My grandmother, the tweeter

I awoke this morning with a question: would my grandmother have tweeted?

She passed away before twitter was even a germinating notion and before email was as ubiquitous as it is now. The most prevalent form of social media were the conversations during which she and I would dissect plot and motive from a recent episode of “Murder She Wrote” or “Hunter.”

But she was a correspondent. True, she had a readership of just one: her younger brother who lived in India. But to him she told the news of the day, of the goings-on in her corner of the States, and general musings about her quotidian observations. She wrote in Tamil, a script I only recognized by shape but whose meaning eluded me. Sometimes my grandmother would translate what she was writing; only now does it occur to me that she could have been lying! I doubt it, but…

If she were to tweet, I bet she would have adopted a less publicly public persona. That’s not to say her tweets would be protected. But they might be somewhat disguised, and her twitter handle would likely hearken back to the days of early email usernames when people relished in concocting absurd monikers for themselves, a time when anonymity reigned supreme (rather than the branding and self-marketing that marks today’s norm).

Some options:

@Kalpathi4eva (she was born in the village of Kalpathi, and so…)
@Hunterfan (self explanatory)
@Breadupma (would take too long to explain)
@Loosekanji (so would this)

As for the content, I wonder if her tweets would contain bits of song she would often invoke to underscore a point, draw out unexpected contours of experience, or simply as an excuse to break up the afternoon. Or might they be quotes from the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, two books she read and reread incessantly? Or perhaps, if she were to continue with her flaneuse-like tendencies and resume circumambulating our childhood neighborhood as once used to do, perhaps she would recount odd bits of conversations that caught her as she passed by — below, snippets I overheard during last night’s walk:

 [Young man to a young woman he was walking with]: “Do you smell that?” deep breath “I love the smell of late evening in the spring.”

[Teenage girl crossing the street with two girlfriends]: “Omigod, I am fat. No, I am. I am! I am fat.” Over her friends’ protestations: “That’s rubbish.”

[Young woman sitting next to a young man on a bench in the park]: “I’ve never had a one night stand.”

[Two men standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, the one with worried eyes did the talking]: “Have you heard anything? Has there been any communication?” The other shakes his head.

So, would grandma have been a tweeter? I can’t say for sure, but given the way the platform keeps people in the forefront of my mind’s eye, I’d like to think so. 

Kerala travelogue 3 – Part 1: The Cyprus Edition

(this one’s been in the hopper for a while, unfinished, because there was always more to add. it’s still not quite where i want it to be, and still unfinished, so i offer you here one part of a multi-part reflection that connects kerala with cyprus and the uk through the simple thread of human hospitality and the impetus for story-sharing)

****

What is your hyphenation?

This was the question posed to me during an exchange about identity markers, labels and categorizations — those that are asserted as well as those that are given. It was March and I was enjoying the warm embrace of Cyprus when this set of transnational interactions transpired via twitter direct messaging, and while in this island mecca I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invoking my recent trip to India with startling regularity — startling to me given that my ethnic origin is rarely on the tip of my tongue or the first site of reference. And yet, as I found myself in the company of my friend, the very lovely and peerlessly hospitable S, and her charming and incredibly warm family, I was immediately and frequently moved to share tales of my recent travels to India and the stories they evoked of memories and long-forgotten family traditions. Conversation in the form of story-sharing was the apt garnish to the preparing, consuming, and communing around food that characterized a large part of my time in Cyprus.

On my first night in Larnaca, the town where I spent three of my six nights in the island nation, I was taken to a restaurant that was known to S and her husband from the time of their youth; a place that despite the immediate blanket of low light that greets its visitors, is filled with brightly colored paintings and other artwork — some of which, S told me, were made by the owner herself, who greeted my hosts with an air of familiarity, not quite the intimacy of family but certainly not the reservation of strangers. So consumed with our conversation had I been, that I was literally caught off guard by the flavor of the tomatoes in the salad. Tomatoes! Fruit in vegetable’s clothing that I rarely, until that night, ate fresh because years of mealy, overripe, flavorless varieties had made a jaded tomato eater (read: avoider) out of me. Tomatoes were, until that night, strictly relegated to the sauté pan for stir fry or tomato sauce recipes.

It would not be an exaggeration to state, plainly and without hyperbole, that first taste of tomato was nothing short of a gustatory revelation. No, a revelation. Period.

