The World That Is The Family

by Aditya Dev Sood

Sood family tree When I think of home, when I think of where I am from, what comes into my mind is a large courtyard, hidden above the colonnades of Connaught Circus, where my Grandfather's house was, and in some sense, still is. My cousin Lohash and I duck into a dark recess among the shops in the colonnade and climb three quick flights of stairs to enter that unlikely retreat, so different from the hubbub below. The trees sprawling out of the planters are large and overgrown, but seem ashen from neglect. So much has been changed around in the rooms, but the art deco bedroom set in my grandparent's room is still in place, and perhaps that was all that mattered about the place, for all the other rooms ranging in different directions around the courtyard were always in transition, accommodating some fraction of his many children, always growing larger and more numerous, never quite growing up.

Lohash is here to try and take a few photographs for our cousin Aparna's project, The Sood Family Cookbook, which will be forthcoming from HarperCollins next year. The book collects recipes from different members of the family, also including a discussion of how each recipe was acquired, when it was used and how and where it came to be appreciated by other members of the family. The book opens with Pahadi food, madra, palda, khatti dal, the core dishes of the family from the highlands of Punjab, which remind us of who were were, are, and must remain. But then it moves on to family classics, which have emerged over time, on account of the food traditions of those who have married into the family, or the innovations created by people in response to specific challenges or events in their life, or the global influences and experiences of different contributors. These include, for example, all the chocolate cakes and desserts that my mother brought from New York, an aunt's Sindhi Fenugreek-Fish, and an uncle's 'Whimsical Spaghetti Pancake.' Even us non-cooks have the odd recipe in there, for example my Kapi Al-Sikandar, a kind of Mocha Alexander with spices and vanilla ice-cream. It is, in a way a compendium of the knowledges and memories of this family, a primer on how to maintain its traditions, a training manual for someone who wants to become a part of it.

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Monday Poem

Fugitive
-on a photo

A big brown bison walks the left white line
of a two-lane, black eyes scanning

contemplating asphalt he wonders
what happened to the grass

how’d this black ribbon come to bisect
my meadow between talus and hundred-foot pines
and where are the columbine?

He asks no one in particular because
not even the alpha male in a herd

would know. A car crawls slowly up behind
capturing the remains of a wilderness

Sonys gripped in the hands of small
homosapiens click at the ends of arms

stuck through windows catching
an outlaw bison who broke from a farm

whose humped shade steps like a rope-walker
down the white line’s length wondering where
the stillness went

Where are the clover and laurel?

What are these murmuring
beasts that glide like shadow ghosts along
this scar in my pasture clicking like crickets
trailing their burnt cenozic scent?

by Jim Culleny
October, 2010

Light and Time: James Turrell at Gagosian and Christian Marclay’s The Clock at White Cube, Masons’s Yard.

Sue Hubbard

JAMES_TURRELL_2010_Bindu_Shards[1]

This morning I had what felt like a near-death experience. I also underwent something that possibly resembled a re-birthing. No I was not on LSD, nor have I joined a hippy-dippy cult. I was looking at or, rather, was totally immersed in the art of James Turrell. After walking up the steps to a spherical chamber in the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, a young woman in a white coat invited me to I lie on a bed and put on a set of earphones. I was then trundled inside the machine like a patient about to have an MRT scan. As the door closed l felt like a mummy in sarcophagus. I tensed, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I experienced a wave of panic. Clasping the escape button close to my chest I had been told that on no account must I sit up. Although I had signed a disclaimer that I didn’t have epilepsy, the white coated young woman suggested that, as I suffer from migraines, I should opt for the soft, rather than the hard version, which had less intense flashing lights. As ambient sound played through the head phones I tried to relax despite the sense of claustrophobia. [Bindu Shards, James Turrell, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.]

