memories of the city 'filling up', as it were?

My earliest memories are from 1938 when I was six years old. I lived in Hindu Colony at Dadar till my ninth year after which I lived at the northern end of Parsi Colony. Both areas were part of a planned neighborhood. The areas I lived and studied in were planned but many parts of Bombay that I saw from an early age sitting in a tram appeared crowded and disorderly. Buildings were close to one another and there was little or no space between them. The streets were sometimes winding and buildings were higher than in my neighborhood.

In contrast both Hindu and Parsi colonies had houses and spaces between them placed regularly. Houses stood on individual plots and there was space outside the house to play in. This made me feel that the city was not the same all over and there was more to it than what I was used to in my locality. What Bombay might have been before the thirties is, for me, a matter of speculation.

You studied architecture in the Sir JJ School at a time when the most prolific and significant architects in Bombay were also its faculty and driving force. There has perhaps never been a time in the city when academia and practice were so synonymous. What do you think has been the lasting legacy of the Sir JJ School?

In the 50's, when we were students, the school of architecture itself was small and it was a part of the Art school. The number of professionally qualified architects was also small- there were more engineers practicing as architects, because you needed only a surveyor’s license from the Bombay Municipal Corporation to sign building plans for approval. I read many years later that the school was always short of teachers and Foster King, during his tenure as (acting) head of the school, encouraged senior students to help their juniors in their studies. He also sought the help of professional architects to teach in the school. Whether it was for survival in a profession inundated with engineers or love for architecture, most felt duty bound to teach.

The profession, represented by the Indian Institute of Architects, also took interest in students because most of its prominent members were teaching at the school. The Institute also had its nominees in the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) examination board. The institute's concerns were largely with the profession, unlike the present day when the emphasis is on conference jamborees.

As students, we got the benefit of the experience of the practicing architects of the city. The school, from its inception, had luminaries like George Wittet, Claude Batley , Foster King and in later years G. B. Mhatre, Durga Bajpai , Jehangir Billimoria and a host of others. The situation in other professional colleges was similar, especially the medical colleges attached to hospitals. The best doctors were 'honorary' in public hospitals and their services were available both to students and patients who could not have otherwise afforded it. Over the years the custom of having practicing professionals teach ceased but fortunately the school of architecture continues the tradition of inducting professionals in design studios, juries and lectures. This is good for the school.

Was Modernism taught by default when you were in architecture school? It certainly was when I studied in Sir JJ in the eighties. The Modernist agendas and processes, fueled by the works of the Modern masters and their manifestos had got normalized by then. Was there debate over what architecture was appropriate when you were a student?

When I was a student, the Beaux Arts system adapted to Indian conditions by Claude Batley was prevalent. Teaching was centered on the study of classical and Indian orders, their proportions and details and drawing them up skillfully. There was also study of historical styles. For instance, there was a subject called composition in which you composed on sheet elements of a style and rendered it to make an attractive drawing. The emphasis was on drawing and rendering and little else which was frustrating to most of us. We found it easier to understand what we were drawing only when we actually saw the building. We could understand the Doric Order only when we saw the Town Hall.
'Study of the Basilica of Maxentius' History Composition at the Sir JJ School of Art, circa, 1940, by G. S. Kalkundri

We realized that drawing had limitations and there was more to a building than what appeared on its front. In the design studios elevations carried more weight than plans and if there was mismatch between the inside and outside it did not matter as long as the elevations were attractive. The elevation had to have 'elevation features', which meant embellishment. This system was done away with in my second year at school.

By the time we came to the third year, though the earlier method of teaching was discontinued, the approach to design continued in which the plan and elevation of a building were different elements designed separately. We also had a studio in the third year called Specialized History in which you had to design a building for a modern use but adapt and modify, if need be, a traditional style of architecture for the design of the facade. This was a dichotomy difficult to comprehend.
'Design for a Small Museum' Specialized History Drawing at the Sir JJ School of Art, circa, 1940, by N. D. Desai

We were a group of friends who felt differently though we did not quite understand Modernism. But examples of early modern architecture in books then, reading about the Bauhaus, Howard Robertson's books and seeing Frank Lloyd Wright's work in magazines convinced us that we needed to understand Modernism as a movement. We realized soon that a movement becomes one only when people also think similarly in their respective fields. We looked around us. In the Art section of the school some students were moving away from pictorial art, a set of artists formed the Progressive Group and exhibited their work in the city. T.S. Eliot was a departure from the romantic poets on whose works we grew up and J. Krishnamurthy, who used to give public lectures in the school compound during winters, was telling us to set aside all gurus and their teachings and instead find out for ourselves.

Le Corbusier at the High Court, Chandigarh

You were witness to Le Corbusier’s buildings coming up in Chandigarh. What kind of influence did his work have on students of architecture in Bombay?

The biggest impact was Le Corbusier. His design for the Chandigarh High Court stunned us all because it was a major departure from the 'box' and the modernism of the Bauhaus which we had by then become familiar with. We argued among ourselves whether a building can be seen as an object by itself or as a part of a larger picture of the street and the city. To find out we spent time walking around the city and cycling in the suburbs looking at buildings and streets, market places and other commonly used places and discussing in the canteen. This taught us more than making drawings in the studios.

There were debates but these were more between those in favor of Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture and those supporting the International style. Le Corbusier appealed only to a few and his work was a topic for discussion among them. The transition in the school was gradual. At the same time, modern architecture was also emerging in the city.

There has not been an adequate assessment of the architecture of the sixties and the seventies. The influence of architects in Bombay as a dominant force nationally was already in decline by the end of the fifties. Delhi and Ahmedabad had become the new capitals of modernist expression. 

On the contrary, Bombay in the sixties and seventies saw a boom in building activity. The high rise buildings in Nariman Point, industrial complexes with sophisticated buildings for advanced processes and apartment and office buildings for ownership were all coming up at a brisk pace. The typologies of the apartment building and the high rise towers are ' Bombay Firsts'. Delhi and Ahmedabad appear as leaders of modernist expression but buildings that came up there were mostly institutional, built for the government and public bodies. Most architects were heavily influenced by Le Corbusier at first and Louis Kahn later. The buildings that came up were monumental, each vying with the other for attention.

In Bombay, the situation was different. Clients were demanding. They insisted on strict adherence to programme, cost and time schedules. They also said that a building had not only to be good to look at but also to live in, the latter being more important. In other words their demands were exactly what modern architecture exhorted- the rational use of space, structural clarity and no mismatch between interior space and external expression.

These decades also witnesses the withering of the post-independence/republic euphoria. Your practice was already into its second decade by then. How do you remember those times, and in retrospect today how do you assess their influence?

The spurt in building activity in the 60's gave young architects work. Clients recognized the need for an architect's services in a project. That itself was a departure from the past when an architect was appointed only to ' beautify' the facade. Young architects got projects for designing interiors or industrial buildings or for apartments promoted by developers. As young practitioners we got industrial projects which instilled in us a discipline of keeping to time and cost schedules. We also did some houses in Ahmedabad and Bangalore as also a residential school and many small projects. The variety of work and interaction with clients added to our 'experience bank'. We discussed our work in the studio and we learnt soon enough that every project, regardless of its size, had its own complexities and no job was too small for the office to handle.

The sixties and seventies were still idealistic and euphoric though it started waning towards the late 70's. Cynicism crept in when some architects saw architecture more as a business than as a profession. Developers were largely responsible for this perception. Architects who looked at their projects as a search and introspected on them when they were completed could not reconcile with the commercialization of architecture that was getting rampant.

