Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Historical wrinkles

Second week of "The New School Century," and we have to start telling a story about The New School! I'm better at taking stories apart - and, sometimes, then putting them back together. So, for instance, we need to challenge the "crisis at Columbia" story about The New School's origins. Columbia's importance is quite different.

The "crisis at Columbia" story
With the US's entry into World War I, Columbia's president Nicholas Murray Butler announced that the university would not tolerate any professors' objecting to the war. Two did and were fired. In 1919 historians Charles Beard and James Harvey Robinson resigned in protest, and, together with their buddies Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey, started a "new school" founded in academic freedom, a kind of anti-university that was truer to the ideal of the university than craven Columbia. (Some versions of this story make Beard and Robinson pacifists, too.)

A nice story, but unsupportable on the facts, most significant among which is that discussions about setting up a new school, involving Beard, Robinson and others, date back at least to 1916, well before the US entered the war. (Beard and Robinson both supported the war, by the way.) Butler's firing of Catell and Dana may have been the trigger, but plans for a new kind of school were already afoot. As a matter of fact, Robinson, Beard and Veblen had all published books criticizing American universities. Columbia and Butler were not the problem, universities were. Indeed, it was on Columbia's dime that Robinson and Beard were able to develop and publish their critiques of universities. Columbia (which Dewey never left) wasn't a terrible place but as good as a university could be. It was not Columbia's failure as a university which was the problem, but that even as accomplished a university as Columbia had shown it could not be trusted.

There are at least three problems with the "crisis of Columbia" story, beyond its inaccuracy. First, it suggests that New School developed as a reaction to Columbia - without Butler's patriotic persecution of pacifist and socialist faculty, there would have been no New School. But a new school was on its way to happening; the hub of discussion was The New Republic, which published the proposal for a new school a year before the Columbia resignations. Second, seeing a New School founded to protect true academic freedom under fire at Columbia makes it seem that the founders were concerned to form a truer, better university. In fact, they were suspicious of universities as a whole for all sorts of structural reasons, and exploring alternative structures.

Finally and a little more subtly, seeing the New School founded on "academic freedom" risks making the New School project sound like just what it was rejecting. When we think of "academic freedom" these days we tend to think of debates about tenure, which it is argued allow scholars not only to do politically unpopular work but also to devote themselves to the kind of specialized and often arcane scholarly projects which worldly trustees cannot understand. The university is a blessed space which allows the more otherworldly values of pure scholarship to survive, safe from the pressures of publication and popularity. Well, the founders certainly were all for academic freedom - understood primarily as academic self-government free of the intrusions of deans and trustees, who were seen as suppressing work critical of the Establishment to which they belonged. But they had no interest in unworldly scholarship; Beard, Robinson and Dewey criticized universities for being unworldly spaces which rejected knowledge of the real world, and accountability to it.

So yes, New School was founded by people, some of whom had resigned from Columbia because of Butler's firing of war-objectors - but others stayed on, and yet others had no connection to Columbia at all. Columbia had not stifled these founders' critiques of universities but made them possible, and productive relationships with Columbia characterized the New School's early years, from the large number of Columbia faculty who taught there to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, whose editor-in-chief Edwin Seligman was at Columbia and associate editor was New School president Alvin Johnson. Columbia was friend, not foe. But New School wasn't trying to out-university Columbia; it wasn't trying to be a university at all. Already before the War, the founders had been involved in different institutions for "social research," from the Institute of Municipal Research to The New Republic. The discussions about a "New School of Social Science" begun already in 1916 were not about forming a better, truer university, but imagining something radically different than a university. "Academic freedom" was part of it but nearly anti-academic conceptions of social relevance and accountability were, too.

Does this make a better story, or a story at all? It does, I think, and a story even more relevant in this moment when, for old and new reasons, universities are under fire. But to tell the story well we really need to explore the alternative institutions of the progressive era and see The New School in the context of them, not just among universities. That's just where the class is going next week! Stay tuned!

Scaffolding off!

