Thursday, July 26, 2007

For Shiva.


got back from travelling to be met by the news. Ketaki had told mum, mum didn’t want to tell me over the phone. She said, "your classmate, Shivani". It didn't make sense. It doesn't make sense. You're still alive to me, you posted in my scrap book a week ago, you're interning in Cali, and about 8 months ago we just started talking again, since school. Orkut isn't helping, dude. Everyone is there, every other minute a friend or relative of yours is typing their disbelief, their sorrow, their love for you, but somehow the fact you won't reply to them or me is making this a whole lot harder.

When you first messaged me on Orkut, I had to check your page a few times just to make sure it really was you. Not because you have changed much: still the same powerful academic drive, still the same competitive spirit. Your profile said you were studying at CMU; that made perfect sense—you were always the good student. And back then, I was always the clown. You used to hate my guts back then, and it was no surprise. We were as different as could be: you were good in math. I could only count uptil 20, and that’s if I had no shoes on. You were serious in class and took notes, I would distract krithika and write notes to the others in the back benches. You got the grades. I got the laughs. And you couldn’t understand why I existed and I was amused whenever you got mad because of something I said or did. We made fun of each other, and calmly existed in relative peace through school.

Except for the day we heard anjana ratinam had passed away. We were all in shock, dude. I saw you cry and suddenly you were as vulnerable as I felt, and there were no pranks at that moment, or any need to get the best grade. I didn’t think I would be mourning you today, Shiva. Three paragraphs on and I still haven’t made sense of this.

You hated me calling you Shiva. Heh. Back then I gave nicknames to people with absolutely no grace. You didn’t mind Ms. N calling you froggy though, because you would always be the first one jumping up from her chair to give an answer.

And then, a few years later, you message me on Orkut. Full of fun, ready to refer to all those times in school, ready to laugh at them and forgive me and become friends. And somehow I knew you weren’t connecting just for the sake of it.

30/11/06. "hmm friends are easy to forget sometimes.wat about hard core enemies ? ..need i ask "remeber me?"

Heh. Dang. You were all grown up, but still as ballsy as ever. We stayed in touch, not everyday but enough for both of us to know that we had out-grown our classroom wars, and would probably get along just fine now.

The last message you sent me was on 12th july. And I had quit smoking till I heard the news today that you wouldn’t be scrapping me anymore.

This is not me wallowing, dude. Your close friends, your family and loved ones, I can’t measure my grief against theirs. But when mum told me, it was like 8th standard all over again. Death makes even less sense now, especially for a person as alive as you, as filled with energy as you.

This is a note of memory, because I always did, and always will remember you, my old nemesis and friend. And a note of thanks, because you had the grace to come looking for me, and retie an old knot that most people would’ve ignored, saying that that was school anyway and we were all children then.

We were. And still are, in a way. They say only the good die young. I will miss you, and your smiling face on my page. Rest in Peace, Shiva. You weren’t just the better student. You were also the better human being, and all our lives are going to be emptier because you aren’t with us anymore, my dearest enemy. You will be remembered for your humor, your fierce loyalty to those you loved, your hard-working nature and for all else that made you the one and only Shivani K.

May God bless you and your family. And may he give me a damn good reason why you had to go so soon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In memoriam-- of innocence, loneliness and loss.

I could turn this into a creative writing piece, and write a psychological thriller about a young man and the choices he made. I could even pull a Capote, and turn this piece into my magnum opus, a fixture on some best-seller list because it so chillingly captured real events that occurred in my own lifetime.

Over the past two days, in fact.

There are two problems with doing this. The first? Bad taste.

The second is a problem that all English/Creative Writing students face, which is being assaulted by the need to write or express a thought, an assault worse than an itch in the middle of your back, because it doesn't go away, and leaves you with no peace to think about form, and narrative style. I’m sorry, Truman. I failed you. There’s no best seller here, no carefully crafted piece of new reportage. I'm just a student who's realized she can't complete her thesis unless she puts this itch down in words.

The past two days have been filled with events and changes. A country’s in upheaval. 33 families have lost their reason to leave their porch light on. A university is left feeling ravaged. A media circus is in full swing, and someone just yelled “send in the clowns”. Facebook is suddenly very popular. Several students all around the U.S.A realized they had always disliked Koreans. An entire Asian country felt it needed to tell America that the shootings were not part of some terrorist conspiracy. A section of this country is waiting to see what Oprah will say about this. A section of this country is waiting to see what God will say about this. A certain political lobby group is trying to find the best and most genial way of keeping the hunting season open, as the pope from his ivory tower decried the propogation of violence in this, the land of the free.

And early this morning, a newspaper published an article saying that the VA killings are “widely seen as reflecting a violent society”

The massacre at Virginia Tech was very violent, so violent that it has made me numb in ways that 9/11 never did. Maybe it was because Ground Zero was a direct result of socio-politic-economic strife. Maybe because the victims at V. Tech were chosen randomly. Maybe because many of them would’ve graduated around the same time I will. Maybe because they were taken when they were at their most beautiful, on the threshold of adult life. Maybe because I can still visit their profiles on various social networks online, like Orkut and Facebook, and can see how their life was stopped so suddenly, how they had no foreknowledge, no time to make phone calls or close email accounts. Maybe because television networks are scrambling for any video clips or interviews that can and will boost the number of hits on their web pages. Maybe because of the Indians who were also killed, who were in this country with the sole purpose of academic pursuit, whose families are left grieving back home in my country, trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy.

