Tuesday, January 07, 2020

On my relationship with India

In 2008 I spent 6 weeks in India. I was 22. I visited relatives, travelled on my own, and was in culture shock for most of the time, as it had been 12 years since I was last in India. After this chaotic post-undergrad trip, I returned to America, feeling that I wouldn't ever be able to comment on anything happening in India. Who was I to do so? I was an outsider, regardless of my name and family; I didn't grow up in India, I couldn't ever possibly understand even one issue there with nuance and depth, no matter how hard I could try.

So I didn't try, and India remained a mystery, and a faraway place that my parents visited every few years. Once in a while, I would chat briefly on the phone, and later, briefly via a video call, to an older relative. My father was always in constant touch with his family and friends, no matter where they were or how long it had been since their last meeting, while most of my mother's family still resides in India. Their ties to India remained strong, but for me and my brothers, we had a distant connection to our parents' home country, if at all.

This is the case for many im/migrant children. Though me and my siblings are fluent in Urdu, and we understand the customs and indeed practice them if needed, to code-switch if needed, there never seemed to be any real point or reason to try to stay connected to India, to our family there, in any way. No need really, to even visit, because after all, it takes so long to get there, and it's so expensive, and who has the time? Going back to India seemed far off, and not important.

That all changed, almost exactly a year ago, in about 24 hours from now.

My father died in an Indian hospital bed, in Bihar. My parents had been visiting relatives, in fact they had returned for a shaadi, when Papa came down with pneumonia and with complications, passed away within days. We were summoned to get to India, when he was admitted to the hospital. By the time me and my oldest brother finally arrived, we pulled back the hospital room curtain and saw that he was gone, that he had died just a couple of hours before. My father was buried the next day, and lies next to his parents, my paternal grandparents; a few meters away, my maternal grandfather is also in the same cemetery. Their kaberstaan is part of a dargah, next to a shrine of a Muslim saint from the 13th century.

The last time I had been in India, was that post-college trip back in 2008. It was now just over 10 years later, I was now 32, and my father was forever gone, just like that. He had returned home - fully returned, and I also as a result had to make my own return.

We left after a week, because what was the point in staying? The day my father died, the day that I got to Bihar, I said that I never wanted to come back to Bihar, in the midst of my angry sobbing. I was angry at India, at Bihar. Angry. Furious. Thankfully, I quickly got past blaming the place and understood that I might as well come to terms with what happened, and since Papa died smiling, he must be happy, truly, he must be with his family.

In fact, I was able to make another return to India for several weeks at the end of 2019. It was much needed, as many pleasant memories were created in the places where we had just experienced so much despair and misery just a few months prior. I didn't feel any culture shock, probably because this was my 2nd time in India within a year; indeed I felt fairly competent at being able to navigate, figure and find things out, and I came to understand and appreciate the South Asian way of knowing how to wait.

What happened a year ago instantly and automatically changed the relationship my brothers and I have with our parents' country, forever. India's no longer a distant land. India is where our father died and where he is buried. Not just our grandparents, but our own father, subhanAllah. And because of this, we are also more connected to our Indian relatives, who miss our father and also empathize with our loss; many of them also witnessed my father's demise, death and burial.

This time, after coming back to America, I have a need and a want to feel connected to India. I want to keep returning in order to visit Papa's grave. I want to stay in touch with my family, to try to follow in Papa's footsteps in that regard. I hope to one day make another work that is set in and filmed in India. I am continuing to learn how to read and write in both Hindi and Urdu scripts.

And this time, I also miss the chaos and the noise. Time seemed to stretch in India, I felt present in every minute and every moment, whereas my last few weeks in Los Angeles have seemed to melt together. I found that in India, whether I was in rural Bihar or in more obviously rowdy places such as Kolkata and Bombay, the noisiness and the sheer numbers of people made me hyper-aware of my surroundings, and so I stayed present. I stayed aware. In the moment. Back in LA however, I find it to be a very quiet city, and I have gone back to being very much in my own head. There are no street peddlers hawking their goods at 6:30am, to wake you up and get your day started.

