26 December 2010

In which I find myself unexpectedly proud of Delhi University's library

As a research scholar, I have to spend a lot of time in libraries. Until I tried to use  university libraries in Delhi (to study Indian history, no less), I had no idea how easy I had it back at Columbia. My success rate for finding useful books here is pretty grim, but last week I discovered Delhi University's digital books projects—and it's nothing short of amazing.

20 December 2010

Gay Pride on the March in India

Across most of the world, gay pride events are held during the summer. Here in Delhi, the third annual parade took place on 28 November. Apparently people fainted from the heat when it was held in June last year.

It's not just the date that's different in India. The progress of gay rights is moving at a dizzying speed since a Delhi High Court decision in July 2009 overturned the quaintly worded law banning "crimes against the order of nature." In just over a year, being gay has gone from a criminal act to something that can at least be discussed in the context of other rights guaranteed to Indian citizens. But like so many other things in this deeply contradictory country, there is no easy correspondence between gay identity here and in the West.

[Photos and video here.]

14 December 2010

Conan in India

Conan O'Brien's new show has been on the air for just over a month. I don't like Conan as a performer (though he is a superb writer), and I probably won't watch the show. Still, the AmEx commercial that aired with the premiere caught my attention. It features Conan careering around Rajasthan in India, delightfully butchering Hindi as Indians call out "Ko-naan! Ko-naan!" The bright colors and stunning backdrops of Rajasthan are on display as Conan races around looking for silk. Of course you can read this as Orientalist blah blah blah, but because of Conan's self-deprecating demeanor, it's all in good fun. The people at Ogilvy & Mather, one of Madison Avenue's renowned firms, made something so elegant that it's jarring when the American Express logo finally appears.

29 November 2010

Hanging out with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya

It was a Thursday night so I could have gone to the movies or to a nice restaurant, but instead I spent the evening with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the fourteenth-century Sufi saint. Every Thursday there is a performance of qawwali music in front of the dargah [shrine]. The musicians sit facing the dargah because technically they're not playing for the spectators but for the saint himself.

Hazrat Nizamuddin was the head of the Chishti order of Sufis in India and was a friend of the great poet Amir Khusrau, whose tomb is nearby in the same complex. Although in the West Islam has an aura of being against music (and against fun in general), Sufis have long embraced musical performance as part of their worship. It plays a role in zikr, the meditative remembrance of God. In South Asia, the act of remembering God often turns into a rollicking good time.

15 November 2010

No, no, no. Islamic divorce in India gets stranger

In some interpretations of Sunni law—some 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis rather than Shiites—it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife by saying "talaaq" (divorce) three times. There are various rules about how far apart the talaaqs have to be or how many witnesses there need to be, and there is considerable debate about whether triple talaaq has an sanction in the foundational texts of Islam. The practice is formally banned in a lot of majority Sunni countries, and is unrecognised by (secular) Indian courts, but every once in a while a case comes up that is equal measures tragic and hilarious.

A Visit to Aligarh

One approach to knowing a country is through its major cities. For me, for example, most of France is just padding on a map of Paris. I've just never spent enough time outside the capital to know how non-Parisians live. Some people argue that you have to visit the most out of the way hamlets to know a country, but I believe that a completely urban experience is legitimate—unless I were to pass myself off as an expert on the French countryside, which I am not. Country living too involves some trompe d'oeil. Some years ago I stayed in a lovely village with a mossy graveyard and thirteenth-century church in Oxfordshire in England. I soon learned that despite the rural atmosphere, the majority of the inhabitants in fact worked in London. It's expensive to maintain a medieval cottage, after all.