Mostly though, it's because I could just as easily have been a student at V Tech as I am one at Roger Williams. Maybe because anyone of those victims could’ve been me, if it hadn’t been for the simple fact of place and time, and chance.

But here’s what’s got me awake in the middle of the night, stirring coffee. These 33 human beings weren’t near any war front. They weren’t even part of some huge capitalist venture that would’ve made them symbolic targets.

They were just kids. And they were shot for reasons far more subtle than Fox or CNN will ever discover.

Sure, America today has a violent society. Which country doesn’t? Every country, I repeat, every country has its own share of available firearms. The only factor that varies is whether a person can procure a gun legally, or illegally. Every country has a mob. Every country has natural disasters, street violence, drug abuse, and exploitive news networks. Every country’s film industry has movies that show people getting shot, cars being blown up, women being chased.

War happens all over. Sh*t happens, all over. People get shot, mugged, killed, raped, murdered, run over, knifed and drowned all the time. What makes the actions of Cho Seung-Hui different is motive. Or the lack thereof.

You could say the kid was crazy. You could say he was psychotic, had always been that way, that his writing holds signs of a mind on the edge of some act of violence, and you would be right.

You would also be right if you said he was lonely. Alone, even. Which is to say, without friends. Without a social group to help him cope with a world that has most of us thinking that we wouldn't get by if it wasn't for our drugs, caffeine and otherwise.

No. I’m not justifying his actions. The shootings resulted in the worst kind of deaths— random loss of young life, individuals who were filled with the potential of making this world a better place. I am horrified by what happened. I cannot continue work on my thesis, because of what happened.

Cho was a time bomb waiting to explode. An anomaly, an uncomfortable presence on campus, in the dorm, and in his classes. He wrote weird. He looked weird. He sounded weird. Essentially, he was the freak that everyone was polite to, and most everyone avoided. In early interviews, most students at V Tech had no clue who Cho was.

V Tech is a much larger campus than Roger Williams University. RWU is what you would call a close community, classes that are kept as small and tight knit as is possible to ensure all kids get maximum attention from their professors. My classes, be they creative writing, political science or English, are usually not much bigger than 15, once or twice having gone up to about thirty.

Yet, on may 19th, I will graduate as quietly and anonymously as Cho would’ve, if he hadn’t gone over the edge, if he perhaps, had remembered to take his medication. And that's what's bothering me.

Sure, I got friends. I'm even on Facebook. But I survive on campus relatively on my own. Just me and my iPod, on my way to class, just like you do often, because sometimes the crowd gets too much. Sometimes the fact you don’t belong to a group, because you aren’t a specific type leaves you in a very solitary place.

Cho had problems. But he probably wouldn’t have shot anyone—maybe—if he had had more people to talk to.

That’s not to say that every loner on every campus is a threat to the rest of the learning community.

That means that the sickness in American society is not because of its violence-- the world in general, as Hobbes declared, tends to be a violent, anarchic mess-- but because of the isolated lives people in this country, whether residents or immigrants, end up living. You only speak to your group. You only live within your group. Which is perfectly understandable, because as humans we are programmed to be social animals. But the problem with groups is, there will always be the fringe. The outsiders.

The people who are the only one of their kind in certain space, either based on their mental make up or their physical appearance.

Wait, maybe I could write a story.

This story could be about a young kid who moves to the U.S when he was 8, who was always a bit of a loner because his folks worked hard all the time, and were first generation immigrants, which meant they didn’t speak American well, and that his dad didn’t have a favorite hockey team. The kid was the only Asian around, and no girl wanted to date him because he wasn’t blond.

No wait— scratch that, too easy.

The kid was Asian and lived in a neighborhood filled with primarily Asian families, but the desperation of the need to find your own kind in this country, to stay together because the outside world is scary, was too much for him. Maybe he was tired of being told to jump into stereotypes: to take Kung Fu classes, to use chop sticks, to love computer programming. So maybe, just maybe, he drew further away into himself. He heard Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and thought, yeah that kid in that song, that kid was finally free, finally happy after what he did.

No wait, Jesus, that's too predictable.

How about this—maybe he grew up, and had posters of Martin Luther King Jr. on his wall, and listened to Nirvana; he was also vegetarian. And maybe the first time he tried to talk about Martin Luther King or Cobain, somebody laughed at him. Or stared at him. Or said hey, we didn’t know your people knew about the Civil Rights Movement.

Maybe this kid spoke broken English, because his parents did as well. Or maybe, he spoke flawlessly, and read Shakespeare and Baraka, but one day a girl with earnest eyes told him that she would never believe he was Chinese/Indian/Korean/Nepali/Pakistani/Martian because he spoke such good English.

And maybe he got angry. And maybe he got lonely. And maybe, one grey early spring day, he went into a gun store with money and thought he found his path.

