Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 30, 2015

HMS Pinafore

Like a gift from heaven—the whole H.M.S. Pinafore is being played on the radio! It was performed sometime in my schooldays, but I cannot remember when or where, and if I had a part, and what was the part. But I can sing along though it was over fifty years ago, and I made our children at Southpoint do an adapted version of part of it—but that, too, was over twenty years ago.

I sail the ocean blue

And my saucy ship’s a beauty

I’m a soldier man and true

And attentive to my duty

He’s a soldier man and true

And attentive to his duty

And I am one of the millions  blessed with the knowledge of the beauties of the literature and music of the British Isles—through no effort of mine. I often think of the chain of which I am a link, and I begin with Mahadev Govind Ranade as the first link, seven generations ago.

Yesterday I picked up A Winter’s Tale since I had gone to a performance of it a week ago. First I lost myself in the superlative Introduction by, I thought Frank Kermode, only to discover that it was by a professor at Tufts. She summed up the language, life, theatre context, and plays of Shakespeare in a concise way that kept one glued to it until its last word.

But what I thought as I began the play, all armed and equipped by the wonderful Introduction—oops, here comes the Admiral, KCB

And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts

His sisters and his cousins

Whom he reckons by the dozens

His sisters and his cousins and his aunts!

So I am reading my Shakespeare and I am suddenly thinking, how did I come to know English as my own language? Now, reader, you may find this stuffy and boring, but understand, it’s the question that occurs to me so often because of my multitude of dealings with those who would love to know English and they just can’t.

No one did anything specific with me. It just happened. I remember being eight or so and holding a Girls’ Annual in my hands. This is one of those bound volumes with pictures of pretty English girls in frocks such as no Indian tailors can make, walking on the cliffs and moors. Then they go back to their boarding schools. I can remember a time when I held the book—and I couldn’t read it. I turned the pages. I looked at the pictures. I could not read it. I can remember a time when I went into the ‘box’ in a cinema hall, some English movie or the other showing—and I could not understand it. Whereas with the book, it’s enough of a pleasure to even hold it and feel it, with the movie, my eight year old me is annoyed, and the darkness around holds no compensation.

So, what happened? It’s important to know. If I can pinpoint the secret, then we’ll know how to produce the same results for everyone, won’t we? But—there is no secret. I held the book every day and one day I could read it. They gave me books on every birthday (there are some I never did read, that I still have not read—Water Babies). They expected me to read without a word being said on the subject. I had time galore. Nothing was offered to me to do with my time—just my room, my time, and the books. My father owned a lot of books and there were charming shelves of books in our house, but I never noticed them until I was considerably older. Yet, they were there in the background, and must have made books a part of life.

And my school? Didn’t my school teach me to read? I am afraid that when I think of my school at that age, I remember the desks, wooden and solid, opening to disclose a room for all one’s books and pencils and ink pot. I remember the classroom, full of girls, stuffed with them, but still like home. I remember my teacher, one thin, one stocky, both of them strict but also occasionally bemused. Miss Wilson and Miss Cariappa. I can remember the feel of my tunic and my tie. But I can remember no lesson. I can remember no activities—there weren’t any. The homework made more of an imprint but is also clouded and imprecise. No, I have no clue how I learnt to read.

Persistence must be the key. And desire. And a certain taking-it-for-granted.

Another thought crosses the mind. Again, without any desire to do so, I am in the midst of this east-west thing, the albatross around my neck. The thought is that at precisely that time of my life, suppose there had been no English, and it was my mother tongue, Hindi, that I was learning, getting books to read in, staring at the illustrations of, and dreaming about? What would have happened?

Well, let’s keep it for another day. For today, for this evening, I am crazy with happiness that English is my language.

I need to have HMS Pinafore belong to me!!

For he himself has said it

And it’s greatly to his credit

That he is an Englishman

In spite of all temptation

To belong to other nations

He remains an Englishman!

Ah, fickle heart. Fickle politics.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 29, 2015


Yesterday I made the truly bad mistake of going to see a movie called Cinderella. I imagined that it would be some post-post-deconstruction of the Cinderella story, and whatever it would be, was sure to be fascinating.