Then, opening my eyes I was surrounded by a heavenly blue light. No, not surrounded, enveloped; for I had no sense of space or scale. There was no horizon. The blue seemed infinite. As I lay there I felt as though I was floating – in space, in water, even in amniotic fluid. Then the lights changed, pulsing from a central nebula. I couldn’t watch as I couldn’t bear the intensity of the flashing – what, I wondered would the hard version have been like? – and had to shut my eyes, though I could still see the lights through my closed lids. I half opened my eyes and was bathed in a deep red. It was like being in the womb. Then things went dark and the bright lights pulsed again. Sometimes it felt as if I was hurtling through space or deep under the sea. Was this what it had felt like to be born? I knew that I was in the capsule for fifteen minutes so tried to estimate how much time had passed in order not to panic. Towards the end the light turned blue again, then slowly faded and darkened leaving me feeling strangely calm. So this, I thought, is what death will feel like.

Bindu Shards 2010, was developed from the Ganzfeld sphere entitled Gasworks built in 1993 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The phenomenon experienced will be familiar to any mountaineer who has ever been caught in a snowstorm whiteout unable to distinguish whether what they are seeing is real or in the mind. This, of course, poses huge questions about the nature of perception and, even, religious or spiritual experience. What does it mean to see something or to ‘know’ that you have seen something? Is this what a vision is?

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Free-Market Moloch? Paying to Make Red Lights Turn Green

Traffic timespace diagramI saw this on Twitter a while back, posted by someone who was attending the Wolfram Data Summit: “Data future vision: you're at a red light and can pay for it to go green.” Like a fragment from some lost Sumerian tablet, this cryptic comment is all we have. But it's enough.

Paying for a red light to go green is the sort of thing economist Tyler Cowen and blogging partner Alex Tabarrok (their blog is Marginal Revolution) like to file under a category called “markets in everything.” This seems to have been just a passing thought, but it lodged in my head and wouldn't leave. At first it seemed like the perfect example of the future as a technolibertarian nightmare – the future I fear and dread the most. Then I gave it a second thought, and a third.

And then, after much thought, I made up my mind. Yeah, it's a technolibertarian nightmare – although it's not nearly as big a change from today's reality as it first seemed. But then again, isn't that the problem?

How would something like this actually work? Would drivers buy something like an EZ-Pass that automatically provided preferential treatment at every traffic light? Would a prepaid device be sold with the car itself, perhaps included as a standard feature on larger, more conspicuously-consuming vehicles like Cadillac Escalades? Those ideas don't seem very imaginative – and they're not true to the original, shamanic vision: “you're at a red light and can pay for it to go green.” That seems to describe what economists and marketing types call a “point of sale” decision, not a premeditated bulk purchase.

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Going places, seeing things, writing back

