Thursday, April 22, 2010


Inhale air and exhale music

The invisible becomes audible

The ambient becomes iambic

Thoughts become notes

Taught and taut





Shrinking with distance

Like stones skipping over the ocean

Leaping towards the horizon

Waves announce themselves

And recede

Melodies peak and dip

Chests rise and fall


Enter the reservoir of sound


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Free Speech in a Globalized World - Panel Discussion at Columbia University

Columbia's president Lee Bollinger presented his book Uninhibited, Robust and Wide Open: A Free Press for a New Century that advocates, as the title suggests, a "global public forum" that all countries and journalists should be engaged in. All countries are becoming dependent on all other countries in unforeseen ways--economically, politically, socially--and it's time to become a globally connected entity. Bollinger warns against censorship which could become inevitable with greater global integration and warns, "censorship anywhere is censorship everywhere." He is a lawyer who specializes in the First Amendment so he is all about free speech.

The 3 panelists were Salman Rushdie, David Ignatius (columnist and associate editor, Washington Post) and Michael Schudson (professor at Columbia's Journalism School), who presented their views and reactions to Bollinger's book as well as general thoughts on free speech, a free press, its impacts on journalism, global connectivity, etc.

Rushdie went first. He was awesome--full of stories and comedy! Of course he had several zingers which I'll try to quote below. He talked about the "religious rhetoric" and how, with free speech and the right to say anything (even offensive), there needs to be a re-description of the meaning of the word 'respect.' "We do not have a right," he said, "not to be offended. Offense becomes a limiting factor on thought," and then no one can speak. Opinions are, by default, varied and conflicting, but they must be allowed to coexist. "A frequent fact of free speech is that you find yourself defending people you don't like," Rushdie reminded the audience. The point of free speech is that people are still allowed to say what they like. He told a great story of going to the House of Commons in London with Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to understand a bill that Blair was trying to turn into law that banned any anti-religious sentiments being expressed. All the MPs were falling over themselves to impress and please Atkinson, who they are very fond of, but Atkinson didn't take the bait. He makes a joke on his show where, showing footage of Muslims praying and prostrating in a mosque, he says in voice over, "and the search goes on for the Ayatollah's contact lenses!" Would this still be allowed, he asked? The MPs were foxed, flummoxed and stumped. Brilliant, Mr. Atkinson!

Rushdie also talked about a movie made in Pakistan after the fatwa was issued against him called International Gorillay that portrayed him as an evil man being pursued and eventually, killed. They had me in eggplant- and vermilion-coloured safari suits, he complained, "the fashion insult was really very profound." When they tried to show the movie in England, the latter's film corporations refused, for fear of being sued by Rushdie, by then a UK resident. Rushdie, ever the free speech advocate, wrote to the UK Film folks and urged them not to ban the movie on his account, promising not to take legal action if they allowed the film. So they allowed it and the movie was all set to be screened in a Muslim-heavy community somewhere in London. On the day it was released, no one showed up. "People know the difference between good and crap," Rushdie concluded. No one wants to spend 10 quid watching a bad movie. Now, if the movie had been banned originally, everyone would have wanted to get their hands on it. Allowing the movie to exist in peace prevented it from gaining any gossip-worthy notoriety. In this ironic example, Rushdie allowed a movie denouncing his very existence, upheld free speech and escaped film-generated infamy.

Re: funding, Rushdie pointed out that many prestigious (American) universities are recipients of public funding, yet they preserve academic freedom. Journalism can behave the same way, he insisted.

Rushdie spoke sadly of MFHusain who, at the age of 90, has moved to Qatar to get away from angry Hindus chastising his recent series of paintings of nude Hindu goddesses. Little has been said in the press of Husain's reactions and his status as an established, prominent, talented Indian artist is neither mentioned nor appreciated. The obvious question, Rushdie insisted, was to ask the offended Hindus about paintings of Hindu goddesses with clothes on since, according to Rushdie, "the wardrobe of Hindu goddesses could be contained in my pocket." Perhaps he is referring to sculptures and the apsaras draped all over Hindu temples since, as far as I know, all the goddesses are sari-clad in pictures I've seen. (But I personally would not be offended by a nude goddess.)

Rushdie had a great point he brought out through the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian text on the performing arts. I had never heard of this before, so it was nice to learn something new. It explicitly says that art will not be blemished by restrictive opinions, that anything can take place on a stage in the name of art. Pretty cool! Rushdie proposed that various cultures have something recognizing freedom of expression in their traditional cannon and that they should be brought to the fore of Bollinger's 'global public forum.' Making the First Amendment into an "American export becomes a reason to object it," he argued and could be better received if it was translated into ideas that other cultures already contain (regardless of how effectively they espouse them).

