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  • 15
    Aug

    So, while I was doing my morning chanting on this independence day, I had a thought: What would happen if we chose to celebrate this as “interdependence day”? No, really, it isn’t just a play on words. What would happen if Pakistan, Kashmir, and India decided to commemorate interdependence over the 14th and 15th of August (because let’s face it, none of us can fully know peace, security, or freedom until we all do — that’s just the reality of our history and our present)? What would that celebration even look like? It seems like such a faraway possibility, and yet, it seems so necessary, so urgent.

    Therefore commemorating this day by sharing an article I wrote for the “Common Threads” blog, recently started by the SGI quarterly, my favourite peace, culture, and education magazine. This was definitely among the most interesting pieces for me to write, not only because it helped me bring together many different experiences (all of them simultaneously personal, professional, and political), but also because it gave me a chance to talk about so many people very dear to me.

    I look forward to the day when changing the names in the story won’t feel like a necessary precaution for the individuals concerned, but for now, here are the stories: The Threads the Connect Us

  • 07
    Jul

    What do you do when your closest colleague, friend, co-dreamer, confidant, selfie stick, cheerleader, clown, photographer, devil’s advocate, little brother, caregiver, playmate, and so much more decides to move to the other side of the world for five years?11696451_564278270984_4766307721161216971_o

    You call him a mean-o. Maybe cry a little. Then take a lovely little holiday together. Make promises about Skype. Write a sappy message. Hug.

    And then you send him off in style, coffee mug in one hand, wine goblet in the other. And a note:

    “As you launch into your graduate school adventures, here are some essential supplies. A coffee mug for all your late night readings and predawn grading sessions. And a wine glass for the days when coffee just doesn’t cut it any longer (or when you want to feel like some kind of medieval king, drinking out of a ceramic goblet)

    Or:

    Look! I found a way to tag along! To be present when you celebrate an accomplishment or relax after a long day with a glass of wine. To hang around when you are so tired only a good cup of coffee will make you less grumpy. To show up in your kitchen every day, in moments of celebration and frustration alike, reminding you of a friendship that will always have your back.

    Or:

    I made you a mug and a goblet. Raise a toast to me already.”

    I love you, Vivek! Delhi won’t be the same without you!

  • 04
    Dec

    Returned from a whirlwind of a poetry reading trip in Chennai (6 readings in 28 hours!), one brief night at home, before heading into another beautiful whirlwind in Nepal tomorrow. My brain and body are so exhausted, but my heart is so alive.

    I’ve always felt these things are worth it, above all, for the people one meets and the relationships one builds. The greatest gift of this Chennai trip was a new writerly friendship with the wonderful Singaporean poet Alvin Pang (if youdon’t know his work, you really should!). I’ve never had quite such a wonderful reading, a real jugalbandi, a way of reading and listening where your own words come back to you through someone else’s. We did two sessions together, without repeating any poems, reading back and forth in response to each other, and were amazed constantly by how much our poems were saying to each other across time and space. I can’t begin to explain how special that was: how often do you discover another human being through a quiet, spontaneous, joyful conversation between your most private selves and your most important stories, told rapidly back and forth in a short space and time?

    I’m too tired to wax eloquent about it, and Alvin already did a beautiful job of that, so I’m just going to be lazy and share from his blog:

    I am reading with Delhi-based poet Aditi Rao, author of THE FINGERS REMEMBER. It is past 2.30pm; we were supposed to start at 2pm, but were held up by Chennai’s gnarled traffic. On the spot, we decide, because we have not had time to think about what we each want to read for 15mins, to make it something of a back-and-forth poetic dialogue instead. I start with a poem, which prompts Aditi to respond with a similar poem, and so on. Her work is very fine, boldly executed, unfazed but not belligerent in the face of irreconcilable tensions. It soon becomes evident that there are many remarkable correspondences in our poetry. Not necessarily a matter of style or treatment nor even tone, but certainly in theme, certain images. Finger memory. Burning flesh. At one point I recount the Biblical story of Lot’s wife and family, on which a poem of mine is based. She responds with a poem also based on Lot’s wife. We have not planned this. I suspect this sort of thing is possible with many other poets also, if one looks hard enough for some sort of semantic or thematic resonance, but this is unforced. We are not making this up. Or perhaps we are making it up, which is what makes it sing: we are actively listening to each other, calling and responding. We are having a conversation. I have often felt this is what good writing does. The poems have not been written for the occasion nor for each other, but they are chosen to suit, the way we sometimes bring up old stories in new company. We read poems we might not otherwise have selected; we are made to think a little differently about what we have written. There is the frisson of resonance, recombination. Fresh context suggests fresh meanings. This is why we read and re-read books. Another way in which the love we put into writing becomes the love it brings. This is how literature lives and lasts.

    Click on this link for more of this and other of Alvin’s beautiful blogging

    Thank you, Alvin, for 2 completely memorable sessions. Love your speaking and your listening, your warmth and your generosity. Looking forward to many more poetry encounters in the years to come!

    And thank you, Prakriti, for bringing us together 🙂

  • 21
    Feb

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    When my mother and I moved to my grandfather’s house 2 years ago, there was a shriveled up tree in one corner that we were advised to cut down. It was a peach tree my grandfather had planted perhaps a decade earlier, but it had never borne flowers or fruit. It had gotten too little sun, its roots had been badly damaged by rats, and the nearby wall of a tank my grandfather had once built was keeping it from growing further.