Instead, I moved and turned in my seat for two hours muttering, “This is awful.” There was the same old story, without a single nuance, a single whit of interpretation. It was made by Disney, but I was cheated out of the cleverness of all their other fairy tales. Why had they made this idiotic movie?

I can think of two positive points. One is the lush, lavish sets. There was nothing left undone to re-create a certain feudal, Western hand-crafting aura. The prints of the fabrics, the lace and embroidery, the ribbons and bows, then the cords and buttons—every character was clad in what is the ultimate fantasy of the Western consumer today, of the kind that shops through rare catalogues. The furniture and staircases and insides of rooms looked appropriately grand, or richly encrusted, or if a cottage, winsomely beautiful. Unfortunately, the camera moves fast, and cannot linger—though this one, as with boring movies, seemed to do so—so all that labour of planning the costumes and sets is a bit wasted. But objectively speaking, the effect is grand.

Except that—it would have been so for me fifty years ago. I have had it up to my nose with this western nostalgia for the little cute mice nibbling cheese, the baskets of rush with fresh eggs in them as the goose and the gander waddle past, the touselled blond hair and the freckled cheek and nose of the country girl in her cotton print dress. Earlier that day I was listening to a waltz from Swan Lake and I was actually sad. I had gone through so many rounds of enjoyment, appreciation and admiration of it—and now there was only resentment. It had eaten up too much of my life. All of Western art and literature had. Now that I wanted to be in a different metier, work with Indian people, in their languages, know their arts and poetry, now there was too little time. It was as if I had been a bonded labourer who had to work first for the larger part of her life in the service of the West and was now released to go where she pleased. The Swan Lake waltz was my golden chain that I had mistaken for my freedom and my love. I listened to it with fascination but a twisted smile.

The lushness of the Cinderella story’s beauty did not win me over and only tired me with its exhausting repetition of all-too familiar themes. But the second strong point about the movie was that without the caricaturing emancipation of other Disney heroines, the character who played Cinderella had some guts. Not a whole lot, and not necessarily intelligence, but some guts. She had a mantra from her dying mother, “Have courage, and be kind,” which she repeated in an interesting way. One could see how it could go easily overboard with the constant smiling and politeness that many Americans display, as flimsy and brittle as tin foil, but with her there was a thoughtfulness and a self-disciplining. Because to have courage and to be kind is in fact not always easy. I can see her confused look as an ugly beggar asks for some bread and milk, and she sighs and brushes her tears away and says, “Yes, I can find you some.” That look I liked. But Bonham Carter as the beggar-turned-fairy godmother? Anyone could act the way she does. Were they serious?

All in all, there was no point to the movie that I can think of. Nothing interpreted, nothing presented, no points of view, no debates or conflicts, no one reflecting on anything, no one conscious of what, who or why. Just more and more grandeur, castles in the sky, rosy and saccharine-sweet visions and talk, stars bursting in the firmament, everyone gasping as the prince and princess kiss….the simplicity of it was stupid and the crass commercialism of it quite objectionable. I could throw rotten tomatoes at the screen.

I strained to overhear my neighbours’ comments as we left the hall. “It was lovely,” said one. “I could see it again,” the other agreed. I want to say, I puked.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 27, 2015


Betty, my friend.

Oh, if I was to think of myself, I am tired of receiving news of death on flights. I am sitting—like a fool—at Heathrow, eating and drinking and e-mailing, and receive news of Betty’s passing away. Oh, oh, oh.

Once again, I fooled myself into thinking I had time. I was going to go to some plays with her. I was going to drink coffee with her—I can see her across our capuccinos, and we would comment on the play and the playhouse, dissect the performance, complain about the parking, and I would drop her back. Because she hated to drive and I loved it, that is, am habituated to thinking that I love it. Drop her at the house that I recognized because of the two big concrete vases outside on the garden.

Again and again Betty and I had done this.

In the middle we would talk about India, about her projects and mine, and in the manner of those who share the fundamentals, we did not ever have to explain or justify anything we did. We loved India in similar ways and there was no way to put it into words. Anything we said evoked our laughter, and pathos, and our love, and our concern, and our intention to do something there.

We would talk about Shakespeare, or Moliere, or Beckett or another playwright, and Betty was so generous. It was her territory, not mine. But she had limitless respect and patience and heard any ravings on my part as if I had any right to rave. Then she would gently tell me some necessary part of history, or context, or technique.

