Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 Wrap up

I have no fancy excuse(s) for my long hiatus from blogworld, only one word—laziness! No, this is not a confession out of self-entitlement to a fan base clamoring for my pathetically sporadic ramblings I would like to sell as blog updates. Rather, I noticed my writing side ebbs and flows with the frequency of my postings and I figured if I were to step up on one, the other would pick up too. So, with the confession booth in the back and to catch up, much has transpired since my musings on the “ring” with an equal amount of shoulda-woulda-coulda-s! Most notably, my friend and now-brother finally got hired. With the economic situation here in the doldrums a job, that too at a not-so-mundane place, is always welcome. At work, we were able to bring a three-year project to closure (whew!) and are on the verge with another one. Another personal and larger project needs to pick up steam and I need all the drive I can rally for this one. Oh, and the wife is finally on the shores of the US of A.

On the shifts of note, I can scarcely recall the last time I went to the cinemas. There was a time when new cinemas were a regular on my weekend to-do lists. Lately, I remember only District 9 (a must see) and Inglorious Basterds (one of the more watchable Tarantino fare) but that would be it. Are my cinematic tastes deadening or is it that cinematic productions are just no longer compelling? Avatar seems to be raking in the millions but then again there’s only so much CGI I can take for even a very human story as Avatar. Documentaries have been my regular go-to these days…and there are plenty online at google videos and youtube.

Christmas brought out the creative best in a local church I’ve followed over the years. This particular church puts out a Christmas tableau every year and I’ve followed it because the scenes they conjure up are a little off your regular nativity scenes. This year, the tableau featured a barbed-wired wall with graffiti in Spanish splashed all over, which I thought was reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. Sensing the anachronism, I took a closer look. It turned out to be a model of the border walls that dot the US-Mexico border with “No Room in the Inn” spray-painted on the top. The tableau was a poignant commentary on the “illegal-aliens” issue that continues to animate and polarize US politics. If one were to ponder over its implications, it unsettled many presumptions about the modern state, human communities, rights, histories, and so on. I would have added a picture of the tableau for its graphic-ness were it not for the mild squall that toppled the wall before I could photograph it! Winds of change? While these thoughts lingered, my wife and I got to spend Christmas with the few Mizo folks around the area. To add some of the seasonal flavors from home to the gathering, we had chhang ban and sa um bai! The singing and sharing would pale in fervor compared to that which we are used to back home but then again, even the casual setting around Christmas clutter and chatter was a reminder that we were at home while not quite there.

Would I have spent my last few months differently? Im not sure. I don’t know. All I know is that the sense of doubt will set me up for the new year even without the usual list of resolutions. Hope you have a good one.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fellowship of the Ring

Seeing me twiddle my fingers rather aimlessly at a gathering of Burmese American dentists, my host must have caught sight of what might have looked like the onset of an OCD induced twitch. Momentarily out of sight, he reappeared with a copy of Time magazine and a solicitous suggestion that reading might help calm down my frenzied digits. After all, neither could I make sense of the conversations around me nor did I recognize any of the faces. But then again, a lone head slouched over a magazine amidst a reception hall abuzz with activity would do little to alleviate the sense of standing out in a crowd.

One article in particular got my attention primarily because I felt connected to the issue it addressed. Lisa Selin Davis’s “All but the Ring” is a very balanced overview of the emerging trend on this shore of the Atlantic, where couples and partners are increasingly opting to cohabit without getting married. Reasons given for this option are informative: legal, personal, political (solidarity with gay/lesbian couples), financial, popular trend (à la Brangelina), and so on. These were informative—I thought so—because they were more telling of the layers of human configurations that underlie a contract such as marriage. The underlying argument seemed to be the notion of mutual commitment and how “committed unmarrieds” seemed a more practicable and integral option than what might be inferred as “married un-committeds.”

Structured performances of marriage are written into our cultural canons. We embellish them with gender, legal, and religious overtones and then over time come to accept them as self evident components of our culture. Despite their normative-ness, these are not hermetically sealed canons that have never been breached. I can think of the Ladakhi Skus-te-Khyong-ches where marriages, primarily among the poorer sections, involve “stealing” partners to avoid the extravagant expenses of marriage ceremonies; or the unplanned pregnancies among friends that forced either an alternate church wedding or single-parenthood. With the increasing visibility of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) community the world over, the resilience of these cultural canons on marriage/cohabitation is going to be stretched to its seams.

Lisa Davis’s article gripped me primarily because it stretched my own unarticulated sense of what it means to commit myself to cohabit with another person. On breaking the news of my decision on how I would chose to perform this commitment, my advisor asked whether my decision was driven by a Victorian impulse. Despite his veiled reference to Foucault, I chose to get married in church with friends and family as witnesses. Wryly compliant with Beyonce’s crooning: “If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it,” Kimi and I exchanged rings. Strangely enough, I developed a rash on my finger and had to take off the ring within a week. Even as I struggle to come to terms with acquaintances who desire to cohabit in non-normative arrangements, I hope to remain committed and married, with my ring-less finger to speak for it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

had someone else been first to the tomb...