Modernism took different forms. In Delhi and Ahmedabad architects educated at CEPT and SPA did serious work though most of them adapted the language of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. In Bombay, commercially oriented architects blindly copied western models without thinking about the suitability of such buildings to Indian conditions while the others plodded on, attempting to create architecture that evolved from past understanding of materials and ways of handling them, construction methods and forms suitable for the context in which they were situated.

CIDCO Low Income Group Housing, Vashi, New Bombay, 1991 by architect's combine

The constant clamor today is that the housing stock in the city is inadequate. But there have been mass housing projects in the past, generated by the state accommodating all levels of housing. You have designed mass housing projects in New Bombay as well as in Karnataka. Is there still a future for projects of this kind?

Housing is generally affordable if it is done by public bodies because developers and their architects are not interested in housing other than that for the affluent. Their argument is that land costs are high due to scarcity and it does not make economic sense to construct smaller flats. Architects who are on the bandwagon argue that since land is scarce FSI has to be high and buildings tall. This puts those needing affordable housing out of the reckoning. So it becomes the responsibility of government and public bodies to supply housing for the have-nots.

Unfortunately the housing authority does not have enough land since almost all land is owned privately. Despite that there is a future for public housing, cooperative ownership and self help groups. But for this to happen there must be concerted effort and political will. Providing affordable housing is a daunting task but it is not insurmountable but the political class and bureaucracy need to know that just as a society is only as strong as its weakest section, a city's quality depends on how its poor live.

How do you assess the decline of both the rental paradigm as well as the cooperative movement on housing in Bombay?

Affordable rental housing is nonexistent and is not likely to revive even if the Rent Act, which is always unfairly blamed for the shortfall, is repealed. Today cooperative ownership of property which, again, is a Bombay First, is a viable solution. In this system either a cooperative society is formed before a site is purchased and a building is built on it or is formed after a developer hands over a building to individual buyers of flats in the building. Flats become more affordable when a society is formed before a building is constructed because it eliminates the developer's profit margin. Moreover he bases his price on the current cost of land which keeps varying all the time. Forming societies before construction has declined in recent years because all land in the city is cornered by developers and getting approvals is time consuming and cumbersome.

How would you address the symptom of swift gentrification that seems at affect inclusive growth in the city? I see aspiration fulfillment through ownership and the inevitable influence of the developer/ speculator as the main factors. Would you agree?

Gentrification is a recent phenomenon.
It is a part of a vicious cycle of inflated land prices, a typology of housing that is inherently expensive to construct, maintain and live in and a marketing strategy that lists exclusivity as one of the unique features of a project.

Gentrification is in built into the way housing projects are designed, which basically are gated communities containing stand-alone, high-rise towers with large floor plates. The open space in these gated communities is developed as gardens for the exclusive use of the community. The contrast between these high end towers and Dadar/Parsi Colony is palpable. In the Parsi Colony most of the apartment blocks are exclusively for the Parsis. Yet segregation is imperceptible because the streets, gardens and spaces around the buildings are for all. In earlier developments gated communities were for people belonging to a caste or religion or a sub culture group but within the wadi or Baugh there was no class division. The rule was “you are welcome to stay here if you belong to my caste or religion" now the rule is “you are welcome to live here if you have the money".

Gentrification distorts social balance. Bombay, unlike New Delhi, was not stratified. It was more egalitarian than most cities and gentrification does not fit in Bombay's ethos. Interestingly, when the Greater Bombay Plan was being drafted the British Government appointed a panel to advise on housing. The panel, in which Claude Batley was a member, stressed that neighborhoods should be inclusive and segregation of people into income or social groups should not be encouraged. Planning should provide for mixed housing in neighborhoods. The suggestion has been overlooked; instead distorted land prices and investable surplus funds with a few have resulted in ample built space for investors but not for housing the majority of the people living in the city.

Your book ‘Bo0mbay: from Precincts to Sprawl’ has been several years in the making. I have been privileged to read some of its early drafts. Could you describe the processes that went into settling upon its final form? 

My book has taken years to write. I had no intention to write because my observations of the city over the years were subjective and I did not think anyone would be interested. I used to share them with friends now and then. People would tell me to put down what I saw or knew in some form or other. My friend Shekhar Krishnan and Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar planned a series of conversations which would be recorded and made available as oral history. This did not happen.  Charles Correa was largely responsible for taking it further. He insisted on my writing a book. That is how I started.

The first version was structured around three frames through which I looked at the city. It was illustrated in the usual manner. People I showed it to said that the book was a personal view, yet I was in the background. I was not sure if a first person account would be taken seriously. That doubt took a long time to resolve.

When I started, I wondered what type of book would convey my view without a bias. I also found that books about Bombay were either coffee table books with nostalgic imagery or academic books with references and substantiation of every other thing. Most of those books were awfully boring because only words do not tell the story of a city. Likewise, pictures alone cannot tell you why a city looked the way it did. A city as a living entity consists of so many things which have to be lived through. The ideas I was putting down were also visual and I thought the book should have both words and pictures to tell the story. The difference would have to be that the words and pictures tell the same story. It would be parallel narrative.

I find this most interesting as it is a book that defies genres, being a document, a chronology, a critical assessment and a subjective viewpoint all in one.

Since I was writing in the first person it was easy to structure it like a journey through different stages of my life. It takes you from my schoolboy days to my time in architecture school and later, my professional life. I thought it is important to find out why and how a city grows or metamorphoses. I could do that through analysis, diagrams, maps and sketches. That is what makes it difficult to classify the book. It is like the Bombay Bhel that has a little of everything.

(interview with Mustansir Dalvi, October 2014)
© Mustansir Dalvi, 2014, all rights reserved.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Noorul Hasan, Athena Kashyap- 3 book reviews

Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions
Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor 
Niyogi Books, 2013

The central display at my favourite Bombay bookshop, Kitab Khana, is creaking under the weight of new books on the city. It is difficult to know just what else can be added to the oeuvre before it collapses completely. I remember a time when the only books on Bombay that were available were Gillian Tindall’s history, City of Gold (1982) and Dom Moraes’ contemporary – and then, controversial – account Bombay (1979), commissioned by Time/ Life books. And then, apres Mehrotra/Dwivedi, le déluge.

On a slightly nativist note, I think any new book on Mumbai should pass muster with Mumbaikars first. Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor’s immersive account – history, travelogue, ethnography, picture book and prose-poem does so, giving us a sense of Mumbai as it is today. Poet and photographer, both accepting the version of Indian time as a kaalchakra, retread and retrace the city to reclaim it: “What one saw at noon must be seen again in starlight; that which was seen in summer reveals another aspect in the monsoon.” This appreciation of multi-dimensionality, both in time and in space, articulates what Chabria calls the hard and the soft city – the city of data and materiality and of imagining and desire. Immersion is the wearing down of shoe soles, going forth to meet its very many “yesterday’s outsiders and today’s natives” (a phrase from Ranjit Hoskote’s preface) and submerging into the known and unknown to be ultimately renewed, much like the city’s annual Ganesh visarjan.