The next night, with not-too-distant memories of a familiarly strange flavor on my mind, I was treated to a homemade dinner of two traditional Greek soups: Trahana, made with the dried and sour wheat cakes and halloumi cheese and a second soup made of lemon, egg, and rice, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Once prepared, the soups joined the salad, asparagus dish, a pastry-type appetizer, and bottle of wine already placed on the neatly set table around which S’s parents, brother and sister-in-law, spouse and little V had already gathered. As the soups and libation flowed, so, too, did the stories – of living in Larnaca, of being forced out of the now-Turkish occupied northern section of the island, of being a teacher in Cyprus – and the questions – how was I enjoying myself? Was I born in the United States? How often did I visit India? What was my plan for the week?

In this scenario, I was the linguistically disadvantaged one, with nearly zero Greek words in my language knapsack – it was just on this trip that I learned that “ne,” contrary to phonological leanings – means “yes” – and my hosts bridged our language gap with ease, sharing stories, asking questions, answering my questions, and making me feel completely at home. It was here when I was first aware that I was reaching into my deep stores of childhood memories and recent conversations with familiar and unfamiliar strangers while traveling through Kerala.

There is a kinship between these countries and its inhabitants that was rendered in the abundant offerings of food, in the understood practices of talking over one another to communicate a point, and found in the unspoken transitions between hospitality and communion. When learning about the preparation of food, I shared my own early experiences of learning to cook alongside whomever was in the kitchen – very often, this was my grandmother, who catered to my particular and fickle adolescent tastes. And no story of my grandmother is complete without the added detail that she was my very first roommate, personal storyteller, and witness to my earliest dream-state ramblings and pontifications.

The dining table is a gathering place, a get-to-know-you spot, a place in which to learn about the world and debate its great possibilities and unspeakable disappointments, a mantle on which to lay the intersecting storied histories each of us weaves.

We traversed the small but culturally expansive terrain, S and I, and stayed overnight in the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis. I fell in love with this tucked away cluster of homes and homestays much in the same way I was enchanted by the tea plantations and hills of Munnar. In both places, the roads twisted and wound their way from one side of the mountain to another. Unlike the “only in Kerala” imagery of construction happening (quite literally) at the speed of one grandmother carrying a large stone on her head at a time, Kalopanayiotis was even less hurried in its existence; and unlike the countless shacks and more makeshift housing structures found on the subcontinent, the Cypriot village homes that we saw all had doors and small gardens and, I suspected and fantasized, an endless supply of halloumi cheese in their refrigerators.

But places, no matter how picturesque, gain meaning and memory through the people who pass through them. And on the morning we were set to leave the village, S and I encountered a woman that I know neither of us will forget. She looked to be at least seventy – we later learned that she was well into her 80s – and was standing at the foot of a small bridge and holding a bag as we approached after visiting the nearby church. The grey of her hair that was half visible underneath the scarf that was tied around her head matched the shirt that was tucked into a long, black skirt that was topped a black apron – as if she had left her house with great urgency; I imagined food that was in the process of being cooked and wondered how long she had been in possession of her apron, acknowledging that it could might also just be a fashion statement.

Her smile was instant and grew even wider when she spotted S; she took a few steps forward and said hello and in Greek asked S if we were visiting the village. For the next few minutes, the two Cypriots talked and I could tell there were questions being asked and answers being proffered; S occasionally paused to translate for me in the middle of bemused laughter at this situation that would turn out to be a highlight – not only of this trip, but also of the sabbatical thus far. The animated chatter stopped abruptly and the woman linked her arm with S’s and began walking, with me following alongside them. As we walked, S quickly filled me in: the woman was newly widowed, her husband had passed away just 45 days ago and she was returning home from visiting his grave. When she learned I was visiting from America, she told S that her brother lives in San Diego, that she had visited him before, and that another brother makes his home in Madison, WI. It turned out that the brother in the Midwest was known to S and this instantly made her like kin to the old woman who insisted we accompany her to her home for some food and drink. There was no argument that would be worth launching in the face of such staunch conviction. For a woman in her eighties, she had an impressive gait that she did not break as she turned back and shouted to her friend Antigone that she had “found some company!” and was going home. (S translated this, as well, in between her own laughter at the woman’s joyous declaration.) Antigone, just a few years younger than her friend, it seemed, quickly followed suit.