Life isn't Oprah, though I wish it was, and I am not looking for a group hug. But maybe if Cho had had more people to talk to, he wouldn’t have ended things the way he did. One of his professors, when interviewed, said that he had always scared her a little. That there was something not quite right about him.

There’s something not quite right with all of us.

Blessed are those with cliques and similar hair color: they will always have company to watch 'Lost' with. Blessed are those into sports, for they can always throw, punch or run their anger a way.

Blessed are the drugged, for whether on weed or Adderall, their quiet desperation brings them together. Blessed are the smokers, the tokers, the Goths, the preps, the blonds, the actors, the poets, the brunettes, the nerds, the sk8ers, the pea-coat wearers with their eternal promise of coffee cup poetry, the mists of the joy that comes from being part of an elite intelligentsia fogging up their spectacles.

Blessed are those that love Tolkien, for they shall inherit Middle Earth. Blessed are those that see the point of this paragraph, for they, hopefully, are asking questions. Questions like, what about those with no group identifiers? What about those who because of situation or self are left alone in the fishbowl of college life?

Cho Seung-Hui obviously needed help. He didn’t just need communication, he also needed professional care. In an interview with CNN, his former room mates came across as young men who reacted to their silent room mate in much the same way we all would've: they were courteous, they tried to involve him in group activities and when they realized he and the group weren't comfortable with that dynamic, they tried to leave him in peace. They also grew uncomfortable when they encountered examples of his neurotic behavior, and tried to intervene to the best of their ability.

In a way, they did more than the average American student would've. What more can be done with a troubled class mate?

In a separate interview with CNN, Criminology professor Jack Levin talks about the effects of social isolation:

Now, of course, there are millions of people in that situation. They don't kill anybody. But it seems to me that, when you put that together, the social isolation, with the fact that I believe he suffered some catastrophic losses -- I'm not sure whether it was the loss of a girlfriend, the loss of money, the loss of his position on the campus, or maybe all of those things.

But suffering this kind of loss as a precipitant probably pushed him over the edge. You're talking about an extremely depressed person.

Here is an extract of the interview with Levin. The full transcript is available here.

ZAHN: ... Let's come back to the issue of his writing... If you were to have seen this, his work from a playwriting class where he wrote, "I want to kill him, Jane"... would that have alarmed you?

LEVIN: Well, I'm sure it would have alarmed me. However, I have to put this in perspective, after having studied these mass killers for more than 25 years. And I can tell you that they usually do not issue a threat beforehand... And, you know, keep in mind that we could be talking about novelist Stephen King, who also fantasized about violence, and wrote prolifically about it... But the question is, then, what do you do with that information? You know, in high schools and middle schools around the country, under zero-tolerance policies, if a youngster wrote about violence in an essay, could be expelled.

Now, in most cases, these youngsters who wrote about violence did so because they could never actually express it with the -- through the barrel of a gun. Usually, this is a way of dealing with violence , in a safe, pretty innocuous way.

So, you know, I have to tell you something, Paula. I -- of course, I wish I could tell people that these warning signs could protect us in the future... The truth about this is... We should be caring about people who are troubled long before they become troublesome. We should reach out to people... not to punish them, but to give them our concern, our caring.

“We should reach out to people”

Professor, I couldn’t agree with you more. Whether it's letting a person know they are not the only one, or becoming aware of a troubled individual, and reacting pro actively to him or her, talking can only help on campuses in America, and around the world.

In the CNN interview with Cho’s former room mates, it came up that he would listen to a certain song by Collective Soul on repeat, and this was it:

Give me a word
Give me a sign
Show me where to look
Tell what will I find ( will I find )
Lay me on the ground
Fly me in the sky
Show me where to look
Tell me what will I find ( will I find )

Oh, heaven let your light shine down (x4)

Love is in the water
Love is in the air
Show me where to go
Tell me will love be there ( love be there )
Teach me how to speak
Teach me how to share
Teach me where to go
Tell me will love be there ( love be there )

Oh, heaven let your light shine down (x4)

I’m going to let it shine (x2)
Heavens little light gonna shine on me
Yea yea heavens little light gonna shine on me
Its gonna shine, shine on me
Its gonna shine, come on in shine

There's a lot of hurt right now. Lots of rage. Lots of lives that should still be living right now. But why the VA massacre will always be different from any other previous act of violence on campuses is that it was carried out by a young man who leaped off the edge, who never had any sort of hand around to help pull him back.

That thesis is still going to be hard to work on today. I can only add my bit to the prayers being murmured and cried over by parents, best friends, lovers and teachers.

Dear god, please be there.

Take care of the group that came to you on April 16th. Soothe them,

and keep them safe up there till they are reunited with their families.

Show us our own path to love, and light.

Keep us from harming and hating each other,

Keep us from being alone. Keep the Hokie flame burning bright.

