At Our Grandmother’s Bedside

Today is, would have been, Ba’s 89th birthday, and it has also been exactly four months since she died on July 23rd. With Amir and Setu, I was fortunate to spend the week before her death with Ba, Dada, my dad, and his five siblings as they all cared for her during the last days of her life. During that week and since, I have been trying to put words to what I witnessed, but I’m starting to accept that I may never be able to write anything that aptly articulates the kind the familial ethos my grandparents cultivated during their more-than-seventy years of marriage.

Recently, while on the phone with Dada while I was visiting Setu in Los Angeles, he told us that the week we spent at Ba’s bedside in July often “played in front of his eyes like a movie.” In earlier drafts of this post, it was far too easy for me to get lost in the logistics of who was where, when, and what they were doing. In retrospect, none of these details are as important as trying to describe the kind of woman my grandmother was. But the minutiae: how all six of her children spent the week before her death at her bedside; how in the months preceding, when her health was deteriorating more rapidly, her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews flocked from around the country (and world)–Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte, Durham, Wilmington, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Providence, and Ahmedabad–to see her, offers a glimpse into the kind of devotion my grandmother could inspire in people. It points to the kind of life she led to have had so many of her people at her side, and so many more who so desperately wanted to be there. I have found that writing about an important person in my life is far more difficult than writing about my opinions. After all, how can you do justice to a person’s lifetime?

At her funeral, I think my family sometimes found itself at a loss for words, unable to articulate the impact she had on our lives. In some ways, my grandmother’s life could be defined by her duty to be a wife and mother to her husband and to her six children. Both of her parents died before she reached adolescence, and at most, she received an education only until the eighth grade. She was married at nineteen, and was the mother to six children, grandmother to thirteen grandchildren, and great grandmother to seventeen great-grandchildren. However, to describe in her life in such limited terms would be an injustice. Indeed, my grandfather has always been one to explicitly articulate the ethics and morals that have undergirded his understanding about his life and his family. But my grandmother’s presence in our lives was equally big and constant, if also quiet and undemanding. During family gatherings, she stayed up late to hear the next song sung, or the next joke told; she was always laughing and listening. Her lesson, it seemed, was to simply be there. 

What my grandmother seemed to understand totally and completely was that she could love all of us for no other reason than the simple fact that we were hers. What this means is that it did not take much to make my grandmother proud. One oft-recited story in my family is that when my brother was a toddler, my grandmother once called my aunt and proudly exclaimed in Gujarati, “Amir is shaking the WHOLE lamp.” My cousin, then a unenthused thirteen year-old overheard the conversation, and remarked “NO ONE SHAKES HALF THE LAMP, BA!” The remarkable, or perhaps wholly unremarkable, thing my grandparents figured out was that there was no other reason to love someone other than the incontestable fact that they were yours to love. As we have grown older, our accomplishments are more varied; but she was equally proud of me for my incessant studying, of Samip for pursuing theater, of those who bore her great-grandchildren, of all of us for doing the various things we sought to do in the world, even if she could not always understand them.

On most days I call myself an anthropologist, and claim membership to a discipline that has a long and deep history of studying the structures of kinship across the world. However, the specificity of my own familial experience has rendered me incapable of being able to examine “the family” with any kind of objectivity. In the months and weeks leading up to my grandmother’s death, the mystical forces that bring and my family together transformed from a theoretical thing my cousins and I often spoke about in abstract terms to something that was being put into action. Although I have used it throughout, I employ the term “devotion” with some reluctance, because it is fraught with religious implications. Indeed, she was a religious woman, but she never expected her children or grandchildren to adopt her religiosity. Rather, her constant but quiet presence in our lives has inspired us to maintain a constant presence in one another’s lives despite the distance–in age, in geography, in interest–between us.

In the months since her death, I have seen my grandmother become something of a compass for my cousins and me. If we always believed that it was my vocal grandfather’s Gandhian values that held our family together, it has become imminently clear that her presence was equally crucial to the philosophy that undergirds my family. Importantly, she did not offer a fixed morality, but rather a model as for what is possible when you are simply present in the lives of your people. Her lifetime serves as a constant reminder that we are all imperfect, and still lovable, still creatures worthy of praise, pride, and understanding. It is for this reason that it seems so important to call her our grandmother, rather than my grandmother. Indeed, she was mine, but her strength was born out of her ability to create a family–an entity in which each constituent part acknowledges and upholds their responsibility and commitment to one another, not out of compulsory obligation, but willing devotion.