Once we reached the woman’s home just steps away from the other side of the bridge, we were treated to an assortment of Greek sweets and pastries and homemade iced tea served to us by a younger woman who appeared to be a housekeeper, while our host shared photos of her children and grandchildren during momentous occasions in their lives – graduations, weddings, anniversaries. (I was involved in a rather peculiar exchange with the woman’s youngest son, which I will save for a future post as it contributes to my ongoing musings about how the world views the US.)

The offerings of food and stories and memories that were being made to us was reminiscent of the impromptu visit my travel companions (one of my parents and my spouse) and I had with an octogenarian living in the village where my grandmother spent her childhood. In fact, the woman lived next door to the home where my great-grandparents raised most of their sixteen children, only about half of whom survived to reach adulthood. My grandmother was the youngest daughter and she was closest in age and in communication with the brothers who were immediately older and younger than she. The woman answered our knock on the iron bars in front of her door verbally first before making her way to the entrance. She paused as she looked up and listened as we announced our presence and purpose of the visit. Once she had made the connection – that we were relatives, descendants of her one-time neighbors – she turned the lock and joined us on what amounted to her front porch (or stoop, depending on your geo-linguistic preference).

Dressed, as my spouse pointed out later, in her Wimbledon best, she instantly began to recall stories of my grandmother, her parents, and her siblings and their various comings and goings. As she talked and gesticulated and directed her attention alternatingly at each of us, she interrupted herself briefly to ask her nephew – who was visiting from Canada and who, dressed in sweatpants and a tee shirt was clearly not expecting visitors – to bring out bananas that were in her kitchen. He obliged and our protestations were in vain, and so we obediently consumed the mini-bananas that are indigenous to this and other warm climates, as we listened and laughed and allowed ourselves to be temporarily transported to another moment in time.

[end of Travelogue 3, Part 1. Part 2 coming soon… including tales about my great-grandparents, village hospitality, and how this all relates back to a peak hike in Sheffield via a discursive pitstop back in Larnaca.]

in honor of centenarians

Birthday.

“Another year closer to death!” some comically cruel cards remind the recipient.

A way to mark the passing of time.

An excuse to gather with friends, family, and loved ones; take time for a nice meal or hike or visit to the spa; be kind to oneself; be kind to others.

A Jehovah’s witness would take no notice at all. An American president receives a card electronically signed by millions of his nation’s residents.

There may be cake or ice cream or both, as has become custom for kids and the kid-at-heart population here in the States and in many countries worldwide.

A childhood neighbor of ours, who was of Russian descent, once told me about a special bottle of vodka he was expecting in honor of his birthday.

I suspect being born on February 29th would pose a bit of a challenge.

In Vietnam, everyone’s birth is celebrated on New Year’s Day, a day called Tet. Only newborns are given a celebration on the actual day of their birth.

My grandfather would have turned 100 today. I mentioned his birthday a few weeks ago, ironically enough in a post that was published on my grandmother’s birthday.

Had he been alive, we might have sent in his name to The Today Show on which centenarians are given a birthday greeting by the rapidly aging Willard Scott.

If he was a British resident upon his centenary, he would have received a customized message from Her Majesty, the Queen.

I occasionally wonder what he would have made of this world in which we live, now. In the past three and half decades since his passing, nothing of the world he knew at the time of his death has remained. His family has migrated to distant lands, the country of his birth is, in some ways, unrecognizable (although the village of his birth, seen below, looks remarkably untouched — save the motorcycles casually parked along the side), and from I have been told about his demeanor, he might have had a difficult time understanding a society in which celebrity haircuts are front page news while wartime chicanery with fatal consequences is buried deep within the fold. And what explanation would he offer in making sense of a nation with more than a billion residents that is consistently among the lowest medal earners in the Olympic games; perhaps he might have said that he and his countrymen spent their time pondering other matters and would have elegantly evaded the question with a question of his own… clever bugger.

Birthday greetings, dear young man.