We would talk about Claremont, gossiping away as only colleagues can. We had widowhood, and musical husbands, and dancing children, and solitariness in progressing age, in common.

That is a lot.

We never had to say anything, as it were, but wryly gravitated towards each other. And all the time thinking, as we told each other, “We are so busy right now. We must find more time together.”

Foolish us. Foolish me. Betty is at rest and I am looking around, thinking, what was I thinking? Once again, that I had unlimited time with someone?

It is true once again, ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 27, 2015

The musicians at rehearsal and the concert

It was enough to hear; one did not need to see anything. As the instruments tuned up, a great wind blew through the universe. The depth and resonance of the sound was shaking. The tunefulness of the slightest note could overpower you.

I kept doing my work because the musicians had to be fed. I was carried aloft on the music. If I had paused to think of the cooking, I would have had to run away, because I was tired and there was nothing interesting to cook. One can of cholas, some frozen ‘meatless meatballs,’ some soggy spinach, some expired yogurt. I have no memory of the cooking, only the trumpets blowing on the other side of the bend in the room. The three of them, the sitar, sarangi and tabla, were perfectly matched.

I was in my element: feed the musicians. After two hours of playing, they came matter of factly and sat at the table. No one wondered at the four dishes that had appeared, together with raita, chatni and achar. They all gossiped long and hard about who had learnt what, from whom, and how, two of them touching their ears whenever a veteran was mentioned.

The next day, at the concert, the cavernous size of the room took away some of the deep resonance that I had heard at home. They did not manage to build a tunnel through the universe, as I had felt then. They were musically perfect, but could not conquer. They were still together, but with an effort. They looked at each other, watched carefully, and kept up tentatively. They smiled at the audience and bowed at the applause, but their spirits did not soar.

Many people said later how much they enjoyed it. My own enjoyment was diluted because I had heard such a powerful sound the night before, of which this was a weak rendering.

I could also see them, as I did not the first time. When you can see, you get distracted.

The sarangi player did not look good. He did not have a wise or collected face that reflected an inner life. He did not seem to focus or get lost in his music. He bent down as he played and glanced up at the audience in the familiar musician way, but the pain and furrowed brow of a Ravi Shankar was missing. The slight smile and exuberance of Nikhil Banerjee would have been good. The bounce and beauty of Som Majumdar was certainly not there. Instead, there was a very ordinary man with nothing exceptional about him, drawing some rather musical sound from his instrument, undoubtedly because he had been taught well and made to practice and practice until he could do it in his sleep. But the magic of the music or the greatness of the discovery that it could be made by human hands, were not showing on his mien.

A colleague M— next to me sat down with a giggle into an unfamiliar posture on the ground. When I commented on his courage in doing so, he said, “Oh, that’s because I am a musician.” I asked, “What do you play?” He: “Oh, so many instruments.” More giggles. Well, I thought, maybe a musical evening brings out the music in everyone.

On the other side of me, I was wondering why C— and D— would bend their heads down on the sheet in what yoga instructors like to call the “child’s pose.” Then I realized that they were in splits of laughter. At first I felt it was extremely perspicacious of them to enjoy the music so much—would I could let myself go like that! Then I got confused, because they kept laughing and laughing. It must have seemed like a huge clowning act for them and I guess they showed their appreciation.

Behind me a new-found brother and sister would occasionally go, “kya bat hai!” and “Wah!” They were my colleagues from Pakistan. All around, some listeners were smiling and bright-eyed. Others looked grave and meditative.

Then it was over, and never mind that it was California, there was the same standing around on the sheets, shawls drooping, reluctance to pack up, the stage full of knick-knacks calling for attention. People coming up and introducing themselves, nodding vigorously, grinning, shaking their heads to agree. I packed up the food, then I packed up the sitar, then I kept moving around until I infected the group and they all moved.

Paul had taken up, in the second half of the concert, Sombabu’s sitar and said, “Last evening Nita asked me to tune this sitar. I am honored to be handling such a beautiful instrument. It is made by the chief sitar-maker of India, who is no more. I am honored to play it in the memory of Nita’s late husband, Som Majumdar.” He tripped slightly over the name and I know that he had tried hard to memorize it and get it right.