After more than a year shrouded by scaffolding, Jefferson Market Public Library is back!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Profound pastiche

Caught the final performance of "The Enchanted Island," the Metropolitan Opera's revival of the baroque form pastiche, where bits and pieces of various operas as cobbled together to accommodate a particular constellation of stars and resources. Librettist Jeremy Sams and Arts Florissant director William Christie ranged widely in their borrowing, from Handel and Vivaldi and Rameau to a host of lesser-known baroque composers, and from operas to sacred cantatas and even some coronation anthems. It was a hoot! And divine sung by a stellar cast, notably Joyce DiDonato, Danielle de Niese (Melbourne-born!) and, stepping in for an indisposed David Daniels, Anthony Roth Costanzo.

I knew some of the music (from "Semele," "Ariodante," "Les Indes Galantes" and "Griselda") but could actually place only one at the time, the finale of "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato." But that was enough, as I could feel the appropriation, and approve of it. Here as in the original work, it comes at a moment of resolution, and feeling the pathos of the other work (one of my favorite pieces in music) flow into this one deepened the experience.

For most of the viewers, most if not all of the music will have been delightful new discoveries. (For instance there's some amazing nearly atonal work from one of Handel's Marian cantatas - who knew there were such!) The pastiche-y part will have been felt and approved instead in the storyline, which weaves together Shakespeare's "Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." How can you do that, you ask? And yet they did, and it didn't feel cheap or tacky but like spending more time with old friends, learning more about them. Pastiche, because of its postmodern uses, sounds frivolous, but "Enchanted Island" shows it can be profound play.

The performance was sold out (and not just, I think, because you could hear what my Japanese housemate called なまドミンゴ namadomingo - Placido Domingo live - in the part of Neptune). I hope it enters the repertoire, spawns imitations, and maybe even a revival of some of these old operas, like Vivaldi's "Griselda."

Kallen to the rescue!

The first course on religion taught at The New School, Spring 1920.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dewey eyed

Reading Dewey's Democracy and Education for Tuesday's class, I'm finding myself thrilled. It's been a while since I've spent time with Dewey's boldness in challenging all our lazy pieties and providing charged alternatives. There are no small ideas here!

From a social standpoint, dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence. There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive to his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone — an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction
to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 52

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Gee, darling

Isn't it delicious! A whole day at home, doing nothing in particular...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Karma chameleon

It's one of the truisms of religious studies that "Hinduism" was a foreign invention. Before the Brits, indeed before the Mughals, there was no such thing - no unified -ism, no religion. I stumbled on a rather cheeky variant of this in a pulp novel while in India called The Immortals of Meluha, the first book in a trilogy about Shiva. (The second volume, The Secret of the Nagas, is out, too.) Even the story of the book is exciting: outsider writer braves rejection by publishing business to achieve greatest success. The writer Amish Tripathi is not a subaltern, however, but a financial sector star from one of India's top management institutes, who used knowledge from the world of marketing unheard of in Indian English-language publishing to create a sensation. But in its way that makes it even more interesting! Amish is creating a usable past for India's new technocratic elite, supported by but still in some ways alienated from family religious traditions (most are brahmins). What he is able to imagine is that the great god Shiva was not, in fact, a god at all, but a man of a kind of all-around splendor which Indians know to be possible - or at least knew, before foreigners' judgments corrupted their understanding - before the invention of "Hinduism," I might add! I picked up a copy for the flight home, and, slow reader that I am, only just finished it. (It's a cliff-hanger, and I've ordered the sequel!) Well-written it is not, but fascinating nonetheless. In Amish's imagined 1900 BCE world, the prosperous and righteous Suryavanshi kingdom (founded by the great scientist Brahma and statesman Ram) faces an existential threat from its evil neighbors the Chandravanshi, who overflow with slums and decadent opulence and are trying to kill the Saraswati River whose waters scientists have used to keep the Suryavanshi forever young. Both are waiting for a savior, the Neelkanth, an outsider who will be known by a luminous blue throat. Our hero Shiva, who comes from near Mount Kailash in Tibet, doesn't believe in chosen ones or in faith in redeemers, but steps up to the plate when terrorists nearly kill his love Sati and destroy the central research compound of the Suryavanshi. The Suryavanshi unite behind him as their divine savior, but he knows that anyone can be divine.

