Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Interpreter for the Bengali Diaspora



Like Ray’s globe-trotter Manomohan Mitra (in “Agontuk” or “The Stranger”)1, the Bengali has never been a “KupoMonduk”. The Bengali migration has not just been across the barbed wires separating the two Bengals, but has often carried him across the oceans, to new continents and cultures. Jhumpa Lahiri is a product of that “Wanderlust”. More than any other writer of her time, Jhumpa has emerged as a spokesperson of her generation, one that has been born and brought up outside Bengal, spent their lives far away from the sights and sounds of this land. It is a life lived in a myriad of fragmented cultural identities. The middle class Bengali values of home, the All-American values at school and the big wide world, the Indian identity at Diwali, all combine, collide, embrace and sometimes repel each other in this strange whirlwind of immigrant existence. We have met this generation, often looked at them with the curiosity of a stranger, but have never quite been able to fathom the complexities and confusions that surround their lives.


It is a generation, often misunderstood, by Bengalis at home, and at large, by the Indian community, which alludes to the word “A.B.C.D” with deriding connotations. But such casual, offhand criticisms do little in understanding the complex dynamics of the American born Bengali generation. The one dimensional clich├ęs that have existed in Bollywood (and very recently in Tollywood too) in the name of “crossover cinema” have only worked in order to enhance these widely believed stereotypes, but have failed to give us a more nuanced look at this generation. Jhumpa, on the other hand, tells the tales of more ordinary people, multihued characters who are far away from the cartoonish caricatures of pop culture. In the “Namesake”, Moushumi Majumder (often described as a character close to Jhumpa’s own self) does not try to balance Bollywood and ballet, nor is she given to the stereotype of the Western Bengali fawning over “Baul”. Moushumi is intelligent, self assured, reads French feminist theory, and carries herself in her own friend’s circle without the burdens of expressing her Indianness.


But questions of identity creep in more subtly into her literature. The sense of belonging or the absence of it expresses itself in strange ways through the pages of her stories. To some, the faraway land that one has left behind becomes a mere detail in their lives. Dev, in “Sexy”, defines his identity simply by a point in the map of the subcontinent. Beyond that, he says to his girlfriend, there’s
“nothing she’ll need to worry about”. It was a life that he was prepared to forget, just like the wife he had at home, in those precious moments with Miranda. While some forget easily, others cling to their identities with a zealous passion like Mrs. Sen. She wears her identity in multi colored sarees (and stores more of it in the form of more sarees in the wardrobe), her cravings for fish and in her refusal to adapt to the customs of the new land.


The house has come up as a dominant motif in diaspora literature, time and again. In Naipaul’s protagonist Mohan Biswas, whose life is in many ways a symbolism for the existence of the displaced amidst others, we notice the strange yearning to own a house, a tract of land that he can call his own. Amidst strange people in strange places, one’s own house becomes the only expression of a threatened identity. Sanjeev, in “the Blessed House”, becomes zealously protective of his home. Although not overtly religious, he violently opposes the placing of Christian memorabilia in his home. His repeated insistence signals the insecurity that he faces over his identity, and that he wants to cling on to the image of the house that he presents to strangers as the only source of his identity in a foreign land.


The sense of displacement is also often accompanied by the pangs of separation. None expresses it better than Mr. Pirzada. Mr. Pirzada’s life is an anachronism in the most literal sense. The arms of the small pocket watch that he carries, points to the time in Bangladesh, where he regularly calls his own near and dear ones. The concept of time, in this foreign place, carries to him, no other meaning. There can be no better symbolism of displaced existence, one that captures the protagonist in that one small idiosyncratic moment, and reveals him in such great detail. While new identities are created, old identities which have expressed themselves so fiercely elsewhere merge seamlessly in this distant land. The two Bengals come together at the dining table as Mr. Pirzada “eats rice with his bare hands”, and the baffled young child expresses, as nobody else can, the futility of partition.
“It made no sense to me” she says “Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes….chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive…. Nevertheless, my father insisted that I learnt the difference”.


