Wednesday, 1 June 2016


A sundrop moves across a magnolia flower.
"I watch how other things travel
to get an idea how I might move.
A cloud sweeps by silently,
gathering other clouds.
A doodlebug curls in his effort to get there.
A horse snorts before stepping forward.
A caterpillar inches across the kitchen floor.
When I carry him outside on a leaf,
I imagine someone doing that to me.
Would I scream?
In the heart of the day
nothing moves.
No one is going anywhere
or coming back.
The blue glass on the table
lets light pass through.
Something shines
but nothing moves.
I watch that too."

– "Observer" by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Favourite food: Bitter gourd

“The self … is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.”
–Erving Goffman, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”
(How I love this book, let me count the ways…)

Favourite food: Bitter gourd (called karela in Hindi).

On moving from one class to the next, often classmates would ask you to fill a diary, especially in Convent schools in India, and answer generic questions regarding favourite things like book, food, movie, song before coming to the main point, ‘what do you think about me?’ Whereby a person duly wrote some pithy falsehood without a twinge on the conscience (despite all the teachings of the good nuns in the moral science classes). How to co-exist with other people is an early learning in India, given that we grow up with over a billion of them. Whether we learn our lessons well is another question altogether.

Needless to say, what I thought were honest answers weren’t always appreciated. Consider the answer above. My responses were seen as flippant, sometimes outright lies. But bitter gourd has been (and continues to be) my favourite food ever since I could tell apart taste. However, putting down chocolate would have made everyone comfortable and kept up appearances, I know.

“If we see perception as a form of contact and communion, then control over what is perceived is control over contact that is made, and the limitation and regulation of what is shown is a limitation and regulation of contact.”

For me it was an early learning: in any given situation what do you do? Maintain popular perception, or break the contract by acting out a whim and thereby altering other people’s perception regarding you, as well as, the situation being played out? (And not necessarily in your favour.)

Yes, it is as complicated as it reads, but in human interactions it plays out casually in the blink of an eye. For much of my growing years I was troubled by understanding the limits and regulations of contact, and communion. More so given the fact that my teen years for the most part “played out” literally in the public eye. After all, success in life depends on “reading” the situation and “acting accordingly”. (Case in point: Donald Trumps pitch perfect role in the US Presidential nomination race.)

Then I came upon Erving Goffman’s seminal book on social interaction, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)– needs a revisit/update in this age of thinly sliced identity politics and carefully curated social media profiles. And soon after that followed Ingmar Bergman’s seminal film Persona. Both enriched and continue to enhance my understanding of the self (as one perceives it) and the socially interacting self (as one plays/the society perceives it).

Above all, since then I’ve found my place (and a comfortable one) in the social scene. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

To See or Not to See

 “Jack can see he sees
       what he can see Jill can’t see
and he can see
       that Jill can’t see that she can’t see
but he can’t see why
       Jill can’t see that Jill can’t see.”
– R. D. Laing, ‘Knots’

‘Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?’
– Grucho Marx, ‘Duck Soup’

It is spring. I am considering the Bigleaf Magnolia, quietly and as unobtrusively as I can. Or so I think. Yet, my being still and looking at a flower has caused an unintended ripple. For this is a much visited tourist spot. Many determined people solemnly, briskly walk the highline, only stopping to take photographs. As expected a few stop next to me, click a quick picture and move on, others shrug their shoulders (probably thinking ‘what’s she looking at’) and the more mindful people (concentrating on one thing at a time) quickly estimate a way to bypass me without slacking their pace.

An elderly woman asks, ‘what flower is that?’ I reply, ‘Magnolia, a bigleaf magnolia.’ She, ‘It looks nothing like the magnolia in my garden’ and shaking her head walks away.

(Bigleaf Magnolia has the largest simple leaf and single flower among all native North American plants.)
A season of birds in NYC. Some prominent ones missing because there was no camera on hand.
“Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
–Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘Psychological Observation (Studies in Pessimism)

It is summer. In Chelsea, a robin is singing (Cheer up; cheer-ee-o). The song can be discerned among the human noises, only if you listen very hard.

Yesterday at lunch someone said that the only birds you see in New York are pigeons. Perhaps she belonged to that category of Americans who according to a Cornell Lab poll thought that house sparrows grew up to become pigeons.

Meanwhile on this summer day, by listening very hard I heard more than a handful of birds call out to the morning. And all before lunchtime. (The birds were: White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, House Sparrow, Starling and Northern Mockingbird.)

“Seeing is a neglected enterprise.”

–Saul Leiter (quote from his obituary in New York Times)

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.”
– Goethe

It is autumn. We are walking on 20 some street, right next to the public housing projects (that is low-cost housing for the working classes– nurses, policemen, teachers and such like) when she suddenly blurts out, “You don’t see any black people in New York, how surprising.” I am speechless for a split second. To start some of our neighbors are “black people”, the four concierges in our building are “black people” and right now we are walking besides towers that house mostly “people of color”. How blinkered has our vision become? What is the function of the human eye?