Perinkulam, Palghat

humans of kerala

The phenomenon that is HONY has inspired numerous photographic spinoffs — among them, (the occasionally quirky captions of) Humans of Paris, (the close-up portraits of) Souls of San Francisco, (the “still finding its groove”) Humans of London, and several more — even as its own viewer base continues to skyrocket, from fewer than two thousand “likes” on facebook when I first learned of it, to near 177K at last count. A few months before stumbling onto this project, the act of taking photos had started to wiggle its way back into my daily practice after slowly leaving some years back, save for the photography and video work that is central to certain parts of my work. But living photographically involves more than fulfilling the impetus to document or capture. The work of photographers that slips into my subconscious, taking root in often inexplicable ways, reflects a way of being that is fueled by an incurable fervor for story, taking in the world as it is, as it could be, as it might be, as it was, as it wasn’t, as it isn’t… and creating artworks as offerings of humanity back to humans. These are not the musings of someone who has “studied” photography, who has majored/minored/or otherwise degreed in arts, art history, fine arts, or the like. No, these are just the the observations of someone who is continually moved by the work in the world that photographs can sometimes do, sublimating cliched boundaries of allegiance and affiliation in the process.

Take for example the following few photographs, some that come from photographers I’ve long loved, others from recent discoveries — all that fall within a loose categorization of “street photographer.”

1. From a recently published collection of photographs by Gordon Parks in the NYTimes Lens section that depicts everyday life in during the 1950s and 60s in the segregated South. His quotidian narrative is enchanting, educative, and occasionally startling. Sparks, who died in 2006, would have turned 100 this year; the same would have been true of my paternal grandfather who only lived until the age of sixty-four, the same age that my father is now. The world has a strange way of grabbing our attention, much like the intersection of color, beauty, and disbelief that collide in Parks’ photos.

2. Photographs of children also enchant me. Specifically photographs from another time that seem to recognize the hidden world of children (long before they become overexposed due to the ubiquity of image making means) continue to weave stories long after first glance. Consider these four images together:



The first two photographs were made by Diane Arbus and the second two by Roy DeCarava. In both of their bodies of photographic work, I find a resonance toward empathy for “people who have been sidelined in one way or another.”* They hold a sympathetic eye toward the people about whose lives they produce stories of images. It may be appropriate to note at this point that while I came to Arbus somewhat recently or late, depending on your point of view, Roy DeCarava has been a treasured name to me for nearly two decades, which coincidentally is how long I have known my spouse, the very one who gifted me with The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a collaboration between DeCarava and Langston Hughes that features the former’s photographs of life and people in Harlem accompanied by the latter’s poetic prose.

Until then — that is, before I held in my hand the square-shaped book that would become the text to which I would return time and time again to remember, to learn, to practice seeing with curiosity and with humility — I had taken pictures with the enthusiasm of a child who was allowed to ride her bike around the block unsupervised. The experience remained new with each venture, limited by my own abilities, and threatened to take me to unfamiliar places; and because of this, my eagerness only grew. I had made good use of the dented and damaged Leica that was said to belong to my uncle but that had taken up permanent residence, at first, in the hallway closest of my childhood home, and then, mysteriously, onto the desk in my bedroom. This hunk of leather casing and mechanical functionality is what I used in my first photography course, before upgrading (or was it a lateral move?) to a Minolta x700, the starter of all starter SLRs. All the while, as I tinkered with buttons and learned to process film, I realize now in retrospect that I wasn’t practicing seeing. I still wasn’t looking. The best photographs I took during those relatively early years of my practice seemed to happen by accident. I never mastered composition or framing, and paid little attention to exposure and depth of field — although, of the latter I took copious notes. But the accidental shots were taken, well, quite by accident: the light catching a friend’s hair in a way that just missed making her look like a well lit and haloed angel; shadows and reflections of a lake underneath a bridge in Boston Common; and portrait of a woman named Janie who was a member of the administrative staff in the organization where I worked right after graduating from college. All were shot in black and white, with knowing subjects, and without hesitation.

3. There are the photographic creations that can seem otherworldly, palpable in their ethereality, haunting even. Some of my favorites come from photographer and educator Mary Ann Reilly who brings the affordances of digital media tool together with photographic images in an effort to say something else, something other than what the image or the enhancements could say on their own. Two examples:

Green Trees

Climbing

4. And another before sharing a few snaps that fulfill the promise of the title of this post. I have mentioned here before the writings of the author Teju Cole — both his book, Open City, and his twitter stream where he composes small fates about news items, largely about the lives of those who have been somehow wounded, occasionally fatally, in another place, in another time. (He explains it better here and here.) Some time last fall, I think, Cole started a second twitter feed from where his photographically inclined self speaks, shares,  probes and renders true Thoreau’s assertion that “The world is but canvas to our imaginations.” His travels take him to far flung corners of this earth, yet with his image makers, both digital and analog, he produces visual artifacts that demand second, third, and fourth viewings. An early favorite of mine was of a young woman sitting at a counter facing the floor to ceiling windows; what I first saw, however, was a ball gown, a regal air, the beauty of solitude. The light and shadows crafted reality out of illusion, and what I recall of it now are hues of red and black and, for some reason, the presence of blue. The actual image seems to no longer be online on the flickr page, so you’ll have to trust me and hope that the image appears in an upcoming exhibit somewhere… Meanwhile, I’ll share another favorite that needs no explanation:

Steven Pinker in India, January 2012

And a link to a recent snap from Brazil that, like several others in a collection he has labeled “Spectral Tendency,” a set (in flickr terms) that seems to be creating a full bodied experience with each photo. There is much that coaxes your gaze further into the image, inviting you to lean in, breathe deeply, see the relations between the on screen players in new ways. Another image in the same set was taken just steps from the Tate Modern, and as with the boys from Brazil, the spectrum is wide as well as deep; the layers are playfully endless. These photographs, as with some of those above and the work of others who take to the proverbial pavement (I’m thinking here of the work of Zun Lee and the roving Underground NY Public Library photographer, for instance), are artifacts redolent of photo making that strives to banish the fourth wall; in these images, photography feels less like something “to look at” and more so as both portal and realm through and into which enters, temporarily shedding the immediate present for the possible present. Photographers — those who live photographically — have been, have become, and continue to be my strongest teachers, for they deal in the currency of seeing.

***

For the past few weeks, with each upload of a new batch of photos to my laptop — itself a version of Christmas morning that foretells of gifts and secret wonders that will soon be revealed — my eyes keep traveling back to the India folder that contains the photos I took during my trip to Kerala earlier this year. They feel different, somehow apart from the other thousands I’ve taken in the past twelve months. Sure, the landscape is unlike that of my other travels, but so is the perspective, the angles, the subject matter. The people. In some of the villages we visited, I was not just photographing daily life, but I became a part of the story. In taking photos, I was also implicitly agreeing to share the photos with the people who were photographed. My last Kerala travelogue will be posted soon, and yes, it will be six months late — so for that reason, I share these photos here, unvarnished, without commentary or further context, save to say that in these images, I feel as if I finally started to see. Each photo suggests a plurality of stories, that is true. But it is the stories that brought them into existence that play on the tiny screen in my mind’s eye when I look at them.

*
*Sebald once said in an interview: “I like to listen to people who have been sidelined in one way or another,” referring to the cone of silence following World War 2. He seemed to understand at an embodied level that stories were lurking everywhere, some that needed little prodding and others that were more reticent to emerge. What has been profoundly humbling has been consistent encounters with the lives of people — in their homes, their places of worship and work, sharing the streets and modes of transportation, sharing a meal. Sebald, too, placed himself in these spaces, listening as he did with both heart and ear; that’s not meant to over sentimentalize the man, but rather to call attention to his studied practice of attending, particular to wounds that may have been heavily scarred over, barely noticeable in some cases, utterly raw in others. He was, as Cole has described, a poet of the disregarded.

Saturation — sabbatical as pilgrimage, part 1

A dry sponge has a limit to how much liquid it can hold, after which point it oozes out more than it soaks up thus rendering it, effectively, no longer worthy of its name: sponge. That moment, just before the hand instinctively forms a fist around the porous thing (is it even an object?) to relieve it of its liquid burden, is the apex for a sponge, the height of its reason for being. For it to have a place of use once again within and amidst everyday activity — for it to have purpose rather than exist as an impending chore — the sponge must be relieved of its contents, even just a little bit will do the trick. Last Monday night I reached this point of saturation wherein the extreme degree of porosity with which I started out on this journey just a year earlier — at which point, I felt literally squeezed dry having purged myself of every last word and interesting idea, and thus desperate to see and be taken in by the world again — was no longer discernable. The moment came when I found myself standing in a churchyard cemetery in Framingham Earl in front of the modest, neatly engraved headstone of W.G. Sebald.

There aren’t many people I know who could comprehend why this piece of the journey was vital. I’m not even sure I fully understand why I found my way there, why not completing this leg of what has been an extended pilgrimage of and for the dead was not an option. Nearly breathless after sprinting the last hundred or so yards of the mile-long stretch of gravely, dusty pavement that connected Loddon Road with the smaller country road on which St. Andrews sits, I stood still, somewhat bewildered and fully spent. That is to say that breath and words had escaped my person simultaneously, leaving me effectively paralyzed. How did I get there?