Finally, the greatest source of cultural confusion, as Jhumpa has correctly identified it, is names. Which immigrant has not faced this situation, when in an apparently friendly crowd, the harmless question of “What is your name” suddenly creates that odd feeling of isolation, when you want to look away from the prying eyes? To Gogol Ganguli, life’s confusions start with his own name, a name that suddenly separates the All-American kid from his peers. To the young Dixit girl (in the story “Sexy”), who used to be taunted with “The Dixits dig shit” in her school bus stop, the Indian name is more than a source of confusion, it is a deep scar that she will carry throughout her life. It is Jhumpa’s ability to put into paper these small fleeting moments of humiliation and shame that makes her a great writer.


But Lahiri, inspite of the rich social experiences portrayed through her writings, is hardly an “academic’s writer” or a “postcolonial poster girl”. She is, rather, a “writer’s writer”, more of a craftsman, one who carves a beautiful narratives out of everyday existence. Jhumpa is a product of that new generation of writers, whose training in writing has been in the “creative writing” classrooms of Ivy League universities, leafing through the Janet Burroways and the Yellow Gotham softcovers. One can see in her the qualities of a trained writer, a sharp eye for detail and complex character sketches. She eyes the Bengali life with the wonder and the curiosity of an outsider. The intricacies of mundane Bengali life take a new color in her pen. When the young child wonders why Pranab kaku barges into the house without knocking or an appointment, or Mr. Pirzada makes a deep well in the rice to pour more lentil soup, or when Eliot notes with surprise as Mrs. Sen uses “a blade that curved like the prow of a Viking ship” (“bnoti”) to cut vegetables, it is only Jhumpa who stands with one feet on each aisle can capture these tiny, insignificant moments so beautifully. Her building of a scene often reminds one of John Updike. Like Updike, her portrayal of small town America is rich in detail and imagination, signaling a sensuous engagement with reality.


But perhaps Jhumpa’s greatest strength is in her portrayals of characters. Through each small incident, each idiosyncrasy, she slowly and painfully constructs her characters. Each of her characters is a different human being, one who deals and lives with her immigrant identity in her own unique way. They are often lovable, sometimes selfish, but they resonate with the warmth of proximity. Take Aparna for example, the protagonist’s mother in the story “Hell Heaven”
2. Even when she emerges as a control freak mother to her teenage daughter, we never forget the greyer shades of her character. Her muted expression of love for Pranab kaku, her unhappy marriage and confinement in a foreign land, her conservative Bengali values, all reinforce each other to create a character that is richly layered. But amidst all these complications, she never seems a distant woman, a woman who could reside only in the pages of a novel. In moments that she longs to hear “Boudi”, or discusses “Nargis, Raj and the umbrella” with the bubbliness of a teenager, we could see in her the newly married girl next door. It is this ability to build convincing and endearing characters that separates Jhumpa from the scores of others in the same trade.


The major criticism against Jhumpa is that she has rarely stepped beyond the Bengali-American perspective. New York Magazine, in speaking of her new book, writes
“Unaccustomed Earth is, once again, about upwardly mobile South Asians from New England”.3 But then Hardy never went beyond Wessex or Faulkner beyond the Yoknapatawpha County. R.K Narayan never went beyond the small town in South India, nor did Jhumpa’s other idol Gogol go beyond cold and damp St. Petersburg. Jhumpa herself retorts “It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.”3 Writing is a craft that’s deeply personal. Stories are not drawn out of vacuum, but out of cold hard reality. But the writer does not merely document reality, she transcends its objectivity. Jhumpa has done it time and again, telling us how upwardly-mobile-South-Asians-in-New-England is not just a stereotype, but an endless variety of faces whose lives and dreams represent the world itself in a microcosm. In doing this, Jhumpa has ushered in a new era in Indian literature, and we hope, there comes out more of her kind, “from Jhumpa’s Overcoat”.

References:
1. http://www.satyajitray.org/films/agantuk.htm
2. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/05/24/040524fi_fiction
3. http://nymag.com/arts/books/profiles/45571/?imw=Y


The post originally appeared in "Bangalnama". This is a very interesting webzine run by a group of friends, in an effort to chronicle and celebrate the culture, politics and identity of (erstwhile) East Bengal. It is an issue close to my heart, as it is an history whose bits and pieces I have grown up seeing. The webzine contains a number of interesting posts, which I would highly recommend.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bikes and Boyhood Memories

As I lifted my new bike up the stairs of my Apartment, I remembered an older bike, thinner and lightweight. I, too, was then, a skinny young teenager, so different from my present persona. I used to lift the bike on my shoulders, my thin frame barely managing to carry it beyond the first floor stairwell. Slim, maroon, shining new, and it was probably one of the few possessions that I was careful to keep that way. Most memories rust, like neglected furniture in monsoon verandahs, but a precious few must be remembered sometimes, wiped clean of dust, to whisper to us, of happier times, more carefree days.