But then most people from India who visit us in New York are people of a certain educational and class background, who like people of their kind all around the globe throw around their biases and ignorance as unselfconsciously and as loudly as their voices (especially in public places)– they are unapologetic about flaunting their privilege because for the most part they have chosen to be willfully ignorant.

And no, just because you’ve watched Friends, it doesn’t mean you ‘know’ life in New York City.

(The part of Chelsea we were walking through is the subject of a new documentary on income inequality “Class Divide”: )
“Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent”
– William Shakespeare, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

“One hundred tellings are not as good as one seeing.”
–Chinese proverb

It is winter, a freakishly warm winter. I am contemplating the parable about a student in search of a renowned teacher. Every culture has some version of the story. A student seeks a great teacher. But to get to the sought after teacher, the student has to go through certain hardships– ford unruly rivers and climb steep mountains, or else, solve tricky puzzles– to prove to be worthy of the wisdom being desired. Often wisdom is found during the course of the search itself, even before the student sets sight on the teacher. Because knowledge though arguable free, does not come to those who wait passively.

And sometimes, even the best of teachers can’t help you. For as the German proverb goes, if the eye does not want to see it, neither light nor glasses will help.

And then there are those other times:
“(What do you see when you turn out the light?) I can’t tell you, but I know it is mine.”
– Lennon–McCartney, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Nice Flowers

Some days come by for a reason. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

I know the man is looking at me as I approach him on the sidewalk. Growing up in India one develops a sense for such things, I can’t explain how. And I know what he is looking at…

But first lets go back an hour in time.

Walking like a man
Hitting like a hammer
She's a juvenile scam.
Never was a quitter.
Tasty like a raindrop. 
She's got the look.                 

Early in the morning, at the exact moment I step into the grocery store these words from (She’s Got) The Look by Roxette ring out and it’s #TBT (Throwback Thursday). I am back in High School. (This not so remarkable song except for the memory it triggers, was a chart topper in 1989, much played when MTV entered India in the early 90’s, it was MTV and not MTV India then.)

This song was my cue to walk (the ramp). So it all came back in a flash: vivacious girls, baffled teachers, and the boys…well, they were like footnotes: sometimes important, most of the time, just around. We were so busy dashing away in our two-wheelers exploring the depths and limits of freedom, that everything else was secondary. With a curiosity like ours, the mind was a bee, exploring this idea and then that, but never pausing–the final, inevitable pause was far, far away.

Now when I see those girls of summer on facebook even the idea of summer vanishes in a poof. I am sure they have happy, even fulfilling lives. Yet what an unimaginably long break from curiosity they seem to be on. But at that moment when that song played, and I was transported back in time, it was impossible not to smile remembering the same faces that these days fill me with disquiet.

Now as I am walking back home I see the man watching me. I had noticed him and his workmate on my way to the store. They are trimming the low-spreading junipers around the parking lot. It is a very humid day, a day that ordinarily gives rise to such lassitude that all sense of goodwill melts away. But I know this is not that kind of day. For it is a day of coincidences, and rare associations.

As I almost pass him by, the man looks right at me and as I had expected says, “Nice flowers.”

You see this is the second time in two weeks that this has happened with me. It is a small thing, but as I walk back from the grocery store, carrying a bunch of common, local flowers, I cease to be just me. I become a part of an association: perhaps a memory, perhaps a feeling in someone else’s life. A young woman last Thursday crossed the street to come up to say ‘Nice flowers’ and this man drenched in sweat, wiping his brow, now stops and looks up to say, 'Nice flowers'.

Remember that character, from that novel by Milan Kundera who plans to hold a blue cornflower in front of her face as she walks down the street to protect herself from the ugliness of urbanisation. Well, I am sort of like that character, though I don't carry flowers to shield myself. 

But the flowers I carry open a little space in someone else’s heart and mind. And those things lodged deep within that seemed forgotten come up for air in a rush. All transgressions are forgiven; all lapses become what they are, momentary. So we end up smiling and saying, ‘have a nice day.’

The only intrinsic part about meaning is that it comes from within us.

Some days come by for a reason. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.  

Thursday, 25 June 2015

In the City: Three Easy Pieces

The Solitude

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
– E. B. White, ‘Here is New York’ (1949)

Thus begins the most quoted poetic homage (and even prophetic given the events of 9/11) to a city. Along with Street Haunting and The London Scene (collection of 6 essays) by Virginia Woolf, it is possibly the best piece of writing on the experience of a big city.