David Ignatius went next. As a journalist and an editor, he focused on Bollinger's thoughts on placing journalists in war zones by "embedding" them with soldiers, arming them, etc. He has done his share of war coverage, both on the ground and remotely, and spoke against embedding journalists with army units for various reasons. He also wasn't in favour of too much public funding for the press since today's media is already perceived as embedded in government voices. (He wasn't as fun to listen to, so I didn't take as many notes!)

Michael Schudson introduced himself as the guy whose boss (Bollinger) was sitting next to him, so he better be careful flattering and criticizing Bollinger's book! He and another journalist put out a report about providing more government funding to journalists which received a flurry of reactions opposing such a move for reasons Ignatius covered. But, Schudson argued, does that mean that any kind of funding is bad? Will corporate funding mean corporate-biased news? Will philanthropic funding mean a different slant on reportage? NPR and PBS, America's public radio stations, are superbly run, entirely publicly funded, and completely sans government influence. The BBC is a stellar source of news and also unblemished by government voices, even though it, too is funded (it's annual budget is $6 billion).

Schudson praised American journalism for its uniquely curious journalists. Apparently Watergate created a ripple effect around the world and there were "____gates" covered in several countries after that! "Self interest, not moral arrogance, should be why we promote American journalism traditions abroad," he concluded.

All in all, a fascinating talk, great speakers (especially my story-telling hero, Rushdie) and what seems like a good book from Bollinger!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Angels in the Backyard

Dedicated to all the angels, seen and unseen,that the "Ridgewood Redskins" have enjoyed at 410 Albin Court

Saturday afternoon and it’s time to explore the backyard for bugs and alien life, as usual. You are armed with the brand new magnifying glass Amma let you buy with your pocket money. Suddenly the palette God uses to paint your garden produces rainbows that you have never noticed before. You admire nature through the thick lens: the grass, sometimes erect and alert, sometimes hunched over and brooding, flexes green-blue-purple-striped-spotted bodies at you. The soil is a chaos of multi-colored crumbs, a layer of soft chocolate cake covering the ground. The identical-looking daisies Amma planted now prove as different as the snowflakes you and your classmates once made in school, folding paper many times over and cutting out little triangles. You follow the curve of the petals—such a pure white!—to their source, a bristly yellow center that turns into a yellow carpet, velvet on your fingertips. You wonder if baby flowers can grow in those circular yellow fields, and you smile, picturing flowers inside flowers inside flowers. You are transfixed by infinity. Some people count sheep and some contemplate the expanding universe. You multiply flowers.

Having inspected Color with a quiet awe, you move onto Texture: fluffy furry scaly sticky brittle powdery smooth poky squishy interactions with your thorough hands amuse you. Then Movement—inevitable and alluring—reveals itself to you. Through your glass, you see the garden come alive! Sunlight sizzles before your eyes and hypnotizes the short grass and lanky stems into a synchronized dance. Petals look like they are breathing, the way they first unfurl towards the sun and then retreat ever so slightly when you touch them. Ants are no longer boring. They are bulbous, like three jellybeans joined delicately together with antenna jammed into the tips of their heads that unerringly point forward.

You are amazed at the crawling creeping swaying sprouting activity around you and feel grateful to your new instrument for your discoveries. Amma watches from the backdoor, her eyes following your delicate steps through the grass, the stripes on your favorite t-shirt undulating like a wave as you bend over to inspect a ladybug, then straighten to survey unexplored terrain. Your silky black hair reflects the sheen of the sun and flops softly over your forehead, stopping just above your eyebrows. Amma can hear you talking to yourself, and smiles when, every few minutes, you turn to her to jabber excitedly about your latest discovery. You couldn’t be happier.

You study a centipede trundle across your palm and observe wide-eyed, with your wide-eyed glass that he really does have one hundred legs! You are convinced you can see little shoes on all one hundred feet, too, which makes you gasp with pleasure—“Look Amma he has so many legs!” How long, you wonder, does it take the centipede to lace all his shoes up? You imagine the centipede’s Appa teaching him how to tie his shoelaces the way your Appa taught you when you started third grade and became a big boy. The song goes: Here’s a little rabbit, and here’s a great big tree. Watch the little rabbit run around the tree. Out pops his head, to see what he can see. How neat a knot he made around his great big tree!

But you pause, stuck on the impossible imagery. Aren’t rabbits really big, compared to centipedes? And wouldn’t trees be too gigantic for them to imagine? You concentrate with a rare frown as imagination battles with rationale; Amma hears your silence and anticipates imminent exclamation. Maybe centipedes use different objects instead of rabbits and trees. An ant and a blade of grass? Ants don’t run like rabbits and grass doesn’t stand unmoving like a tree, but they will do, you reason, patiently correcting the proportions in the song. You are eager to understand your surroundings and careful to treat its inhabitants with a courtesy commensurate to their abilities, not size. Any creature that can tie one hundred pairs of shoelaces and never trip deserves your admiration, and you happily lavish it upon the centipede. Eight-year-olds do not believe in being stingy with emotion and you are no exception. “Amma,” you shout, “I figured it out!” Like all mothers, Amma responds with a smile that is half-knowing, half-surprise, ever impressed by her child’s latest accomplishment. “Well done sweetie,” she calls. “I’m so proud of you, my son.” The sun beams.