Amen. Whoever's up there, please, Amen.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

After a Hiatus

[FYI that line came from the subject header of an email I received from a one time lover. I remember staring at the word 'hiatus' and thinking what a beautiful name it was for a flower, delicate and white-edged, soft and coloured with tinges of blue, purple. I remember thinking that like an orchid it would grow on dead plant life, wrapping itself around a rotting branch. Hiatus. Noun. I picked a hiatus from the riverside, he took her a bouquet of hiatus, et al]

Crunch time.

Forget all that has happened since I last blogged.

Oh and believe me, a lot has.

Crunch time.

I walk around grinding my teeth and counting anxiety attacks these days because I have no answer to the one question that will not go away.

Two years in America. They were meant to be an extended holiday, a decoration on the resume, a free ride.

It has been that. And without asking my permission, it has turned into something more.

I like this mud. I like the cold hardness of this new england ground. I like fall, the fact that every tree looks like its part of a great sacrificial fire to announce the death of the season. I like being alone here, having no face that looks like mine. I like the rocks, ice water, shellfish, sturdy boots that make up the everyday. I like the lack of a mob.
And now I can't leave.

And attempting to stay on beyond the stated finish line is driving me insane.

Truly, I am losing it. I dont sleep right. I dont eat right. I find it harder quitting smoking for good.

What do I do, O fair, brave and lone reader?
What do I, dilettante of the first order [yes it was spell checked]
deserve in the way of extended stays, and second chances?
How do I convince these americans that I am worthy of their grad school?
Am I worthy?
What will happen if I don't make it?

This fear is the most potent drug I have ever used. Or abused. It makes me see visions of natural disasters [last night I dreamt of a dam bursting] and feel the kind of sadness that belongs to old bag ladies singing to themselves in the NY greyhound station.

I weep like I've lost my mind. I listen to every song, choked up and tissue-filled. It's pathetic.

I have ignored laundry, physicals, haircuts, friends, blogging.

I want serenity. I want the ability to feel no fear.
I want out.
And there is no out. India is not an option, not now.
A happy-go-lucky, creative writing major with no actual work experience who's only training has been in being a wasafiri [google it]and writing critical annotations has no place in the good ol' home on the range.

I need a miracle. An act of god. Or faith.
Maybe a prayer.
Or maybe, a word from you. Whoever and whatever you are.

Any ideas?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Holy Mother F-

Right. Hadn't realized it's been this long since I've posted.


I guess life does have a way of.... yeah, yeah all that shyte.

Great day for making a comeback, then. Eventhough the catholic church declared that it was 2002, not 2006 that was the actual year of the supposed horned meanie. Eventhough they made use of a calender date as a marketing strategy for that ridiculous re-intro of Damien into pop culture (around the east coast, this marketing strategy involved large black billboards with "06.06.06" on it)

Eventhough nothing really terrible happened today, to my knowledge, other than the usual bouquet of murders, suicides, shoe sales and whale killings.

Though, wait-- I did miss a bus. The dogs have been howling outside all day. Ah, and two lamp-posts went on when I walked under 'em (a tad positive, the latter. No? But I digress)

But in toto, I'm happy.

Will elucidate on the latter in the posts to come.

Happy Armageddon, everyone.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Anniversary Blues

So it's been a year to the day.

May 13th. It was raining in portland when I landed. It's raining here in rhode island today. Grey-black-blue skies like there's some pissed off dragon-weather god outside on the bay.

I could talk about all the good things. I could talk about all the not so good things.

But that would be giving into to bloggish temptations. Instead, will mention, that a decade and more after I first heard the song, and saw the video, I was able to hear and see both again today. Much thanks to my fellow cow in a cherry red bathing suit for finding the audio file for me :)

Anyone remember Erasure?


There was this b-grade anime look to the video for 'Always'. For some bizarre reason, found enough reason to be fascinated with it as a child.

Happy Anniversary, dear me.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

"Give Me Your Poems"

Three days ago, Lyubomir Levchev came to read on campus, in celebration of National Poetry Month here in yankville. Lyubomir is a Bulgarian poet, and this was his self introduction:

hello my friends, of famous rogers williams college.
I am lyubomir.
I dont speak english.
But after 2nd bottle, I speak english.

Sitting there with notepad and cranberry juice, I couldn't take my eyes off the old man: he has one of those faces that time's used like it would an old tree trunk-- wrinkles, warts and mottled skin like lichen and moss and owls nest in the top branches. He has the most beautiful smile, and carries his cane instead of leaning on it. He came with his lovely wife, his translator, and his publisher and friend, Alexander Taylor, one of the directors of Curbstone Press, and a poet in his own right.

Something about Lyubomir caught my imagination: I have never scribbled down so much verse thanks to the presence of one old man, ever before. His publisher read Levchev's work in english, and then the poet would read the same in Bulgarian:

He tells his translator,
no stopping.
Refuses to read, like a 5 year old
at his eye doctor's clinic,
and holds his cane
while listening,
like a flower

Levchev wanted Taylor to keep reading, while he sat there and listened, intently.

What a face!
If only this pen was a brush,
and I, Rembrandt.

He could've sat in a boat
on a wharf
in a ditch,
reading poetry with a pipe.

He smiles.
What a face!
I mourn my lack.

Lyubomir only picks up his cane
and points to the poetry growing
outside the window.