    Neither Mum nor I had any experience gardening — this was the first time in our lives we had a garden — but for some reason, we believed in that little tree. For some reason, we were sure it was stronger than that. I kept telling Mum, “I don’t believe that life is that fragile.” So we refused to cut down the tree. Instead we broke the tank wall so as to free up space for the roots, got the garden treated for rodents, and pruned nearby trees to give it more sunshine. And then, we gave the little tree lots of love (for the only time in my life, I even prayed for a tree).

    Sure enough, the little tree grew big and strong. Within months of our decision not to cut the tree, we came out into the garden one day to see its first blossoms. That summer, we plucked and ate the most delicious homegrown peaches. In the monsoon, the tree shot up, doubled to over twice its size, like it had just been hungry to grow and was so excited to have this space now.

    Now 2 1/2 years later, it is among the first things to bloom in the garden, these gorgeous, delicate flowers heralding the arrival of Spring. In ways that these photos can express much better than words can, my grandfather’s garden will always be a reminder of springs following winters, of life outlasting death, of love begetting beauty, of the deep joy of belief.IMG_2779

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  • 16
    Aug

    When I came home from graduate school for the first time after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother asked me to choose one of his possessions as a memento, something he owned that reminded me of him most fondly. I didn’t need a moment to think before asking for a giant (ok, 24 by 18 inches!) jute covered book with simple maroon lettering on its cover “India’s Struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents”

    I grew up with my grandfather’s stories about the independence movement. He was only a teenager when the British rule ended — 18, I think — but those were exciting times in which to have been a teenager. He was full of stories and passions, opinions and memories. I must have been 6 or 7 years old when he started taking me in his lap and opening out the giant (now you get why it feels giant!) book in front of us. The book contains some explanatory notes on various moments in the freedom struggle, but for the most part, it replicates newspaper articles, photographs, letters and maps. It is more scrapbook than textbook, more archive than commentary. In my grandfather’s lap and in the pages of that book, the independence movement wasn’t something that happened a long time ago; it was present, it was alive, it was playing out in front of my eyes.

    As I grew a little older, he showed me another book. I forget the compiler and publishing house, and I gave up looking for it a long time ago, but this was a thick, hardbound light green book named “Martyrs of India.” There was a photo on the front cover, but I am no longer sure what the photograph depicted. A noose? Perhaps. I cannot remember. But I remember that book as my introduction to Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh (or Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, as he later called himself), the figures in Indian history who chose a different path from the Gandhis and Nehrus. It was my first introduction to how Chandra Shekhar Tiwari would only tell the magistrate that his last name was “Azad” (free) and thereby became Chandra Shekhar Azad. In years to come, I would read more, in school and out of school, about different parts of the Independence struggle, and I would learn to disagree with my grandfather about some of his idols. But early on, in his lap or in the chair by the window in his bedroom, I learned about the largeness of the struggle for independence, about the differences within it, about some of the complexities of representation and reportage.

    As I graduated from school and went abroad to study at a college that prided itself on fostering “global citizens,” and as I created homes and families in different countries, I learned intuitively and academically to question the idea of “nationalism” on which so much of this Independence movement was based. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, an early 20th century Japanese educator, whose writings form the foundation upon which my university was built, talks about 3 levels of citizenship — the local, the national, and the global. He stresses the importance of identifying with the local and the global in order to avoid being swept away by the national (as someone who was imprisoned and ultimately killed in prison during World War 2 for being a “thought criminal,” he clearly understood nationalism’s dangers). Back home, as India moves aggressively towards becoming a stronger nuclear power and lapses periodically into the anti-Pakistan war rhetoric, I have learned to step aside from nationalist rhetoric. As I began working for an organization that talks about nation-building and “working for India,” I learned to identify for myself that I don’t work for India; I work for ideals like peace, justice, community, dignity, and freedom from want. I will work for them in India or anywhere with the same degree of love and commitment. And when I feel that India doesn’t stand for them, I will criticize it with the same anger that I would criticize it anywhere else. Nationalism, to that extent, lost meaning for me.

    But yesterday, I became aware that I may have lost something else in this process of critical understanding, that I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. When this year’s 15th August came and went without any surge of nostalgia or passion, I felt a little empty. Not because I felt unpatriotic but because I felt the absence of a history that had once coursed passionately through me. I felt the absence of my grandfather’s stories. I felt afraid that, with his death, I was allowing myself to forget how recent colonialism was, how recently my family (like so many Delhi families) had been refugees of one of the bloodiest population transfers in history. I felt, in some ways, story-less.

    I don’t have to be nationalist to be proud of, and grateful for, the legacies handed down to me and my generation. I can recognize that it is because so many people in the generations before mine worked so hard to build this nation that I can choose not to be “nationalist,” that I can choose ideals over geography. I want my children to inherit that understanding, to know that the Independence struggle wasn’t about anonymous individuals from a forgotten era, or just about the Gandhis and Nehrus — that the freedoms they can take for granted were hard-won by countless individuals with loves and hurts and beliefs and sacrifices, individuals like their great-grandfather. And for the moments when I forget that, I am grateful I can reopen that book full of visuals and documents, reread Marx’s letter to Engels about how 1857 would come to be seen not as a revolt but as the first uprising for independence, reread the newspaper from the day that India won independence, and remember everything that those moments in history continue to mean in this one.

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