I was embarrassed at the sudden opening up of a private world to the public. Paul thanked me and everyone clapped. I was in the very first row and did not turn around.

As we got into the car, Paul whispered, “He would like some Scotch. Do you know where we can get some/“ “It’s fine,”  I said in reply. “I have some at home.”

I discovered that the bottle said, “American Whiskey.” I had a moment of trepidation. I don’t know why I give people so much credit. K— would have had anything with those fumes.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 8, 2015

The Final Chapter

I gave myself time to write the final chapter. The style of writing for this book has been to take three to seven previous versions and to try and put them together. The Lord save you from such a fate. I knew I would have trouble with the Conclusion because when I came to it, all I was doing was planning it. I get up early and work. Well, I’d get up and sit in the dark against my pillows, and plan. Then I’d exercise and plan. Then I’d eat breakfast and plan. Finally, I’d have to go to my office and to classes, and would make sure to keep myself busy. And in the evening I’d sit in the jacuzzi and plan. Back to bed, listen to music and plan.

So, I decided to take a brilliant step. What if I did not look at the four earlier versions on my desk next to me, full of pencilled squiggles, each crying like a starving child in a household gone to pot? I mean, children not in real life, but in a bad movie? What if I walked out on all of them and set up house somewhere else, with a clean slate?

Nothing like really believing in yourself. If you had written those four versions in the past, you could write a brand new one today.

So here’s my Conclusion to my book on Indian Education, I mean in a short paragraph, not in thirty pages as it actually is (I mean, will be).

When I enter our school in Banaras, I am torn. On the one hand, we have done great things. Intezar, Prema, Shivani, Ejaz, Aquib, Anupam, Azim, are all the kinds of children I would have liked to have educated–and there they are. Sixteen to eighteen years old, ready to finish class XII and move on. What is my test? I can joke with them. I am relaxed with them. They and I laugh together; we are at the same level. But there are so many structural problems. Where will they go to study further, or train, and make or find jobs for themselves? We wanted to have counseling in our school for them, and different people did it variously, but each left, demonstrating profound non-commitment and irresponsibility. Then, each classroom is nice and there are things within it and going on in it that are truly better, more beautiful and more sincere than in all the schools I have visited. Yet, we don’t have the right size building. We don’t have the right playgrounds. We don’t have the professionals to teach the arts. We do not have the endowment to have all this. Again, structural problems. If we could have the state NOC, we could have the CBSE, and a better balance and number of children. But the clerks are sharks. They want huge bribes. They have made a game of losing our file, avoiding meeting us, pretending that something is wrong, manufacturing yet a different shortcoming, and on and on. In the absence of this structural support, we are torn, wasting our time on these matters rather than spending it on teachers and children. We have a lovely curriculum–but will it die out with us? We have the secret of training teachers–but how to multiply that a thousand-fold? In my eight chapters, I have described what is wrong with curricula, spaces, teaching, approaches to the child, and so on, all around. In running our school, I have learnt how to fix it. Not overnight, but over twenty five years. The two questions now nagging me are: what about the structural problems? And, how does one replicate our process?

As you see, it is not a Conclusion, it is the Beginning. As they used to say in bad Hindi movies, but this is real life.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 8, 2015

The conference

At this two day conference on 7th and 8th January in Banaras, one had a bunch of different feelings. First was the one of being-at-home, at this conference even more than others. These were people one had known for twenty, thirty, forty years. In 1998, I had sat at a coffee shop in New Haven and exchanged jokes with William (Vijay) Pinch. In 1986 I had sat with Sandria in a coffee shop in Berkeley and discussed ideas for her book. Irfana was with me, all of four years old. In 1984 I had first had a friendly exchange with Barbara at an AAS meeting, and had just had a lovely couple of days with her at Claremont three months ago. Seema was a newer friend, dating from an invitation to Jamia some ten years ago. But Radhika—I had walked in Leicester Square with her in 1990 or 91 and remarked on her choice of ‘Leychester’ instead of ‘Lester’ as the square’s name, elusive as these pronunciations always are.

Then there was Tom, with whom I had pow-wowed in Chicago, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Claremont. And Chris himself with whom I had lunched at Cambridge in 1988 and 1994 and now, 2014.

