Across These Miles

12 Sep

A few weeks ago my life burned to the ground. Or perhaps that happened a few months ago, time grows slippery when measured in hasty choices. This occurs, anyway, every few years: I lose my life and I find myself. Last time I ran all the way to New York to do it, before that I started chaosbogey, even before that I quit science. This is not something that simply happens to me, of course; for someone so suspicious of origin stories I certainly concoct a great many.  As someone recently reminded me, my infallible instinct for erasure is why I delete most of the words I write and can’t bear to keep old diaries. Perhaps, she suggested, I ought to consider what that means. All it means is that I’m an obedient citizen of late capital, but who likes admitting they are the most banal of humans?

It was while I was pondering that, my point is, that bogey (born as she was from an earlier conflagration) returned with customary flamboyance. How tedious it must be, she observed, to recall one’s existence in epochs. Chaosbogey, laughing at Din since 2010. A few weeks later, she said something else I doubt I’ll ever forget: when, Din, did you become such a white woman? Now there is a question worth pondering.

All this happened while I was in Shillong this summer, trying to learn Khasi (as no one does) and writing many thousands of pointless words (as everyone does that has a heart to mend). There is something very seductive about the righteousness of learning a new language. In a world that makes so little sense, the certitude that this is indisputably the right thing to do is very comforting; even frustration about the creeping nature of the enterprise is soothed by a virtuous telos. One is learning to communicate with other people, and even if that ability is ultimately put to dubious ends— I am, after all, an anthropologist— that is an ethical conundrum that can be deferred.

What I learned in the end was less the language and more how one goes about learning a language, especially one with almost no infrastructure oriented towards teaching adults. It was only in my final weeks that I found the teacher I now read with, so mostly I muddled along my own baffled way, but for a while I went to a weekly class populated by a cast of characters reminiscent of Mind Your Language: a retired anthropologist, a retired army colonel, a retired businessman, several ladies of indeterminate age and profession, a zealous law student, three silent and anxious young men clustered together. Weekly we got together, thus, to relentlessly exoticise “tribal life” and translate sentences that ranged from the innocuous (“how much does this cost?”) to the condescending (“Shillong is such a small and beautiful city “) to the rude (“please try to come on time”). Everyone had an opinion about how the “locals” talk (in a confusing jumble of dialects) and whether Khasi should be incorporated into the eighth schedule (not until it’s standardized, which it has been as much any living language ever is, but I quickly learned it’s useless to say such things when sanskritized Hindi is the inevitable referent).

Going to class was the rare fixed point in formless weeks spent fumbling from one linguistic fallacy to the next. Once, making my way through an archaic grammar, I convinced myself “love” was always a tangible verb in Khasi— that it always had to nominate a concrete subject and take a direct object, so that a phrase like “I tried to love you but…” was rendered into nonsense. “Love admits no doubt,” my Victorian tutor insisted, and I promptly wrote this down and proceeded to build an entire philosophical edifice around it. Several days of feckless speculation later, I discovered that no such beast as a tangible verb actually exists. (Love is a transitive verb, in Khasi and English alike, for all that it isn’t a transitive relation in any grammar of the heart. It does, in my limited defense, adopt different syntax as an infinitive than it does otherwise, but so does every other verb, this was just the example my messianic missionary took.)

I may have accidentally orientalized my way into some pedestrian Khasi in the past few months, so to say, but I certainly make a lot of dreadful grammar jokes these days, and I have enough material to write ten different essays about language games (don’t worry, I won’t, that’s what dissertations are for). This, then, is what they don’t tell you about fieldwork: a lot of it is about earnestly realizing that certain things are universally ridiculous, but they are never the things you expect.

They also don’t tell you how lonely fieldwork can be. I thought I had mastered the flavors of loneliness. There is the loneliness you feel when you are so accustomed to being alone that you barely notice the sharp slide into isolation, the loneliness of grief, the loneliness of unrequited love and the loneliness of amputated love, the loneliness of crowds, the loneliness of estrangement and the loneliness of nostalgia. Then there is the loneliness of a certain kind of intense sociability, when you spend half your time explaining yourself to kind strangers.