But even as a committed urbanite (who occasionally needs to get out of the city), I admit there's something remarkable about small towns. Tourists often make moral judgments about the small town landscape but it seems to me that the inhabitants of the periphery are not somehow guardians of a nation's culture but rather that a lot of metropolitan distractions are stripped away. It's easier to experience a place when you're not battling with people trying to sell you things or being nearly run over every time you cross the street. In some ways small towns are like cities that are more relaxed, more manageable, but there is however a different orientation. A small town has a centre, and people from nearby areas are drawn to it. Its centripetal force is even stronger than in a big, spread-out city precisely because it is compact.

07 November 2010

Tis the season (of Diwali)

Diwali has a nice tagline; it's the "Festival of Lights." In Hinduism, it commemorates the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after fourteen years of exile and an epic battle with the demon Ravana. But just as Christmas as celebrated today has a tenuous connection with a guy born in a shed in ancient Palestine who may or may not have been God incarnate, Diwali, which fell on 5 November this year, is about eating good food, spending time with family and, of course, blowing stuff up.

26 October 2010

My India is great

Meraa bhaarat mahaan” is a patriotic phrase that you see painted everywhere, meaning “my India is great.” I don’t know where it comes from but it’s gloriously open ended. You neither have to specify that Delhi has just built itself a gleaming, world-class Metro system nor explain away the beggars and sick dogs on the streets.

As I await the arrival of American friends and family, I’m looking for a strategy to introduce them to India without recourse either to the guidebook clichés of a land of moonlit Mughal tombs or to a raft of health and safety regulations (don’t eat fruit you haven’t peeled yourself, look right then left when crossing the street, etc). Having lived here and studied Indian cultural history for my PhD, I’d like to think that for my own purposes I have a pretty good sense of the place—although admittedly I am always conscious of being an outsider. But how do I share my India with them?

15 October 2010

The thin line between twenty-six and twenty-seven

I had to double check my age so that I wouldn't repeat the surreal few months of my life after I turned 22 and had been telling everyone I was 23. But, yes, tomorrow I celebrate 27 years. Am I being dramatic when the quote coming to mind to commemorate the occasion is from Shakespeare's Richard II?
I wasted time; now time doth waste me.

03 October 2010

Milton in India: Poetry and Tradition

I'm taking a break from watching the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony—I can report that sports commentary is inane even with an Indian accent. Perhaps "watching" isn't the right word because the news channel NDTV was only allowed to show clips of less than thirty seconds and on a seven minute delay. There's nothing else to do because almost every business in Delhi was shut so I had a meditative day at home.

One thing I thought about was the reason I came to study India in the first place: Living tradition. When I first visited Delhi six years ago, I had a kind of conversion and realised that my degree in Classics was not my preferred way of studying literature because Indians on the whole had a much better sense of the continuity of their culture than Westerners. When we study Classics in the West, we have a tendency to forget about the most interesting aspect of the texts we study, namely their two millennia-long influence on our culture. As I read it, the rapid decline of cultural literacy in the West after the First World War made Classics departments circle the waggons around the study of antiquity and insist that anything else is Comparative Literature. We only study Greece and Rome, 400 BC to 200 AD, but you can study anything you want.

28 September 2010

In which I get quoted in a Yahoo! News India article whose premise I reject

A recent post in Yahoo! News India by Nitin Pai called "We Are Not South Asian" cites some research I did for SAJAforum about the origins of the term "South Asia." I wrote two years ago that its first modern usage recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1951 and that it was clearly invented to more-or-less cover "the nation-states created out of the former territories of British India" without saying that ungainly phrase every time.

The gist of Mr Pai's article is that "South Asia" is not only geographically misleading but more importantly that it creates a false identity, namely that it tricks us into thinking there are people called "South Asians" when there are really only Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. I take exception to both lines of reasoning.

25 September 2010

“Your mind expands when you chat with people”

That’s what Gopal, a painter working in our flat, told me as he and his partner were polishing some furniture they had finished staining. This conversation in Hindi was sort of a breakthrough for me because since arriving in India just over a week ago literally every single other person I’ve conversed with in India either preferred speaking English with me or was too stuck-up to have a conversation--and let's face it, in status-conscious Delhi that happens frequently. Gopal, on the other hand, spoke very little English so by necessity when he invited me to inspect his work and have a seat, the language of conversation was to be Hindi (since I didn't speak his native Bengali).