The bike was an everyday companion, one with whom I have probably spent more lonely evenings in little known neighborhoods, than with the best of friends. Small town “mophoswol” childhoods are blessed with a certain feeling of reassurance. Neighborhoods may be unknown, but were rarely unfriendly. I may drift far away, but down a few blocks, I will always know a “kaku” or “dada”, the kind who always knew how to set things right (or so it seemed back then). Long relaxing bike rides across winding alleys, the wayward slum off the township, or planned officer quarters with neatly trimmed gardens started becoming the time I looked forward to, through boring classes on moral science, geography and SUPW.

As dusk settled on blast furnaces and employee quarters, middle aged housewives peeked from their balconies, their eyes still heavy with contented “bhaat ghum”sand a cup of tea in their hands. The cacophony in the kitchen would announce “Kaajer mashi’s” hurry in doing the last utensils of the day, and a tea cup with a Mary’s biscuit at the corner of the plate, would sum up the Bengali idea of “bikelbela”. I would meanwhile, find an excuse to sneak out, carry my cycle downstairs, and away!

It was that time of life, when thinking of profound questions gave me a feeling of wisdom, a sudden heady feeling of being grown up. Big names crowded my head, and “reflection” had suddenly turned into an activity. It was also a time of guilty pleasures. It was in one of those bike rides, a few neighborhoods away, when I gathered up the courage to go and ask a middle aged shopkeeper “ekta filter wills”, feigning the offhand air of a regular. I still remember how I felt dizzy, after my first cigarette, and was almost falling off the cycle. But of all feelings, the sweetest was that of freedom. My protective Bengali childhood, the expectation of peers and parents, the stress of end semester, the pressure to conform to changing fashions of teenage, and most of all, the pressure of growing up, were all tossed by the wayside, as the bicycle whizzed past neighborhood houses.


Today, visions of neat, orderly, contented American life, with plasma Television sets flashing in the living room, and water raining down upon bushes trimmed with geometric precision pass me as I ride down the slopes of Pittsburgh’s hilly terrains. This land feels strange, the smell of the earth unknown, but I can feel the same bliss of freedom on a bicycle seat, that my younger self felt years, years ago.


P.S. The post is heavy on Bengali words. So, here is an appendix.

"mophoswol" :small town

"kaku":Uncle

"Dada":Elder brother

"bikelbela":dusk

"kaajer mashi": housemaid

"bhat ghum": En extended nap after a heavy lunch (which consists mainly of rice and curries)

"ekta filter wills": "One filter Wills please" ("Filter Wills" is a popular brand of cigarette)


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Musings

This is more of a note to myself than a blogpost.
I just started reading William Barrett's "Irrational Man: A study in existential philosophy".
I have merely read through 30-40 pages, but I can feel that same sense of excitement, that I had encountered when I was first introduced to Postmodernist thought. In a sparsely populated classroom of a fourth year IIT elective, a most lucid and wonderful teacher had introduced the engineer to Beckett and Camus.

Now, as I try to make sense of postmodernist thought, trying to break through the shackles of fashionable jargon mongering that much of this field is believed to be about, I find in Barrett, the most able guide.

Dostoyevsky seems to make more sense to me now. Raskalnikov's critique of the liberal rationalism that was pervading Russia at the later half of the 19th century seems more fathomable. With the advent of the modern industrial age, as science made inroads into the very depths of the human mind, faith, with all its elaborate rituals and symblisms which had given man strength and purpose, was slowly eroding away from human cosciousness. The great void, a nothingness,surrounded this loss of faith. For the rationalist philosophies which emerged out of this churning never adressed mankind's most intimate issues.
Marxism believed in religion as the opium of the masses, the sigh of the opressed, and it sought to drown the individual within rigid definitions of class. However, what the rationalist philosophies failed to capture was the despair of the modern man, the irrational being whose consciousness transcended the mere mechanics of rational beliefs, whose thoughts were much more than elements made of simple building blocks that the English empiricists loved to play with.