Using this “cross-genre” approach allows the reader to make a non-linear journey through the city, observing many simultaneities and palimpsest layers, the initial southern heart and the developing northern and eastern limbs, using voices from the past (Chitre, Dhasal, Surve, Pasolini and Paz are all evoked) and the voices of the present from the streets, bylanes, chawls and slums. Chabria narrates the many lives with gentleness and honesty bringing “all its denizens together” like the city at low-tide, who “all alike smell its tidal spoor”.

The book is a pas de deux between text and images, and co-author Christopher Taylor’s photographs, taken the old fashioned way using negative film to make silver gelatin prints, bring out the texture, grittiness and veracity of this mad megalopolis. His images punctuate the narrative and carry it forward, not with panoramas but vignettes of a city largely unseen. Not an underbelly, really (we’ve had enough of faux noir-imaginings of the big, bad Mumbai Nagariya) but more a quotidian presence. Taylor’s is a visual account of the occupied city.

Chabria un-riddles the city’s various etymologies, which become the access to some of the oldest and now dwindling communities and their physical artifacts: homes, religious places, cemeteries as with the Chinese, the Armenian Jews, the Irani Shias all centred around Mazgaon. Taylor photographs the newer communities – the drivers of “kaali-peelis”, the service industry that accommodates migrants “like the city accommodates high tide”. The vast, unlamented backroom industry that forms the bulwark for the Hindi film world is explored, as are some of the city’s geographies that we do not talk about much – the ferries and the forests. Chabria ends with a prose poem, “Cab ride through Bombay/Mumbai”. Here, like the book, ruminations, memories and the views outside meld together like a seething traffic jam, filling the senses like exhaust, making the eyes blink and water – and ultimately clear the vision.

-Reviewed by Mustansir Dalvi in Time Out Mumbai

Meena Kumari: The Poet 
A Life Beyond Cinema
Noorul Hasan
Roli Books, 2014

During the golden age of vinyl, when shelves of record stores were filled with albums of songs from Hindi films, a patronizingly small space was accorded to the “non-filmy” album. I remember two of these—one was the eponymously titled Bachchan Recites Bachchan, the other I Write, I Recite, an album of recordings of Meena Kumari reciting her own poetry with music by Khayyam. In her sonorous, somewhat breathless voice, she spoke of love and loneliness. Quite like the tragedy queen she was in her films. That was 1972.

Now, Noorul Hasan, a former professor of English with interests from Thomas Hardy to Firaq Gorakhpuri, has brought together several of Meena Kumari’s verses, published in English translation for the first time. Most of her poems share the themes commonly found in Urdu ghazals and nazms—loss, solitude, the contemplation of death, the futility of words. Meera Kumari’s enduring reputation is that of a tragic doyenne. Her poems are not rooted in specifics, and are written in a rhetorical style that does not offer a reader much to hold on to. One is therefore obliged to juxtapose this with the context of her life for a full appreciation of the poems.

Hasan has also curated additional material that includes essays on her verse and several appendices with archival interviews and reminiscences that range from the fanboy thrill of meeting the Garboesque diva (by Afsar Jamshed) to the raking up of a mildly salacious past. Naushad Ali’s short biography, Actress Meena Kumari: From The Cradle To The Grave, summarizes her life—her beginnings as a child actor, her debut in the stunt movie called (of all things) Leatherface, her rise to fame as an adult actor with Baiju Bawra, her unrequited love for a leading man, her marriage with, and divorce from, a leading director, her slide into isolation and alcoholism, and the fixing of her image as a tragedienne with Pakeezah, all allow one to indulge in reading these into her poems: “Life is a scattered tale of grief/ And my story is nearing its end.” Hasan’s translations are accompanied by Roman transliterations that allow the multilingual (but Urdu-challenged) reader access to Meena Kumari’s original words, and these are very welcome: “Din doobe hai ya doobi baraat liye kashti/ Sahil pe magar koi kohram nahi hota” (Is it sunset or has the wedding barge capsized/ There is no hue and cry on the shore all the same).

Meena Kumari’s poems are steeped in melancholy, rarely allowing even a spark of cheer or good humour. She often acknowledges her own self-indulgence: “I sit and brood for hours/ About which heartbeat/ I should turn into poetry”. Out of her accumulated outpourings of angst she is on occasion able to convey an image of some beauty: “This night/ Was merciful like/ Miriam’s warm cloak/ And like a dreaming Christ/ Drowned in sleep—innocent”. While several of her ghazals tread familiar landscapes, it is her nazms, short and long, that yield the most. Here, she is at her most confessional: “My own dreams poisoned me/ My own imaginings stung me to death.”

Few books subvert their own title. Meena Kumari The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema is one. In a sense that is what makes the book most engaging. Approached with the full awareness that this is a collection of poems by a famous actor of the Hindi screen whose image surpasses her performances and her life, these verses add to and sustain her persona. Her poems become enjoyable reading, evoking the many visual memories we have of Meena Kumari. Indeed, the book has several iconic images from her films. I would take issue with the opening essay, where Philip Bounds and Daisy Hasan describe her poetry as a critique of popular culture. Asserting that “her poems tell us as much about Bollywood as they do about herself” is clearly overstating the case, as their defence is entirely rooted in her life in cinema.

It is her later chroniclers, it would seem, who cannot let go of the baggage of her “filmy” career, instead of attempting to read her verses for what they are. Meena Kumari herself puts it best. The best of the “bonus features” that enrich this book is “My Likes And Dislikes”, a throwaway interview that she seems to have given to some film magazine. “A closed book is very enticing because it is silent”, she says, “but once you start reading it its entire character begins changing slowly and imperceptibly.” Like the famous Kuleshov effect of cinematic montage, this book, like the actor herself, cannot escape its proximity to Meena Kumari’s films, her times, and the long shadow she casts as an eternally suffering doyenne.

-Reviewed by Mustansir Dalvi in Mint Lounge, Sat, Jun 28 2014

Crossing Black Waters
Athena Kashyap
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2012

In her debut collection of poetry, author Athena Kashyap references “black waters” to evoke two separate “crossings”: the first, when the author moved to the United States from the country/city of her formative years, and the second, when her great-grandfather uprooted his family from Lahore and made the crossing to India.

Embedded in the poems, which move back and forth between the Indian subcontinent and America, is a longing for “home” that is realized in the mind. However, when the poet finally returns to her abandoned family home in Pakistan, she finds that what was left behind is just “half of everything.” Even the fulfillment of her longing is faltering, uncertain: “Of all the seeds planted / by great-grandfather in Lahore, / only trees remain— / clinging on.”

The backdrop of San Francisco, on the other hand, represents a more abstract existence, an occupation rather than a belonging, a perpetual halfway house. Kashyap declares her position succinctly: “I am knot.” There is a sense of slow loss in her America-centered poems, in a country where, according to the poet, she is so free that she floats away: “I am diluted, having left one world to live and travel in / others. My skin grows permeable, breathable.” It is at this plane of osmosis, of skin as filter, that the experience of America occurs. Her poems situated beyond the black waters absorb the local, but the specifics of a home left behind intrude: the taste of tandoori, of sweet Gujarati food, snippets of Hindi film songs, and the memories of Mumbai trains all collide with the present.

The poem “Zero Generation” addresses immigrant loneliness as a collective experience, in that it speaks to those who “long to belong, but also long to return / back to where we once belonged.” The desire for making a world in a foreign land is inherent, but described here is an immigrant experience that just does not settle, and Kashyap’s poems simmer at this cusp. She references a popular line from a film song, “Aye dil, hai mushkil jeena yahaan,” which translates to, “My poor heart, how difficult it is to live here!” While the “here” in the context of the song refers to Bombay, the author borrows the expression to refer to life in America. This move by the author achieves the effect of making the hard reality of urban living there—or here—universal.