He apologises for his poor English but explains that people in his economic stratum in West Bengal state were educated in Bengali and Hindi, and English is an afterthought. “So for us, we can understand some English but it’s hard to speak; just like you understand Hindi, right?, but have some difficulty speaking,” he said. (I've translated our conversation from Hindi.)

It's more like reading Kafka in Delhi

As I sit here at peace with the world, Beethoven's Für Elise is wafting incongruously through the air in C-Block of Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi. This was not how I spent my morning. No, my morning was spent despairingly at the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO).

Salman Rushdie has observed that “at the frontier, our liberty is stripped away—we hope temporarily—and we enter the universe of control. Even the freest of societies are unfree at the edge…” Of course I have no reservations about the need for the Indian government to record where foreign citizens live. But the arbitrariness of the procedures I had to follow is an indictment of a country that claims to have clawed its way out of such investment-killing inefficiency.

22 September 2010

Blogging Milton from India, introduction

Besides a Hindi-English dictionary, I brought one very heavy book with me to India: John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose Works. Most people know Milton as the author of Paradise Lost but he wrote a lot more during a career that came to define sixteenth-century English letters. He was both a popular poet and deeply intellectual, rather like Shakespeare, whose plays appealed both to the noblemen in the VIP seats and the commoners standing below them.

Why am I reading Milton in India? There are two reasons, the first of which is just that my eleven months here are a circumscribed chapter in my life and I need a project to lead me through them. The system is closed: I am in India for the first time as a professional scholar, and the rules of my Fulbright grant literally do not allow me to leave the country without putting my funding in jeopardy. Despite a steady stream of cameo appearances by friends and family from my American life, that life has been paused so I can have this one. Because this period stands apart, I thought I should have a project, and it can't be my dissertation since writing it will last at least a year after I return from India. So I'm going to blog, maybe once a week or every two weeks, about what I've read in Milton.

19 September 2010

India is great...

...but I'm trying to put together a publishable article about my arrival here and about preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next month. If that gets rejected from wherever I send it, I'll put it here instead.

09 September 2010

Traduttore, traditore! More sad news about military translators in Afghanistan

An ABC News report yesterday offered damning evidence that Mission Essential Personnel, a contractor hiring interpreters to work with US troops in Afghanistan, provided the military with interpreters who have either limited proficiency in Afghan languages (Dari and Pashto) or don't speak much English. Sweeping aside the cinematic illusion that if you say something in English everybody will be on the same page, it's clear that one of the fundamental problems with American involvement in Afghanistan has always been communication.

I tackled the question two years ago in an article for SAJAforum. I analyzed a Guardian video project by John McHugh (who is also quoted in the recent ABC article). The eight-minute long video is subtitled so you can watch the dysfunction unfold in real-time as the translator consistently misrepresents the words of the Afghan civilians to the American soldiers and vice versa. Numerous opportunities for constructive engagement are lost. The shred of mutual trust on either side at beginning doesn't survive the translation.

03 September 2010

Mommy, when I grow up can I be an Indologist?

One blog is key to my daily procrastination routine: Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish. Sullivan himself is taking his summer vacation but Conor Friedersdorf, one of his deputy bloggers--I know it's an odd idea that a blog branded for its writer can have an editorial team but Sullivan's defense of the practice is compelling--has solicited anonymous reader emails on the prompt "About My Job."

It's been a remarkable exercise (ever wondered what a mortician or a pharmacist really thinks about his/her job?) which has become that much more remarkable after an email from an Indologist was posted. An Indologist! Now I am not an Indologist because that term refers to someone who studies pre-Modern South Asia and my research focuses on the eighteenth century (what we call the "Early Modern" period), but all of the writer's experiences explaining the field to well-meaning but confused interlocutors exactly track with mine. The word "Indologist" isn't even in my web browser's spellchecker.