My mind is also fixated on India because a week after my mother and I got back to the States, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now Act) was passed. This, coupled with the promise of a nation-wide National Registry of Citizens, effectively puts India's 200 million Muslims at risk of being rendered stateless. (Go read up to educate yourself, if you've no idea what any of this means). I've been following the news in India because, well, I come from an Indian Muslim family, I was just in India, and plan to keep returning, because my relationship with India has now forever changed.

I find myself unable to be present at being back in Los Angeles, at being back in America, as my mind is preoccupied with the Indian protests and the resulting violence and attacks on students and Muslims, and my mind is also busy with thinking about my family. It's been a year now since Papa died; how can we help our mother to resettle? Her life has changed the most. With being back on campus and back in classes after 6 months, I know that I need to finish out my degree, but for so many reasons, not just a graduate student sense of "senioritis", my mind is checked out.

My hair's been turning grey. I'm no longer a wide-eyed 22 year old, staring at cows being on the road. I am still very naive about many things, but unlike at 22, I no longer feel that I shouldn't speak out on what's happening in India, that I somehow shouldn't care, that it doesn't affect me or my family. Because it does. It directly does.




Monday, October 21, 2019

Sanford Meisner on acting

A surprisingly real struggle of a book to get through...

Intro to chapter 2:
Meisner: What’s the first thing that happens when they build the World Trade Center - you know that building?
Male student: They dig a hole.
Meisner: Well, of course they dig a hole. They don’t glue to the sidewalk! What’s the first thing they did when they built the Empire State Building?
Female student: They had to put down a foundation first.
Meisner: They had to put down a foundation on which...
Female student: ...they built the building.
Meisner: ...they built the building.

Page 68:
"I want to show you something. John, come over here."
John leaves his seat and stands next to the desk. Meisner moves around it to stand next to him.
"Now turn around," he says. "Make your position as firm and as rigid as you can. If necessary, hold on to the desk but make yourself absolutel steadfast."
"Okay."
"I don't think you're solid enough. Are you?"
"Yeah."
Meisner places the palms of both hands on John's shoulders and attempts to budge him. "I don't make any impression on him!" he says. "I'll try again. John, do the same thing."
Again John holds on to the edge of the desk, so tightly that the knuckles of his hands turn white.
"He's stiff!" Meisner says, and then spells the word "S-t-if!" The class laughs. "Now, John, relax."
John lets go of the desk, turns and shakes the tension from his arms and shoulders. Meisner gives him a firm but gentle shove and John takes two long, loose steps forward.
"He's responsive! Do you see that? Relax." Meisner pushes him again, and again John ambles forward. "He's responsive to what I do. Thank you, John. Sit down."

Page 72:
"What we're looking for is the picking up not of cues but of impulses. One doesn't pick up cues, one picks up impulses."

Page 110:
"You're too polite, and in acting politeness will get you nowhere! Look, find in yourselves those human things which are universal. Don't act out what you see on television!"

Page 114:
"Acting is a scary, paradoxical business. One of its central paradoxes is that in order to succeed as an actor you have to lose consciousness of your own self in order to transform yourself into the character in the play."

Page 127:
Ralph enters the room, closes the door quietly and stands still for a moment before taking off his coat. He is visibly upset and slams his coat onto the bed before crossing to the table, where he remembers leaving his notebook. Its absence is a genuine surprise to him, and the resulting exercise, though brief, has vitality.
"All right," Meisner says after a few minutes. "Now tell me, what did I do? Not what did you do, but what did I do?"
"You made something happen," Ralph says. "You made me want something. You created a need and made it impossible for me to -"
"I made it more alive," Meisner says. "Right? How did I do that?"
"You gave me something to do."
"I made you come from something that had happened, right?"
"Right. You made it more specific."
"And what happened because of that?"
"The scene came more alive. It got on the edge of something more important."
"It came to life. Were you working off each other?"
"Yes."
"Ralph, what I did to you - and this is no disgrace, quite the contrary - was to pull you back almost to the beginning. Why did I do that?"
"Because I got lost."
"So I gave you a compass."
"Right."

Page 170:
"What you do and how you feel about the script which makes you do what you do determines the character...Character, you can say, is determined by what you do...The emotion comes with how you're doing what you're doing. If you go from moment to moment, and each moment has a meaning for you, the emotion keeps flowing."