by Tolu Ogunlesi
Nigerians have been migrating to Britain for several decades. There was a wave of migration starting around the 1930s/1940s, which has continued more or less steadily since then, driven by a quest for education, and for a better life. The outflow to America followed that of Britain, but is today a significant one as well.
In light of this, the question pops up: Why would one be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of non-fiction narratives written by Nigerians – and Africans generally – about their travel experiences abroad (Europe and America)?
Notice I specifically mention “non-fiction”. The fiction of the immigrant experience is alive and well. Over the last decade or so it has burgeoned into a major subset of contemporary literature. Writing last month in Newsweek, Jennie Yabroff, in an article on Ethiopian novelist Dinaw Mengistu noted that this is “a time when some of [America’s] most powerful, and popular, stories are narrated by foreigners…”
Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale readily comes to mind; the tale of a transplanted Nigerian adrift in his new world (America). Chimamanda Adichie’s stories also; of Nigerians getting their things and leaving (to paraphrase Dambudzo Marechera) for America, to stake a claim to what often turns out to be no more than a stale slice of an overvalued Dream.
It‘s the same in England: countless stories of immigrants negotiating language and culture differences as they attempt to settle to British life. The space between Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956) and Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2009) is far from sparsely populated.
But non-fiction remains largely unexplored territory. Where are the books in which African travellers record their impressions and experiences, in the same manner in which European and American writers have built up a genre of non-fiction (travelogue/cultural observations) books about Africa?
The reason for this may be obvious: unlike the white man who came to Africa as Conqueror, the African often went in the other direction bound in what one might call a capsule of diminished privilege, which leaves little room for the sort of deliberate, painstaking accretion of material that underpins any serious non-fiction project.
It is easier, it seems, to turn to the Imagination – arguably the spine of the Fictional Narrative – and generously employ the permission it grants fiction writers to take maximum creative license with material from reality.
Non-fiction books, it appears, are hardly ever recorded on a whim. They are often Deliberate Projects, in which the writer sets forth specifically to absorb and accumulate stories and images and impressions and arguments and counter-arguments for the book. Africans travelling abroad rarely get that privilege it seems. The reasons for leaving home are more often than underpinned by Compulsion (the slave trade centuries ago, or exile today) or an aspiration for betterment – academic degrees, better jobs and more comfortable lives.
As things stand Compulsion leaves little room for any significant creative undertaking, and even when it does, Fiction greedily claims the space, perhaps because it provides the sort of escape hatch (from an uncomfortable Reality) that non-fiction could never hope to provide.
*
Two or so years ago Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, already in his late seventies, set out to visit half a dozen countries in Africa. His mission, to compile material for a new book on traditional religious beliefs on the continent. He must have spent no more than a few months in total – but has gone ahead to write a book that will, by virtue of its author and subject, automatically take a place of importance in any Serious Conversation concerning literature about Africa.
So Naipaul comes to Africa to write about Africa. Now let’s ask ourselves this question: what is the likelihood of an important African writer attempting that Naipaulian task, but with a Western setting/subject: setting forth on a journey to explore and write about, say blighted English towns (or, to put it in another way, the disturbing blighted-ness of significant swathes of England), or the unprepossessing underbelly of America’s creaking Capitalist Machine.
Not likely to happen, one imagines. I wonder why? Might it be partly because the English, or Americans would not be interested in having an outsider tell them about themselves in anything other than fiction? Would non-fiction cut too close to the bone for comfort?
Will non-fiction books about Africa sell more than the ones about the West (written by outsiders) because those who will buy the books in the numbers necessary to render the publishing venture profitable are far more eager to lap up tales of strange, distant places that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the lives they live; than they are to read about their own lands?
*
Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa, recently deceased Nigerian Professor of Education, who gained three degrees (Bachelors, Masters and a doctorate) in the United States in the late 1940s to early 1950s published, in 2003, an account of his years in America, ‘To America and Back Alive.’
In the early 1960s the Nigerian poet, dramatist and critic, JP Clark, then only in his early twenties, wrote ‘America, Their America’, an account of a disastrous sojourn to the United States. “Disastrous” because before the end of the Fellowship that took him to the US he was expelled from the programme, for not taking his Fellowship obligations very seriously. America, their America is an African’s self-assured critique of America; and a not-very-flattering one at that; not the kind of book one would expect those at the receiving end, the Americans, to welcome. (Might it have been more acceptable had Clark written a novel instead of a journal?)
*
Last year at an event in Nairobi I listened to a Kenyan writer tell the story of a (Kenyan) friend of his who spent six months living in, or perhaps merely wandering through, Asia. The writer says he asked the wanderer if he’d created any written record of his journey. The answer, as you’d expect, was no. He hadn’t. He simply went, saw and returned; nothing written, nothing recorded.
*
Nigerians are often like that Kenyan. We travel far and wide, but often do no more than seek out well-worn sightseers’ paths, where we pose for photos – we manage to get this done in between hopping from mall to mall; shopping and/or window-shopping. Few consider it important to document the journeys they have made, to assay and interpret their experiences for the wider world.
Even fewer would take a journey merely for the purposes of writing about it. And while there’s an entire library of non-fiction books written by participants on the US Peace Corps programme books, the same cannot be said of the ‘Technical Aid Corps’ which is roughly the Nigerian equivalent (sending Nigerian professionals to African and Caribbean countries on two-year tours of duty).
*
Why are we content to travel without giving much thought to that which we see and experience, other than superficial observations that lazily compare the places we visit with Nigeria? Why are we unconcerned about documenting – in an illuminating manner – our own ways of seeing these strange and foreign places.
Might it be that we see nothing worthy of writing about?
I’m hoping this article would start a conversation about the horribly skewed balance of non-fictional stories and narratives in the world today. And for all I know, I may be totally mistaken in my assumptions that Africans are not writing enough non-fiction about the foreign worlds they encounter.
Perhaps those books are being written, but there are no publishers. Or perhaps there are even a good number of those books in print, which I’m ignorant of. If you know one or two that have been written, kindly recommend them. And please share your thoughts on this.