I kept scribbling things like this throughtout the two-hour reading. Levchev has written some fine poetry. The official blurb on him, according to the PEN American Centre is as follows:

Lyubomir Levchev was born on April 27, 1935, in Troyan, Bulgaria. He has published over 20 volumes of poetry and two novels. Over 60 of his books have been published in 33 countries. He has been awarded the Gold Medal for Poetry of the French Academy and the title Knight of Poetry, the Grand Prize of the Alexander Pushkin Institute and the Sorbonne, and the World Award of Mystic Poetry Fernando Rielo. Levchev is the founder and editor of the international literary magazine Orpheus.

Taylor, while introducing Levchev, said that the President of Bulgaria visited him, and that he was the lion of Bulgarian poetry. Hearing this-- albeit translated-- Levchev let loose a loud belly laugh, rocking back and forth in his chair in his merriment. His translator then said to us, "he says, 'very well if you say so'". Little things like this kept the audience charmed throughout the reading.

The first poem that Taylor read, was called 'Lullaby', and is translated from the Bulgarian by Valentin Krustev:

by Lyubomir Levchev

The boy was standing at the exit
of the new gas-station
like a deadlock,
like a gas pump,
like an air hose.
I braked suddenly to pick him up.
And only then did I notice
what an evil appearance he had.
I asked him:
“Which way?”
“To Plovdiv,” the hitch-hiker grumbled.
“Eh!” I joked bluntly like an intellectual.
“Such a young boy
to such an old city!”
“Oh, fuck this face of mine!
Could you, too, guess
that I still have no ID card?”
“But why are you cursing?”
“Because they won’t give me a job.
I can’t get started.
Do you know what it’s like
to be
and yet be unable to make a start?…”
I gave him a piece of chocolate.
He ate it up at once
and fell asleep.
I watched him, just in case,
in the rearview mirror,
in the loop of sleep.
His hair, long as a wig,
made him look like
a premature Robespierre.

And so we flew across eternity
like two centuries,
like two tenses:
past continuous
and a future that cannot begin.
Meanwhile the whirling wind hummed a lullaby:
Sleep, sleep, my boy.
It’s not your fault,
But our shameless falseness.
Sleep, but don’t trust Fukuyama.
History exists.
History is searching.
And soon
it will find you a job.
Oh, what a job!
They will remember you!

Levchev is part of the 'PEN World Voices: The New York festival of International Literature' which will be on from April 25-30. He will be there along with Chinua Achebe, Martin Amis, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Russel Banks, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and others.

I bought his latest book, "Ashes of Light", and went up to say hello to him. He looks at me, takes my wrist in his hand and greets me in the old-fashioned way:

To say hello,
he lifted the back of my hand
to his nose and moustache.
Reverent aged touch.

Automatic, I would've done
the deep namaskaram,
shishya arriving after a long journey.

He prevents action by
gripping my hand and growling
"give me your poems"

Breathless, I read him my scribblage.
I gasp out, "this has not happened before"
Yes, he smiles. This is how it starts.

That's exactly what he said: "Give me your poems". After reading a little of what I had written for him, he kissed my cheek and said, "thankyou". I cannot describe that moment well enough: everything came together, Levchev was an angel, the afternoon sun blazed in from the windows and my pen would not stop moving.

There was a conversation on poetics, as can be expected. Levchev spoke on translation, how he felt translation was a separate art by itself. He also said that if the translation sounds better than the original, then the translator has failed. Both Taylor and Levchev agreed that the literal meaning was not as important as the true sense and feeling of what the poet is trying to convey. Taylor quoted an anecdote that's attributed to some hispanic author whose name eludes me: a student once ran up to this great author with a translation and asked eagerly if it was right. The author in turn said yes, it is right, but the aroma has gone.

Levchev drew a self portrait in my copy of his book for me. He told me he has visited India twice, and loved the ashram at Pondicherry. I told him I had a Bulgarian friend I had met down in New Orleans. He clapped me on the shoulder, and smiling, rumbled in Bulgarian to his translator, who turned to me and said, "ah, now he says you are family".

Out of all the poems Taylor read, two poems by Levchev made a lasting impression. One was, called Tomorrow's Bread.

Tomorrow's Bread

Once I reproached my son
because he did not know
where to buy bread.
And now...
he is selling bread
in America.
in Washington.
In his daytime routine
he teaches at the university.
At night he writes poetry.
But on Saturdays and Sundays
he sells bread
on the corner of Nebraska and Connecticut.


In Sofia
the shades of old women
scour the dark.
Ransacking the rubbish bin they collect bread.
Pointing at one of them, a teacher
of history and Bulgarian language, they say:

"Don't jump to conclusions, take it easy!
She's not taking the bread for herself. She feeds
stray dogs
and birds."

And my words too are food for dogs
and birds.

Oh God!
Why am I alive?
Why do I wander alone in the Rhodopes?
Why do I gaze down abandoned wells?
Why do I dig into caves where people lie?
And pass the night in sacred places, renounced by you?