To read 'Here is New York':,%20Here%20Is%20New%20York.pdf
The Streetwalker
               "I’m becoming
the street.
           Who are you in love with
     Straight against the light I cross."
    –Frank O’Hara, ‘Walking to Work’

Almost 80% of the journeys in midtown and downtown Manhattan are made on foot. People mostly walk for practical purposes like getting to work, going to the grocery store, picking up children from school and so on. They also walk to purposes of pleasure like to the movie hall, weekend brunch or the picnic in the park. And in this time and age, for the most important purpose of all–to maintain an active lifestyle (that means walking over 10,000 steps a day). 

For most people a saunter brings to mind a walk in the park among the bounties of nature, but here’s a different, an original perspective:

"Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No, one never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes–I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass.”
 Frank O’Hara, ‘Meditations In An Emergency’

The Sunsets
And people continue to notice the passing clouds, and the resulting sunsets more often. Not just because they are instagramming the shit out of it. I think it is because of the nature of light projection in the city. The tall buildings have often been likened to canyons but made of glass and metal. These reflective surfaces throw the light around in ways that change with the trajectory of the sun across the sky. Sample this: at 7:30 PM the light from the setting sun falls on the west face of the building on the easternmost part of the street, bounces and strikes the windows of the building on the opposite side and this room (that I am typing in) is bathed in gold. So, it is hardly a surprise that a 6 PM meeting on a certain floor, in a certain building in downtown may get interrupted if the room gets flooded by light from a sky streaked purple, mauve, red and orange.

Monday, 4 May 2015

April: Say it with flowers

 Late April and the city is like a young person in love...

From Top: Bradford Pear (more lower down), Star Magnolia, Dawn Viburnum (so fragrant), Narcissus, and Eastern Redbud.

Late April and the city is like a young person in love, saying it with flowers. No matter where you are– in Central Park looking towards the matchstick skyscraper rising, in Midtown jostling with the pavement crowds, or with your back to the river–there are flowers everywhere. The light is reddish gold and the birds are singing. In the window of the apartment on the opposite side, the fat white cat is smiling at a sunbeam.

People have been in love in far less favorable climes.


I looked into his eyes and I knew it then. It was so sudden, but I was sure. So I took him home.

The man pauses and puffs at his cigarette. The traffic inches on. The dogs are busy getting to know each other. For a few seconds the conversation turns to the dogs ‘she is very affectionate, though at first comes off as standoffish’ and ‘he’s adorable, especially when he wakes up in the morning’. Then the lights turn green. The humans nod their goodbyes.

Gripping the leash firmly he and his love at first sight totter away on this fine, fine Spring day.

Cheer, cheer, cheer (sharp, quick)
Birdie, Birdie, Birdie, Birdie (stretched)

Even amidst the noise that returns with Spring (calm silence of winter, where art thou?), the song is unmistakable. Stopping and scanning the barely unfurled leaves above, I spot him: a male Northern Cardinal in his splendid red coat. On this narrow stretch of greenery, disregarding the fast-rising towers on both side and the gawking humans marching in single-file, he is calling out to his mate– do birds fall in love? Of course, science has no answer.

"True love will find you in the end
This is a promise with a catch
Only if you're looking can it find you
'Cause true love is searching too
But how can it recognize you
Unless you step out into the light?"

– Daniel Johnston, "True Love Will Find You in the End"
She said she’ll wait for him forever. He was with someone else, probably with a couple of them. You know what it’s like in college. But she told him she’d wait for as long as it took. Till then she had art. All very dramatic. But gosh! The art was so bloody good. I mean there was real potential but…

So what happened?

Oh! She waited for 6 long years. They are together, I suppose married by now…happily and all that. But man, it’s like the well of art has dried up. I don’t think she’s put pencil on paper for the past year or more. Nothing. Man, what a tragedy! A real tragedy!


The magnolia tree, over laden with flowers (it would take forever to count them all) murmurs something to the breeze. But I don’t quite catch the words. Small, essential things getting lost in translation.              
He KISSED her!

No, he didn’t kiss kiss her. It was more like a peck. A very small one. He said so.

Both boys walk with the confidence that comes naturally to 9-10 year olds. A slight rustle from above makes me look up and I spot a juvenile mourning dove, framed by cherry blossoms, eavesdropping.

“As it has been said:
Love and a cough
cannot be concealed.
Even a small cough.
Even a small love.”
Anne Sexton
So you were practically childhood sweethearts!

They are smiling, but their expression says they’ve just been stuck by that idea too. 

Two people sitting at the next table (discussing their Tinder dates…shush don’t tell) suddenly turn and look back, as if somebody has woken them up from a bad dream.

The brunching set is settling down; glasses are clinking and small talk is buzzing. White petals are falling down by the fistfuls, even as new buds are opening.

The 'Bradford' Pear, one of NYC's common street trees, that everybody loves (flowers, flowers, flowers everywhere), and hates (smell of the flowers, invasive etc).