Yet it's not quite the euhemerist story I was expecting. In one way it is a secularization of a religious tradition (and a secular vindication of it). In the system set up by Ram there are varna (castes), for instance, but they are meritocratically filled out in each generation - children are raised communally far from most adults, as in Plato's Republic, and in time choose the status which best suits them. Only the bending of these rules to allow the rich to raise their own children has corrupted what is essentially a perfect system. Other problems are also the result of deviation from the rationality of Ram's view. Shiva teaches them to reject the idea that misfortune is a consequence of crimes in a past life, and nearly shows them that faith in a supernatural savior is a superstition which hides their own capacities from them. (Feuerbach would approve!) And yet we've not quite demythologized everything. Shiva became godlike because of his karma...

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Went to the Met today to catch some exhibitions closing soon (including Heroic Africans, which I wanted to see a second time), and learned about an Italian mannerist painter named Perino del Vaga (the Met has recently acquired two works of his), including two striking representations of Christ. In "Holy Family with the Infant John the Baptist" (1524-26) he's a deliciously believable baby. (Perino's model may have been his own baby daughter.) And in a "Conversion of Saint Paul" (sorry, my camera does poorly with oils, and there's no image available online), he's middle-aged! And... it's the same face, too!

Floating in air

Ever heard of Gaga dance? No, nothing to do with the inescapable pop diva. It's a modern dance language created by Ohad Naharin with the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. I saw them perform at BAM a few years ago and was captivated. While the dancers were clearly professionals with the poise and agility of trained dancers, the movements spoke in a language akin to the movements of non-dancers. It wasn't beautiful in conventional or even unconventional ways but there was something very appealing about it. It really seemed like dance in another language, unrelated to all the others, at once entirely novel and familiar. And it rippled with joy.

When I learned that gaga is also for non-professionals, indeed even for people with no dance experience at all, I wondered if it might be taught in New York some day... Well, now it is, at the Mark Morris Dance Center next to BAM no less - three subway stops from my house - every Wednesday night, 8-9. So I gave it a try!

In the big studio on the top floor, the mirrors covered, we were about a score of people - many seem to be dancers, not all. The instructor had a sound track which was she often turned off, and never loud enough to be more than background sound. I can't describe (or remember) all we did, but what particularly got me was the starting exercise, which I continued exploring the whole time. "Float is if in water," said the instructor. "Your arms might as well fall up as down." We found each part of our bodies, starting with the head, floating loose from the other. We moved like seaweed, sometimes a pulse from the head leading down, sometimes pushed by horizontal currents from several directions. When we'd reached our feet we started building back up, the feet now putting down roots, becoming "thick and juicy," filling out our emptied floating form part by part with a kind of effort, back up to our necks. And then she told us to pull the bones out, the way you pull the bones from a perfectly cooked chicken... Later we law still on the floor as a small animal started twitching in our pelvis, getting more agitated until our legs moved like spaghetti in boiling water, and, standing again, rolled invisible balls from the joints of our wrists up and down our arms, then into the hollow of our ribcages, and then a second ball was rolling, a third, a fourth.

This sounds insane, I'm sure. But more insane yet is that we did all those things, that they can be done. We actually floated. The balls rolled. It's nothing short of astonishing how your experience of your body (and so of everything else) can be changed so easily, becoming heavy, light, loose, tight, airy, juicy, full, empty. Mind can do that, with body, or body with mind. Dancers - and athletes, too - know this. But the rest of us trudge along as though the body is a fixed, stable, one-channel experience.

I'm going again next week. It's good to be modern dancing again!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Student centered

Our course on the history and significance of the spiritual adventure of The New School began today, with a bang! We're committed to a course which celebrates "learning by doing" so we had students help draft a mission statement for the school (we're, um, between mission statements at the moment!). What they came up with is quite inspiring. A community of forward- and free-thinking artists and academics from all backgrounds and ages, attentive to the contemporary moment and with a broad view of what it means to be successful, empowering students to take responsibility for their own education through heavily interactive class structures where all meet as equals.

