Books and Orgasms

Moving to India after studying for 7 years in an Ivy League University in the US with astounding resources at your finger tip, can be challenging. For a year though I continued to enjoy my Columbia University online privileges and I made full use of them. So much so that I didn’t even bother to figure how to navigate the website of Ahmedabad University library. But every time I downloaded something via the Columbia library I would feel the need to do it so surreptitiously, lest some IT personnel at Columbia notices me visiting that website long after I had graduated. I used to do it like a mouse stealing cheese, in and out very quickly. I never lingered on that website anymore like I used to.

Then this December tragedy struck! I found out that Columbia had finally revoked my privileges. Like a rejected lover who still has to come to terms with the rejection, I continued to visit the website a few more times, but I knew it was over. It was then that I remembered the Biblio website (name changed), that life saver of resourceless students and faculty from where one can download full books and articles free of cost. What a blessing! Now every time I go on Biblio and find an article or book I need, the pleasure is simply orgasmic. I literally go Oh My God! Oh My God! Oh My God as I download them. Either I am a nerd or simply one who is easily aroused. Or both?

Five Poems

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko 

Poetry 

I come to poetry
Like a woman spurned
Returning to her faithful husband.
I vent myself in poetry
When worlds, words, and people fail me.
Hoshang* says a poet finds poetry in every slice of life,
Like the stone carver
Who finds a spirit in every rock.
Not me.
Like the safety of a garbage dump to a street dog beaten and left to die,
So is poetry to me;
A place to lick my wounds.

[*Hoshang Merchant is a reputed Indian-English poet and my teacher]

***

Depression 

It descends upon me like a vulture
Landing heavily yet swiftly.
I lie impaled to the ground
Tearing my nails as I scratch the dirt,
Struggling to find an escape route.

I have field notes to write
And people to meet,
I need to conjure up
A researcher’s enthusiasm.
But all I feel
Are…

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Photo-Essay: Tel Aviv Dairy – I

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

In Fall 2015, I was awarded the ‘Asia on Its Own Terms’ Doctoral Summer Fellowship in the East Asian Studies Department at Tel Aviv University (TAU). It brought together local and international researchers specializing in China, India, Japan, and Korea. This fellowship, which covered our travel expenses and housing in Tel Aviv for a month (May 14-June 18, 2016), was funded by the Yad Hanadiv grant instituted by the Rothschild family.

My decision to travel to Israel at a time when the contentious academic ‘Boycott of Israel’ is in place made my choice a very political one. Numerous people in my life were astonished that I would even apply for a fellowship to Israel in the first place. Many of them sent me numerous articles on the Boycott movement. While I do not support Israel’s unequal war against Palestine, I decided to go because I was…

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Photo-Essay: Strange Fruit in Bed-Sty

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

I live in Bedford Stuyvesant in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. It is a predominantly black neighborhood and one that is becoming increasingly gentrified. My closest subway station is Utica Avenue on the A and C train lines. Getting home from the station involves a short walk through Fulton Park. Last night it was dark by the time I got home from my University. For the past couple of days, I, like many others, had been greatly agitated by the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by the American police. That night I stepped out of the subway station and started to walk home through the park. Suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. In front of me was a sight that immediately reminded me of “Strange Fruit,” that haunting song, sung by the Black artist, Billy Holiday, and written by a…

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How Have You Responded to the Public Display of Penis?

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

This is a piece I started writing in August 2015. But, as it often happens, the fire went out of the piece and I laid it aside until recently, when an article in the New York Review of Books stoked that fire and I picked up the piece again.

In August 2015, Maryanna Abdo, an American, tweeted about a man who masturbated at her in broad daylight in Mumbai. When her attempts to confront him and take him to the police station were foiled, she took his picture and tweeted about this incident. Way to go! It is also noteworthy that a couple of men came forward to help her even though they were unsuccessful in nabbing the offender.

As a woman, I admire Maryanna’s proactive response to the harassment. The tenor of the responses to her tweet, however, surprised me. First, her respondents were predominantly…

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When You Smell of ‘Curry’

Since last night my husband has been suffering from knee pain. Signs of aging, he said. This morning the pain grew worse and he was feeling feverish too. I shared this with my mom-in-law during our phone conversation this morning. Anxious, she suggested that I boil some mustard oil with garlic and apply the warm oil on his knee.
I had had a bath and was ready for the hour long trip to Columbia University in NYC where I am a doctoral student. Hence my husband  insisted that I do no such thing until I get back tonight. But I foolishly insisted.  The garlic burnt a little and our studio was soon filled with the smell of oil and burnt garlic. Eager to get to my university, I sprayed some deo and left for the subway. I thought the walk through the park would kill the smell. Apparently not! Once in the subway I noticed people fidgeting and one man did not hide his disgust at all. He moved away, cringed his nose, and gave me dirty stares. I have never felt so miserable in a long time. I wanted to cry and rush back to the safety of my house. Unable to bear his looks I changed trains and covered my head with my hoody. I became a representative of the brown person who always smelled of ‘curry’.
By the time I reached 14th street, panic, shame, and sorrow had engulfed me. I couldn’t sit in my library, go for the appointment with my professor, or to the gym smelling like this! So I got off the train and came back to BedSty and home.
It was a powerful lesson in prejudice. But then, as my husband said upon my return, “sometimes prejudice helps”–his fever had worsened and he was happy to see me back!