Instead of "Indologist," the anonymous emailer writes, people often hear "entomologist." When I have described my field as "South Asian Studies," I have sometimes received the follow up question, "so you study missionaries?" I was completely flummoxed until I figured out that people had been hearing "salvation studies." And of course what I really study is philology (the historical study of language and literature, more or less), but most people have no idea what that is and fill in either "philosophy" or less commonly "phlebotomy." (I would have assumed the writer was exaggerating with the last one except that I have experienced it myself.)

Even stranger is that fact that I think I have figured out who the writer is. I believe it's Professor Wendy Doniger of UChicago's Divinity School. I don't know her personally, though I've heard her speak and I've read a number of her articles, and I think the prose style is exactly right. It was clearly written by someone who is a senior academic because the writer has a certain poise that takes years to develop in a field as complicated and fascinating as Indology. There is a reference to knowing Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan, which also suggests someone who has been at it for years. The writing isn't gendered but I think I detect a women's voice which narrows the field to female Indologists. Lastly the writer states that her favorite author is Milan Kundera, whom Doniger has quoted in articles. I think the odds I have it right are pretty good (though if I'm wrong, please let me know).

I'll close with her eloquent case for why academics often study and teach subjects that seem to have no immediate social value:
But apart from terminology, most people have no idea why one would even do such a thing. The reconstruction and analysis of ancient India? To what possible end? What possible use could that be to us in the modern world? My answer can only be this: that ancient India is an exceptionally interesting subject, not an exceptionally “important” one. But what is important is that, through the disciplines of the Humanities, people  make the effort to look at other times and other places in order better to reflect upon themselves. ...
The purpose of my field, then, is to understand something about the ways of being human in the world. And if I could find a single term to convey all that I’d be home free!
If only...

26 August 2010

Exciting title: Descriptive title

A headline from The Onion that I really like:
A Statement Followed By A Question Separated By A Colon: An Effective Journalistic Technique?
We have the same colon-related cliché problem in academia. There is an unspoken rule that every conference paper title has to be both engaging and descriptive, for example
Meet the Beetles: A Prosopographic Study of Entomological References in Budge Collection Papyri 34 and 35

22 August 2010

The art of writing well and avoiding Michiko Kakutani

The myth of the novelist as genius: The writer locks himself in his chilly garret, works flat out with little sleep and less food using an outmoded instrument (a quill pen or a forty year old Olivetti typewriter), and emerges with a fully realized work that perfectly explicates the human condition. That novel then becomes a classic to be read by generations of high school students and undergraduates.

What does that version conveniently elide from the process? Advances, printing, book tours, publicity, delivery, royalties, and so on. The fact is that though things were much simpler in the fifteenth century, variations of these intermediate steps were there even when William Caxton was printing the first English books (he was in it to make money after all). We cling to the Romantic idea that if someone writes a worthy story, it makes it into the hands of the reading public with no fuss. But behind every author is a good editor and behind every good editor is a publishing company whose functionaries have decided an idea is marketable. And of course a good writer has very little chance of coming to the attention of a good editor without a good agent. Aha, you might say, but didn't Stephen King write his breakout novel Carrie in the back room of a laundromat? He had a good agent.

19 August 2010

Strange Fruit: The "Ground Zero Mosque" thing is racism...

An incident at another protest (of the non-mosque which is not actually at the World Trade Center site) as described by The Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper:
At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.

"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.

"Get out," others shouted.

In fact, the two men – Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry — were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.