And the journey of the modern man has not been easy, as he has traversed to fill this void that the disappearance of faith has created. Through Nietzsche's sufferings, through Dostoyevsky,Kiekergaard we finally come to the existentialists.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Blogging the elections

I know I am late in the party. The elections have already begun, and the great festival of democracy has reached the zenith of excitement. The war of words have taken ugly turns, the "musical chair" of the less reliable partners is also in full swing. Twenty four hour news channels no longer have to rack their brains to come up with inconsequential news items to fill that void in the "Breaking News" category. The TV channels are having a feast, and so is, I imagine, the middle aged Indian male. Finally, in the battle for the "TV remote control" , there is a credible excuse!

But where do we start analyzing the elections? Is it an election of many firsts? or is it simply a repetition of the same old game of coalition politics, the same "dirty politician's game" that much of middle class India seems to be tired of?

The foremost difficulty in giving a fair perspective of general elections is the problem of memory. Elections come once in five years, and the news that had created waves five years back, the headlines that we had swallowed eagerly has already gone out of our minds. We dont even remember the high drama of the previous elections, the feuds that began and the friendships that were forged, the promises that were made, and the critiques that were made (of the previous regime).

However, to start off, probably all of us acknowledge, that the elections are being fought at times that are quite remarkable, in its own accord. The global economic meltdown has forced the Government in the backfoot. Surely, anti-incubency factor would help the Opposition. However, the BJP does not seem to be interested in cashing in on this issue. This is of course, quite predictable, given that their economic stance has always been more pro free market, pro capitalist. Hence, it is impossible for them to suddenly come out and acknowledge the obvious failures of a newo-liberal economic agenda, and press for a more closed economic system. This wouls also dent their middle class voter base, who depend on the BJP to push forward a more pro-reform policy. The only parties who are at a perfect position to exploit the accidental coincidence of the meltdown and the elections, are the Left parties. They are doing their bit, in blowing their trumpet on how they saved India from being badly hurt by obstructing the reform agenda when they were sharing power. However, the influence of the Left is limited to a few States, and much of their energy in West Bengal is spent on having a one to one battle with Mamata Banerjee,the mercurial leader of Opposition. Little else matters there, as far as election campaigning is concerned.

This is also an election marked by a lack of frenzy, a lack of an utopian hope on a new order, of change that is going to show a new path. Rather, it seems to an election where keeping the house in order seems more important, than shooting for the star. This also looks rather odd, when we look back, and see that the last big election that we followed was an election of huge promises, the "hope for a change". While America was fighting for change amidst an economic recession, and a terrible blunder of a wasteful war, in another part of the world, in a matter of few months, we are seeing an election, where the country is having an election on rather dull issues, and spicy non-issues, where there is little that is expected from each side. India has seen more exciting elections. BJP riding on the Ram Mandir wave, or more recently on the "India Shining" wave, a byuoyant Congress riding on the Gandhi factor. However, all this have become cliche now.
Hence, to keep up the pace, we only see a battle of words between two rather dull people, people for whom words cannot spell the same magic as it could have done for better politicians.

So much for now. It will be a rather busy week in terms of academics, but I promise to come back here and keep up my election blogging.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Spicy Chicken Curry


Cooking,to me, is a weekend luxury, and an integral part of that grand narrative, often described as the "grad student experience". As a rule, I never take the trouble to go through the detailed rituals of Bengali cooking, in weekdays. Weekend evenings, however, are filled with th fragrance of exotic spices, and the smoke alarm lies in the table, its batteries stripped off.
What do I call it, the "chicken kalia", the "chicken bharta", the "chicken korma"? It matters little to a novice like me. Also, not being a "food blogger" technically, I will take the liberty of not classifying the dish into a specialized compartment.
I shall only say, that in this big wide world, I differentiate the tastes of Bengali chicken, into two subclasses. In one class is the "jhol", chicken pieces floating in an enticing watery soup, one that used to be the staple of elaborate Sunday lunches, back in my childhood. Bengali food bloggers often use the name "Robbarer chicken"(The Sunday chicken), which I find immensely nostalgic, and can identify myself readily with the origins of the name. The Sunday chicken is a delicacy, that I have never ever eaten outside, and is actually, an extremely tough dish to make, though you may think on the contrary. It is the simplicity of the dish, and the lack of spices, that makes it tough for a novice cook, who attempts to hide his lack of intution behind the mystifying effect of a concoction of spices, that might entice the indian food novice.
The second, is the chicken with a spicy gravy, one that is relished with a "Roti" or a "Naan" (Indian bread), one which I have ordered in restaurants without fail, since the time I have started eating out.
Still today, the perfect dinner for me, is spicy chicken curry, with Bread.
Hence, the Saturday aventure.Without more ado, let me present to you, my version of the spicy chicken curry. A bachelor, as I am, the quantities are meant for 1 person. Of course, I must caution you, in cooking, the multiplication of spices,does not proceed in a simple linear fashion.