The mythical child at the center of Smriti Irani’s concerns about schooling

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

One day, many years ago, I was travelling by train from Kochi to Kolkata. My coach was empty except for a young family comprising of a mother, father, and child. From their conversations, carried out in Hindi, it was soon apparent that the father was an Army personnel posted in Kochi. Their son, a boy of about 5 or 6, was chatting animatedly with his parents. During the conversation he pulled out an imaginary machine-gun and pretended to shoot. His father asked him who he was shooting and the son instantly replied, “I am shooting Muslims.”

The parents laughed.

But sitting in the other corner of the coach, a cold chill shot through me; my fear made all the more visceral due to my own marriage to a Muslim.

You might wonder why I am starting this piece with such a polarizing narrative, as if we…

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Dear Madam Smriti Irani: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

In her speech in Lok Sabha India’s Human Resources and Devlp Minister Smriti Irani quoted a “Roman Philosopher” (who happens to be Cicero) on his idea of treason against a nation-state:

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.”

After reading out this quote, Irani added with a sneer, “If I had quoted Chanakya (renowned political scientist of ancient India and advisor to the Hindu King Chandragupta Maurya) today people would have accused it is “saffron. That is why I quoted a Roman philosopher.”

For me Cicero’s quote,  and the purposes to which Irani deploys it, does not exemplify the essence of a democratic nation-state but rather the “if you are not with us you are against us” mentality of an intolerant and totalitarian state. It is acceptable to quote a Roman philosopher but dangerous when the speaker has little knowledge of Roman history.

For do you know what is most ironic?? Cicero himself was condemned as an “enemy of the state” and brutally killed after the death of Julius Caesar because Mark Antony regarded Cicero as a threat and an enemy to the new Roman leadership.

Maybe Irani should have stuck to quoting Chanakya after all!

On Death

Death has always fascinated me.

It was customary in my Christian community in Kerala for family members to give a last kiss to their loved one after they are laid out in the coffin. I will never forget the first time I kissed a dead body, the customary peck on the forehead of my grandfather’s brother, when I was a young girl. The cold, taut skin startled me, and memory of that feeling has stayed with me since.

The closest I got to a dead body was when I went into a mortuary to help my mother bathe a dead body, a family friend’s sister. I realized then that when we die our bodies lose their suppleness and we become like cold alabaster, like a plank of wood. Since then hugging my loved ones when they are supple and warm has been my preoccupation.

It was, however, the death of two people I adored that erased my fear (if I ever had any) of death: that of my paternal grandmother and my mother’s younger sister, Maggie. They adored me, and losing them to death suddenly made death a very welcome prospect for me. In dying I would be with them.

Since the three of us siblings moved out of our nest it is our parents who convey the news of the passing of loved ones to us. Three of us live in different parts of the world and since we will not be able to comfort the grieving families in person our parents insist that we call them. I am very thankful to my parents for demanding this of us because I have had numerous people confide in me that they do not know how to talk to someone who has just lost a loved one. When I call I do two things, I celebrate the memory of the loved one and then I make sure that I remind the family member of how much their love and care must have meant to their loved one.

For the past couple of days I have been more preoccupied than usual with death. And coincidentally a couple of articles on death came my way at around the same time. One was on the need to make conversations about death a part of our everyday talk and the other was one on Oliver Sacks and the gracious manner in which he welcomed the knowledge of his last days. Yesterday I spent a lot of time going through the post-mortem pictures of celebrities. To see them in all their glory in one picture and then to see them lying pale and lifeless on the autopsy table in the next made me ask myself what the meaning of life, of my life, of any life, was. What is the purpose of our brief lives on this beautiful earth?

The Shitty Draft

I am back from a year’s fieldwork in India. My doctoral dissertation is a multi-sited ethnography of the Student Police Cadet (SPC) project in Kerala, India. The biggest dilemma before me was–what do I do now? I have the data but how and where do I begin my writing process. I heard of the strategy used by my friend, Diana Rodriguez Gomez, who had done a visual ethnography among refugee students on the Columbia-Ecuador border. Before she got down to writing she spent a month reading her data. That seemed perfect. I had “gathered” data–particularly my field notes–quite diligently. But I had not gone back to them. It also gave me something to do that was less terrifying than “writing my chapters.”

With this plan in mind I set up an appointment with my Dissertation sponsor/advisor in the Department of Curriculum & Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. But she had another suggestion. Don’t go back to your data, not yet. Instead spend some time writing out the thoughts that are foremost in your mind. Don’t read. Don’t think of chapters. Just do some free writing of your impressions and thoughts from your fieldwork. She called it the “Muscle Draft”. Ok, that seemed doable and almost exciting. I would be writing yet didn’t have to worry about citing anyone! Didn’t have to struggle with questions like–what is my argument? what is my theoretical framework? what is my conceptual framework? I could just write!

I shared this new plan with Leya Mathew, my friend over at U Penn and she recalled that someone she knew called this the “Shitty Draft”! Even better because as my friend told me, “takes all the pressure out immediately when I tell myself this is my “shitty draft”” She couldn’t have said it any better! I decided to borrow that phrase as well and am currently in the process of producing my shitty draft.

I was narrating all this to yet another friend of mine, Stephanie McCall. She has defended her dissertation and had worked under my dissertation sponsor. When I told her the path our sponsor had suggested to me, she said that it was because our professor believes that when we get back from fieldwork “we already know what we want to write about.” Writing the shitty draft helps bring them to the surface.

I am writing my shitty draft and enjoying every moment of it! Friends to whom I shared this experience told me they wished someone had given them this advice when they came back from the field. So here I am sharing it for all those who, like me, love writing yet spend hours before the computer, shoulders stiff, sensing the anxiety and fear surreptitiously creeping into our minds, and feeling completely alone as we flagellate ourselves with thoughts that question our very ability to do doctoral research.

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