11 August 2010

America the secular

People who invoke the Founding Fathers as evidence that our nation has slipped from an ideal sadly tend to be themselves more doctrinaire and closed-minded than the Founding Fathers were. It is an unfortunate reality that society allows people who are reactionaries to call themselves patriots, while people who think holistically about social and political problems are pushed from one unsatisfying label to another. “Liberal” went from being a positive identity to a slur and its preferred replacement, “progressive,” now too is more often employed as invective than not. Those who style themselves defenders of liberty, no matter how absurd their factual or ethical claims are shown to be, have been allowed to monopolize Americanness (which is a failure of both the Left and the Center in our politics). To my mind their narrow definitions of patriotism demean our nation because they require us to forget our history.

The abuse of history by people who should know better (Newt Gingrich, for example, has a PhD in history) warrants reflection. Consider the proposition that the United States was founded as “a Christian nation,” an erroneous assumption from which many others flow. Christianity has a privileged place in our society for legitimate historical and cultural reasons but a not insignificant minority of Americans believe our government today should be openly Christian even though the Founding Fathers explicitly rejected that option. If devout Christians feel under threat because of workplace emails explaining Yom Kippur and Ramadan (which incidentally begins today) that is only because we as a nation have forgotten our founding principles: Everyone's faith, whether familiar or unfamiliar to the majority of Americans, is equal.

08 August 2010

I don't think this would ever happen in the US...

Jón Gnarr, the Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, came to the city's gay pride parade dressed in drag (he's straight and married). Here's the picture of the comedian-turned-politician. But maybe this isn't a surprise from the country whose Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, is the only openly-gay head of government in the world.

On a very different but still Icelandic topic, I just learned that Icelanders don't have surnames. I knew there are a lot of "X-sson" ["son of X"] and "X-dóttir" ["daughter of X"] names around but I figured that was a relic like "Johnson" in English. But no, it turns out that they are real patronymics: Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir actually is the daughter of Sigurður, and you have to call her by her full name or as "Jóhanna" rather than "Ms Sigurðardóttir," which doesn't make any sense. Phonebooks in Iceland are alphabetical by first name but apparently also list a person's profession in order to reduce confusion. Having found out all of this, I really want to take advantage of one of Icelandair's cheap flights.

07 August 2010

Eerie silence from anti-same-sex marriage legal minds after Prop 8 ruling

Round one of the federal Prop 8 trial ended last Wednesday when Judge Vaughn Walker released his findings, handing the pro-same-sex marriage side a resounding victory. The trial was a historic event because for the first time in America history, homophobic people (who claimed repeatedly they were not homophobic) were forced to present evidence supporting their views in federal court and they failed spectacularly. Stripped of innuendo or recourse to religious doctrine, there was nothing for them to say. The lead anti-same-sex-marriage lawyer, Chuck Cooper, even let slip during closing arguments that felt he didn't need to offer evidence (ctd at p 10 in Walker's ruling). That won't fly anymore.

Digital ink was spilled across the web celebrating the eloquence and rational underpinnings of Judge Walker's decision, as well as its canny construction. It was designed to appeal to Justice Kennedy, who will be, as usual, the swing-vote when the case inevitably arrives at the Supreme Court in a year or two. (Dahlia Lithwick offers an excellent analysis in Slate). For me what was most interesting were the reactions from people opposed to same-sex marriage in the wake of this defeat.

29 July 2010

U of Toronto Centre for Comp. Lit. re-org is a terrible idea

“Who the hell cares?” is the reaction that 99% of the world would have to the reorganization of the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto—if they knew about it. Basically the administration have proposed subsuming the Centre into a new School of Languages and Literatures, along with a jumble of East Asian Studies, Italian, German, Slavic Languages, Spanish and Portuguese, but there are also more subtle, worrying changes. It’s part of a larger trend of universities thinking about the bottom line rather than about how to make good teaching and scholarship happen.

01 July 2010

Joel Stein's racism problem (sigh)

In next week's issue of Time (it's already up on the web and has been making the rounds of the blogosphere), there is a painfully unfunny observation column by Joel Stein called "My Own Private India." It's a comparison between the lilywhite Edison, NJ of his childhood and the much browner Edison of today. (According to the 2000 census, Edison has the highest concentration of Indian-Americans in the country at about 18%.)