The serviceberry flowers are laughing in the sunshine. You have to listen very hard.

Late April and the city is like a young person in love…or at least one pretending to be. But then, as far as pretenses go, being in love, or even thinking of being in love isn’t all that bad, is it? 

“Let us again pretend that life is a solid substance, shaped like a globe, which we turn about in our fingers. Let us pretend that we can make out a plain and logical story, so that when one matter is despatched—love for instance—we go on, in an orderly manner, to the next. ” 
 Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

A Hazy Shade of Spring

In the morning as I am brushing my teeth, a scene flashes before my eyes: two little boys in a light green bumper car surrounded by autumn leaves waiting for someone to take them home. In the morning haze, I try to recollect the movie I saw before going to bed the previous night, and just then the haze slowly lifts. It wasn’t a movie but a book, part of a collection, Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano.

The unknowable, enigmatic past that we try to grasp forever. Events never reach any fruitful conclusion; people come and go, never to be heard from again; places disappear, not just from our memory, but also often physically. Yet, it is the one “true” story that we have. So we try to find a way out of the haze, thereby giving direction to our lives. 
Over breakfast I say, we’ll forget everything. (I say that often I realize.) So I start from some sort of a beginning. The door opened and you were standing there. But then what happened next? What were you wearing? Which book was I reading? What were they talking about? And then the days zoom by– blank upon blank.

All the photographs have been scanned and sorted. But what do they say? What does this photograph reveal? Smothered in roses and marigolds, she is standing next to her and he…he is looking towards– what or whom? What were they thinking? Why does mother appear to be smiling so ruefully? When does love begin, when does it end? Did they know? But they had just met.

She isn’t even in this photograph you add as a matter of fact.

But did they know then? What good is this collection of all these half-seen, half-heard, half-known things, if it only pushes us further into the haze?
“What would you know about this song? It’s from the 60’s.”

Is followed by a laugh that comes from a bellyful of warm soup and bread. He slowly shuffles away from the line singing along, “Baby, Baybee…” More laughs follow.

I dislike walking down this part of 28th street for reasons that are the pet peeves of those who walk the streets of New York, but for moments like these…that will perhaps become ‘sepia-tinted’ memories.
I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar yet, I can't seem to place it
Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me…

All these changes taking place...

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…
– Eddie Vedder, ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town:

I see her standing next to the entryway of a Deli somewhere on 42nd and 9th. Dressed all in black except for the white hand-knitted headscarf. Frail body, but a steely erect spine. I notice her because she is standing at the exact point where the sunlight falls– all in black highlighted by the sun, while the rest of the street lies in shadows– the lazy brain has learnt to report photographic compositions. But today I am not seeking any more photographs or memories. Yet, looking at her I am reminded of Mrs. N.

Mrs. N in her classy chiffons leaving a trail of perfume. Mrs. N of the (what I always remember with a shiver as) cold mansion with massive glass cabinets filled with ceramic jars, crystal bowls and silver oddities. Mrs. N of the lavish Christmas Eve dinners. After dinner the guests in gratitude pocketed her silver tablespoons. She’ll hardly notice they thought. But she did. She was old, but even as a small child I knew, far from foolish.

The family has a black sheep who slips into the mansion at night and goes ‘baa, baa, baa’, they whispered. Never letting her rest in peace.

Mrs. N is dead, the newspapers reported. The police are looking at all possibilities, and for the moment have ruled out foul play.

In the only photograph of hers that I have, Mrs. N is wearing black.
Why should we recollect it all? Why can’t we just let the past lie as it is? Why must we understand everything?

A toddler wearing a woollen cap with a felted red rose is watching me intently. Her father is carrying her in his arms. She is carrying a stuffed giraffe in her hand. Towering above it all, with her head turned back she is looking at the world passing by. As I begin to think of another question why, she looks into my eyes and smiles.

Abandoning all reason, I smile back.
The blood moon has caused restlessness in the tide. The waves rush in, bang against the embankment, retreat and then return. Two gull are watching silently. The waterwheel– a creative evocation of the city’s past– turns slowly, the inscription next to it reads ‘Long Time’ and the descriptive arc engraved on it travels all the way from the big bang to the end of the earth (to be swallowed by a sun that has exhausted all its fuel). After Hurricane Sandy the counter has stopped recording the rotations. Such is the fate of all human endeavours. At some point they (should/must/can/will) stop.

How do we ever find our way?

The tide rushes in, bangs against the embankment and retreats again. The gulls rise, almost magnetically: 

Gonna rise up/ Find my direction magnetically:

“Such is the way of the world
You can never know
Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow

Gonna rise up
Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold

Such is the passage of time
Too fast to fold
Suddenly swallowed by signs
Low and behold

Gonna rise up
Find my direction magnetically
Gonna rise up
Throw down my ace in the hole”
–  Eddie Vedder, ‘Rise’