Kashyap writes of sundering, separations, crossings, reunions, and uncertain reconciliations. The break with an imagined home is never forever; return is always a possibility yet remains unsatisfying whenever it occurs. Crossing Black Waters is a many-layered book about the simultaneity of multiple existence that is becoming more frequent in our modern world, where all our online networks are no substitute for being “there,” and being there is no longer an end in itself.

-Reviewed by Mustansir Dalvi in Jaggery Lit, Issue 1, Fall 2013

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nehru's speech, enjambed

Redeeming our Pledge
Jawaharlal Nehru

Long years ago 
we made a tryst with destiny.
Now comes the time
when we shall redeem our pledge, 
not wholly or in full measure, 
but very substantially. 

At the stroke of the midnight hour, 
as the world sleeps, 
India will awake 
to life and freedom. 

A moment comes, 
which comes but rarely in history, 
when we step out 
from the old to the new, 
when an age ends, 
when the soul of a nation, 
long suppressed, finds utterance.

At the dawn of history 
India started on her unending quest.

Trackless centuries 
are filled with her striving,
the grandeur of her success 
and her failures. 
Through good and ill 
she never lost sight 
of that quest, nor forgot
the ideals that gave her strength. 

Today, we end 
a period of ill fortune.
India discovers herself,

The appointed day has come.
The day appointed by destiny.
India stands forth again, 
after long slumber and struggle, 
awake, vital, free. 

The past clings on to us 
in some measure.
We have much to do 
before we redeem pledges 
so often taken. 
Yet the turning point is past, 
history begins anew, 
history, which we shall live and act,
history, others will write about.

The future beckons. 
Whither do we go?
What shall be our endeavor-
to bring freedom and opportunity 
to the common man, 
to the peasants and workers of India,
to fight and end poverty 
end ignorance, end disease,
to build up 
a prosperous, a democratic, a progressive nation, 
to create 
social, economic and political institutions,
to ensure justice and the fullness of life 
to every woman 
to every man.

And to India, 
much-loved motherland, 
ancient, eternal, ever-new, 
our reverent homage.
We bind ourselves
afresh, to her service. 

Excerpts from the speech made by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the parliament to the constituent assembly, on August 14th 1947,'at the stroke of the midnight hour'. 

The transcript of the full speech can be read here.
And here, you can hear a sound recording of Nehru's 'Tryst with Destiny' speech in HIndi, recorded on All India Radio.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Time Out Mumbai- Slow City

This piece was published in an edited version in the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai

Slow City

We must concoct a new name for the extreme sport of sitting in the path of whooshing traffic on Mohammed Ali Road with your back to it. Limb and possibly life is risked for a plate of saffron-hued firni outside Suleman Mithaiwala, but one spoonful is all that is needed to make the risk worthwhile. Above and beyond your head, long haul cars speed past nonchalantly on the snaking flyover with many names, the one that connects the Sir JJ School to the Sir JJ Hospital. At the Al-Madinah, plastic chairs and makeshift tables are always full at this time of year, occupied, quite comfortably by growling bellies in need of satiation.

Once upon a time, when Ramadhan was pronounced Ramzan, the all-denominational greeting ‘Khuda Haafiz’ had not yet been essentialized to ‘Allah Haafiz’, indeed when the concrete reptile flyover under whose grimy underbelly we now cheat death in order to gain the Kingdom of Culinary Heaven was not even imagined, eateries on the cross lane to Minara Masjid and beyond would lay their spread out nearly across the busy Mohammaed Ali Road,. For a month, at dawn and at dusk, vehicular lanes would be re-imagined as food plazas. Bombay’s hordes would descend on Saarvi, Shalimar and Noor Mohammadi, full of piety and perfume in time for Sehri and Iftaar. The moments before sunrise would pass swiftly, suffused with prayer and humility but the nights were long, filled with loud conversation and conviviality.

Life did take a downturn after the unimaginable events of the early nineties, but then life does find a way. Today, Allah be praised, even in its relatively constricted circumstances haleem, nalli nihaari, and a variety of char grilled kebabs occupy the mind as much as firni and maalpua, assorted barfis and the awe-inspiring aflatoon (the word by which the Arabs knew Plato). Elsewhere in the city, politicians hold Iftaar parties to stem the erosion of their flock, while the food corner between the Suleman and Zam Zam confectionaries requires no agenda to flourish.

Ramzan in Mumbai is a month of charity and fasting, but also thirty days of collegiality and general bonhomie. The fasting hours these days are quieter, given a summer that has stretched longer than usual, but evenings, despite the delayed monsoon go on and on, full of good cheer and loud humour. Does fasting make our city a warmer place? We should all try it then. Our city’s streets are used particularly well, transforming into spaces for eating, shopping and prayer. If the rains do not play spoilsport, each lane outside overflowing mosques accommodate the faithful. Azaad Maidaan on the day of Eid becomes a vast makeshift Idgaah.

Unlike other parts of the Muslim world that have taken the more rational path, using calendars to determine the times of fasting, India is still fixated on mandatory sightings of the sliver of moon for beginning the cycle of rozas and, especially for ending them. As children, this was a time for one-upmanship, running up to the terrace and trying to spot the Chaand. This year, the chaand was attested to by several reliable witnesses on Facebook, a public service act that was, in turn duly liked and shared. Whatever works.

In the days before television, Muslim neighbourhoods of Bombay would be woken by a volunteer walking from street to street like a town crier calling the faithful to rise for Fajr prayers. Today, times for commencement and breaking of fasts are easily regulated by downloadable Android and IoS Apps, loaded with alarms that indicate various times of prayer. But the crier’s sonorous voice, often using popular tunes of the day resonates in my memory decades after this tradition gave way to loudspeakers and recorded calls.

We live in a world of punctuated chaos, a term coined by Bill Gates. He alludes to our current times as one of constant upheaval marked by brief respites, unsettling to those who experiencing them. There was a time (that Gates calls punctuated equilibrium) when we believed the world would never change, at least not much, when the full enjoyment of a month that brought the city together was enjoyed at a slower, more deliberate pace.

For me, this pace is represented by tongawallahs and Victoria drivers, those urban transporters who played a crucial role in short-distance commuting in Bombay right until the late seventies. Plying a beat that extended from Colaba to Jacob Circle, these horse carriages could carry four or five persons along Bombay’s North-South roads. After stuffing myself silly at Minara Masjid, staring up at starlit skies unencumbered by flyovers, sky walks or luxury housing, I could slide into satisfied somnolence to the offbeat clipclopping of the horse’s hooves, nodding my head to a rhythm that would take me home. It this slow city that I miss the most.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My FIFA moment

My vantage

The beautifully ornamented skywalk at Al Khwair catches the first rays of the sun as we drive down to Muttrah, the old port of the old city. On either side of the road, scores of banners announce a football match at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. This match is between Oman and Jordan, a FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil- Asian Qualifier. We are in Muscat, Sanjay Austa and I as part of a National Geographic Traveller India assignment to cover the best of Oman. He is a professional photographer, armed with his camera and other weapons. I am armed with my wits, mostly.