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Summer Reading

154188_2464843625771_2109049215_nRecently, I have been reading. And when I finish reading and I think of what to do next, I read some more. It is an action born out of leisure, boredom, futility, an attempt to seek fulfillment. It’s too late for me to be giving you summer reading recommendations (and I am not sure whether or not I would assume that kind of responsibility), but it’s not too late for me to share a few of the things I have been reading with you. I have been thinking a lot about the kind of “sharing industrial complex” we have formed through social media, it is almost as if our identities are crafted by and through the things we share with other people: photographs; status updates; tweets; the things we read, eat, and write. In sharing our lives publicly, we make statements about our politics, our race, our class, and our education among other things, and in the process it’s difficult not to become disillusioned by the notion that it is all a kind of posturing–something we do in order to assert that we are a particular kind of person, a particular kind of people. At the same time, there is something delightful about sharing, about allowing others into our world so that they might catch a glimpse our lives and our minds. Taking a break from graduate school has afforded me the rare luxury of reading for leisure, and among the things I want to share with you are short discussions and excerpts from the things that I read. They are not recommendations so much as invitations to think about how we think about things. I am going to start with a selection of four books that I have read this summer,

(NB: In my ideal world (which I inhabit at least 90 percent of the time), there is a small but devotedly curious community of people who want to know what I think, what kinds of culture I consume, my most quotidian habits. Although closer investigation would embarrassingly reveal that my thoughts are senseless and my taste questionable at best, I am compelled to experiment with different modes of articulation. This is one of them.

The Bluest Eye and Sula, Toni Morrison

When writing an ethnography of my college faculty dining room for my first anthropology project, one of my favorite Bard professors told me a story about how when Toni Morrison was a writer-in-residence at Bard in the late-eighties, no one would sit with her at lunch. She said that others told her they wouldn’t know what to say to Toni Morrison, but that she knew it was racism. Or rather, she corrected herself “there was racism to it.”

After many years of having been assigned Toni Morrison on high school and college syllabi, I am finally now making my way through her extensive body of work–I’ve started with her first two novels The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973). But reading Toni Morrison is difficult, because although reading her feels important, at the end of each novel, I inevitably feel a loss words. Rather than mangle more words, and do Morrison any more injustice than is strictly necessary, here are a few excerpts:

The Bluest Eye:

“Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of our parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world. What was the secret? What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what? Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news tha our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness. Jealousy we understood and thought natural–a desire to have what somebody else had; but envy was a strange new feeling for us. And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful and not us.

Sula (a conversation between Nel and Sula):

“You still know everything, ain’t you?”
“I don’t know everything, I just do everything.”
“Well, you don’t do what I do.”
“You think I don’t know what your life is like just because I ain’t living it? I know what every colored woman in this country is doing.”
“What’s that?”
“Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.”
“Really? What have you got to show for it?
“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on it it. Which is to say, I got me.”
“Lonely, ain’t it?”
“Yes but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Extra Reading: The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison

Continue reading

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From the Archives: Zarina Hashmi and W.H. Auden

Atlas_of_My_World_IV3

Zarina Hashmi
Atlas of My World, 2001 (detail)
Portfolio of six woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on handmade Indian paper
Edition of 20
Sheet size: 25.5 x 19.5 inches

“Partition”, W.H. Auden (1966)

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

August 17, 2014 – (Then) ten year-old cousin: “I’m India/You’re Britain/I’m rubber/ and you’re glue/whatever you say bounces off of me/and sticks to you”

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Things White Men Say to Me at the Museum: Annotated Vignettes from the Contingent Cultural Economy

To what extend should I be offended by microaggressions? My little brother–a brilliant mind–argues that when people of relative privilege feel victimized by quotidian interactions, their offense distracts from bigger injustices at hand. He’s not wrong: I live a life of extreme privilege, especially as far as race and class are concerned. What this privilege has especially afforded me was the opportunity to study at elite institutions amongst progressive peers, colleagues, and professors, as well as a relative insularity from that infamous species, the White Man. Unfortunately, I’ve taken leave from my post as a professional student, and currently find myself working in Visitor Services, where I am FORCED, not only to speak to Him, but to do so charmingly (it’s true, I am required to waste my precious charm on Him) and all the while bear a smile. In any case, two months has been sufficient for me to collect a number of vignettes, that are exemplary of what I and other women of color contend with daily; important not because we are victims, but because certain bodies are inundated with racism, nativism, and misogyny in SMALL and QUOTIDIAN ways that often appear to be benign, flirtatious, friendly, and charming, but are implicitly loaded with authority and privilege. FOR EXAMPLE: 

ONE

Anar: Hi welcome to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

Man (wearing a fanny pack): We’d like two tickets to see the museum

Anar: Okay great, tickets are eight dollars, right now we have a special exhibit…

Man notices my book (“Lonestar Muslims: Transnational Lives and the South Asian Experience in Texas” while I am speaking, cuts me off…

Man: I’m more interested in Muslims in Texas, are there a lot of them there?