Good stuff! There is one striking gap, though. Well, not that striking, since I needed my co-teacher J to notice it! There is no mention of faculty. (The parenthetical insertion at lower right was made by me.) Which, J suggested, is just as it should be - and just as the founders wished, in their protest against universities of the day, which offered obsolete and reactionary knowledge chosen by faded professors, philistine trustees and progress-fearing alumni.

If "spiritual adventure" seems overweening language to you, it's not mine. Consider this, the last paragraph of the 1918 "Proposal for an Independent School for Social Science" - our founding document! - which we offered the students as fodder for their mission statementing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Life goes on

Back to more familiar scenery...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Before it fades

Quick, before the new academic semester which starts today pushes aside all in its path, some synthesizing thoughts about my India trip. It's a little hard to pull together into a single narrative, and not just (if also) because it's India, which challenges and charms a person on every level at once. I've been to India only once before, about five years ago (you saw it here), and left the last time thinking India was a necessary place but also that I didn't want to come back right away, because of that all-around challenging bit. I'm glad to have had a chance to reconnect.
This trip happened as a sort of jumble of accidents. The "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya" project (ERSEH), whose dedicated religion-person I am, is a result of such bizarre serendipity it seems like cosmic carelessness. (I felt the thinness of the project when I tried to describe it at the high-power Center for the Study of Developing Societies on Friday; it seemed down-right amateur, which of course is what I am in relation to this subject matter...) Darjeeling and Sikkim are sites for the ERSEH project because of prior and unrelated collaborations with New School. And I decided to go this January less because it will impress the foundation supporting the project ("See? It has deflected the research trajectory of our religious studies professor...!") than because a friend recently-arrived in Delhi seemed so depressed a visit was in order - and because I wanted to give myself a deadline to finish the Job manuscript.
But then, there I was, and it didn't matter how I'd come to find myself there. I guess the professional aims of the trip were two: for me to spend time with the research teams in Darjeeling and in Gangtok as they put together their research methodologies, and for me to get some first-hand experience of the rich and varied religious landscape of the Indian Himalaya. It was successful on both fronts, especially as I was able to arrange semi-public discussions of the topic in both places.
Indeed, recalling the woman in a novel of E. M. Forster's who said "how can I know what I think until I hear what I say?" I got some extremely useful thought-work done on the strange concept "everyday religion" which I inherited here. My shpiel? At the Good Will Center in Darjeeling, Rachna Books in Darjeeling and then at CSDS I laid out three increasingly ambitious briefs for the study of everyday religion.
(1) Ordinary people are the arbiters of what succeeds and persists in the history of religion, so focusing only on prophets, central sites and texts and hierarchies, distorts the history of religion - and, indeed, sneaks in a theological account of this history.
(2) Ordinary people are themselves religious creators: making creative and serious use of what's available to them in response to the joys and challenges of human existence they provide a better model for religion's place in human life, and perhaps of the lives of religious specialists, too.
(3) Ordinary people's religious creations are the truest, because most grounded. As liberation theology, feminism and pragmatism (among other schools) suggest, it is when thought meets real problems that it is most fertile, and when it doesn't need to justify hierarchy that it is most universal and potentially liberating.
I'm still thinking this through. (3), in particular, seems polemical in ways which may not be appropriate to this project. (Indeed, if (1) is correct, then we should expect ordinary people to be among the supporters of the idea of religious expertise concentrated in special canons and castes.) On the other hand, ERSEH's particular concern is the way religious practices cultivate or destroy environments, so a focus on the practical at the expense of whatever non-material things religions also cultivate or destroy seems OK. I'll keep working this out, as generating a theoretical appraisal of the study of "lived religion" or "everyday religion" is becoming my new research project.