Banners, banners everywhere

Each day, as we move through the city and cover the sights, the port, the Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House, these banners intrude on our consciousness. Oman versus Jordan. Until we can take it no more and  ask Joe, our host rather tentatively, if we can do something about it. ‘Khallas!’ he replies, as he has for our every request over the last three days. Consider it done.
Official press badge

At night, in our rooms, we are surprised to receive, not a ticket to the game, but a Press Card. It is encased in a plastic pocket, complete with a lanyard a quarter inch thick with FIFA 2014 BRAZIL stamped in tickertape fashion on it. It takes a while for this to sink in. I take a photo with my mobile phone, just in case the card dissolves in front of my eyes. We are going to go to a FIFA match! Not Brazil, but the next best thing.

The next evening, despite our efforts to complete our assignments on time, we are late as we arrive at the Sultan Qaboos. Soon after noon, large groups of people make their boisterous way in the general direction of the stadium. Some are dressed in red, the colours of the Omani team, others in the very comfortable national dress- a flowing white dishdasha, a turban, with a sheathed khanjar, or ceremonial dagger.

Before the match

The evening is just turning the shade of Syrah Rose and loud noises are already emanating from the bleachers. Joe tells us that every Omani in the city can be expected to turn up. Shouldn’t we hurry then, we ask? ‘Khallas!’ Joe responds, and we are transported into the complex, and as if on a magic carpet that does not quite know where it is supposed to land, hastily shunted through a side door, and deposited, not in the stands, but on the playing pitch.
Location, location, location

And so it comes to pass that, ten minutes after the kickoff at 17:00 hours, on the 16th of October 2012, I find myself planted squarely on the playing field of a FIFA World Cup qualifier, not twenty feet away from the Omani goalpost, a member of the Press. We are ceremoniously given press vests to put on over our shirts, and warned to return them at the end of the game. Like the players, I feel the weight of 26,500 spectators on my back. I walk up and down the sidelines, the best place to watch this match, with other members of the press, the photographers, the coaches and support staff. 

There is an incessant roaring in my ears, and from my vantage I hear cheers in 5.1 Surround Sound. A goal is missed on the Jordanian side, and, as if immersed in a Dolby universe, I hear the practiced genuflection of a Mexican wave whoosh past me, left to right. The sound a Mexican wave makes is much more impressive than just watching it, I can tell you that. It goes round the stadium two or three times before it dies out.

Putttroo, men!

The match, such as it is, is fraught with injury. Players make their mandatory dives and feints, everyone seems to be inspired by Arjen Robben. The injury cart is regularly trotted up the playing green and prone players are removed from the proceedings for triage and diagnostics. I have decided to become a partisan Oman supporter. Puttroo, men! I shout, several times, but my voice is drowned out in the general hubbub.

the injury cart

Before I know it, it is half time. 
Oman nil, Jordan, nil.
half time

half time

The match resumes, and just when the proceedings threaten to become dreary, at 62 minutes into the game, No 12, Ahmed converts a corner kick. Oman one, Jordan nil. General pandemonium and hot air ensues. The crowds are vocal, but not unruly. At 87 minutes, Darwish of the Omani National Team put in a second one. Congratulations and Celebrations. Much head banging. Someone in the far stand lights fireworks. Smoke billows, an unnerving sight, for a bit. But the beautiful game goes on. At 89 minutes Jordan equalises. Not a peep from the stadium. The silence of the dead, with hovering white shrouds everywhere. The crowd is as partisan as I am.
The moment Darwish of Oman puts the second one in
Oman two, Jordan one.

Soon 90 minutes are over and three minutes of injury time commence. Incredibly, Jordan scores. The referee declares offside. No goal. From every stand a high pitch whistling rises. Screeeeeee! Like a legion of bats has descended into the stadium. In the melee, the last minutes tick by.

Game over. 
Oman two, Jordan one. 
I am happy to report that my newly adopted team, Oman wins. They will go on to play Japan in the next round, and be soundly trounced. Bleddy!

The Omani National Team celebrates on the pitch. The crowds celebrate as they leave the stadium. Roads  fill with cheering supporters. Makeshift musical instruments appear out of nowhere. Some vigorous dancing is punctuated by the ululating tongues. Some of the players themselves join in the dancing with the punters. It is a small country.

While returning to the changing rooms, one of the last players in, Abdul Aziz, I think, gets into serial handshaking mode with the enthusiastic crowd. One thing leads to another, and soon, clutching handfuls reach out to divest him of him team jersey. Off it goes and, in a blink, it is swallowed by the general populace. Poor Aziz has to go and face his team mates, half naked.
Aziz dis-vested

And now the hurlyburly’s done, and the battle lost and won. We are able, for few last moments, to walk on the playing field itself.  I cut a lonely figure on the FIFA pitch, take a photo of myself with one hand. All around my feet lie the debris of the match.

After the hurlyburly’s done
Joe and Sanjay

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Central Time- in conversation with Ranjit Hoskote

Portrait by Nancy Adajania, Utrecht, 2013

Central Time: in conversation with Ranjit Hoskote

In his newest book Central Time (2014) Ranjit Hoskote brings together in its one hundred poems his many, many interests and concerns as a poet, translator and cultural theorist; concerns that persist, as after-images into lines and verses of great beauty. I invited him to talk about his book and its many laminae, sediments and grain, to which he responded with cheerful alacrity. What follows is this e-exchange in which Ranjit, in complete generosity muses, informs and explicates the under-layers that led to Central Time. In some detail, he recreates the 'structural' design of this book, the directions his writing has taken since his first book of poems Zones of Assault (1991), and the influences his own life has had on his writings. In a sense, and I am very grateful for this, our e-conversation culminated in a parallel text that can be read alongside the poems themselves, revealing surprises and giving delight, enriching the experience of reading them.

A bird sits on a branch
of the fury tree:
a bird as big as India.
-‘The Burden of History’

Looking outwards (and inwards) from this bird that is India, I am interested in the ways you project history – is your history performative, taking on the role of curating and archiving, preserving memory, freshening it, or do you use history as a way of contesting the past, providing alternate narratives to the present?

For many people, history becomes crystallized in the form of a collective memory, so naturalized and normalized that it serves them as an absolute guarantee of continuity. They regard it as tradition, as the inheritance of glory and injustice, and, above all, as a talisman of collective identity. In actuality, collective memory is a most malleable substance. It is a system of shifting constructs, contested values and rival narratives that changing elites seek to stabilize through ideological mechanisms from time to time. As a result, history is a not wholly reliable record, in which those elements that are sanctified by a dominant ideology are emphasized, while those it wishes to suppress are eclipsed or buried. And it is these eclipsed or buried elements that often form the most vital strands of history. We must address history critically, if we are to gain a sustaining energy from it.

To be productive, our approach to history must be a symptomatic, archaeological, re-constructive one. To engage with the past is to involve oneself in detective work. We discover the most interesting clues in the shadows and the interstices, which authoritarian histories leave disregarded or have suppressed for their potential to destabilize received wisdom. This is why I do not subscribe to the notion of a single ‘past’. Rather, we are all inheritors of multiple ‘pasts’.

I sense that your poetry does take a stand against history’s possible ‘burdens’. In your embracing its multiple inheritances, as you say, you deny these burdens, you shed its deterministic ballast. Like in your book ‘Confluences’, your poems bring out histories (in the plural), both those that are unseen as well as those seen in new and un-obvious ways.