Ingridients

1. Mustard Oil: Chicken needs lots of oil (My weekend cooking is exempt from the general principles of healthy food that I attempt to adhere to)

2. Whole Garam Masala (This is a mixture of spices that my mother used to make at home, but you can find the mixture at any Indian Grocery Store)

3. Onion: 1 (Assuming onions in your kitchen are as big as the ones that abound the supermarkets in Pittsburgh)

4. Ginger Paste

5. Plain Yougurt

6. Minced Garlic (I used the readymade one)

7. Salt

8. Two Split Chicken Breasts

9. Ground Garam Masala (another Indian Store specialty, unless your mom put it in your suitcase while leaving home)

10. Salt

11. Sugar

13. Bay Leaves

14. Green Chilli :1

15. Ground chilli
Method:
  • Cut the onion into half. Put half of the onion into the mixer with a little water. Make a paste of the onion.
  • Cut the chicken into medium sized pieces
  • Put the chicken pieces in a bowl. Pour the onion paste into it. Add 2-3 spoons of ginger paste, about half a spoonful of minced garlic (I am not so sure about the garlic, as I have grown up in a non-garlic household. However, I just add a pinch, influenced by the bengali cooking experts on the internet). Add about 4-5 Spoons of Yogurt. 1-1.5 spoon ground Garam Masala and about 1/2 a spoon of turmeric.Add about 1/2 a spoon of ground chilli (Depends on how spicy it is). Cover the chicken and let it marinate for a couple of hours. The more, the merrier. When I plan in advance for guests, I would generally do this process the day before, and let the chicken marinade overnight. However, the bachelors own eating plans are never made days in advance, and hence a couple of hours is the standard advice. In my scant experience, I have found marination to be an extremely useful tip in the chicken cook's bag of tricks. The more you marinade the chicken, the more the juices go into it, it becomes softer, and the less you have to cook it.However, you need not worry if you want to skip the marination part also. If you are in a real hurry, just leave it for 5-10 minutes, while you are arranging the other stuff, and getting the oil to heat up.
  • Okay, part One is over. Come back after two hours. Put 4-5 spoons of mustard oil in the pan and heat.
  • While the oil is heating, slice the other halkf of the onion that is left.
  • Once the oil is smoking hot,Put the bayleaves.
  • Now put the onions into the hot oil. Be careful to stir the onion continously, otherwise the hot oil will cause the onion to burn black. This is one of the most common mistakes of the novice cook. You must cook the onions only till they are transparent. Never let them turn dark brown.
  • Put 1 spoon of sugar. The sugar in US really does not do anything to the taste. In this case,it is advantageous, because I want the sugar only for the color. If its the Indian sugar, add less.
  • As the onion starts turning transparent, add the whole Garam Masala. I just add it with my hand. It is difficult to give an exact estimate, but lets say 1 spoon. Keep stirring it in this whole process. Otherwise, the masala will get burnt spoiling the whole effort.
  • When the onion starts turning brown, add the marinated chicken.I add 1-2 more tablespoons of oil at this point. Since most of the initial oil is now spent in frying the onions and whole garam masala..Voila! you are done. thats it to the "adding ingridients" process. The rest is the painful task of stirring it throughout the cooking procedure.
  • Make sure, throughout the process, the gas is set at high. Now, keep stirring it, coating the chicken with the masalas. I cannot overemphasize the importance of continously stirring the whole concoction, for otherwise, the oil will burn the masala, which will stick to the bottom of the pan, and this will spoil the whole taste ( I have burned it a number of times, and hence, the advice, even at the cost of repetition).
  • Add about 2 spoons of salt (or as per your own estimate).
  • Add one sliced green chilli.
  • The gas should be high, and the pan uncovered, so that the water evaporates. Then, the masala, as well as the chicken will get fried in the oil. The process should continue for a painful 20-25 minutes (Trust me you will get more than compensated when you start eating!). As you keep stirring it continously, you will find the oil is seperating from the spices. This process is called "koshano" and is an integral part of the art of bengali cooking.Its also one of the cook's "Nirvana" moments, when he finds that he has learnt the art to perfection, and without burning the spices, he has managed to get the separation.
  • Keep adding little water when you feel the spices are sticking to the pan. Add water, and let it evaporate, then add a little more water. You should do this a couple of times.
  • If you have not had the chance to marinade the chicken, you can cover it cook for about 10 minutes, so that the chicken gets cooked properly.
  • Then remove the cover, and let the water evaporate, so that you are left only with a thick gravy.
  • Remove the pan from the stove.
  • The best way to eat the dish, as I said, is with Naan, or Roti.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Issues and Non Issues