Page 178:
"The first thing you have to do when you read a text is to find yourself - really find yourself. First you find yourself, then you find a way of doing the part which strikes you as being in character. Then, based on that reality, you have the nucleus of the role. Otherwise every shmuck from Erasmus Hall High School is an actor because everyone there knows how to read...Anybody can read. But acting is living under imaginary circumstances. A script - I may have said this before - a script is like a libretto. You know what a libretto is, don't you?"

Page 186:
"Why does any artist begin doing what she's made for? Even she doesn't know. She's just following a need within herself." (Gender corrected by me)

Page 191:
"There is always some juice in the trouble barrel, no matter how full the talent barrel is. The trouble cannot transpose itself into talent without leaving some residue behind, even in the most talented of human beings."

Monday, June 17, 2019

The death of a parent.

The death of a parent is not something you bounce back easily from, even when you think you have, even when you think you're doing fine, for a few hours, days, or maybe even some weeks. That's a fallacy. The death of a parent is always there, it's not something you can forget. That absence will always be present with you, the rest of your entire life.

The death of a parent is not a joke.

It's not to be taken lightly.

The death of a parent will often still not feel real, even though I know, I know - trust me, I know (!) - that I will never see my father again. I know. And yet sometimes it still hits me - "he is really gone", "he is never coming back", or "I will never see him again". Recently I remembered something and I said "Don't tell my parents" and then I realized, I only have one parent left. I've lost half of who I come from.

The death of my parent made me realize that I didn't take death seriously before. I hadn't seen it. I hadn't experienced it in someone close to me, someone I come from. I don't think you're the same person after you see someone no longer living - especially the way it happened with my father, us getting off the plane not knowing what to expect when we get to the hospital. And there he is. Gone. We just missed him. Buried the next day, next to his own parents. Of course we didn't sleep that week. How could we?

What a truly awful and traumatic week that was, that one week in India, returning after 10 years, and that's why we returned. Because Papa, returned.

At least he was smiling, I keep telling myself almost everyday. At least he was smiling. That smile on my father's face, makes his death and the way it happened, much more bearable. It's a blessing, really, for him and for us. And it didn't go away. That smile makes it all better, makes me think it was meant to happen this way, when it did, where it did. Hard for us, but good for him.

The death of a parent is all too real. There is nothing more real in life, than death. It is irreversible. It is final. There is nothing you can do about it - nothing, absolutely nothing. All you can do is cry, grieve, have regrets, have guilt, and eventually somehow in some way try to find a way to go back to your old life, while being so haunted, while seeming fine but actually not really being fine at all. Not at all. Seeming fine, is a joke really. Not sure when I'll actually be "fine". I need more time.

I mean how can you be fine? It's such a massive loss. Such a massive loss. That loss needs to be respected, and given time. The death of a parent needs to be respected.

The death of a parent will turn your world literally upside down. There has been nothing more surreal, more bizarre, nothing with constant 24/7 moments and thoughts of "is this actually happening?" - nothing, nothing at all. When I realized in the bathroom of my now-former favourite coffee shop in NY over speakerphone that my father could die, it was as if the ground beneath me no longer existed. It didn't. And it doesn't. What ground do I have to stand on? I stood next to the ground that my father is buried in.

The death of a parent means your life will never be the same again. Ever. Nothing will ever be the same. Our lives are forever changed. Again, there is no turning back. There is no choice. Who am I without my father? Who will I be, without my mother, if she goes before me? I can't think about that right now. I need to be kind to myself, as people keep telling me.

I didn't sleep much last night. Today was Father's Day. Our first without our father. Recently it was Eid, our first without our father. Soon it will be my birthday, my first without my father. It's a year of firsts, grave firsts. Often I wonder what my father is doing. I talk to him every now and then. It's a coping mechanism obviously, for my own comfort, but it's instinctive, and you cannot help it after the death of a parent.

In a few hours I'll wake up, play chess with my cousin - because the last time I saw Papa, he taught me how to play chess - and we will play to honour his memory. His legacy? Yes - I'll make chess his legacy. Then I shall drive back. I think my father would be happy that I spent Father's Day with my cousin, with one of his favourite nephews. I am happy that I did, that I didn't have to spend this day alone in that massive city, in a county of 10 million people in which I realized today, that none of those 10 million people know my family. Zeroe. I needed to be around someone who knew my father.