My poetry draws strongly on these lost, potential or concealed pasts – as elements of selfhood to be retrieved from amnesia; as resources for the production of a new and capacious subjectivity that does not proceed from an imagined, primordial and unified sense of itself, but instead, confidently embraces its heterogeneity, engages with difference, and imagines itself into the future. To address history, we must range through the archive of our inheritances in various states of consciousness: not only the waking consciousness conditioned by the world’s assumptions, but also the states of mind of the dreamer, the quixotic explorer, the pilgrim, the sorcerer’s apprentice, the sleepwalker.

To those who believe that tradition is a static, absolute and unchanging lineage, I would say: Tradition is always a special form of modernity. It is a picture of the past that has been created in and for the present. Let me offer just one example of this, in admittedly schematic and summary form. The foundational 18th-century art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, developed an idealized vision of classical Greece that was intended to celebrate Europe’s genesis in a period of elevated thought and aesthetic expression. In actuality, this was a projection of his own desire for a utopian point of reference to set against the disquietude and ferment of his own time. In imagining classical Greece to be the fountainhead of European civilization, ideologues drawing on Winckelmann’s account have ignored or repressed a variety of cultural and political realities that do not accord with this objective. Classical Greek temples were not pristine white; rather, they were adorned in vivid colours. The Greek alphabet drew heavily on the Phoenician, so-called Semitic, model. And Greek philosophy, far from having come down to modern Europe in an unbroken genealogy, was a gift made to Europe – which was trapped in its Dark Ages – by thinkers from the Islamic world, among them Arabs, Persians, Levantines, North Africans and Andalusians, who had embraced, interpreted, annotated and extended Greek thought. Indeed, as Hobsbawm and Ranger pointed out, tradition is continuously (re-)invented for the purposes of the present.

To me, a far more vibrant model of tradition is that of the gharana. In the spirit of the gharanas of Hindustani classical music, themselves invented as provisional group or lineage identities during the new mobilities and moments of self-assertion of the colonial period, I regard tradition as an experimental continuity, one that proceeds by disrupting itself, improvising and performing itself afresh.

Can you trace a trajectory in your poems from Zones of Assault (1991) to Central Time (2014)? I am interested in the themes and ideas that concern you and the forms you choose to express them.

The question of a trajectory is always important, especially when you are committed to several domains – as of course you know, from your own multiple practices as poet, translator, architect and pedagogue. In Zones of Assault (1991), which brought together poems written in the six years preceding, my concern was to create poems that were sharp, provocative linguistic artefacts; poems that recovered resources from the deep strata of the language, the hard consonantal sound patterns of Anglo-Saxon played across the sumptuous softness of Latinate phrasing. Metal was my ideal. I wanted my poems to come across as weapons, breaking through the crust of expectation.

Between Zones and The Cartographer’s Apprentice (2000) and The Sleepwalker’s Archive (2001), came my Iowa experience. I was visiting fellow and writer in residence at the celebrated International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, in 1995. The roster of IWP alumni reads like a who’s who of world literature, and it is a wonderful tradition to be part of. In our own context, those of Anglophone poetry in India, Dilip Chitre, Adil Jussawalla and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, among others, are all IWP alumni. I was 26 when I arrived in Iowa City, with two books behind me, Zones of Assault and my translation of Vasant Dahake’s poems, A Terrorist of the Spirit (1992). Living in a community where literary writing was not something to be secured against the world’s demands, but was the everyday activity of practically everyone around you, was a liberating, enriching and enchanted experience. I’ve been on a number of residencies afterwards, and enjoyed them greatly and got a lot of work done there, but Iowa will always remain special. It was my first writing residency; I made friends there, gained enormously from the sense of living and working in a community of writers.

The range of writers who came through, giving talks, lectures or readings, launching books or meeting people in informal colloquies, was amazing: Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, David Lodge, Louise Glück, Mark Doty, Daniel Halpern, to name only a few. Iowa City’s key bookstore, Prairie Lights, was a dazzling platform and meeting place. And I discovered one of my favourite used book stores, Murphy Brookfield, with its erudite and always surprising collection, in Iowa City. And, of course, I assembled, re-drafted and wrote The Sleepwalker’s Archive at 833C Mayflower Hall, on my friend, the diasporic Goan intellectual and Iowa academic Peter Nazareth’s electric typewriter.

Many of the poems in The Cartographer’s Apprentice and The Sleepwalker’s Archive were impelled by questions of refining a voice while improvising among voices, of speaking through masks while also unmasking the speaking subject who segues through a sequence of personae and mirrors. By 2003, when I took several bagsful of drafts, fragments and notes to Munich and settled into the Villa Waldberta on the idyllic shores of the Starnberger See for a three-month residency, these preoccupations had taken definite shape. I reconfigured or wrote all of the new poems in Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems, 1985-2005 (2006) at Waldberta. Vanishing Acts also allowed me to deepen my concern with travel, displacement and nomadism, and their relationship with improvised forms of belonging.

In these new poems, I continued to work with ways of being the speaking and experiencing subject in a variety of situations, whether historical predicaments or everyday dilemmas of place and direction. Childhood experiences have formed a pattern within the trajectory through these four books, with the variations of proximity and distance, intimacy and reflective poise, that they offer: being taken to a barber’s for the first time and watching your hair being cut and fall to the floor; reaching out to hold a moth and having it turn into struggling powder in your hands; watching the high, circling flight of birds on thermals. Another pattern has been, of course, my consistent fascination with the inexhaustible power of the visual arts to engage the viewerly imagination. Velasquez, Goya, Magritte, Francis Bacon, Ram Kumar, Mehlli Gobhai, Vivan Sundaram, Raja Deen Dayal, and many other artists have been constant fellow pilgrims on the path.

An intermezzo, at this point-
to this list of books, I would add Pale Ancestors (2008), an artist book on which I collaborated with Atul Dodiya. It took the form of a dialogue between 48 of his watercolours and 48 of my texts. These texts spanned the gamut from poem to prose poem and micro-fiction. A selection of recast, rewired or sometimes substantially reworked pieces from this book has been integrated into ‘The Institute of Silence’, which is the last section of Central Time.

In Jatayu's Forest II, by Atul Dodiya, 2007
Central Time (2014) brings together poems written between 2006 and 2014. In fact, some of the poems in this volume have been in process for as long as 20 years. ‘The Poet in Exile’ is an example. I was helping my parents with some spring cleaning earlier this year, and found, among a mass of papers, a notebook of mine from 1992, in which I found an early avatar of this poem, complete in itself. The poem has travelled with me over two decades, in electronic form, and I have returned to it constantly over this period. Although the file carries the date of the first version, I had not consciously noted the fact that it had been with me for such a long time.

Forests die quietly as the pages catch fire.
The flames play across my chalky walls
and river mist kills my windows.
I wake up wearing a halo of leaves:

my own laureate, my own hangman.
-‘The Poet in Exile’

‘The Poet in Exile’ brings together a cluster of themes that have exercised me greatly. Here, you will find my three key figures, Ovid, Ghalib and Bhartrihari: poetry and power, the poet and the court, centre and periphery, belonging and exile, posterity and extinction, sensuality and renunciation.