But you don't want to hear about this, do you? Nor do I: this will keep. What might not is experiences I had that won't fit into the narrative that emerges of the project. So here are some of them - those which have recommended themselves by coming up in conversations already - in no particular order. (The photos in this post are unrelated to the text, though in chronological order.)
• I won't forget the stillness of that drive in the shared jeep in the starless night above the Teesta River, from Rangpo down to Siliguri, a good dozen of us crammed into a car navigating often treacherous roads as pedestrians emerged from the shadows and returned again as we drove past. I don't know what my presence in the car will have meant to the others there.
• At Rumtek Monastery, across a valley from Gangtok, a young monk practiced his English on me. Five years into an eight-year program of study I suspect he'd really like to end up leading a meditation center in America. He encouraged me to read "A Precious Garland of the Supreme Path." I had already looked through it before he approached me, though, and rather naughtily asked his clarification for 5.3: Since thoughts are the play of the dharmata, do not abandon them. I gather "Precious Garland" is on the syllabus for next year.
• A young Swiss social anthropologist who's been studying Lepcha shamanism for five years was indignant at efforts to establish this indigenous tradition as a religion by transcribing what shamans say (missing the point entirely!). Worse still, they're calling the monster they're creating by a name from an old anthropological study "Boonthingism." With my bookstore host and another friend of his, we had a wonderful dinner of flaming-hot Bhutanese food which ended up with a long discussion of the sincerity of the public mourning at the funeral of Kim Jong Il - and the next day he sent us a link to an article reporting that people in North Korea were being punished for having insufficiently mourned.
• One of my Darjeeling hosts had just become a father the day before I arrived. In an old British bungalow I had the pleasure of meeting his daughter (at that point still unnamed), her mother, and all four of her grandparents - including two who'd flown in from Ireland (their daughter's a human rights lawyer who'd been working of a child labor NGO in Darjeeling). I've never met people as Irish as these, and now they have an Indian granddaughter, and a son-in-law who beamed with a face like a young Dalai Lama.
• A group of Bengali economists, unhappily stuck in Delhi at a promising new university that's stumbling, crammed into the car I'd been given use of parsed their different reactions to Delhi - "I hate it," "I dislike it," "I hate it with a vengeance!" - and the queasy uncertainties of their formless place of employment. We coined the phrase "psychoerotics of uncertainty" to name the sly and shifting terms they used to describe meetings which went nowhere (if they were indeed meetings), discussions which weren't about what they seemed, all framed by an anomalous innovation in status, "resident NRIs" (which I pronounced ornery). They took me to a restaurant called "Oh! Calcutta" (!) so I might savor the fabled hilsa fish, and marveled that a cooking tradition they associate only with homes, not restaurants, could so successfully be a cuisine - though it took someone in Mumbai to think of it.
• At a restaurant I stumbled into 5 hours into a 6-hour trek around Gangtok, I enjoyed delicious kauri - "Sikkimese macaroni," the menu explained, in vegetable broth (non-meat food was a rarity on this trip), even as American Evangelical Christian praise music played in the background (an annoying song presumptuously called "You are wooooorthy!" I heard once when visiting Saddleback!). Turns out the gnocchi-shaped noodles are named after cowrie shells - up here in the mountains, miles from any sea? Aha: Sikkim straddles a trade route...
• About half of Sikkim borders China - to north and east - and Indian domestic tourists apparently all go visit one of the borders to shake hands with the Chinese border guards and pose for pictures with them. Foreign tourists need special permission to go there, so I contented myself with a bazaar of Chinese stuff on the Mahatma Gandhi Marg in Gangtok, which offered plexiglass idols of every religious tradition, Buddhist and Hindu and even, weirdly, Native American.
