A culture is a massive edifice, large enough to house millions of long lifetimes of artistic endeavor. The question is, how could I engage in a culture




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A culture is a massive edifice, large enough to house millions of long lifetimes of artistic endeavor. The question is, how could I engage in a culture completely Other from my own, for a limited amount of time, without pretending to be different than I am, and without falling into inauthenticity or Orientalist fetish. One needs a structure that begins with the theory but ends with a concrete road to walk down. For me, that structure was reading text. It's not something that I adhered to strictly in India, but whenever I strayed from that conception, I noticed my intentions falling apart and confusion taking hold.


Part of that conception, then, must be producing text; the writing act which allows me to synthesize my experience into a text of my own. This draft--this attempt at order--is based around telling a frame story about myself in India, in Kolkata, in The Writers Workshop, and the intellectual progression of ideas over my time here; my hope is, that over the course of the telling, we will eventually get to some questions of an ideological, artistic, and spiritual nature that will enable me to talk about people besides myself. Because, in the end, this project evolved into something that is not about myself at all, but about the people I have engaged with in India.


From the beginning of my first trip to India in 2006, I conceived of my engagement with Indian culture as a textual one, where the word "text" is defined broadly, but that still allows me to break Indian culture into consumable units. Stories, myths, philosophies, conversations, concerts, books of all sorts; if I was 'reading' culture, I could position myself to analyze deeply without losing myself within it. There is no question that I chose this concept to guide me because I am a reading-type person--literature major, English Professor father, writer. In fact, I never chose it; it was entirely natural and obvious, but from the beginning, a conscious choice. My education had given me that set of analytic tools.


When I was in Varanasi in 2006, I studied Indian mythology with an old Brahmin man who lives on Assi Ghat. He would sit for hours with me, three days a week, and simply tell me all the stories he knew. He told me about how the Ganga came on earth, how the gods and the anti-gods churned the ocean with a mountain, about the birth of Krishna, he had me buy and read abridgments of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Without any strain, only by listening to him, I gained a library of the oral stories that are most important to (North Indian) Hindus on a daily basis; a collection which I haven't even come close to finding in a book. I wanted him to be a better man than he was, a guru--I wanted him to be Prof. Lal, but I had to come back to find him (the fact that I was looking for a man like Prof. Lal since the first time in India demonstrates the karmic necessity of our eventual meeting). My relationship with this man in Varanasi became strained due to money, and I began to get the impression from the community in Varanasi that he has the reputation of asking for more money than his due from travelers like me, who come to him seeking knowledge, who in their naivete give too freely. I didn't mind the money, but I minded that after I left Varanasi, our relationship became exclusively based on it, making me think maybe I ought to have minded it more.


But he did give me a wonderful introduction to the Hindu mythic universe in all its rich symbolism. I responded to that symbolism deeply, and began to understand the spiritual sensibility that runs beneath them, how the characters represent not distinct and rigid moral or religious constructs, but rather that they are manifestations of the fundamental, scientific flows of energy in the universe (Shiva, entropy, the rain of fire from the sky, the quiet release of life back into the river at the burning ghat--also, a man, a bearded ascetic riding a bull, also, a woman, fertile).


I conceived of that entire trip to India, the entire experience itself, as a text. And so, it was easy for me to write a narrative of those four months--it's the appendix to this, Ganga-ji.


Nailing this down, the second nine months I have been in India, has been incomparably harder.


I was given nine more months in India as a gift, with few conditions attached. I was given it by (primarily) my own life--some karmic artifact--and by a group of professors and administrators at Brown University, who sat on the Arnold Committee, whose job it was to give somebody a time abroad, based on the project they proposed. The project, I got the strong impression, was simply a way for the individual to structure their experience of being abroad--the important thing, to them, was the experience that I would have.


Naturally, I would find a primarily textual way to structure this experience, as well.


I wrote my initial proposal for the fellowship--six months before I came to India--at a time when I was supposed to be selecting some career path, some way to integrate myself productively into my society, and I had chosen publishing--in the broad sense of physically creating texts. In some form or another, the more independent of the corporate world, the better. So as I wrote my project, I thought to look for independent publishers in India. I inevitably found Writers Workshop. The Writers Workshop web site isn't totally complete, but it was enough to give me the sense that it was something I'd like to be involved in. I wrote to P. Lal, got a kind and welcoming response, and wrote my proposal around the naive idea that I would intern with him, help him run his publishing operation. The proposal was vague about what my project would actually be, but I told the Committee that they could count on getting writing out of me. (Here it is).


Figuring out what my 'project' in India was by far the biggest challenge I faced being here. In one sense, I felt like my Project was clear from the beginning, and never really changed--to work with, and through, Writers Workshop, to engage with that body of text. It was clear enough to me that I was actually surprised when the Committee asked me to submit a letter requesting a change in my project.