Anar: Yes, Houston has the fourth largest community of Pakistanis in America…

Man: Are you Paki?

Anar: No, my family is from India…

***What may seem like an encounter spurred by curiosity, this man not only takes the liberty to make assumptions about my ethnicity, he also uses employs a racial slur freely. Indeed, we might argue that the man was speaking casually, unaware of the xenophobia that undergirds colloquial ethnic descriptors. But what is imminently clear to me is that by forgiving people for what they do not know, we continue to excuse and even sanction their refusal to take responsibility for systemic inequality.


TWO

Anar: Hi welcome to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art…

Man: Where are you from?

Anar: Charlotte

Man: Charlotte, India? (If it’s no apparent in the text, the man was trying to make a cutesy joke here about the fact that I obviously look like a person who is from India).

Anar: Well, I was born in Charlotte, but my family is from India…

Man: Yeah, India, that’s what I meant

Anar: (blank stare)

Man: I’ve been to your country before.

Anar (silently): you mean, America?


THREE

On a recent Sunday afternoon a older man walked into the museum while a coworker (also a young woman in her 20s) were sitting at desk. From the moment he entered the museum, he began making jokes: pretending that he had picked up a wallet outside the museum and had used the found credit card to pay for admissions, kidding about strategizing on how to steal pieces from the museum. I did not have to interact with him until the end of his visit, but as he was returning his admissions pin, he looked at me and said “you have something on your nose, can I take it off for you?”

***Of course, he was referring to the small diamond nose ring I have worn every day since I was eighteen. While his tone was jocular and flirtatious, it was impossible not to feel that as if he was making a remark on my bodily comportment, as if what constitutes professionalism and propriety in his small corner of the world must be applicable to all those in his path.


FOUR

Man: what business brought the Bechtler’s to Charlotte?

Anar: briefly having forgotten this detail in the institution’s history, and caught off guard, I mumble an answer, ending with a disclaimer that he shouldn’t hold me to this because I am not certain.

He nods his head and heads up to the museum galleries, where he spends some time. When he returns, I am eating my lunch and he stops to comment…

Man: Andreas Bechtler came to Charlotte with an air filtration system that cleaned out vents in the cotton mills. You should know that.

***Despite the fact that I did not possess a piece of information I was clearly expected to have, the tone and expectation with which the man approached me WHILE I WAS CLEARLY EATING MY LUNCH warrants consideration as to whether or no he would have taken the same liberty had I been a male. He did not approach me in the spirit of conversation about the family or the musuem’s history, but rather with opprobrium, and with the intent to reprimand me for my lack of knowledge.  

—-
To be clear, it is not only [white] men, also women–usually, though not always white–who make these kinds of assumptions. Just last week a women made the calculation that I “wasn’t from the area because I didn’t have a southern accent” and even when I told her I was born in Charlotte she continued to insist, as if it was impossible to believe. Importantly, these interactions do not constitute enough to claim harassment at my workplace, or likely any other workplace. These guests probably don’t even think they are harassing me or causing me discomfort in anyway, nor do they usually intend to. More likely, they are taking advantage of a privilege they have been granted from birth, and have never been told that this kind of behavior is assuming and insensitive, much less charged with race, class, gender, and sexuality politics. But it is difficult, nay impossible, to ignore that these interactions are raced, classes, and gendered. What is even more tragic is that “customer service” in its various forms, whether it be in retail, food service, or even in the relatively elite cultural economy in which I work, is a field predicated on subservience as it aims to please individuals and institutions who hand over money with the expectation of goods and services in return. From what I have observed, this is field in its non-professional, semi-professional, and professional iterations that is increasingly being populated by women, and that too by women of color, who are expected to attend to the needs and demands of customers, guests, and patrons. What compliance is a requisite for livelihood? When acts of resistance are explicitly prohibited by the contract?

Extra Reading: Roxane Gay’s I have feared white men and I have loved them in New Statesman last October. 