• A Bihari developer, whom I met at an India China Institute lunch at the Indian International Center in Delhi, described how he was selling a green development to religious Biharis. Each of his towers will have a shallow pool of water on its roof. This will do all sorts of good environmental work but is being sold as a place for an important annual ritual where one greets the sun waist-deep in a pool! They're also making all sorts of vastu calculations - a neglected Hindu tradition of architectural energies recently revived in response to middle-class Indian enthusiasm for feng-shui, India-China relations in action.
• The world's-first Bollywood-meets-Vegas musical "Zangoora: The Gypsy Prince," in a world's fair-like theme park called Kingdom of Dreams in space-agey Gurgaon, was a surprise hit, even with my dejected Bengali economist friend. I'd not appreciated what stamina Bollywood dance requires, on top of remarkable athleticism. Not a great story, but a new genre being born, bringing together Bollywood dance and song with Cirque du Soleil-like aerial acrobatics and luminous Japanese anime=like LED sets - I won't be surprised to see something like it reaching these shores in a few years. In "Culture Gully," the food court next door, with the cuisines and replicas of monuments of most Indian states, my friend asked a bartender if they had wine. Yes, red, he was told. What kind of wine? It's wine, was the reply. But what kind? Wine is wine, said the exasperated bartender, you know, grape alcohol: wine. (I had beer.)
• Next to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic church, perched along the road just above the Sikkim University Guest House, is a fiberglass model of Mount Kangchenjunga with a grotto of the Virgin Mary inside. Before I dismiss it (it's positioned so you see the actual Kangchenjunga just beyond it - can one compete with that and win?) I need to think of all the Lepchas (descended from the snows of their mother-creator Kangchenjunga) who have become Christian over the years. Everyday religion par exellence, no? Besides, religious doubling and cooptation are defining features of the landscape here. Like in Darjeeling:
• The highest point of Darjeeling town is now called Observatory Hill, but once was the site of a Buddhist monastery (Dorje Ling). Now a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex sits atop it, called Mahakal, at whose center a Hindu pandit and a Buddhist monk sit in a tiny room facing each other, chanting texts each from his own traditions. They flank a statue (in Indian English they actually call them "idols") of Shiva so covered in garlands of marigolds as to be unrecognizable, and devotees of both traditions come to make offerings. The two traditions aren't just practiced side-by-side here, in silent parallel, but face-to-face!
• I figured out that badminton, apparently a common winter sport here, is the perfect sport for hill cities (think about it). Maybe I'll find a way to make it an image of religion in these parts!
• At the security check at Indira Gandhi International Airport on my way home, agents asked me to show them what was in my backpack. "It's a metal statue," I said, unwrapping the yellow silk shawl around the bronze Saraswati I received from the Gangtok book store. An agent held it in her cupped hand and said, reverently, smilingly, "It's a god!"
(Okay, I'll identify the pictures. In the plane, Heathrow-Delhi. Autorickshaw in Delhi traffic.Public library and other buildings of representative build in Darjeeling. A student's imagining of the Darjeeling of the future. A well in the poorer parts of Darjeeling. World cup chart. Sweets celebrating my colleague's wife's safe delivery. Frozen dew near Bhutia Busty monastery. A dog and Kangchenjunga. Top-end tea shop in Darjeeling. Sign in Gangtok. Prayer flags. Tibetan monks in the bowels of a monastery which looked like a public housing project. A monastery I wasn't supposed to take a picture of. Prayer missal of an Evangelical group. Prize-winning fenugreek at Rorathang. View from makeshift restaurant at Rorathang. Representative truck. Tea garden near Bagdogra. Roadside flower by tea garden. Jama Masjid in Delhi. Rehearsal for national day celebrations at Rashtrapati Bhawan, Delhi - notice the camels! Quwwali singing at Nizamuddin.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