Of Haymakers and Rainmakers

2012 Panopticonopolis over at The Pinprick of Desire:

Recently, I went to a panel discussion on urban agriculture at the Kellen Gallery, part of the Living Concrete/Carrot City exhibition. To anyone tuned into the food debate in the New York area, familiar sentiments were on display: scrappy entrepreneurs with a love for farming and/or eating, nurturing their holistic vision of a just society, itself replete with happy farmers tilling ever-healthier soil, which in turn produces nutritious fare for contented locavores, farmer’s-market enthusiasts, schoolkids, or [insert your constituency here], building greater community while lessening our carbon footprint, etc.

Being the happy curmudgeon, I was glad to sneak in the following during Q&A:

“Aerofarm is a startup that is only a few years old. Their model does not have anything to do with creating community, or building soil health, or even encouraging food awareness or organic agriculture. They have developed technology that allows people to grow food in enclosed spaces, without sunlight, without soil, even. They recently received $500,000 in seed funding from several venture capital groups. Is there room for everyone to play in this space, or does Aerofarm, etc represent a threat to the vision of (urban) agriculture as implicitly envisioned by this panel and the food movement as we know it in general?”

It was disappointing to see the panel – or what takers there were – squirm their way through this question. One posited that “hydroponic agriculture” is a tremendous waste of resources. This may be or may not be true, but the fact is that Aerofarm is not a hydroponic operation. Another was concerned with the fact that Aerofarm was going to dilute the nascent “brand” of urban agriculture. No one really understood that my question was about money.

So what, exactly, does $500,000 “mean”? Let’s compare Aerofarm’s seed funding with the MacArthur Genius Grant, which itself is $500,000.

According to the MacArthur Foundation’s website, “MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” This essentially means that you have been busting your hump for a good chunk of your life before the Genius Grant smiles on you, eg: Will Allen, MacArthur 2008.

In fact, it was Cheryl Rogowski, not Allen, who was recognized as the first farmer-recipient by MacArthur, and that was in 2004. She has been farming since 1983. Wags might point out that people have been, in fact, farming for quite a bit longer than that. Nevertheless, in business school parlance, 20 years is one hell of a product development cycle.

We the People

Walter Benn Michaels in Le Monde Diplomatique:

Over the summer two stars of the American right had a friendly argument about who poses the greatest threat to the United States. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly went with the conventional wisdom: al-Qaida. During the Bush administration, it was the clash of cultures that organised the way American conservatives saw the world. When they worried about issues like illegal immigration, what they were afraid of was al-Qaida operatives mingling among the future valet parkers of Chicago and meatpackers of Iowa. But O’Reilly’s new colleague and ratings rival, Glenn Beck, had a more surprising answer: it’s not the jihadists who are trying to destroy our country, it’s the communists. When Beck and the Tea Party, the rightwing populists most closely tied to him, express their deepest worries, it’s not terrorism they fear, it’s socialism.

What’s surprising is that worrying about communists was more characteristic of the Eisenhower years than of post-9/11. Even more surprising is that Beck is a generation younger than O’Reilly. He hadn’t even been born in 1963 when Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, gave the speech about Krushchev’s promise to keep “feeding us socialism” mouthful by mouthful until one day (today, according to Beck, who cites this speech frequently) we wake up and realise we’ve “already got communism”.

Most surprising of all is that this reinvention of the cold war is working. Tea Partiers rush to expose the communists in the Democratic Party; on Amazon’s bestseller lists, the highest ranking political book is FA Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and even the celebrated radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has started worrying about the “communist” spies “who work for Vladimir Putin”.