Size enthralls you, which is why your magnifying glass is so special: it makes everything bigger and stronger, granting puny creatures volume and power and turning sand piles into veritable kingdoms run by giant insects. On Friday you chose to re-read Jack and the Beanstalk by yourself during Story Time. It is one of your favorite stories and feeds your fascination for transformation. Today in the garden, you pretend to be a hungry giant trolling the grounds for little boys to eat. You feel an ant crawling up your leg and you are thrilled to be the tall mysterious beanstalk that led Jack to his adventures. Because you are a cast of one, you turn into the giant at the top of the beanstalk. “Fee fi fo fum,” you proclaim to no one in particular—but Amma hears you; she always does—“I smell the blood of an English ant!” You hop about in a dance best befitting a happy hungry giant before releasing the ant to the ground. You were not enthused at the idea of eating an insect; Amma will have a much tastier dinner ready for you anyway.

Sunshine dulls into shadows that get in the way of your glasses, and by sundown it is getting harder to see the little creatures in the dark grass. Amma has turned on the lights that shine onto the backyard but something about the angular contours of the roof against the thick navy blue sky make you want to go inside, so you do, wiping your feet on the doormat and slipping into your comfortable slippers. Amma and Appa and your sister are moving about the kitchen with soft steps and vigorous conversation. Appa is talking about surgery that day—your sister wants to be a doctor just like him—and Amma is singing while she puts the finishing touches on dinner. White rice green spinach yellow dahl white yoghurt to draw in and mash together with your eager fingers before consuming with noisy slurps! Fee fi fo yummy!

The kitchen walls are painted yellow and remind you of being outside in the golden sunshine, which pleases you. Amma’s potted tulips, obediently lined up against the wall and leaning towards the dinner table to hear what you are about to say, remind you that you can study them with your magnifying glass as well. Joy rushes over as you as realize how many surfaces, objects, nooks and crannies are still to be explored!

Dinner is familiarly noisy—the sounds of being home and enjoying a delicious meal with Amma, Appa and Archana. Appa chews deliberately and asks everyone about their day, starting with yours. You are excited because you have much to report from the garden. You describe the ant hill you had prostrated before for some time, examining grain by sand grain. There were ant foot prints dotted all over the hill, pinpricks in the rigid sloping sand. Are they called ant foot prints? Ant prints? Do their feet have prints? You are focused with a faraway look in your eyes, like a philosopher trying to pinpoint the meaning of existence with a stare. Feedback emerges from around the dinner table. Appa agrees that they are called ant prints and pats you on the back, congratulating your discovery: “you are a scientist, man!” Amma suggests going to the library to read about ants. Archana says, “you should give them a name, since you noticed them. Maybe mix ‘foot’ with ‘ant’ and call them ‘fant’ prints! What about that, little boo?” You giggle at her comment. ‘Fant’ sounds like ‘pant’ and now you are imagining these tiny ants wearing pants—with tiny pockets! Appdiya? Isn’t that something!

Everyone laughs and you glow with growing confidence. Beyond the window lies darkness but you know that you are conquering the garden with your magnifying glass, one exploration at a time, befriending all green-blue-purple-striped-spotted grass and the yellow daisies. Amma reports on her day: “I watched Aravind crawl over each square foot of our backyard, studying every weed, seedling, pebble and burrow. He’s become the backyard expert!” Archana asks if you will teach her all the things you know about the garden. “Sure,” you offer, happy to share the revelations you have experienced about pollen and leaf pores and baby ants and all.

As always, day ends in night, you end in bed, under the covers, gazing up at your glow-in-the-dark stars. Amma, Appa and Archana have all tiptoed in and out of your room to whisper goodnight to you and lulled you into that limbo state between wakefulness and sleep. Your ceiling constellations grow dimmer and move farther from you as you become lost to sleep, lost to dreams, until it’s time to wake up again.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Start With The Big Stuff

Because that makes the basket empty quicker. Towels are easy—rectangular and regular and their corners touch and the creases cooperate. Then t-shirts, but you have the check the label to know if it’s your dad’s or your brother’s. Men can be ambiguously similarly sized.

Always leave socks until the end. You can hang them over the basket and locate their twins more easily that way. Your lazy brother (he of the ambiguously sized t-shirts) may even walk by and claim his socks with a flick and another flick.

If you fold fast enough the piles retain their clean fresh smell and you can bury your nose in them for a treat at the end.