Had it been men, they’d have first blamed their missing womenfolk for the apparent theft. “Weren’t they the last ones in doing what they do best, pssh…manicuring the dead?” On spotting the “gardener,” they’d have thrashed him on a mere hunch and then proceeded to ask him whether he knew what was going on.
Had it been Steve Jobs, we’d probably have an I-Tomb for the perpetually mobile-no-time-to-die. Or maybe a Funeral-App that would take care of the many logistical details associated with such events that one increasingly finds less time to attend to, for instance, thlanthut in-absentia.
Had it been a poststructuralist, the tomb would signify the lingering trace of the Other, its linguistic valence persisting as a symbolic Freudian orifice.
Had it been immediately after 9/11, we’d be told by excited news-crews covering the scene that a WMD silo had finally been found. The war machine would be primed to pulverize the area into a valley of skulls.
Had it been a realtor, she’d be at a loss to put her books together. What with the current state of the economy, even the dead are not spared the dire consequences of foreclosure.
Had it been a politician, a press conference would have been hurriedly put together. We’d be told that the body had to be re-interred elsewhere, the tomb of another only-trustworthy family member, because of a three-day rule set by the cemetery committee. Not to worry, the body would be returned after three days. Ah! the next round of elections!
Had it been Lara, she wouldn't have raided it! C'mon, raiding an empty tomb?

I for one would have missed the bus entirely as I was still recovering from a heady gig the previous night at Tone Merchants featuring Scott Henderson .

Sounds almost Jeff Beck-on-Extacy!

I did make it to a very packed service. Though not late but it being a well-attended service, all I got was a balcony seat that got me close enough to participate in the celebrations and yet distant enough to ruminate over the possibilities of other people in that Easter story.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rat Attack

Here's a quality PBS documentary on the effects of the mautam. "Rat Attack" rehashes what most of us would already know about the mautam but it also provides more information on details that, if further researched, would be helpful in preparing the next time around. Yup, there is no explicit "AHA" moment but some of the insights that Aplin (biologist/primary researcher) provides are worth a follow up. On a lighter note, Ratatouille or even Mickey Mouse does not seem so cute anymore.

The QuickTime video is split into 6 segments, and each frame comes with a transcript, links, and other informative material. Personally, rats creep the hell out of me and I wouldn't have watched the documentary had it not been set in Mizoram. Post-viewing, the overall production quality is very good and the post-production work, in particular, gives it a very tight narrative. The B-roll inserts are also breathtaking. What if "Rat Attack" were a template for more documentaries on Mizoram? Or are there some already in circulation? Any leads or links?

[ps: Dang it! I just got a message that the online viewing is only within the US. However, I'm sure a copy will be available in India. James Lalsiamliana (biologist and co-researcher) should have more details on access]

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mind your Language

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

This selection from Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture earned him the dubious runner-up position in the 1998 edition of a "Bad Writing Contest" organized by the journal Philosophy and Literature. (He lost me after the string of predicated nouns). Curiously enough, Bhabha is a professor of English at a not-so-mundane school. Language in its written form, in the hands of its so-called experts, seems to have taken a nosedive into inaccessible depths —or elitist heights for lesser minds as I.

To insert a personal angle, my unschooled and default mother-tongue has, of late, been shown wanting in many departments: vocabulary, precision, conformity to parameters shared by the larger community. My wife’s been unrelenting in pointing the many mistakes I had earlier reasoned away as my version of Mizo. To my credit, we have managed to restrict our communication to Mizo, a choice that comes with the proverbial “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Neither did I sound like Bhabha. However, in light of the many unintended verbal slights, I always wondered if we could mutually agree to meet halfway to defuse the verbal slips. Obviously, the subscript states that I refuse to comply and that she moderates her linguistic canon!!

In defense of Bhabha and their ilk, Rey Chow recently argued that their verbiage is warranted by their investments in language. A bulleted version of her argument would run something like this:
•Focus on language not as a tool of communication but on the modes of production and reception of meaning prior to the establishment of meaning itself.
•Hence, the establishment of meaning is problematic.
•Emphasis is on the ideological manipulations of meaning. Language—as much as we’d like it to be transparent—no longer functions unproblematically.
•The problem is with myth, and myth-making.
•Myths interface multiple domains of signification. Fluid and shifting easily, myths offer multiple possibilities for duplicity, ambiguity, and ideological manipulation. These manipulations over time project a factual system.
•Some of the modernist myths hinted, I assume, are fact, truth, the static self, etc.
•To fend off mythic corruptions of language, specialized languages such as E=MC² or that of modern poetry are deliberately obscure, exclusive, and impenetrable. At least they try to.
•Verbiage as that of Bhabha and Chow emerge from such resistant positions on language.