That was one feeling. Then there was the strange feeling that—we had all aged. One was quite grey. Another used a cane. A third had had a fall and given his spouse a shock by passing out. There were new lines of worry and fatigue on another. And clearly, still another had put on the weight of age, while another had lost weight and shrunk into flatness. I, aging me, was in good company. And in the two days of the conference I aged further. I somehow developed a rib-ache, which I ascribed rightly to a racking cough I had curbed, followed by two days of stiff sitting up. The Gyan Pravah surroundings are lovely, but their chairs and tables are like any unimaginative place’s. Ugly plastic chairs. Mica-topped tables with straight steel legs. I know I am making a spurious connection. All I am really saying is that we had all aged. The hostess herself had lost her oomph and was attended by a nurse.

A different kind of feeling was one of being inside the history that we were presenting, listening to, and discussing. It was almost all to do with north India, much quite within the doab region, evoking again and again the KAVAL towns of U.P., and often, Banaras (to my unease, spelt ‘Benares’ at the conference.) Even is some of the research was new, it was all familiar, even intimately so. I could have been walking around inside it, not as an embodied self, but as a ghost inside archives, now on the page, now looking at the page. Peculiar, and sweet. Even a couple of conferences that I have attended that are on Banaras itself have not felt so intimate.

It is because of the training into a discipline. All their methodologies were mine, and somehow their styles were mine. All my postcolonialism got washed clean away in the first few minutes and did not make a comeback. History-writing is a small world. There were absolutely no surprises. Everything anyone said was tied up with what I had studied at JNU for my M.Phil, or at Chicago for my Ph.D., before that at Bridgeport for my M.A., and ever since, read and taught, even if in my own writing I moved on to more anthropological and literary styles.

That was then the other feeling. Why was I not doing the kind of history surrounding me at the conference and so familiar to me, from way, way back, like mother’s milk?! I did not think of this directly, or hard, but entertained a thought or two flitting through the mind as I looked dreamily at the intelligent faces of my aging friends. One thought was that I had taken a fancy to feminist and ethnographic writing and striven to craft alternative narratives and imagine histories that were different. Another thought was that I had also tried to see whether history could actually make a difference to people’s lives, much as when one studies education and realizes what a joke that is when people are horribly deprived of education.

And then there was the feeling of an overflowing of love and an immense caring for everyone. They were all so serious! They all cared so much! They cared for the same things I did! Whether this word meant this or that. Whether an image suggested x or y. What could one understand by this passage, this line, this sentence—or equally, by the absence of word, line and sentence. This became almost unbearably heightened by the fact that we were sitting in my karmabhumi, my place of work, the Ganga literally flowing serenely outside the window, where no colleagues come and no one speaks my History language. It was an effortless melding of my inside and outside. Three students came up to talk to me with their dissertation topics. They were sweet and serious too—but really my friends and colleagues at the conference were the sweetest and loveliest of all human beings.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 22, 2015

Waking up in the Dark

I woke up at 3 am, in the throes of despair. I re-lived how I had reached Waltham and Needham Mass., alone in 2000, and had sat up listening to tapes of ghazals to be reassurred that despair was universal. For the rest I simply wrote, revised, and presented in conferences. Somehow amount and quantity seemed to be the way to fill up the spans of empty time. I remember late nights at my makeshift desk gazing out at the traffic of Massachussetts Avenue in Cambridge, now a train of red lights, now a train of white, working through my fledgeling ideas on gender, literature, culture.I even wrote on the town of Cambridge—to do an ethnography of a place is my idea of rising above it. I spent an unusual amount of time in the bookstore opposite my apartment, the reason, one might say that I had chosen that apartment at all.

Some years later I similarly arrived in Portland, all alone, and buried myself in a tightly organised schedule of work, play, food and music. But there at least I had friends, David and Carolyn Savage, and we watched movies and ate together. Irfana, Shefy and Rifka came over; Sombabu and Nandini came at another time; and mummy and daddy came in a partial overlap. Seeing that I was there for all of one semester, it was a busy time. I finished up articles and read over and finally made sense of many old notebooks. My drawer of casettes was so well organised. I knew them all with an obsessive intimacy. I organised a lovely concert for Sombabu, perhaps the best he has played. But before and after that, I did not speak to anyone for days on end. I simply found the best lit spots in my house and sat and wrote in them.