Most people I met in Shillong were generous, enthusiastic, and thoroughly bemused by me. Occasionally I met a beloved friend, more lost to me now than I am to myself, and he confused me almost as much as he comforted me, such that there was no room left for any camaraderie. So much was happening in the world beyond the hills this summer— so much was happening in Shillong, bursting with soldiers and aviators as it is—yet I rarely knew anyone well enough to discuss something as undignified as politics. The unstated assumption of privileged society, there as elsewhere, is that we agree about everything, and so we discussed history and poetry and Welsh weather and missionaries and I described my research five times a day. All this leads to a deeply solipsistic existence, and my memories are marked by solitary moments and small accomplishments. That time I finally mustered the courage to say “iewduh” to a bus conductor; the small shop in which I found an unlikely song; the newspaper it took me seven hours to read; my glee at Verrier Elwin’s terrible poetry; the day I decided to sell a duitara that had been seven months in the making and the euphoric drive through the dense and endless Sohra mist that followed; a graveyard in a forest, a ghost within a waterfall.

Through it all, I talked and talked and talked, even when (especially when) I had nothing to say. Why Shillong? so many people have asked me these last three months, and I usually offer academic answers, all of which are true. Here, though, is the selfish reason: because it feels like home. Mostly this is because I find it so intellectually compelling, but also it is simply this: it is where I go to transform, where I know there will be enough space and forest to confront my most brooding and peculiar self. This summer the canvas of my existence contracted: my room, my questions, my notebooks, my archive, my long dawn walks in the pouring rain, my broken heart.

When did I become such a white woman.

Once, long ago, in the heady beginning, I wrote a letter from one island to another. “Oh love” I said then “let us be as relentless and as unceasing as the sea.” (There is a story behind the sentence, one that involves driftwood and sand crabs, but it’s only slightly less precious than the sentence itself.) Only very early love can be that grandiloquent, I suppose, and yet I struggle, still, to simply cease.

IMG_0260

I suppose some things never change, and all anthropologists share the same bizarre aesthetic. (Photograph of a photograph of Elwin’s library, circa the mid ’50s)

 

It was within all this shattering clatter that bogey found me again, and it with her I hope to find a life I recognize. Part of this process is settling into different rituals (a daily dose of Zohra Sehgal, say) and new preferences—turns out I now like A Suitable Boy more than An Equal Music, a revolution I can’t begin to explain—but the harder bit is actively conceding that perhaps my existence is better managed with more routine and less control. This week, for instance, my life appears to have been hijacked into an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but so long as I wake up at 8 am and go for a walk and work for ten hours I am resigned to letting other matters wander as they will. This, then, is the promise of a new beginning, both for me and for chaosbogey. We’re still germinating, and I remain unsure of her form and frequency, and whether I want to keep blogging or do the oldfangled thing and start a newsletter to which only my mother will subscribe. Whatever happens next, this is the most personal post that bogey has ever seen, and I thank you for sticking with us.

One final note: I am currently the managing editor of the Advocate, the GC’s newspaper. You might have seen my first (and inshallah only) editorial a few months ago; if not, don’t bother, in it I only say the starkly obvious, as is the way in editorials. Working on the Advocate is an exorcism for ancient Quirk ghosts, but I also truly love papers and I want this one to thrive, especially because of the unique space CUNY occupies in New York’s academic landscape. We have the opportunity to build a real conversation, and this fall I invite you all to think about the history of the 21st century as bracketed by the Russian Revolution and Standing Rock. This isn’t only an attempt at destabilizing historical periodization, it’s a call to revisit the related questions of revolution and sovereignty as capaciously as possible. It is time we accept that we live in radical times, and to ask what sorts of revolutions we can not only imagine but also plan. I’m interested in essays that historicize and criticize our understanding of revolutionary transformations of all kinds, whether by that you mean revolutionary polities or revolutionary bodies. How do they shape the ways in which we map and organize the world we inhabit? Talk to me about hurricanes, about rights discourses, about quantum physics, about Audre Lorde and Agha Shahid Ali— about what it means that revolution is simultaneously a temporal ritual, an aesthetic epiphany, a shift in scientific paradigms, and a political desire baked deep into contemporary culture.

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