So is this a new trend in this year's elections?
Or is it my memory turning rusty?

First there was Varun Gandhi, the neglected stepson of the Gandhi family, playing hard to make it to the frontpages. Then there was the non descript journalist from some mediocre Hindi daily, hurling shoes at Chidambaram in the Bush way. There's Narendra Modi discussing some shit about "Budiyas" and "Gudiyas", which I have not even cared to listen to.

Elections in India, just as in other parts of the world, have always been fought over fancy issues, over utter non issues. But, this, somehow, is carrying politics beyond levels of ridicule.

The country has a lot on its plate. There is an Indian economy that is fighting its own battles over an inclusive model of development, and is being further tested by the recession, that is shaking the very foundations of the free market. Then, there is the issue of security, one which the BJP, one would have thought, would aggressively campaign about.
However, these campaigns have been a damp squib. What has taken centerstage, rather, is the Advani-Manmohan battle of words, or the shoe throwing tantrum.

One wonders, what happened to serious democracy?
When cricket has reduced itself to IPL, has the election also reduced itself to a few fast food'esqe news bytes on the front page?

Monday, March 23, 2009

I have been reading some African-American literature in bits and pieces for the past few weeks. Not that I had specially planned to educate myself about this dark underbelly of American culture in some systematic fashion, but it just happened that the books that I picked up at random in the last few weeks, among my busy APS meeting schedule, were loosely in that genre.

BTW, the APS meeting was great. It was a busy week, getting to know peers and listening to very fascinating talks. It is one of those moments, when you look up from the drudgery of everyday research, and can have a birds-eye-view of the fascinating research that is going on around you, and can feel the passion and excitement of fellow researchers, highly motivated to do good science. My talk went well, and it was especially motivating to hear words of encouragement from people in the community, having the highly reassuring feeling, that the research that I am doing is indeed important to the community, and the problem is not trivial or unimportant to people in the community.

Back to African American literature. I picked up Maya Angelou's "Heart of a Woman" from the thrift sales in the campus. I would not consider her a great literary talent. I have read better writers, definitely, but the story of her life is fascinating. She has lived through exciting times, been through the whole sixties/seventies thing, and has the uncanny ability to attract the best and the brightest, towards her. From Billie Holiday to Malcolm X, her fate has crisscrossed with the most famous of her generation. When Black America was fighting its greatest fights, Maya Angelou was at the center of the action, in Harlem. She was fighting with Martin Luther King, hobnobbing with the black intellegentsia at the Harlem Writer's Association, was sometimes living the struggling black woman's life,singing in the city's poorer night clubs, fighting the loneliness of the single middle aged black woman, or struggling to become a good mother to her son. What her story,as well as Barack's story reveals is an aspect that we often miss out on, while concentrating on the more "important aspects" of the racial question. The questions that foremost come to our mind are more stark issues, that of equality in rights, harassment in workplace or in the street etc.

But what we generally tend to miss out in these more controversial political questions, are the very deep personal struggles of a man, the more subtle problems, which go beyond the more political definition of "discrimination". When Maya sees her otherwise well behaved son threatening to resort to violence, to counter a threat given by a local teenage hoodlum, we feel the helplessness of the Black mother, fighting not only against discriminations, but against a society that has been created out of it. There is little an individual can do, to prevent her loved ones getting sucked into this vicious circle of Black crime(fortunately she manages to do something dramatic in this case).

Obama presents pictures of a more subtle form of discrimination.In his own words:
"Still the feeling that something wasn't quite right stayed with me, a warning that sounded whenever a white girl mentioned in the middle of conversation how much she liked Stevie Wonder, or when a woman in the supermarket asked me if I played basketball, or when the school principal told me I was cool.............".