However, that E=MC² itself has taken the semblance of a fact belies the effectiveness of resistance to language. Who hasn’t rattled off the obscure formula, or name-dropped a towering figure in their field as if to cloak oneself as sophisticated and erudite- as if sophistication and erudition were self evident facts merely by reference. Besides my own complicity, I now also have to explain this to my wife in Mizo!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Against the grain

If Slumdog Millionaire deserved the global recognition it got, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should be accorded no less. Unlike the graphic templates we are used to with films set in and around Nazi Germany, Striped Pyjamas provides us a vantage point unlike most in its genre. Its explorations of human vicissitudes amidst crises open us to possibilities of orientation to human situations without overt reference to violence –despite violence's palpable imprint.

Seen through the eyes of Bruno, the eight year old son of a German officer in-charge of a concentration camp, Striped Pyjamas is an exploration; in a profound sense of the term. Bruno’s love for adventure books inspires him to explore, a childlike instinct which leads him through questions that push him beyond his circumscribed limits. The answers do not seem critical to the screenplay. Rather, Bruno takes you along in his playful yet profound adventure: you skip along eagerly through the woods of discovery, playfully eavesdrop on an adults-only screening, long for atonement after slighting a friend, and even find out that a shower is never always just ‘another’ shower. Pushing one beyond the familiar modernist urge for a neat and structured end, Striped Pyjamas’s motions unsettle popular notions. The resulting ambivalences pry through the in-between spaces that, according to one cultural critic, bear the burden of how we grapple with notions of ourselves and/in culture.

While both movies were released around the same time –Slumdog in January 09 and Striped Pyjamas in November 08 (source: IMDb)– Striped Pyjamas went under the radar. Maybe the current economic climate helped Slumdog sell its rags-to-riches story better.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Chin Day Celebration

Chin-Mizo and other hyphenated people group expats in SoCal met to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the Chin Day.

I'm sure the organizers had their best intentions to line up a talk on "Chin Migrants in India." A very gracious Dr. Hrangkhuma tactfully deflected the title's problematic implications to suggest the underlying commonalities that should/could be better celebrated. All in all, a great evening of fun food and reconnecting with like folk in the area.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

"I am a 'Decider'"

The Obama dispensation has fueled much postmortem dissections of the preceding Bush idiocracy. Stand-up fare almost misses Bush for all the ready-made fodder he never failed to deliver. Not that I am particularly invested in such an indulgence but rather that the much publicized Bushisms seemed, in a wry manner, to put some of my thoughts in perspective- here's my shot at a systematized reflection.

Having fended for myself over the last three decades, I almost got to consider my solitude as a conclusive self-definition. A psychiatrist friend once sized me as overtly gregarious and yet innately introverted. I seemed to have passively internalized his evaluation while always conscious that another part of me wanted to break the mold. Recent run-ins to make longterm connections fell flat with each failed connection seeming to thicken the mold.

While on a teaching stint at a theological college in Aizawl, a rather unassuming Kimi walked into our faculty meeting. Nothing significant transpired beyond the perfunctory student-teacher interactions. But images from that first encounter remain as fresh as ever. There was that one time when a student's mother passed away and we had to rush to the hospital. It being an emergency, Kimi jumped behind me on my bike. I admit I was tempted to apply that strategically timed brake; but resisted. Kimi was always that forbidden allure. Academic protocol would just not let me step beyond our bounds. (As a disclaimer, these details should never crop up on my résumé!)

I moved across continents and solitude could not have been more palpable. That’s when I called Kimi to greet her on a Christmas in 2006, well, also to reconnect with someone who had once made me skip a few heartbeats. Over a few tri-monthly calls, I popped the question where angels feared to tread. Protocol, academic and/or societal, always limited full expression of the innermost longings. My phone bills though were a little more telling. An invitation to participate in a symposium at Kolkatta provided me much needed funds and all the legit excuses to make a trans-Pacific detour to Aizawl to meet Kimi for the first time, now no longer a student, as my partner. The phone calls intensified in frequency, length, and tenor.

One year down the line, we decided to make public our mutual commitment before friends and family through marriage. Though not as neatly contrived as a syllogism should be, the structure of these memories I gather seem to fit in neatly with Bush’s sill(y)ogism. Long term commitments are decisive moves that one grapples with and hopefully perseveres to see through. I, for one, am a decided-er!!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Did

Kimi finally agreed!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Colours of Fall

Fall falls late here! While leaves in most other parts of the country are snugly covered by layers of snow, the leaves here are still on branches half undecided—should I fall or just brave it through to spring?

Those that hang on burst out in resplendent fiery colors. Those that fall off cushion the ground as crackling covers waiting for the next grounds personnel to pick them up.

With this sudden fixation on the arboreal, the Christmas-New Year’s break provided me the motivation to explore the botanical gardens just across our walls. I was surprised at how oblivious I had been to a resource right at my doorstep.

This garden is particularly interesting as it houses endemic and indigenous flora, and preserves their associations with the indigenous Tongva Indians in the area. Unlike the palm lined boulevards on the silver screen, all contrivances of a rapidly impatient urbanizing drive, these gardens preserve glimpses of what SoCal might have been had it not been for the 49ers and their colonizing successors.