Why communism? And why now? Islamophobia at least has some pretext based in reality: jihadists really did kill thousands of Americans. But not only were there no communists on the planes that hit the World Trade Centre, today there are virtually no communists anywhere in the US, and precious few in the former USSR. Indeed, if there’s one thing Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama can agree on, it’s their enthusiasm for what Putin (at Davos!) called “the spirit of free enterprise”. And yet, like anti-semitism without Jews, anti-communism without communists has come to play a significant political role on the right, especially on what we might call the anti-neoliberal right.

Falling Back: Six poems to mark the end of daylight saving time.

From the Op-Ed page of the New York Times:

Light Verse

It’s just five, but it’s light like six.
It’s lighter than we think.
Mind and day are out of sync.
The dog is restless.
The dog’s owner is sleeping and dreaming of Elvis.
The treetops should be dark purple,
but they’re pink.

Here and now. Here and now.
The sun shakes off an hour.
The sun assumes its pre-calendrical power.
(It is, though, only what we make it seem.)
Now in the dog-owner’s dream,
the dog replaces Elvis and grows bigger
than that big tower

in Singapore, and keeps on growing until
he arrives at a size
with which only the planets can empathize.
He sprints down the ecliptic’s plane,
chased by his owner Jane
(that’s not really her name), who yells at him
to come back and synchronize.

VIJAY SESHADRI, author of “The Long Meadow”

More here.

Pereira Transforms

Mohsin Hamid, on reading Antonio Tabucchi's novel, in the introduction to its new edition, at his own website:

ScreenHunter_09 Nov. 07 21.08 I am sometimes asked to name my favourite books. The list changes, depending on my mood, the year, tricks played by memory. I might mention novels by Nabokov and Calvino and Tolkien on one occasion, by Fitzgerald and Baldwin and E. B. White on another. Camus often features, as do Tolstoy, Borges, Morrison, and Manto. And then I have my wild card, the one I tend to show last and with most pleasure, because it feels like revealing a secret.

Sostiene Pereira, I say, by Antonio Tabucchi.

These words are usually greeted with one of two reactions: bewilderment, which is far more common, or otherwise a delighted and conspiratorial grin. It seems to me that Pereira is not yet widely read in English, but holds a heroin-like attraction for those few who have tried it.

My own Pereira habit began a decade ago, in San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, where an Italian girlfriend suggested I give it a try. San Francisco was the perfect place for my first read: its hills and cable cars and seaside melancholy were reminiscent of Pereira’s Lisbon setting; its Italian heritage, from the Ghirardelli chocolate factory at its heart to the wine valleys surrounding it, evoked Pereira’s Italian author; and its associations with sixties progressivism and forties film noir went perfectly with Pereira’s politics and pace.

More here.

What Can You Do in Twenty-Five Words?

Ian Crouch in The New Yorker:

Hintfiction-thumb-233x324-54309 A hinting story, Swartwood explains, should do in twenty-five words what it could do in twenty-five hundred, that is, it “should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.” And, like all good fiction, it should tell a story while gesturing toward all the unknowable spaces outside the text.

The book is divided into three sections: “life & death,” “love & hate,” and “this & that.” Several stories too fully embrace the gimmick, becoming tiny O. Henry tales complete with tidy setups and kickers. Something about the space constraints make the stories go for too much, rejecting intimacy for some trumped up idea of scale. The best, however, share an off-beat and generally macabre sensibility. Here are two good examples:

“Blind Date,” by Max Barry.

She walks in and heads turn. I’m stunned. This is my setup? She looks sixteen. Course, it’s hard to tell, through the scope.

“Houston, We Have a Problem,” by J. Matthew Zoss.

I’m sorry, but there’s not enough air in here for everyone. I’ll tell them you were a hero.

Violence is a lingering theme, often conveyed with a power that lasts long after the short time it takes to read these tales. Take “Cull,” By L. R. Bonehill, a compressed post-apocalyptic snapshot:

There had been rumors from the North for months. None of us believed it, until one night we started to kill our children too.

More here.

Sunday Poem

At the Edge of the Beach

We are at the end of the world, Mare and I,
at the rim of the ice dark Atlantic, its chill curls
lapping at our toes.

I’ve spent July with sweaty arms tight round my waist, and Mary claims I taught her all the words
she’s not supposed to know. She’s going to marry Christ, and not some ordinary boy.