One is instantly reminded of Dubois.
"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."

There is probably no other man who has expressed the deepst wounds of the Black man in as many words. Beyond the political struggles, beyond the questions of rights or affrimative action, it is probably these hidden spears in the most casual of smalltalks, that hurts the Black man the most.

(P.S. I am halfway through the Obama book. He again amazes me. I did not expect such powerful writing skills from such an amateur writer. He expresses himself with a passion that is unequalled by any other commentator. BTW,Dubois is next on my reading list. So,more on this next time)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Cafe Evening

The music melts into the ears as an integral part of the decor. The lights seem to reflect my moods, or does it define them? The sunlight which comes through the frosted glass panes, that open up to the busy thoroughfare, is the only sense of time, that one can feel inside. Twilight seems to stretch infinitely, even in the cold wintry evenings, slowing down time, as if the laziness inside seems to affect the celestial order.

The large porcelain coffee cup stares into my face. I always love my coffee dark. That's the way I have always had it, since my awkward "fresh off the boat" experimentations. The waitress knows this. She never asks. Her warm smile has a familiarity that separates her from the tons of other smiles that one encounters at the more big, professional stores.

I never put sugar in my coffee. It somehow gives me the odd feeling of trying to artificially sweetening the bitterness. Is coffee bitter? or probably its the inner bitterness that just talks to you in your most solitary moments. Have you noticed your coffee speaking to you? Doesn't it taste different on drowsy weekday mornings, when the dread of the impending work, as well as last night's fatigue, fights against the caffeine in your mind? Or when the day's 7th cup on the "day before the deadline" suddenly gives that odd feeling making you want to throw up?
But this coffee is different. It seems soothing. The fatigue of the weekdays melt away as you feel the evening is going to last for ever. The quiet sips, and the words of your book, they will go on and on. Neither sleep, nor the watch will intrude.

The white porcelain cup is stained with coffee drops, creating strange patterns. The fluid dynamicist in me is amused. I gaze into it for some time, then go back to my book. Tension is building up within the characters in my novels. I look up again. I need a break. I turn my head an notice my neighbors. The strange unfamiliarity that surrounds unknown faces, the blankness that reveals nothing, makes me think, if they can ever be characters in a book? If they can ever express the variety of emotions, if their lives were ever touched by most incredulous people, the most weird events, if their eyes can tell stories of lands far away?

The girl beside me is typing away in her computer, what is perhaps a school assignment. She never does the occasional "looking up" act. Her eyes are staring at the screen intently, from behind those nerdy,minimalist glasses, that you often encounter in engineering grad schools. Her nails are unkempt, and her dress seems so hastily put up that you would imagine she went out of the house in a great hurry.

There's a woman at the table to my left. Her thick glasses and age that speak through the wrinkled patch of skin around her eyes, tell of a life spent in intense scholarly pursuit. I take a peep at the book lying in her table. Its the obscure stuff that is the holy grail of liberal art academics, and wannabe intellectual parties, where they are blurted out with little understanding. Beside her is the so-familiar "Shantiniketan Jhola", that great hallmark of Indian intellectual tradition.

The chair beside that hosts an younger man with a athletic build. He is the adventurer guy, the one who hikes in mountain trails, goes to unknown arid lands, and would probably tell you tales of his treks in mount Kilimanjaro or about smoking grass somewhere up in the icy confines of the mighty Himalayas, if you strike up a friendly conversation with him. The very light hint of the golden beard gives a certain softness to his face when the light falls on it. He is sifting through a book of photographs. Its like the ones you see in National Geographic magazines. He has a camera beside him, on the table, the one whose complicated design assures you of its infinite powers of optical trickery.

There's an young couple to my right. Dressed immaculately, both of them have a glass of hot chocolate in the table. They talk softly, as if of great secrets, and carefully hidden wisdom. Their hands often touch, hinting at that charming unfamiliarity of strangers just fallen in love. A pair of sleek mobile phone lie on the table, its screen brightening up at intervals, announcing ethereal communications, from acquaintances elsewhere.

My eyes travel again to my book. I take a sip at my coffee. The last sip is all that is left. I always take the last sip, unlike the "tea tradition" that I had learned from my father. I get up ot order the second cup. The waitress' familiar smile welcomes me.