As you see, the inner temporality of my writing is not linear, since I range back and forth over drafts, fragments and notes made over three decades – these are my log books, if you will. I also cross over between my various textual practices, or translate material from one form of text to another. For instance, the prose poem, ‘The Last Annal of Alamgir’, as it appears in Vanishing Acts, has gone through several avatars, beginning as a fiction text presented during a workshop with Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee in early 1994 and developed into a prose poem, first published in The Cartographer’s Apprentice (2000), then reworked back into fiction and published in Penguin’s anthology, First Proof #1, in 2005. Eventually, the precipitate of these various acts of tinkering appeared, in a text that shares the qualities of both prose poem and fiction piece, in Vanishing Acts (2006). It was subsequently recrafted for theatrical presentation as a dramatic monologue, directed by Avaan Patel of Stage Two with Tom Alter playing Alamgir (Y B Chavan Centre, Prithvi Theatre and other venues, 2009).

'Forked' by Anju Dodiya, 2006
‘Couple’ is, almost verbatim, a passage from a catalogue essay that I wrote for an exhibition of Anju Dodiya’s paintings at Bose Pacia, New York. That text, in any case, tended deliberately in the direction of literary rather than art-critical tonality, with a ghazal by Ghalib revealing itself line by line in each section of the essay. Some parts of it, such as this passage, were crafted with the cadence of verse. I enjoy the transitions that happen, whether in everyday speech or in literary production, from regular speech through recitative to music.

Perhaps you could talk of your engagement with Ghalib. He makes two appearances in Central Time. You have also written a poem about him ‘Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt’, which is included in Vanishing Acts. You have translated a ghazal from his Diwan in your current book. 

The doors and windows of my shaky house,
says Ghalib, have broken into green tendrils.
Why should I complain,
he draws his shawl closer in the rain,
when spring has visited my house?
- ‘Monsoon Evening, Horniman Circle’

Yes, Ghalib recurs in Central Time, in various guises. As you point out, ‘Monsoon Evening, Horniman Circle’, includes a free translation of a single-couplet ghazal of Ghalib’s:

ug rahaa hai dar-o deevaar se sabzah Ghalib
ham bayaabaan mein hain aur ghar mein bahaar aayi hai

(Green tendrils are sprouting from the doors and walls.
I’m wandering in the wilderness and spring has visited my house.)

The book also includes ‘Night Runner’, which is a translation of the Ghalib ghazal that opens with the couplet:

har qadam doori manzil hai numaayaan mujh se
meri raftar se bhage hai bayaabaan mujh se

Ghalib has long been a very special and important presence for me. I was born in 1969, which marked the centennial of Ghalib’s passing. My mother has always admired Ghalib’s poetry – she studied Shakespeare and Keats formally with Armando Menezes and V N Gokak in the mid-1950s, and read Ghalib by herself – and my father presented her with a number of publications that had appeared during the centennial. From these, she would read to me, as I was growing up.

Growing up, and as I grew more specifically interested in the late Mughal period and the colonial encounter, I found Ghalib a most intriguing and enigmatic figure – poet and courtier, survivor and negotiator, a man nearly executed for his proximity to Bahadur Shah Zafar’s regime during the 1857 Uprising and providentially rescued, a man who then petitioned the British ascendancy and wrote a panegyric celebrating British rule, a poet renowned for his path breaking Urdu poetry, which he personally felt was inferior to his own poems in Persian. For me, Ghalib incarnates the poet in turbulent times, the artist as citizen, confronting the complete range of existential difficulties and defining himself against crises of often epic proportions. A heroic figure, he was fully aware of and attentive to the importance of his contribution, but also capable of self-irony and self-deprecation, and never unaware of the fundamental precariousness of his situation.

You use several forms in your poetry, the Nazm being one, where your lines form distinct couplets. How attuned are you to the musicality of the words as spoken, to rhythms that inhere within them? 

The nazm al-jawahir is a form I am greatly attracted to, the ‘garland of pearls’ that is a legacy of ancient Arabic poetry. It allows for the creation of poetic meaning in multiple ways, with each segment of the poem being complete in itself, while sparking off resonances and assonances with every other segment. It can be read as a sequence, or in parts, and indeed, offers the reader an active role in the production of poetic meaning.

In the context of cadence and musicality, I should perhaps talk about my interest in certain kinds of musical practices, for instance, those of Jan Garbarek and Steve Reich. I am thinking, for instance, of the wind harp and saxophone conversation in Garbarek’s Dis (1976) and the electrifying transitions from wind to cymbals to piano in his I Took Up the Runes (1990). Likewise, I have been endlessly fascinated by the kinetic textures and tempi of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976), its circling and gathering of sections into wholes and the reverse, the manner in which its pulse structure is based on how long the human breath can carry a tone, whether in voice or clarinet, and how this temporality is brought into a pattern of dynamic adjacency with the insistences of the metallophone, xylophone and marimba, to generate a richly gamelan-like complexity and cascade of music.

In this context, I find extremely interesting, also, Brian Eno’s richly suggestive ideas on ambient music, how everyday acoustic realities come into states of interplay with more formally structured suites of sound, such as music, and his location of ambient music at the ‘cusp between melody and texture’. As ways of structuring time-as-experience and speaking to a plurality of senses and shapes of voice, cadence, melody and utterance, these are compelling models for me.

Is there a scheme, a construct to the organization of the various sections of Central Time? How can a poet write with allusions, as you so profusely do, and still maintain a level of accessibility with the reader?

I had decided, early in the process of preparing this book that it would have a hundred poems. I intended this as an act of homage to the tradition of the centum, or the sataka. Bhartrihari, the great Sanskrit poet with whom we associate the Niti-sataka, the Sringara-sataka and the Vairagya-sataka – and whose work I have been translating for a number of years – was a presence. I was also thinking, in terms of scale, of another favourite collection to which I often return: Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of classical Chinese poetry, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

The architecture of Central Time is that of a cycle in five phases or sections. Each phase or section has twenty poems, and articulates the mindspace of a particular character, temperament, or season of the spirit. Of course, my process of preparation relied as much on an intuitive formation of links among poems, as on principles of structural design. As I completed work on the book – and this was triggered off by a re-reading of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard – I thought I could detect the presence, in each section, of a dominant element, or combination of elements, which made compelling sense, although retrospectively.

Section 1, ‘Zoetrope’, seems to unfold in the mind of a man with a magic lantern. He twirls his magic lantern every time he wants a fresh relay of images. Many of them have to do with buildings, bridges, houses, cathedrals, plans, earthworks. Earth, with air, is the prevailing element.

Section 2, ‘The Pilot’s Almanac’, is the record of a pilot struggling to keep his calendar in order even as archetypal patterns impose themselves on history, while forward speed is resisted by the drag of memory. Weather and terror explode with equal force. Ether, with water, is a dominant presence.

Section 3, ‘Gravity Leaps to the Eye’, is conveyed in the voice of narrators who struggle between nomadism and place, momentum and gravity. Questions of location, orientation and selfhood operate here. Sight, location, illusion, mirage, occasions missed and potential, self and proxy, inhabit these poems. Air, with earth, is the ruling element.

Section 4, ‘The Existence Certificate’, is a catalogue of feints, sleights, exits, entries, passages between histories and fictions. It explores the museum of discarded identities and superseded affiliations; revisits childhood, intimate memory, and the landscapes of ruin and retrieval. Its key figures are the stranger, the navigator, the secret agent. Fire predominates here, with strong inflections of air, water, earth and ether.

Section 5, ‘The Institute of Silence’, sets up a log of strange and melancholy journeys, cognitions of direction and re-cognitions of self, mappings of relationships to inherited exemplars like the hunter or the saint, engagements with visceral experiences like sleep, diving, swimming, the fear of diving, the incendiary nature of the contemporary. Water, with ether, predominates.