I am seeking the way
to the last magician's hideout,
he who forgot to die
but has not forgotten the secret of bread.
Not today's bread, which is for sale,
not yesterdays bread which has been dumped...
I must know the secret of tomorrow's bread.
The bread we kiss in awe.
The bread that takes our children by the hand
and leads them all back home.

You wrote of bread,
and your son who sells it
at the corner of Nebraska and Connecticut.

You wrote of Sofia,
old women finding bread in dust-bins,
and your son, and no bulgarian bread in sight.

I wept silently,
thinking of my professor, Cyrus Partovi,
who will not return to Iran
but misses his mother's

We took plenty of pictures, which the media person said she'd send over in a few days time. He stopped smoking two years ago, for health reasons. But he stole a smoke from his wife, as she, the translator, the publisher and I stood outside the library, waiting for their ride to come up. For Priyanka, he said. Mike and Alex and some of the others came out then, and we exchanged hugs, and cards, and email addresses.

"To PriYanka- poet
From LYubo


He wrote it like that, Y's overlong. I asked him to come to India again. He crossed himself, with a little half-smile, half-nod.

I hope he makes it.

The Hit on Pramod Mahajan

His brother took him out, the report said. There was a matter of a building contract.

Mahajan should've read the Godfather: Can't you just hear brother Praveen giving him "the look" and saying, quietly--

"Pramod, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever".

tee hee.

Of Blood-lust, Religion and Education

A few blog-posts ago, a dear friend and I walked away from each other due to conflicting views of the issue of islam and violence.

In a nutshell (and I had to go back to refer the slings and arrows we had aimed at each other) his argument was that "they" [I think he understood "they" to mean muslims, arabs & terrorists interchangeably] would do anything to prove their culture was superior to everyone else's, and would destroy anyone who disagreed with them.

In a nutshell, my argument was people's reactions are based on what they have experienced at the hands of others. I also said something about respect, and used other such maudlin words. In short, while trying to speak out against intolerance, we both ended up being intolerant. Sic transit.

Our argument escalated, and not just because of emotion taking over the wheel, pushing reason the back seat. It was because both of us had part of the truth, and both parts contradicted the other.

What made me bring that up was today's Washington Post article on the Afghan convert, written by Pamela Constable of the Washington Post Foreign Service.

Abdul Rahman was put on trial after it was discovered he had converted to christianity. According to the BBC, he has been a christian for sixteen years, and now faces the death penalty because of his conversion. His supporters and family have claimed he is not fit to stand trial; Mr. Rahman himself has claimed to have heard "voices" in his head. Karzai is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with his international allies decrying the trial, and domestic clerics and institutions decrying the growing influence of the west interfering with sharia law.

NB: At this point, gentle reader, do remember that in Afghanistan's highly flagrant political climate, nothing can be seen as back and white. According to the Post article--

Some suggest that extremists may have provoked controversies such as the Rahman case to incite religious fervor or weaken the Karzai government. Islamic insurgents are trying to destabilize the country, and Muslim sensitivities have been aroused by the publication of anti-Islamic cartoons in Europe and the mistreatment of Muslim detainees in U.S. military custody.

What is interesting is that clerics who denounced the Taliban are now calling for the death of Rahman. They claim that the Taliban tortured the people and that this was dispicable. However, they also state that according to sharia law, whoever leaves the fold merits death.

Easy it is at this point to jump up and point fingers, to cry shame and decry hypocrisy.

Hold up. Take a breath.

The interpretation of theological doctrine will always be a delicate matter. Dr. Abu-Nabi Isstaif, visiting Fulbright scholar from the Damascus University to RWU, discussed this matter with me a few days ago. According to him, there is nothing in the Koran that points to death for the one who leaves islam, i.e. who is guilty of the crime of apostasy. This comes down to an interpretation of the text.

M. Cherif Bassiouni,professor and the president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University College of Law, holds the same opinion. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Bassiouni states

The principal category of crimes in Islam is called hudud. These crimes are referred to in the Koran and thus require prosecution. They are: adultery, theft, transgression (physical aggression), highway robbery, slander and alcohol consumption. Apostasy is included in this list by most scholars, but not by a few others. The Koran refers to it as follows: "And whoever of you turns [away] from his religion [Islam] and dies disbelieving, their works have failed in this world and the next [world]. Those are the inhabitants of fire: therein they shall dwell forever." Surat (chapter) al-Ma'eda, verse 35.This verse does not criminalize the turning away from Islam, nor does it establish a penalty.

In the same article, Bassiouni claims that apostasy has been criminalized in certain islamic countries based on "doctrinal constructs established in the 7th and 8th centuries". Afghanistan is a country with a muslim majority and a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion, as do the constitutions of other muslim-majority countries, such as Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. Countries that do consider Apostasy a crime punishable by death include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Interestingly, Bassiouni claims that "there are no known cases in recent times in which someone charged with apostasy in these countries has been put to death".

There is no demographic available that documents religious deaths as dictated by interpretations of sharia, just as there were no available demographics that documented religious deaths as dictated by interpretations of the bible during the middle ages. But we will leave aside comparitive analysis for now and take Bassiouni at his word.