Then, unbidden, came to my mind the beautiful times. Little Nandini of five weeks old, little Irfana of five and a half years, a valorous Sombabu looking out for everything, and I, recovering from delivery, surgery, and a brand new job at a friendly, intelligent place called Brown. Providence was hushed with swathes of white snow when we reached in December. We all rushed to acquire quilts and quilt-like coats, and all, new baby in the lead, woke up at 4 am to a heated, vaporous house full of sitar music, morning tea, lecture preparation, (advanced) kindergarten level activities, and the subdued excitement of a family together. Nandini’s growth from five weeks to three plus years, from silent gazing at the mobile playing the Nutcracker Suite’s selected notes to Winnie the Pooh, and Irfana’s from kindergarten to grade three, from phonetic words to Little House on the Prairie, marked our time there, though all the rest of us aged alongside too. Even though the children were little and must have had their moods, the time stays in my memory as very calm because steeped in togetherness.

Most of all I hugged to myself a total replay of my last departure from this room I an waking up in, in Claremont. How exciting it had all been this past December. My planning and packing, airports and travel, overnight wait at Delhi, arrival in Banaras, arrival in Lucknow, wedding, children, work, oh, exciting, exciting, exciting. I could keep thinking of it and luxuriating as in a spa.

Why would one live separate and alone when a simple gesture—“I have decided”—would put one back in the folds of the family? This has been particularly pertinent for me when it has been no necessity but literally a decision that has kept me separated and alone, listening to ghazals, then making a case for how it is to listen to this old-timers’ sad poetry that I am placed where I am. Begum Akhtar in Portland. Talat Mahmood in Needham. Jagjit Singh in Ann Arbor. Now all their ghazals are so familiar to me that I cannot listen to them in that way of discovering something; nor, now that I am fifteen years older, do I appreciate old recluses’ poetry as imaginatively. That excitement of when I told Kim Marriott about my discovery of “Aging people’s poetry,” and he listened with his characteristic cocking of the chin, is gone. When you lose your thesis, you lose your excitement. Tere bare me jab socha nahin tha—mai tanha tha, magar itna nahin tha. I would not be so lonely, if a different way to be had not popped into my head….

So now I have to sit and think of why I am here, because being intelligent and decisive, of course I must have good reasons. I salute the Buddha and his teachings and wherever I travel I pay homage before his pink and golden statues, as just now in Seoul and before that, Giangzhou. I stir up my ideas about how the world is one, how life is lived inside you, how everyone is finally alone, how love must focus not on a few individuals but on all of humanity, how the real pleasure is work and the best work is accomplished when there is nothing else to do. All powerful ideas, each of which has taken me years to develop the truth of, and each of which deserves a tome.

And one by one I demolish them all. I am left with a few simpler ideas that can hardly stand any test, so they lie low, close to the surface of the floor and humbly present themselves.

If I am perchance in America, and alone and loveless, at least I could: drink wine with friends and talk about important issues. I could make some savings and start building our house in Chitauni. Before that I could contribute to Irfana’s studio and travel and Nandini’s travel. I could get them both over every six months and do things together here. I could exercise a lot and take a class and learn something new. I could see some of this beautiful country. I could write, write, write.

But my heart weeps. I am consoling  myself, and I am inconsolable. Of course I could do all that but it has all worn thin. It has all been done and done and here I am still, waking up to darkness. Meanwhile India has changed—it is true what everyone says—and I could drink wine there and talk to friends about issues, I could travel to wonderful places and experience whatever I liked. And I could set up my wiritng place there with all the lamps and bolster pillows I liked and be absolutely in tune with my work. Money could buy anything, and I already have the things so do not even need to buy them. So I vigorously avoid confronting the money topic, to not feel further bad that just in case there was an argument to be made for being here for the money, I have already jeopardised that in my own casual (better word than careless) ways.

But that is too heavy a thought even for me. Let me stick to the love and the feelings. I miss India, as all my friends know. But as Eileen said, surprised, back in 1974 when I told her about my feelings for the Indian monsoon, just two years into my stay in America, the stay that would grow into four decades in a wink, “I didn’t know you felt that way.” Everyone, myself included, thinks I think. No, I feel. The Buddha thought–I  think.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 26, 2014

Two questions

My first question is, what is the use of being alive? We were both alive, Sombabu and I . He put away things in the kitchen. So did I. He loved sitting in the library almost as if to be able to take a coffee break. That’s me when I work. He called twice from Providence the day I was leaving Delhi to come back, to say, “Don’t forget the sweets.” That’s all that’s on my mind too, the day I am leaving Delhi.