… is what I wondered, first to myself and then with a friend via short bursts of tweet-like direct messages through Twitter. Too quickly did I fall, willingly, into a life without obligations — or at least somewhat free from the daily urgencies that demand attention and care. It was early into this walk back into living that I thought about Sebald, particularly fitting as I had just completed an intense reading study of his works. How did he walk, I started to wonder. Aimlessly? With a small pack? A satchel like the titular character in Austerlitz? Was his pace brisk or studied? How far could he move without being overcome by the weight of what he saw and the scenes he passed? Did he enter into every church that crossed his path? Take notice of every stranger? Make a note of each plastic wrapped bale of hay or abandoned carriage along the side of the road? What did he make of things? What must the rest of us, all too willing to overlook or not see at all, actively notice with sharper focus?

A man, whose words caused me to sit up straight the very first time I read them, whose life had come to an end much too soon and not too far from where I was standing, had been placed at rest in the earth beneath my feet. To say the feeling was strange would be an inadequate description at best. So I will turn to Sebald, himself, who so aptly notes in The Emigrants: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” He offers witness to devastating events in history by bringing forward their everydayness, their connective tissue that dissolves the gap of time between then and now, placing us — the readers, the audience — squarely in the midst of the action. It is in this way that a walk transformed into a narrated history of post-industrial devastation and isolation, or how portraits of eccentric characters and their seemingly ordinary concerns — polishing boots, a caretaker preparing meals, parents  wishing their children well before a long journey — are in fact tightly woven layers of narrative that hold in them some of the cruelest moments in human history. With patience, Sebald braids together words into prose that unfolds in the form of stories that linger just long enough to be grasped, albeit temporarily, before dissipating once again and thus allowing the unfathomable nature of the lives of others to recede into our near distant memories. We are reminded by him, through his writing, about the passing of time: “The most disconcerting part of it, perhaps, is that life nonetheless always goes on, somehow or other.

And so it was in Norwich, as it was in Kalpathi and Perinkulam, and Amsterdam and London, Nicosia and Paris — with each step a reminder of lives lived, too soon forgotten. And while ’tis true that I set out to seek a rebirth, a re-beginning, a chance to see anew, to reset some things, it was a walk across lands and back into and out of other times that I was taking. A pilgrimage in the footsteps of the dead, returning to the places of significance for those whose lives have left deep imprints in mine. This has been a walk around the world that has been animated with the stories of the once-alive.

That time has come. The flat’s been hoovered, the fridge cleaned out, last of the laundry finished, and bags zippered and ready for transport and I have settled into the sofa once more to compose a final London note. The hour is quite late but slumber is far from my mind, which is filled instead with a fondness for this town, this piece of land designated as nation for what it has allowed me to consider about home(s), belonging, and what we do between beginnings and endings. What stands to greet me upon my return is unimaginable heat and excruciating humidity, and a reminder that while we may carry the lessons with us, actual pilgrimages must come to an end. For the moment, anyway, this sojourner still has earthly commitments that need tending. Now, being fully saturated with stories, with experience, with words and images, the itch to craft and compose artifacts to put back in the world is slowly returning. And so, the slow squeeze begins…

an art walk of sorts

In between shifting geographies — and the rituals of settling and resettling, unpacking and packing, taking inventory and organizing — I find the act of revisiting photographs to open up a soothing, even therapeutic space. The eye focuses on different things, sees what the photo wasn’t meant to capture, recalls sounds and smells that an image evokes. While composing one of the several unfinished, saved drafts sitting in the blog post hopper and just waiting to gain an audience, I found myself spending time looking through an album I’d labeled “art” that contains images taken from various corners of the world. They beg the question not only of “What is art?” but also where one finds art, recognizes something as art-full, and how one responds to art. Here are a few that have made me ponder these and other questions.

Wall art

Untitled

Untitled

Photographs along canal near Bastille

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Can't buy just one

Untitled

Kolam

Corner office

Kalopanayiotis

Untitled

Wall art

workshops and other homes

The act of seeing the world through a camera lens affords — and some instances demands — a slower pace of looking at and being in the world. Earlier this evening, while searching for a different photograph, I came across the following few that all struck me as instances of people looking as if they felt completely at home in the moment the photo was being taken. Their bodies seem to hold an expression of being (at peace).
(Additional details found in photo captions.)