I wanted to write a detailed post to explain what exactly makes me so uncomfortable about the piece but Sepia Mutiny beat me to it in a post that is as hilarious as Stein's article is cringe-worthy. My advice, seconded by SM, comes down to this: If you're going to toe the line between racism and comedy based on race, which is exactly what Stein is trying to do, then you have to have a point (or get a free pass by being a member of the ethnic group you're satirizing). That's what seems to be lacking in Stein's essay--no one on the web seems to be able to figure out why he would have written something like this except that the author thinks it's funny, which isn't enough when talking about race.

28 June 2010

Ivy League follow-up

I argued a few days ago that the Ivy League is held to a very strange standard, which results in professions of love or hatred but nothing in between. Not surprisingly, politics often uses it for a bit of rhetorical point-scoring.

Rick Santorum, the hyper-conservative former Senator from Pennsylvania who regularly says completely insane things, also has a reflective side. He nicely sums up what he considers President Obama's detachment from "the American people" (all errors in the original):
Obama is detached form the American experience.  He just doesn’t identify with the average American because of his own background.  Indonesia and Hawaii.  His view is from the viewpoint of academics and the halls of the Ivy league schools that he went to and it’s not a love of this country and an understanding of the basic values and wants and desires of it’s people.  And as a result of that, he doesn’t connect with people at that level.
So in essence, if you've had anything to do with the State of Hawaii or an Ivy League university then you're not really American. (Unless of course you're Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Charles Krauthammer, John Ashcroft or one of the many, many other conservative bigwigs who darkened the halls of the Ivy League--then somehow your elite education does not cloud your judgment about the hoi polloi.) Last time I checked, that's not the way it works.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

UPDATE (29 September 2010): Amazingly, according to Newsweek, Christine O'Donnell, the batty Sarah Palin-backed Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware, has claimed to have studied at both Princeton and Oxford. Of course neither is true and she only got her bachelor's degree last year. The incident shows how even those who most vociferously oppose academic elitism are in thrall to it (in the same way that it cannot be coincidence that so many anti-gay preachers have been caught carrying on same-sex affairs with parishioners and rentboys).

25 June 2010

Pruning the Ivy: Why I don't believe in the tyranny of elite universities

I’ve met plenty of arrogant, entitled people—and I make no apology for my cordial detestation of them—in the decade I’ve spent at two Ivy League universities (Princeton, Columbia). When people generalize about the Ivy League as an institution, it seems to me, they’re actually expressing their perceptions, right and wrong, of the people who have attended Ivy League universities. But when you consider the fact that there are nasty people in every walk of life and in every organization, blaming elite universities for having a percentage of unpleasant people is unfair. It cannot be an admissions office’s job to figure out whether someone is a nice person or not.

The conversation about the role of elite universities in American life yields no middle ground. On one side are the people who honestly believe that the universities in the Ivy League (eight old, private institutions on the East Coast that happened to have football teams in the 1930s) are the points of a golden compass keeping America on its bearings and producing the only people really worth talking to. The other side argues that the leafy campuses are bastions of privilege and represent the worst of our society, the preserve of a self-perpetuating elite that is responsible for American arrogance abroad, the collapse of our financial system at home and general mediocrity. Many of the fiercest critics themselves went to an Ivy League university and were horrified by some of their boorish classmates.

31 May 2010

Trains! Death! Moral Philosophy!

The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment created by the Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot in the context of the ethics of abortion. Until recently I had never heard of it even though it's well-known among philosophers. This month, the BBC World Service devoted an entire documentary to it called “Would You Kill the Big Guy?” Despite some hokey production choices (including a philosophy-themed gameshow), the two-part series is well worth a listen. I would have been happy to leave the Trolley Problem to professional philosophers except that as I thought about it, I realized that it's not an exaggeration to call it one of the best tools for moral thinking that we have.