So if he’s not here, what sense does it make? I am not here either, am I? If not today, then tomorrow?

And what is this about people fearing death? What is to fear? It’s only a disappearance, an exit, isn’t it? Where do you learn that you hang around on the stage for ever and ever?

My second question is, when am I going to finish my damn book? The folders are called ‘book 2008,’ ‘book 2011,’ and now ‘book 2013.’ It’s all the same book. It’s now 2014. I decided it wasn’t working out and went back to ‘book 2006.’ That seemed to work except now I am stuck midway. I will not create another folder. Sometimes I feel as if I am Sunil, who would just keep revising and revising—but at least he ended up with a superlative book. Mine? I keep re-reading what I have written, loving it or despising it, then pencilling in a few changes, then typing them in, then forgetting the chapter and a few days or weeks later, re-reading it again.

I miss Sombabu. I was stuck exactly like this in my writing in 1976. I don’t know what he said but he said something and all the grounded gears started turning again. He just could not bear self-pity, or what he called nalish, complaint. But I have no idea what he thought about death, or, more relevantly, about the fate of the person left behind. Maybe he would still say, abar nalish korchho?  Complaining again, are we?


Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 26, 2014

Travel on

Portland is one of the most laid back cities in the US. Coming back to the US after even merely ten days away, in Amsterdam and India, you get a shock. People in official places are casual and chatty, ordinary people have a thick veneer of friendliness. The Delta person at the counter joked with the passenger ahead of me, “Let’s see what we can do for you.” She radiated a suburban domesticity. The passport control officer was kindly and after one question to me that seemed to open up broader vistas, decided he did not want to pursue them and quickly stamped the papers and dismissed me. His body language and expression suggested a comfortable existence into which few coloured people or immigration problems impinged. Many security and airport personnel stood around the airport very relaxed, holding big containers of soda or coffee.

Europeans are also friendly, but cliché as it may sound, they are so in a reserved way. They do not smile all the time, and they do not make personal comments meant to bind you together in a community of like-minded individuals all most comfortable when nothing challenges the community, not one different anything

On top of this easy democracy is the relaxed attitude of Portland. So coming back to the US through the port of Portland, as they call it, was a double whammy.

KLM is an odd mixture of the courteous and hospitable, and the severely official. If you were to do or make the least suggestion of anything out of the norm or which simply confused them, there would be grimness unadulterated and they would block their minds to seeing you as a normal person with perhaps a different need. But if you are recognisable to them in one of their several categories, their impeccable socialisation into an equality (of sorts) and fairness will ensure courtesy. Why I say an equality ‘of sorts’ is because there is always an undercurrent, not directly of racism, but a suspiciousness of coloured people, at least those with a different body language to that of Europeans. There is a guardedness, one that expresses itself in more carefully enunciated speech and a kind of alert watching.

Then there is the “Classical Music” conundrum. Why is Indian classical music available nowhere in the world, such as on no flights?

Maybe I should write to Mody while he is there in the Prime Minister’s bungalow and pursue some of these harmless things like promoting Indian classical music globally.


Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 26, 2014

The Precariousness of Pleasure

I am going to watch a horror movie—I may not be precise about genres, so not ‘horror’ technically speaking—about a concert pianist who receives a mystery note that he has to play or die. Or something like that.

Suddenly, I was aware of the Precariousness of Pleasure.

On the way in to the plane, standing by the sign that said “Economy 41-56,” as opposed to “Economy blah-blah-blah,” and “Economy-whatever-else” and “Business,” I had to think, “After freaking forty four years (I had to correct that from a casual ‘forty’ to make it more precise) of international travel, this coming year I am going to get into the “Business” line.” And I see the faces and hear the voices of Irfana and Nandini saying, “yes, ma, you deserve it.”

Then, I settle down. For the thousandth time, I take out what I need “on the way.” My laptop, of course, and three levels of work—writing, teaching, pleasure. Oops, the last is not my work. But of course it is. My duty in life.