Google "islam-convert-death" and a multitude of websites, faithfully trailing a .org, will descend upon you. And depending on the affiliation of these websites, you will get quotes from separate parts of the Koran that justify either death or leniency regarding apostasy.

I asked Dr. Isstaif about this discrepancy in islam: afterall, there is meant to be one 'ummah', one people, one god, one religion. Then why these versions of "the truth", this pendulum-course between extremism and the middle path?

Isstaif claimed it was all due to education. As a scholar of arabic, with a degree from Oxford, he claims that he knows the Koran as well, or better than, any Syrian arab. He also claimed that the Koran was written in arabic, and the nuances of the word is often lost in translation. The good doctor said that a lack of education, and a lack of a knowledgable grasp of arabic often left certain parts of the world with a very literal interpretation, or even a misreading, of the text. Isstaif thinks this is unfortunate.

Isstaif agreed, by the way, that an apostate was certainly put out of the fold. However, by no means is the death penalty a valid judgement, he says.

I asked Dr. Isstaif, what then is the way to reduce these misinterpretations, to let people know what the Koran actually says?

Education, he says. Teach them to read on their own, so these people in south asia and east asia can read the truth for themselves, and then choose whether they want violence or dialogue.

It's all very well for Dr. Isstaif. He isn't in Afghanistan right now. And it's not as simple as spreading democracy.

According to the Post's article:

Members of the clergy, traditionally the most influential segment of this tribal, largely illiterate society, tend to add a major caveat. The Western world, they say, has no right to interfere in Afghanistan's religious affairs, and outsiders should not confuse Afghan desires for political freedom with a shift to permissive views on personal behavior.

"We have no enmity with the West, but if the West wants us to live in democracy, it must let us make our own decisions," said Enayatullah Balegh, imam of the large Pul-I-Khishti mosque. "Islam is everything to us. It is more powerful than our constitution. We appreciate honest help, but we ask that you not interfere, or else we will have no choice but to become suicide bombers."

In public, few Afghans are willing to question the authority of the clergy or the inviolability of Islamic law. But some, including college students, journalists, human rights advocates and government officials, say they support a more moderate interpretation of their religion.

As a political science student, I can tell you that extremist parties in Pakistan have often influenced violence in Afghanistan, a border issue that has been a bone of contention between Karzai and Musharraf.

As a political science student, I can also tell you that like the argument babs and I had, the imam's words, quoted above, also hold a grain of truth. Historically, no country has been able to balance the twin jurisdiction of religion and state. Italy in the 13th century, Afghanistan today, Pakistan on and off, and Iran in the 1970's and 80's stand as proof of this.

His ultimatum could have been predicted. I do not seek to justify his claim-- If the man lived in the Gaza strip, or what used to be Jaffa and is now called Tel Aviv, if the man was palestinian and has been deprived of flag, country and passport illegally for the past 40 years, and was decrying the actions of the israeli government, I would understand his claim, fully. For an imam of a historically important mosque in the older part of Kabul, and the centre of protest against the US invasion of Afghanistan, it is requires to look under the first layer of the onion to understand his ultimatum.

The fact is that a literal, orthodox interpretation of islam does not allow for western democracy as it is known in the world today. The fact is, moderate muslims who claim that a bridge can be built, are discounting the fact that no time was given in Iraq or Afghanistan for any such bridge to be built. Demagogues took the opportunity the US invasions provided to incite violence against the people and form of government that was opposing what these orthodox clerics believe to be their way of life.

Dr. Isstaif lives and breathes his religion, and takes the time to pray five times a day. He claims that democracy cannot be implanted as is, without making any allowance for cultural and historical differences between western and islamic countries.

Karzai is fully aware of this, and to balance the effects of the chief cleric of the supreme court, who is as orthodox as they can get, the president has elected younger, more moderate judges to the court.

One is Qasim Hashimzai, the deputy justice minister, an articulate man who wears pinstriped suits and returned several years ago from long exile in the West. "The principles of Islamic jurisprudence are perfectly logical and consistent with democratic political institutions, and the Koran gives people lots of freedom," Hashimzai said. "But it all depends who interprets Islam -- a rigid person, a moderate person or a one-eyed person."
(Washington Post)

Hashimzai also claimed that execution as penalty for converting to another faith, stemmed from earlier times, when Islam was under threat, and made less sense today. In the case of Rahman's high-profile prosecution, he said, "I think political hands were behind it. Someone wanted to test the system, to put the government in confrontation with Islam and with the West."

The article also claimed that a "few younger, educated Afghans said they strongly disagreed with executing a convert or enforcing harsh punishments, but they said they could not afford to be quoted for fear they would be ostracized and possibly hounded".

"our mullahs are very strict, and many people are not educated, so they follow them", said a young man who, when interviewed, said he felt Rahman should be spared.

Hm. Freedom is choice. I agree with babs on this.

A final quote from the Post article:

After the service, worshipers offered nearly identical opinions, saying Islam was a democratic and beneficent faith -- but that no one had the right to leave it.

"Islam is the most perfect religion in the world. We have accepted it, and we should stick to it," said Mahmad Humayun, 35, a clean-shaven science instructor at Kabul University. "Islam is the basis for democracy. It gives rights to all people. Therefore, we must all think very carefully and never do anything to cause Islam problems."