The most basic version of the Trolley Problem is this: There is a runaway train hurtling down a track and five unsuspecting workmen are about to be flattened. You notice a junction that could shunt the train onto another track where there is only a single worker. The lever that operates the junction is right next to you. What do you do? Do you allow fate to take its course and the five to die, or do you intervene, pulling the lever and saving the five but directly causing the death of the one? (We assume that there are no other solutions, such as shouting a warning. Since this is a thought experiment, there is no need to add endless extraneous details such as that the workers can’t hear you because they’re listening to their iPods.)

23 April 2010

The battle of the novel and the physics textbook

Why study the humanities, stated with a burning conviction by Rabindranath Tagore:
The real truth is that science is not man’s nature, it is mere knowledge and training. By knowing the laws of the material universe you do not change your deeper humanity. You can borrow knowledge, but you cannot borrow temperament.
Of course we all like suspension bridges, antibiotics and computers, but our technical mastery over the world will be as pathetic as Ozymandias if we lose what makes us human, namely what Tagore calls "temperament" (I'm not sure what word he uses in Bengali).

11 April 2010

Death over Smolensk

After the crash that killed the President of Poland, most of the top officials in government, and several Solidarity-era heroes, I am reminded of a few lines by Jan Kochanowski (1530-84),  "the Polish Shakespeare":
Jedenże tylko sposób człowiekowi
Jest urodzić się, a zginąć tak wiele
Dróg jest, że tego niepodobno zgadnąć.
There is only one way for a person
to be born, but so many roads lead
to death, that you can never even guess.

29 March 2010

Pitch perfect: A couple of lines from Faiz

A friend of mine recently reacquainted me with a couplet by the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-84):

nahiin nigah mein manzil to justajuu hii sahii
nahiin visaal muyassar to aarzuu hii sahii

If I can't get a glance [of my beloved] then at least I have the search itself,
If union [with my beloved] is impossible then at least I have desire itself.

25 March 2010

To have and have not

For months now, American politics has had the inertia of a banana republic's government with endless machinations that led to no real policy. So today healthcare has been voted on for what feels like the forty-seventh time, and finally, for better or for worse, our government has managed to accomplish something sweeping. I had a taste of two different political worlds today: one in first class on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago and the second in a Chicago cab with a chatty driver.

13 March 2010

The Tragical History of Sullivan Hyder

Three years ago in the British Library, I came across a remarkable set of letters scattered across the East India Company records having to do with the Company's training policies. The dozen or so letters that piqued my interest deal with Sullivan Hyder, a mixed-race boy born in England in 1811 who became a printer's apprentice and eventually had to leave England because there was no prospect of his finding work there.

I wanted to write an academic article about the status of Indian language teachers in the early nineteenth-century using the documents concerning his family, but unfortunately Professor Michael Fisher beat me to it in his Counterflows to Colonialism. Since Professor Fisher had followed the documentary evidence as far as it would go, I put the story of Sullivan Hyder away. Recently though, as I started planning a historical novel that I am nowhere near ready to write, it occurred to me that Sullivan could be a faithful friend to me if he were the main character in a short story. With Sullivan's help, I can find the right voice for my novel before I start it.

10 February 2010

Irony alert: The CA gay marriage trial judge is gay

Last weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that Judge Vaughn Walker, the federal district court judge presiding over the case seeking to overturn California's gay marriage ban (Prop. 8), is himself gay. And to think that at the beginning of the trial there was a lot of hand-wringing by pro-same-sex marriage commentators over whether Judge Walker might be instinctively anti-gay. Well, now we know.

07 February 2010

Et à l'aurore...

I'm a graduate student training to be a university professor. After a few years in the trenches, my writing now conforms to academic style. Instead of being light and playful, it has become ponderous and self-serious even when I'm not writing for other scholars. I need to get over this.