At Portobello Market, a man sells photographs he has purchased from Sotheby's auctions and mounts them on pieces of cardboard and includes a personal of commentary and/or contextual information.
The sun beats down in this Munnar village, but this man is neither perturbed nor deterred from his mission: to sit alongside his carrots and observe.
He, too, is most relaxed in the company of books. On this day, a book fair in Bloomsbury was his opium.
She is the embodiment of joy upon seeing her friend. (Bhagavathi Temple, near Perinkulam, Palghat)
Hours passed like minutes as he brought clay and plaster to life, all with the touch of paint and a steady hand. (Venice)
What greater joy is there than this? the guitar-playing, audience-attracting, Young-Bob-Dylan look-and-sing-alike asked himself as the nice young lady took his photo. (Portobello Market)
They're coming from somewhere, or going somewhere. Perhaps crossing the border, from one side to another, in Nicosia. Theirs is an easy gait with which they navigate an occasionally heavy heart.

 

Kerala Travelogue 2

The chilly wind whipping outside my window curtly reminds me that I’m squarely back in the grasp of the northern hemisphere, much farther north of the equator than I was just hours earlier. Limited email access and constant moving around kept me from posting again until now, although I think another reason is that I was simply too overstimulated to do much more than snap photos. Even that became laborious at times and sometimes all I could do was watch and listen and, surprisingly, talk. During the past eleven days, I spoke more Tamil than I have in the past eleven years — or, the Tamil-Malayalam hybrid I heard growing up in my house that I spoke primarily with my grandmother as part of a language agreement of sorts wherein she would speak to me in English and I to her in Tamil. My outward appearance apparently belied my ability to communicate in a lexicon that was familiar to most of the Keralites with whom I came into contact because upon hearing the words come out of my mouth, some would widen their eyes with exaggeration, others would smile and instantly soften their posture, and on at least one occasion someone said with a guilty tone to her friend, “Oh, she understands what we’re saying.”

Malayalam is the primary language spoken in Kerala, but there is enough similarity to Tamil that I could make myself understood. Preemptive declarations of my language butchering also served to curry favor with the locals who then showered me with notes of praise at just how well I spoke. In many of these interactions, it seemed as if local Kerala citizens saw my presence as one of the prodigal child coming back to a home of sorts; I felt oddly parented by strangers and passers-by. This could also be the common infantilization that occurs when locals anywhere gaze with suspicion upon visitors of all kinds.

It was a collection of moments of verbal interaction, therefore, that stands out to me from my time in Kerala. And it was these moments that helped me to overlook the simply horrendous road conditions. Honestly, how does anyone actually get anywhere in South India? A momentary digression: we traveled to Tamilnadu, a neighboring state, for two days during the end of our trip to visit family in Coimbatore. Crossing state lines took on an entirely different meaning, and when I’ve finally processed the memory — that still seems like a B-movie nightmare to me — I’ll share more details, but suffice it to say that interstate commerce is another American feature for which I am truly grateful.

Ah, but the conversations, they were magnificent. With an 86-year-old woman who lives in the house next door to where my paternal grandmother’s parents lived, and where my paternal grandmother gave birth to most of her children. With shopkeepers with whom inquiries about the price of biscuits — those sublime, chocolate Bourbon cremes from Brittania — led seamlessly into discussions of how business was going and how they managed to get inventory while situated on the top of a mountain. With school age girls ranging from second to sixth grade who live in the village from where my paternal grandfather hails, a cluster of four streets, each with its own temple. And during each conversation, a few common questions were posed to me:

  • What is my land? This is better conveyed in Tamil with the use of the word “oor” as in to say from where do you originate. Certainly a loaded question to which my answer was usually twofold: From the States now, but originally from Palghat. The latter immediately evoked a smile in my interlocutor.
  • What am I doing here? Wherein “here” meant Kerala and “what” implied a few different things including: Am I on holiday? Why would I holiday here? What am I doing while on holiday here?
  • What do I do? As in my livelihood? And when I offer a brief description of my academic post, a pensive nod immediately followed by the next question.
  • Where do I live now? This is different from “What is my land?” because it implies that one can be of somewhere and also exist and inhabit a domicile somewhere else. It was easiest to say that I live in New York, which is half true. 