But the project did change, constantly, uncontrollably. It's changing--radically--as I try to wrangle these words into order on the page.


When I came to Kolkata, I wasn't sure why. I had been planning to go to school in New York, to leave India far behind, and I had been gearing my mind up to fight for my pace within what I saw as the ailing capitalist structure. But when I got this fellowship, I just couldn't come up with a reason not to go--except that I knew it would be hard. It was an opportunity I would've felt silly turning down. I was surprised I had gotten the fellowship at all; I had thought that my proposal was vague, and the fellowship committee had implied in my interview that they thought that it was politically questionable--a position that I should not have been so quick to dismiss.


None of it made sense until I met P. Lal. Instantly, I was thanking my karma for bringing me into the presence of such a man, because I knew that I could learn from him. Professor Lal is the body of a teacher, and I can't help but believe that he was kept (that he kept himself) on this earth because he had more to teach those willing to be his students. And to have the opportunity to be a listener--that was a great gift my life had given me. It made sense to have left behind my friends and family for a year, which felt like an endless expanse of time, to be near this man.


Ego makes everything less authentic. Selflessness reveals the true nature of work, and the impossibility of global selflessness only shows how we got ourselves into this mess. P. Lal has an ego, but recognizes its limitations, is constantly conscious and in control of it. He understands where it begins and ends. He truly accepts praise and criticism with equal detachment--sometimes, perhaps, he goes too far and seems proud of his critics and slightly uncomfortable with praise. After a lifetime of honest work, of genuine advocacy and devotion to consciously building Indian culture and literature in all its forms, both praise and funding to continue his work comes relatively easily. This was not always the case, of course; it is the consequence of work.


Imagine my incredible good fortune to end up in his life; I was applying for a fellowship through my university to go abroad for a year, and I had to come up with a project. I thought that perhaps publishing was a career alternative for me in the states, so I figured that if I focused on publishing in an international context, I would be better prepared for a job when I came out. Having already been to India, I thought that my application would be strongest if I applied to come to India. So I began to look for Indian publishers online. I found the Writers Workshop website, which had been built by one of the authors, Arunhaba Sengupta (www.writersworkshopindia.com). The website is well designed, but sparse on information; however, it was clear that Writers Workshop was a small and idealistic publisher run by a wonderful idealistic personality. So I sent them an email. A very vague email. Immediately, I received a response--one of openness and welcome. P. Lal doesn't touch computers, of course; he depends on his granddaughter, Shuktara, for that--but I knew that the response was from both of them (more on her later). From the beginning, there was no hesitation; I immediately felt absolutely comfortable committing to come to a city that I had had a terrible experience in the first time I was in India (another story) for a full year to be with these people, and do I-don't-know-what.


And so, I showed up in their lives. I was a stranger, but never for the Lals. They immediately, unquestioningly and unhesitatingly reached out to me, included me, made me feel like part of the family. As a wanderer, I've experienced hospitality in many forms, but P. Lal and his family were the most natural, unquestioning hosts of my life, especially significant because I invited myself into their lives for an entire year, no small chunk of time. Not only did they all, in their own ways, invest their time and energy into my material well being, they also made me feel immediately and comfortably welcomed. It's a beautiful and brilliant family, a cultural and intellectual institution of Kolkata--each of them works tirelessly to shine brightly; I want to return to that later. But for now, let it be said that their hospitality went a long way to making me understand why I had come to India.


When I arrived, I simply asked him what I could do. I was operating under the assumption that he was overworked with all his duties to Writers Workshop; I had some understanding of the immensity of the work he has taken on, and assumed that it must be too much. But it wasn't, and he genuinely didn't need help with the production end of things, though he did say that once and a while he would ask my advice on a manuscript. It didn't leave me with a job, per se.


When he welcomed me to Kolkata, he told me, Bengal is the only place in the world where a Mother Goddess is primarily worshiped. This helped me understand why I had come to this place; I hoped to form a deeper relationship with femininity in the divine, abstract form, to get in touch with the feminine principle as manifested in a city (a city that would test me physically and emotionally more than any other place I've been).


He was simply tremendously open. He gave me total freedom to do what I thought was right for Writers Workshop, which was perhaps too trusting, I think. His attitude simply came from his absolutely pure personality, which obeys the rules of karma; I would take actions that relate to Writers Workshop, and I would bear the consequences of those actions. Even though those actions and consequences might relate to Writers Workshop, which is a thing not of my own creation.


In retrospect, it is fascinating to me how my early conception of the project was haunted by capitalism. The schizophrenia of capitalism has been a lifelong obsession with me, an obsession deeply rooted in America--obviously, it applies to The New India, but I'm less interested in it here. Anyway, by the point just before I came to India the second time, I had fully (almost manically) decided to submit my body to the capitalist system, in full, in the hope that it would eventually give me room and funding to create something beautiful and good. It meant an obsession with my eventual employment. I wanted to be able to go into an interview in the office of an editor at a New York publishing company and claim that my year in India was really a year's work experience in the field of publishing. Therefore, I wanted to do something to help Writers Workshop in a business sense.