Then we passengers change some seats, we spread around. Again I get two seats; I travel at such odd times. I break open the blanket and the earphones, immerse myself in the pleasures of soft warmth and “Latest movies”—they mean “Latest Hollywood movies.” Actually, I wrote a letter to KLM once, lecturing them on their meal option, very critical—they only had beef and chicken—and I said, wonderful Dutch brethren, true you have never been colonised (except by the sea), but which world are you living in? Now I should write a letter again, saying thank you , that you offer all these Dutch alternatives, hurray for Dutch, even Double Dutch, and in movies too, I see now that you are actually postcolonial.

Then the stewardess comes around for drinks. And I say my usual, “Gin and tonic.” Not because it is the most brilliant drink on earth, it is certainly delicious, but it is—ha ha, mine. When Lisa says in My Fair Lady that she had it with “my mother’s milk,” it rang a bell. She—the stewardess, not Miss Doolittle—gives a packet of meaty, salted almonds. I devour the whole packet, sipping my strong gin fast.

The food is offered, an ungenerous choice between beef and pasta. When I ask for beef there is a flicker on her face as if to say, which she would stoutly deny if asked of course, “Beef? Are you sure? Aren’t you the brown Asian, Indian kind of person for whom we have the vegetarian option?” You are so right, madam, but vegetarian is something the wonderful Dutch have not understood. For breakfast there is the magnificently primitive non-option of a tray of omelettes and sausage. I spoon it all down. Ever since Sombabu looked up at a plane in the sky and said, “I love to eat on aeroplanes” to one of his little daughters by his side, I have taken pleasure in all meals served on board.

I am excited to see another movie. I leaf through the magazine and learn a lot about KLM but they have no list of movies. It is on the screen of course. I play around with the buttons. Finally I watch something on the Spartans’ war with Xerxes. It is the most extraordinary exercise in fiending the Asian that is imaginable. I could show it to my class. There are too many things to show my class. Good to know that the Europeans had the same values then as they pride themselves on now and that Asians had the same values then that they never had then or now. By the way, the Persians were and are fine boned, light skinned people, not the swarthy, dark generic ‘Asian’ that the film portrays. As for Xerxes’ numerous piercings and metallic jewellery….I could die laughing but there is enough death in the movie and absolutely no humour for us to not bring the two together.

I slept.

When Chekhov says simple things like that, “It’s raining,” “They’ve gone,” he produces ultimate despondency. The world turns black and your spirits sink. Simply with two words. Dyozhd idyot. Oni viezli. My teacher Natasha Ivanovna’s husband Valeri Vasilevitch, said casually that that was what Chekhov was the master of. Ever since then I occasionally say Dyozhd idyot (It’s raining) to myself to taste it.

Then I read our student Pallavi’s journal when she was about twelve. At the end of the description of the day she’d write “I slept.” It took me several pages to realise that she didn’t mean it in some profoundly ironic, Chekhovian sense but was in fact simply recounting what she literally did.

I, too, slept. Literally. Usually the act would have been Chekhovian. I would have pondered on the mystery of existence, where I was coming from and where I was going and why and how to understand myself better. I was wonderously light-minded this time with no existential burdens. I had little patience for Chekhov and his endless “Who am I?’ “But who am I?” If Uncle Vanya had appeared in front of me I’d have simply told him to go off and teach some children instead. Or some rats.

Yes, so I have been watching Uncle Vanya and reading Racso and the Rats of NIMH. Both are precisely about the same thing: how to find a meaning in life beyond just eating, sleeping and burrowing around.

So the flight, I was saying, has been this series of pleasant experiences. You know why? Because I was in this ordinary economy seat hankering after business class. If I actually had the business seat, I would have been bored witless like the Russian aristocracy, or the city mice in Racso. The food would have been marvellous—well, maybe not the KLM food but Sombabu’s benign interpretation of it—the seat would have been everything the body desired, the little touches would have made your heart sing. But all the time there would have been a disdainful curling of the lips. “That’s all there is to it? This much-flaunted experience when you reach the top of the pyramid?”

There is a boredom that comes with privilege that I would never exchange for the little pleasures, and the unfulfilled wishes, that you have as an ordinary person travelling ordinary class. That’s what I call The Precariousness of Pleasure.

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