Occasionally I thought about George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From,” which I’ve used as a key text in my graduate courses and also with youth at the teen after-school program where my research team and I conduct research. In the past when I have filled in my portion of the poem as a participant in whatever activity I was facilitating, I hearkened back to my days of sharing a bedroom with my grandmother — the same one who grew up in Kalpathi, the village where her former neighbor still lives. After spending several days in her home state — where road work is being done by hand as women and men move one boulder at a time to create a crash wall on windy, mountain roads and where a 15-story building that takes six days to build in China may languish in perpetuity in this land — my answers may skew toward the ways of being the locals seemed to embody. Theirs is not patience or complacency, but a different category of attending altogether. If India is a land of extreme paradoxes, then Kerala is a state of tremendous consistency amidst the unsettling. Children go to school. Some men and women work — selling the fruit and vegetables that are plentiful in this fertile land — while others spend time visiting with one another, going to the market where they shoot the breeze with shopkeepers, tend to home chores, and make time to eat and enjoy the day.

People in Kerala seem quite content. And even though they drive as if they are field testing the turning radius and gear shift of their vehicle, they don’t seem the type to fly into fits of road rage. Everyone is just making his or her own way. Of course, this is a mere glimpse (and likely oversimplification) of what realities may be, including persistent poverty and challenging living conditions. But judging solely from the handful of people I spoke with directly, the physical beauty of the state’s topography is only amplified in the kindness of its locals.

Future post: the overwhelming awareness and presence of color…

Kerala Travelogue 1

This is not the India I remember. This is an India that I had heard whispers about, but had no conception of in reality — what does a democratically elected communist state, with large and intersecting populations of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Indians alongside their Hindu brethren, situated in lush environs, boasting “near 100%” literacy rates *feel* like? This is what I am still trying to sort out after nearly a week in Kerala, land of my ancestry. To wit, I see my grandmother’s face everywhere — she is the woman sitting in the corner of the tea cafe wearing a grey, short sleeved button down shirt overtop of her orange and green sari; she is the almost completely white-haired, barefoot woman on the side of the road dressed in bright, canary-yellow sari adorned with gold embroidery and complemented with an indigo blouse, carrying a tight bundle of firewood kindling on her head (she smiles in response to my smile as we cross each other’s paths); and she’s any of the number of little girls with their coconut-oiled hair in braids, short and long, sometimes accented with vibrant ribbons, walking in twos and threes on a mountain road, in a village, through the center of town, fully engaged and laughing with her girlfriends.

As I walk into and out of markets, ride the local bus, and engage in brief to slightly longer exchanges with locals and travelers, alike, I’m immediately taken by my own sense of discomfort in the ways in which locals cater to foreigners. It’s an automatic deference peppered with a glint of possible opportunity; I don’t begrudge the Keralites who live here their natural inclination to offer us the “best boat ride” or “must see nature preserve” — we are tourists in a land where tourism ranks high as a source of income. No, the discomfort is rooted in the deference that is manifested in a culture where servants, drivers, gardeners, and other personal service workers are the norm. As “foreigners from the States” we are expected to do little, and certainly not expected to carry our bags to our rooms! But as seasoned travelers who pack light for the very purpose of easy transport, this comes as a bit of a surprise each time.

I’ll continue to ponder this abundance of deference… in the meantime, a few observations:
— There is hardly an occasion when someone will respond with “no.” There is always a way to accomplish something/anything you desire, even if you’ve barely made mention of it. Everyone aims to please — it’s win-win, you see.
— Boys and men routinely walk with their arms around each other, even more so than girls. It’s a charming sight — affection amongst friends in a land where until quite recently affection between romantic partners was considered taboo (and still is in many places).
— No one is in a rush. In a road no more than 12 feet wide, there will not only be three lanes of traffic, but also ample margins of pedestrians making their way here and there. Kids walking home from school, men and women walking to and from work/errands/chats with neighbors.
— Oprah was right. That is, I was watching her being interviewed as part of the Jaipur Literature Festival that was going on earlier this week, and she described her experience being driven through Bombay like being in a video game. It is, and as a passenger your job is to completely surrender and hope you don’t get too seasick on land.

More to come, in the form of text and pics… A few days of this strange, magical, and unpredictable journey remain. My challenge will be deciding where to look and navigating this extreme over-stimulation into effective memory making.