Late summer’s lick of winter ruffles our hair. We should go in.
I say how romantic those shacks out along the point, Mare, how poignant they are, strung to their
utility poles.

Laur, she says sensibly, it would be prettier without them.
We sat on that curve of beach, when we were twelve,
where civilization crept out among the sand pipers
on sad loops of utility lines.

by Laurie Joan Aron

New York Photographs 1968–1978

Paul McDonough in The Paris Review:

What turned me away from painting was a realization that the streets and parks of Boston provided me with subject matter that I could not conjure up in my studio. At that point, a blank canvas drew nothing but a blank stare. So, with a newly purchased 35mm Leica loaded with tri-x film, I began my forays into downtown Boston to photograph. The kind of photographs I took then related to my art school days, when I would amble around the city making quick pencil sketches of people on park benches and subways. After roaming around Vermont in the summer of 1964, I decided to move to Cambridge, MA where I took a full-time job in a commercial art studio. I was by this time married to my first wife and our plan was to save up enough to live for a year in Europe. Instead we wound up in New York, arriving by U-Haul in the summer of 1967. Rents were cheap, and we could now get by on my part-time work in advertising studios. I had abundant free time, and I took full advantage of it.

Paulmcdonough2 It was the sheer quantity of people on the street that made the spectacle unique. There were so many opportunities; you had to be perpetually alert and believe something was going to happen. You were not looking for photographs, but for the raw material that would make you want to photograph; the gesture or expression that demanded to be recorded. You were in the moment and you didn’t judge or qualify. For example, in the 1973 photograph taken at a parade, two business men are perched like statues on standpipes, trying to see over the heads of the crowd that had momentarily parted. They were serious; they had a sense of purpose. About what, the photograph doesn’t give a clue. That information is outside the frame’s viewpoint and beyond the camera’s scope.

More here.

No change

From The Boston Globe:

NoChange__1288967787_5066 Change, in politics, is a lyrical and seductive tune. Think about Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, or Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; how Ronald Reagan greeted us with ”Morning in America,” or how Barack Obama ran an entire presidential campaign around the theme of ”change.” To listen to the victory speeches delivered on Election Day last week, one might start to believe that change is in the air again. Certainly, candidates across the country ran–and won–on the promise of changing Washington. But anyone counting on a radical transformation in government should steel themselves for another round of heartbreak come January, when the new Congress takes office: Their leadership is no more likely to revolutionize government than Obama’s did in 2008, or the long line of presidents and congresses before them.

We might feel frustrated at this inaction, or relieved, depending on our politics. But what we shouldn’t feel is surprised. Because no matter how much politicians love to serenade us to the tune of change, and no matter how happy we are to flirt right back, our governmental system was designed to prevent seismic change from happening. It’s easy to see this as a flaw, or as a failure of the politicians we elect, but that would be wrong: In fact, the people to blame are the Founders of our republic. When they wrote the Constitution, setting out how power would be wielded, shared, and transferred, they did it specifically to prevent radical change. By conscious and deliberate design, our system favors incremental changes over the kind of revolutionary change that politicians love to promise. And 220 years of history, so far, suggest that that has been a very good thing indeed.

More here.

One can do worse than adopt a flip view of life

John Allen Paulos in his Who's Counting column at ABC News:

Jumbo_coin_quarter To obtain a fair result from a biased coin, the mathematician John von Neumann devised the following trick. He advised the two parties involved to flip the coin twice. If it comes up heads both times or tails both times, they are to flip the coin two more times.

If it comes up H-T, the first party will be declared the winner, while if it comes up T-H, the second party is declared the winner. The probabilities of both these latter events (H-T and T-H) are the same because the coin flips are independent even if the coin is biased.

For example, if the coin lands heads 70 percent of the time and tails 30 percent of the time, an H-T sequence has probability .7 x .3 = .21 while a T-H sequence has probability .3 x .7 = .21. So 21 percent of the time the first party wins, 21 percent of the time the second party wins, and the other 58 percent of the time when H-H or T-T comes up, the coin is flipped two more times.

More here.