Pondicherry Walls, July 2013

Pondicherry always offers up surprises.




This last one is brilliant.  On Mission Street.



Quote of the Day: T.S. Eliot on understanding Indian philosophy

My first encounter with Sanskrit came from a precocious and confused reading of The Waste Land as a teenager.  I was recently thinking about his famous borrowing of the phrase datta, dayadhvam, damyata (give, sympathize, control yourself) which I hope to write about.  I came upon this quote.  Discuss.

“Two years spent in the study of Sanskrit under Charles Lanman and a year in the mazes of Patanjali’s metaphysics under the  guidance of James Woods, left me in a state of enlightened mystification.  A good half of the effort of understanding what the Indian philosophers were after — and their subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys — lay in trying to erase from my mind all the categories and kinds of distinction common to European philosophy at the time of the Greeks.  My previous and concomitant study of European philosophy was hardly better than an obstacle.  And I came to the conclusion … that my only hope of really penetrating to the heart of that mystery would lie in forgetting how to think and feel as an American or a European: which, for practical as well as sentimental reasons, I did not wish to do.”

After the Strange Gods, 43-44

Favorite Books I read in 2012: Seasons of the Palm and Current Show

Both these novels of Perumal Murugan were published by Tara Books in 2004 (I think) but I read both of them twice this year.  Each book in its own way deals with marginal figures inside of the complex dynamics of modern Tamilnadu.  Murugan centers their lives and experiences (the main characters tend to be young teen-aged men), flipping the dynamic of narration in an interesting way.  The artistry of Murugan is that he manages to anchor these works in a dense social reality while making their hunger, beauty, darkness, and savage grace transcend the countryside and truck-stop towns of central Tamilnadu.


Seasons of the Palm tells of untouchable children herding goats around a dry lake-bed.  Suspended precariously over cruelty, violence, and hunger, the characters experience fleeting moments of happiness and glimpses of a salvation that is both omnipresent and impossible.


Current Show follows the boys working menial jobs, selling sodas and storing cycles, in a cinema hall.  Tired, bored, with only their companionship and a bit of marijuana, there is only the search for some small bit of stability, which is difficult to attain for those outside of the movie-screen fantasies.

Both of these books are exhilarating reads, both familiar and strange, troubling, beautiful, and fascinating.  Instead of navel-gazing about the Indian (or Tamil for that matter) novel in the vernacular (like the recently translated Zero Degree), Murugan’s work show the possibility of an Indian (or Tamil) literature, can alienate and challenge the reader, like the best literature.

I will be teaching Current Show in my class this coming year.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

End of the Year Favorites: Filastine £00T

I love end of the year lists, so I wanted to share things that I found especially amazing.  The album for me was Filastine’s £00T.  filastine_loot_frontcovercrop

I won’t write much about it, but it is jarring and beautiful, often managing to combine ideas in shockingly effective ways.  The two highlights for me were the Indonesian-influenced collaborations with Nova.

Here’s Colony Collapse:

I find the 2012 take on the Indonesian song Gendjer-Gendjer fascinating as well, which, as rumor has it, one hundred members of Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s Movement) sang and danced to as they killed six generals and threw them into a well during the failed 1960 Communist coup (read more here!).

Anyway, the whole album is worthwhile, although these two songs I found to be the most immediately accessible.  The album is demanding and its eclecticism can be a bit overwhelming, but give it a few listens.


Taj Mahal in Practice

I had visited the Mughal tomb complexes before and stood, like a good traveler, at romantic attention to their forms, rising majestically out of the ground, or in the case of the Taj Mahal, seemingly floating in the air.2012-12-22 03.51.14

I had first been to the Taj several years ago, on a glowing white hot May day.  Not many crowds, just a few photos of me squinting uncomfortably in the sun.  Coming back this year in the winter time with hundreds of tourists pouring into the gates, I started thinking thoughts of a different kind.  I couldn’t help but wonder, what are these places for?  Humayun’s Tomb, Akbar’s Tomb at Sikandra, and the Taj Mahal, what were their purposes?  Perhaps an Urs a year?  Who would have access?  I really don’t know.  If anyone has information, I would of course be interested.  Still, this first series of questions pushed me on to yet another question, perhaps more difficult question: what is the Taj Mahal now?  That is, not in theory or history, but in practice?

To start, it is a great photo op, surely one of the world’s best.  There are four that must be taken.  One of the Taj majestically alone, or framed by the gate (as I took above), one of yourself in front of the long neon blue waterway leading to the base with the Taj itself rising in the background, one from the Red Fort, in which you cradle the Taj, miniaturized by distance, in the palm of your hand, and one in which you dangle the Taj from your thumb and forefinger as if you were hanging the last ornament on the Christmas tree like so:2012-12-22 03.54.18

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I tried to take some of my own.  They didn’t turn out.

But there is really more to it than that.  Why does one come, and what does one do.  Why go other than to say, yes, I have been there.  See me with the Taj.  It is difficult to explain why one travels, or visits sites I suppose, but here, it seemed a logic was forming itself, something that I had entirely missed on my first trip to Agra.  Let me describe the scene.

All around the Taj, the crowds were divided into two lines, high-value ticket holders, and the rest.  There were two lines: one to get up to the pediment of the Taj…:2012-12-22 04.05.24

…And one to get inside the building itself, to the grave of Mumtaz, Shah Jahan’s wife.  All the while, I couldn’t get over the fact that it was like being in Tirupati, with the lines for different value tickets, all waiting for that moment of darshan.

2012-12-22 05.04.08

2012-12-22 04.59.37

I wandered over to the side of the building and realized in some important ways that it had become a pilgrimage site, a temple.  To what?  Mumtaz?  Shah Jahan?  India’s Wonder of the World?  The Nation?  Beauty?  Conspiracy theorists have claimed for years that the Taj was actually a Hindu temple in disguise.  It is perhaps ironic that it is now becoming some sort of temple in practice.


Can poems be definitions?

I’ve been thinking about the concept of Vairāgya, which Sir Monier Monier-Williams defines as “disgust, aversion, distate for or loathing” or more philosophically as “freedom from all worldly desires, indifference to worldly objects and to life, asceticism”.  This term is central to the thought of many thinkers, so to get to the bottom of it, I decided to turn to poetry, specifically Bhartṛhari’s Vairāgyaprakaraṇa, a chapter of stanzas on the topic.  This poem made my heart stop:

na dhyātaṃ padam īśvarasya vidhivatsaṃsāravicchittaye
svargadvārakavāṭapāṭanapaṭurdharmo’pi nopārjitaḥ |
nārīpīnapayodharoruyugalaṃ svapne ‘pi nāliṅgitaṃ
mātuḥ kevalameva yauvanavanacchede kuṭhārā vayam ||

Here’s my translation, which doesn’t do it any justice:

We did not meditate upon the feet of God

To cut our ties to worldly existence

As is required;

Nor did we acquire merit strong enough

To force open the doors at heaven’s gates;

Even in our dreams

We did not embrace the round breasts of women.

We were only axes

Cutting down the forests of our mothers’ youth.