The death of a parent makes you realize how petty and insignificant 99% of your problems or other people's problems are. I'm learning, I'm still learning. It's an ongoing lesson.

The death of my parent made me realize instantly and automatically that I was not compassionate or understanding at all when someone else's parent passed away. Now I know what it's like. It's obvious most of the time if someone has experienced loss or not - you hear it in their voice, you see it in their face, it's in their choice of words to you. The way they hug you. They get it. I didn't get it before. Now I get it. You seek out those, who also get it. You can't help it.

Miss you Dad.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

On my father's death.

A few thoughts. Next week I hope to be able to actually journal, once things settle down at least a bit.

Death is a part of life. Some might say, life is death, death is life. But basically, death is a part of life. None of us will escape it, and at some point, you will probably see someone who is no longer living.

Death is both extraordinary, and mundane.

And this cliche is too true: life is too short.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Hanif Kureishi

Extracts from his excellent and intriguing essay, "Introduction: Sex and Secularity":

"To me, writing for film is no different to writing for any other form. It is the telling of stories, only on celluloid. However, you are writing for a director and then for actors. Economy is usually the point; one objective of film-writing is to make it as quick and light as possible. You can't put in whatever you fancy in the hope that a leisured reader might follow you for a while, as you might in a novel. In that sense, films are more like short stories. The restrictions of the form are almost poetic, though most poems are not read aloud in cineplexes. Film is a broad art, which is its virtue."

"I had been aware since the early 1980s, when I visited Pakistan for the first time, that extreme Islam (or "fundamentalism" - Islam as a political ideology) was filling a space where Marxism and capitalism had failed to take hold. To me, this kind of Islam resembled neo-fascism or even Nazism: an equality of oppression for the masses with a necessary enemy - in this case "the west" - helping to keep everything in place. When I was researching The Black Album and My Son the Fanatic, a young fundamentalist I met did compare his "movement" to the IRA, to Hitler and to the Bolsheviks. I guess he had in mind the idea that small groups of highly motivated people could make a powerful political impact.

This pre-Freudian puritanical ideology certainly provided meaning and authority for the helpless and dispossessed. As importantly, it worked too for those in the west who identified with them; for those who felt guilty at having left their "brothers" behind in the third world. How many immigrant families are there who haven't done that?"

"In Karachi there were few books written, films made or theatre productions mounted. If it seemed dull to me, still I had never lived in a country where social collapse and murder were everyday possibilities. At least there was serious talk. My uncle's house, a version of which appears in My Beautiful Laundrette, was a good place to discuss politics and books, and read the papers and watch films. In the 1980s American businessmen used to come by. My uncle claimed they all said they were in "tractors". They worked for the CIA; they were tolerated if not patronised, not unlike the old-style British colonialists the Pakistani men still remembered. No one thought the "tractor men" had any idea what was really going on, because they didn't understand the force of Islam.

But the Karachi middle class had some idea, and they were worried. They were obsessed with their "status". Were they wealthy, powerful leaders of the country, or were they a complacent, parasitic class - oddballs, western but not Pakistani - about to become irrelevant in the coming chaos of disintegration?"

"A child is a cocktail of its parent's desires. Being a child at all involves resolving, or synthesising, at least two different worlds, outlooks and positions."

"Like the racist, the fundamentalist works only with fantasy. For instance, there are those who like to consider the west to be only materialistic and the east only religious. The fundamentalist's idea of the west, like the racist's idea of his victim, is immune to argument or contact with reality."

"... And if we cannot prevent individuals believing whatever they like about others - putting their fantasies into them - we can at least prevent these prejudices becoming institutionalised or an acceptable part of the culture."

"Islamic fundamentalism is a mixture of slogans and resentment; it works well as a system of authority that constrains desire, but it strangles this source of human life too. But of course in the Islamic states, as in the west, there are plenty of dissenters and quibblers, and those hungry for mental and political freedom. These essential debates can only take place within a culture; they are what a culture is, and they demonstrate how culture opposes the domination of either materialism or puritanism. If both racism and fundamentalism are diminishers of life - reducing others to abstractions - the effort of culture must be to keep others alive by describing and celebrating their intricacy, by seeing that this is not only of value but a necessity."

Hanif Kureishi, November 8 2001