Freedom is choice. But what kind of choice would be made, when a person knows nothing of the outside world, and no other reality other than what he or she has been taught? Such freedom of choice that Mr. Mahmad Humayun claims is the same freedom that Mormons choose, that sub-saharan african families who indulge in female circumcision choose. All is done on a basis of religion and cultural identity.

May the voices in Mr. Abdul Rahman's head keep him safe, just in case his gods can't.

The day Donna Brazile came to town

Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Vice President Al Gore’s failed bid for the Presidency, discussed 2006 and 2008 election prospects at Roger Williams University on Monday, April 10.

Brazile’s lecture, titled “American Electoral Politics: Prospects for 2006 and 2008,” began at 4:00 p.m. in room 157 of the Feinstein College of Arts and Sciences building on the Bristol Campus at One Old Ferry Road.

That was the official uni press release for the event. My immediate reaction was Lord, no WAY am I going to witness another sorry display of yank election politics. Shouldn't there be, by god, a limit to the amount of campaign tales an international student can take?

I went anyway. Curiosity killed the Garfield, and further more, they had cookies for refreshment.

I had first slotted Donna as just another suit out there to bang a drum to the beat of a personal agenda. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Meet Donna Brazile, ladies and gentlemen:

Ms. Brazile comes from Louisiana. She named her book "Cooking With Grease", and it's a "powerful, behind-the-scenes memoir of the life and times of a tenacious political organizer and the first African-American woman to head a major presidential campaign." (

You could tell she's used to that mic. With a southern smile and a husky rich tone, she blew the audience away with jokes at everyone's expense: her own, the Republicans, the Dems, FEMA.

The room was filled. She could've used the moment to wave the Democrat flag. She could've stomped and roared over the Gore campaign, and the lack of transparency. She could've ripped apart Bush's domestic policy.

Instead, she chose to talk about her first political campaign: at age 9, Brazile rode her bike around, getting children and parents to vote for a city councillor who had promised a playground in her neighbourhood. The campaign was successful. Since then, Ms. Brazile has always fought for the issues more than just the party colours.

She also talked about Louisiana, her home. Eloquent she was, just like in her article in the Washington Post, after Katrina hit:

"New Orleans is my hometown. It is the place where I grew up, where my family still lives. For me, it is a place of comfort and memories. It is home."

She spoke for more than an hour, and no one left, even after the cookies got over. She talked across lines, saying how important it was for young people to vote intelligently, to be part of decision-making, to run for office. For Donna Brazile, America's hope sat in that room. Looking around at the nodding faces and hands raised to ask questions, I knew she had got each and everyone of us in that room. And not only did she put campaigning in perspective-- you need to fight for what's worth making the change-- but she also gave the Dems a human face, a southern warmth, and a firm grounding that for many in the room, the Dems had never showed before.

She criticized the Dems for never taking a united stand on an election issue. She lined up possible candidates for the 2008 primaries. She juggled Dems and Republicans with equal grace, and equal dry wit.

She also told stories. Of the two white guys in New Orleans who moved members of her family to safety after seeing them stranded on TV, eventhough they lived 5 hours away and could only be reached by boat. She told other stories-- of her various campaigns, of meeting Bush a couple of evenings before her talk, when she asked him to rebuild the levees. Of her old uncle Book (who was called Book because he always gave the kids books for presents) who died two days after being evacuated. She took Old Uncle Book back to their ancestral home, a little town where her family had land given to them when they were sharecroppers after the civil war. Her eyes lit up as she told us of the welcome Uncle Book had, where people lined up and said yeah, there's your land. Bury him here, where he wanted to be. And, welcome home.

No one wanted to leave. And everyone wanted to go talk to her. Yours truly toddled down, feeling unkempt and unsure: how does one talk with capitol hill types? Donna grabbed my hand, and asked for my name with a big smile. In that one moment, I was back in new orleans.

Abdel and I told her what we saw downtown, in the ghost-town lanes that turned off the main roads, of the ravaged landstrip along the road that led to Baton Rouge. We told her about loving the jazz, and the jumbalaya. Like every Louisianian I've met, she thanked us, gave us hugs, and we hugged back, tumbling over ourselves to tell her about Ruth's house and how she didn't have flood insurance. Donna immediately gave us a number to give Ruth, and told us she could help, "tell her Donna said so".

The lady is beyond cool. And it aint just me who says this. Donna Brazile is many things, from being the Chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute (VRI) and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to the first African American to lead a major presidential campaign, to a weekly contributor and political commentator on CNN’s Inside Politics and American Morning, to a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

She is also among Washingtonian Magazine’s 100 Most Powerful Women in Washington, D.C., and Essence Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in America.

She also likes eating at MacDonalds. And when she said that good government was every thinking individual's responsibility, I raised my coke can with all the other new england and jersey kids in the room.

Hail Donna. You got my vote.

Visit Donna Brazile online, here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

RWU at night

Wandered around on saturday night with Siwar's camera. This was the result. Below's the preview.