We agreed that I would simply go through as many of the books as I could and create an online catalog of Writers Workshop books. He told me to include in my catalog the tables of contents, the biography of the writer, and a sample--the first poem or paragraph. That way, someone could browse online and have some sense of what the book was before they ordered it. Though he wouldn't go near a computer, P. Lal was excited about the potential of the Internet, and I was too. I suggested that I also put the books on an online bookselling web site, alibris.com, for sale online. I had fantasies of being able to tell a future employer that I had increased sales and modernized an old and disorganized institution. But it just wasn't in the cards, for thousands of good reasons: first of all, it's not my skill set--I'm not that guy (although I could be, if you're a future employer reading this! All it takes is dedication!). Second of all, it's not my business, and I don't know how Writers Workshop is structured, financially. In fact, that's a great mystery of Writers Workshop. It is obviously sustainable, because it has sustained itself and P. Lal for fifty years. Where the money comes from and how it adds up isn't my business--my general sense is that the money comes from P. Lal's shining, beautiful karma. In the end, it was my dissatisfaction with the organization of the alibris.com website (it was hard to browse and find our books) and the simple fact that I couldn't navigate payment into P. Lal's Indian bank account from Alibris that brought that experiment to an end.


First, I realized that The Book Nook was organized inconveniently for such a methodical project. The Godown Guys (my name for them--the godown is the warehouse where all the unsold copies of Writers Workshop books are stored--and there are thousands of them), who are brilliant in their own ways, but who have a small command of English, had organized it generally by year of publication, except some random sections that were organized by genre. I started reorganizing it by genre, alphabetical by last name, as they looked on in horror. Before I had come, they could instantly put their hands on any book that was requested of them; they had built a disorganization that worked for them. I tried to assure them (at that point I had no Bengali with which to communicate with them), that when I was done, they would again be able to find things. They had been in the Book Nook and in the Godown ten hours a day six and seven days a week for over ten years, and here comes this white boy, tearing apart their native habitat. In that way, I was the picture of insensitivity that the Fellowship Committee had been afraid of. I'm being too hard on myself to illustrate my point; in reality, they got into the swing of things and helped me do it--they would take a big stack of unorganized books and tell me which genre it is. I wasn't entirely wrong; they can find books in there to this day, though it has gradually drifted back into chaos.


It is impossible for a Westerner not to try to impose order on India. India is immensely disorganized, from the micro level of the book nook all the way up the the running of the entire country. It's that chaos that makes it so hard to adjust to India--until one finds his or her place in the mess, one feels hopelessly out of control, attacked on all sides by conflict and absurdity, including an absurd love of bureaucracy and paperwork that leads to incomprehensible stubbornesses (not in Writers Workshop, but in anything else that you need to get done--getting a phone, Internet, life). Of course my first act in India would be to try to impose my own order on my own working environment.


It took about two weeks of working eight-hour days, right at the beginning of my life in Kolkata, when I had nothing else to distract me, no apartment to move into, no Internet.


Then I started cataloging. P. Lal certainly wasn't overseeing me in any way; as I got to know him, I realized how little it would effect him if I managed to put all his books online or not. I became bored with the work, but I didn't have a real positive project to replace it, so I kept doing it, but kept getting lazier about it.


And so I began digitizing Writers Workshop. Which would involve nine months of mechanical typing; maybe 'digitizing' sounds like scanning or something, but it's just typing. I'd take a big stack of books from the Book Nook to a table that the Lals had idyllically placed on the verandah, sandwiched between big stone Ganesha statues and steel boxes full of books. I'm still doing it; I won't leave without leaving a complete list of Writers Workshop by year, this time, from 2001--which is a project, because the whole year, I've been making a list by genre, organized by author, without regard to year. That project faced a lot of frustration and difficulty--disorganization, reformatting, data loss.


And then my computer crashed, twice, then died, so I bought a new computer. I hypothetically didn't lose data. then the next computer crashed, and that time, I hypothetically lost only a little data, but mankind will never be sure. My 'Project' was to become a functioning wielder of technology in the carbon-paper based bureaucratic society of Kolkata.


Since the cataloging and technology became frustrating, and since I didn't have anyone overseeing me, I drifted away from it for some months. During that time, I focused on engaging culturally with Calcutta, on my tabla playing, on my Bengali, and on learning from P. Lal. So it feels like a good time in the narrative to talk about him. He's a great man, who, in the words of his grandson Dhruva, should be saluted by a battalion of a thousand poets. I'm just one, and here's the beginning of my salute.

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