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what do contemporary turkish fiction and American country music share in common?

I pose a question: What do writer Orhan Pamuk, and country music band Little Big Town have in common (besides occupying considerable space in the part of my brain designated to processing pieces of cultural production)?

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In March, went to Istanbul, where I visited The Museum of Innocence, a museum narrated and curated by Orhan Pamuk, one of my favorite writers (for reasons which I cannot really articulate, other than to say that his words, sentences, and paragraphs made sixteen year-old me SWOON). Fortuitously, PAMUK WAS AT THE MUSEUM GIVING AN INTERVIEW on the afternoon of my visit. I say fortuitously because I actually spent the morning DESPERATELY trying to find the museum and after an hour gave up and decided to try again in the afternoon. As I descended down the stairs, I heard Pamuk discussing the post-Proustian nature of his characters, for whom memories are intentionally created. To the left, you can see Pamuk at the Museum of Innocence, where he is taping an interview behind a wall of 4,213 used cigarettes that he collected and arranged for this museum. IT SERIOUSLY RULED.

I don’t like current trend in clickbait journalism wherein writers pose a question such as “Why I’m Optimistic About Lena Dunham’s Celebrity Newsletter” and proceed to give readers the answers. Rather, I like people to make use of their own analytical and conceptual faculties, so I’ll leave you with the evidence and see what happens:

“‘Even after all these years, I still can’t understand why someone would want to live someone else’s life and not their own.” she continued. “I can’t even explain why it was Ruya life I wanted, rather than someone else’s. All I can say is that for many years I saw it as an illness, an illness I had to hide from the world. I was ashamed of the soul that had contracted this disease, just as I was I was ashamed of the body condemned to carry it/ My life was not real life but an imitation, and like all imitations I thought of myself as a wretched and pitiful creature, doomed to be forgotten. In those days, I thought the only way to escape my despair was to imitate my ‘true self’ more faithfully. At one point, I considered changing schools, moving to a new neighborhood, making new friends, but I knew that putting a distance between us would only mean that I thought about you all the more. On stormy autumn afternoons, I would sit listlessly in my armchair, watching the raindrops on the window, for hour after how; I’d be thinking of you” Ruya and Galip. I’d go over whatever clues I had handy and imagine what Ruya and Galip were doing at the moment; and if, after an hour or two I had managed to convince myself that it was Ruya sitting in that armchair in that dark room, this fearsome thought would bring me exquisite pleasure.” The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk.

Now enter Girl Crush by the country band Little Big Town. This song has been at the top of Billboard’s “Hottest Country Songs” chart for eleven straight weeks. That doesn’t mean anything to me, except that it is approximately the most popular song in country music right now, and also that this breaks some kind of record for the most consecutive weeks a country song has spent at number one. This record was set in 1959 by a band called the Browns, whose song “Three Bells” held the spot for ten consecutive weeks. I would be lying if I haven’t put this on my 2015 Spotify playlist. It’s catchy, I can relate, I get the feels. Cool, okay. You can hear the song here:

Basically, I’m tickled. Tell me what you think (no I’m totally serious, unless you have something totally lame to say like “country music is lame and doesn’t mean anything” I want to hear what your weird brains have to say).

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Things Men Say to Me With Complete Confidence That Prove They Actually Don’t Know Anything, Annotated

Today I am going to share with you the first installment of “Things Men Say to Me With Complete Confidence That Prove They Actually Don’t Know Anything, Annotated”

(I wanted to save this one for a longer Toast-like list, but this one was just so good and so appropriate that I couldn’t wait)

Man: “A lot of people ask me why there are so many nude women, and I always tell them that he [Matisse] loved women, during that time [the early twentieth century] there weren’t a lot of gay people or anything, so they drew a lot of naked women”

  • Yes man, that is exactly how both fine art and human sexuality work. There were no gay people before (I actually don’t even have a made up date I can put here as a serious/decent joke). Also the ONLY reason for drawing nude women is sexual attraction. This is exactly how the world works.
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First Day of Work

Today is my first day of as a hourly-wage earning worker/not a (graduate) student for the first time basically ever in my life. This was never a part of THE PLAN (just kidding there has never been a plan). The good thing is that I have this GIF of myself that accurately captures the polar possibilities of feelings I might feel during my experimental phase (of being a real human in the real world rather than a graduate student).

angryanar

P.S. in the coming months I will revive this thing for writing mostly useless junk I dream up in my brain and no one else will think its funny. Stay tuned folks!

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