The book acts as a turning kaleidoscope, in effect, with the elements, voices, narratives, constantly achieving new re-alignments. The trope of the kaleidoscope that is always being pieced together from its fragments, of history as narratives that have to be bricolaged together – always with a surplus, an excess, an infinitesimal or maximal quantum of additional/ contextual energy – holds great significance for me. Hence the epigraph to Central Time, which comes from the writings of the brilliant sociologist Richard Sennett:

“The skilled restorer of porcelain will collect not only the visible chips of a broken pot but also the dust on the table where it rested...”

The title of the book, Central Time, has been with me since 1995. It refers, at one level, of course, to Central Standard Time, the time zone in the Midwest, the measure that defines time in Iowa, where I discovered how one could most forthrightly and productively be a poet leading a literary life among poets. Metaphorically, I associate it with a felicitous situation secured, however momentarily, through and against an experience of continuous mobility, displacement, marginalization.

Increasingly, I tend to think that space and spatiality will always be mediated through conflict and inscribed by multiple claims, so that our occupancy of them will always be contested. By contrast, time and temporality retain the potential for privacy, secrecy, security, as though their very disembodiment and elusiveness allow them to offer us a sanctuary inside which we might be inviolate and unclaimable.

The title also makes oblique reference to the notion of a ‘central poetry’ that Wallace Stevens proposes in his 1948 essay, ‘Effects of Analogy’. Stevens discusses the difference between a deliberately “marginal, subliminal” poetry based on a poet’s belief in “the imagination as a power within him not so much to destroy reality at will as to put it to his own uses” and a “central poetry” anchored in a poet’s conviction that the imagination is “a power within him to have such insights into reality as will make it possible for him to be sufficient as a poet in the very centre of consciousness.” I am attracted to this latter proposition, which is both a challenging provocation and a stimulation to renewed poetic exploration, even as we accept, as Stevens does in his meditation on a bowl of carnations, ‘The Poems of Our Climate’, that
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.

Your encounters with various objects and cultures as a theorist do make their way into your poems that then are expressed with a unique phenomenology, quite your own, that stays on the edge of the world as we know it, but glances at the other side, without tipping over. That is why I love to read your poems, you write about things outside of you, but they aren’t really outside, are they? Like the gargoyle at Notre Dame, you are ‘stapled to the view’, unable to flap your webbed forelimbs and escape your perch.

Very true, I am indeed ‘stapled to the view’. Nothing is outside of us, and we are outside of nothing. We make things our own by reaching out to them with our minds and senses, and we create our own sense of the world through these acts of improvisation with varied itineraries and appropriations. We make the world’s predicaments our own. Here, I would draw strongly on the Yogachara Buddhist teaching of chitta-matra, ‘mind-only’, which is sometimes mistaken for a ‘mentalist’ or solipsist position. The Yogacharins acknowledge explicitly that we know all that we know, and experience whatever we experience, because we receive, process and respond to the world through the mind.

To the Yogacharin, the mind must be clarified of its discontents and delusions, if we are to most clearly and gracefully be present in the world and overcome its conditions and conditioning. We must analyze and empty out the alaya-vijnana, the great storehouse of sensations, thoughts, reflections, reflexes, syndromes and psychic habits that lies beneath our waking consciousness. As a poet, I accept this model of the consciousness but would happily hold on to the alaya-vijnana, to see what patterns emerge from it, and how these may be crafted into expression.

He will cross the bridge of the seasons alone,
laughing, sobbing, constant at his post,
too strong for the pilgrim chain-gangs
that strain and push to get past him:

stone wings folded, last angel, he's stapled to the view.
- Gargoyle, Notre Dame

About the precise choice of word here, ‘stapled’, I’ve changed the verb in this line several times during the last many years, before fastening on it. This word suits me best here because, first, it mudges the entire moment of the poem towards a memory mediated through photographs or archival pages. Secondly, I find a vivid visual analogy mixed with paradox when I compare the gargoyle’s wings and the brace of a stapler, the way these bifid objects cleave together and away, effecting in one case, potentially, connection, and in the other case, potentially, flight. And thirdly and in some ways most persuasively – I am obsessed to a degree with etymology – the Old Norse origins of the word ‘staple’ relate it to ‘stopull’, meaning ‘column’ or ‘pillar’, which sets up a mysterious connection between this verb and the Gothic architectural context of the poem. I am sure that, as an architect and architectural historian, you will warm to this last line of reasoning!

The Sennett quote you invoked earlier that leads off your poems brings to mind the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, of repairing broken porcelain with powdered gold embedding the object with its own history- an affirmation that at once shows both strength and the fragility of existence. How fragile, do you think, is our time in this world, and how central is it to us?

It is amazing and telepathic that you should have thought of kintsugi in the context of the passage from Richard Sennett’s Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation that I have taken as the epigraph to Central Time. I have long been fascinated by the concept of shibui, and by the Heian-period aesthetic of mono no aware, an elegiac awareness of the transience of things coupled with a desire to acknowledge what has lived, breathed, accomplished a measure of expression. I find greatly compelling, also, the related concept of wabi sabi. It gestures towards the illuminating potentiality of the world’s dynamic asymmetries, as for instance through the perceived mutually balancing imbalance between the shine of newness and the lustre of patina, the tender freshness of a shoot and the withered toughness of bark, the smooth rim of one bowl and the chipped rim of its twin. As a cultural and aesthetic ideal, wabi sabi invites us to meditate on the transience of the world, the transitoriness of our own existence, and on the cyclical successions of mood, season and phase of existence through which time progresses, while our lives are shaped within it.

My first introduction to these ideas was visceral, through practice, as a child. My mother studied ikebana in the early 1960s with a visiting Japanese artist couple who spent some years in Bombay. The Akinos had rented a studio residence in Kalanagar from the artist Cumi Dallas; they had come to India in the wake of Akino-san’s mother, the celebrated and even revolutionary Japanese artist Fuku Akino, who was visiting professor at Santiniketan at the time. My mother continued to practice this art, for which the English term ‘flower arrangement’ is sadly reductive, for many years. Watching her at work, and receiving instruction from her in it, was an integral part of my childhood, through the 1970s. Ikebana, like most of Japan’s traditional arts of peace and war, profoundly embodies the principles of shibui and wabi sabi, at the heart of which resides the presence of beauty in decline, decay or decadence, and the experience of regarding and recording evanescence.

Our time in this world is, I think, an invitation to create value and embed it back in the ethos that sustained us, where it might perhaps come in handy for others – as pleasure, as instruction, as institution, as epiphany, as folly. I would home in on another splendidly evocative phrase of Sennett’s. In The Craftsman, he writes of the “embrace of the incomplete”, which is crucial to the work of the artist-artisan, and is profoundly available in a haptic as well as conceptual way to those who work directly with their hands in contact with their materials – pen and paper, clay, wood, stone, or musical instrument – and less available to those poring over blueprints, even less so to those whose work is eased yet paradoxically diminished by a reliance on computer-aided design. It is this full-bodied ‘embrace of the incomplete’, with its surprises, disappointments, hits, misses and discoveries that – I suspect – we are invited to undertake when we approach the world and record that encounter in art.

(interview with Mustansir Dalvi, June 2014)
© Mustansir Dalvi, 2014, all rights reserved.