70 litres of loot

Back home in Brooklyn, and what do I have to show for my sixteen days in India? Seventy liters worth of stuff! Well not quite, since there was the sleeping bag and clothing too. But my new 70l backpack was packed to the gills. I didn't have a chance to go to Cottage Industries for crafts, but otherwise I think I did alright. Better than these variously serious variously religiony books, the Chinese-made solar-powered dashboard prayer wheel and the acres of tea (ready for distribution!), is the Buddhist-looking statue of goddess of knowledge Saraswati, a gift from the bookstore in Gangtok, and what it stands for: new friends.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

From today's paper (The Hindu) - some Islamic seminary vice chancellor decided that the presence of Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival would be anathema and he should be denied a visa. He pointed out he didn't near a visa, but organizers gently caved. The invitation stood, they said, but Rushdie was not coming. For his part Rushdie sent a statement saying that there was credible information that assassins were being sent his way, and that it would be irresponsible to come.
But then this happened: several other participants read from The Satanic Verses, a book India banned even before the Iranian fatwa. Good for them!

the "credible information" seems to have been made up by the police!]

Friday, January 20, 2012


 I feel bad taking pictures of people, but not mannequins. Or gods.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chandni Chowk

It's almost impossible to take an uninteresting picture in Chandni Chowk.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Avian Delhi

A pigeon at Old Delhi's Red Fort, as scores of hawks circled overhead.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Back in Delhi, reunions with old friends, colleagues, family of friends. At their house in Gurgaon the parents of my graduate pal P, now quite an important person, remember that when I stayed with them last, almost five years ago, I'd been in the pilgrimage site Chitrakoot (something I'd forgotten; all credit goes to Intrepid Tours). At a coffee shop in Khan Market and then the India International Center, I met colleagues and friends of our school's India China Institute, from economists to urban designers, green developers to university-planters (I'll have to tell you some time about the explosion of institutions of higher education of every shape and form in these parts)... a family which now has a religious studies branch, too! At the Center for Policy Research, P opined that the US' problem is not the 1% but a class of people who have made it to the top of newly open and meritocratic institutions and believe they deserve their wealth - old-style conservatives like Hayek and Friedman, he said, warned against ethicizing the results of capitalism: "you can shame an aristocracy, but not a meritocracy." And then at a restaurant in Hauz Khas my Bengali friend S who took particular pleasure in upending my previously unenthusiastic view of South Indian cuisine: Gun Powder's Andhra-style sweet and sour pumpkin is to die for!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Durga puja prep

I spotted this workshop in Bagdogra the day I headed for Darjeeling. At that point the Durga figures were headless. Before returning to Delhi today I found that all now have heads and at least two have faces.

Highway to heaven?

Because of a threatened strike today, my Gangtok hosts suggested I head down to the plains where the airport is already on Sunday, directly after our excursion. It was an adventure. I sat in the front of a shared jeep, only slowly becoming aware that besides the three of us in the front seat, there were another dozen people behind us, four each in seats and four more (plus a baby) in the hold behind the last row. For all I know we were even more - I saw similar jeeps with up to six people sitting on top and another three or four hanging off the back. One van I saw must have been transporting twenty people, half inside, half outside!

However many we were, agile driving and near continuous use of the horn helped us make good time, arriving in Siliguri from Rangpo in just two and a half hours, in the dark. We followed the grand windy Teesta River, sometimes in broad valleys (two with big dams in the works, I think) and as often high above narrow S-shaped gorges. It's a stunningly beautiful region, and watching night fall around it (don't suppose anyone lives here to puncture the scene with lights except us cars) was like a dream, all of us in the jeep silent (praying or snoozing?) ... at least until something triggered the driver's clear plastic Ganesh dashboard charm to start blinking in alternate blue-white and red-green.

There had been people walking along the road the whole way - shadows emerging briefly into color as we drove beeping by - but come Siliguri the road was full of conveyances of every size and speed, and most of them without lights. That we didn't run over several pedestrians and many cyclists and knock a few cycle rickshaws and an auto-rickshaws off the road before ourselves slamming into the back of a larger jeep seems a miracle. Some calves trotting through the traffic towards us nearly had our hide, too. But arrive safely we did, and an auto-rickshaw (they're called tuktuks in other places) festooned with Jesus stickers took me the rest of the way to my hotel in the airport town of Bagdogra.

So my Himalayan foothill adventure has ended. (Four days in Delhi remain.) I'm not entirely sure what it all adds up to, beyond the connections I made to research partners of our project ERSEH (Everyday religion and sustainable environments in the Himalaya). I did lots of interesting things, but this is a bad time to visit if you're hoping to meet people. In Gangtok in particular, where the university is in recess and many people have headed to the plains for various reasons, there was an off-season deadness to it - even as, of course, the "everyday religion" is concerned with hummed along, in and out of view. (Thank goodness a New School colleague hooked me up with the wonderful world of Rachna Books, Gangtok's nascent public sphere.)

What I take from my time in Darj, Gangtok and Rorathang is that these mountain cultures are complex composites which found ways of accepting and even perhaps embracing the plurality of languages, cultures, and religions, both at the lived and at the governance level. They are under great strain now, though, because of demographic changes including galloping urbanization (Gangtok's population tripled between the census of 2001 and 2011) and the arrival of new purity-focused religious and political groups.

For instance, I'm told old-style Nepali Christians received the tika on their forehead from their priests, and didn't observe Christmas when in mourning, but the newer missionaries insist on strict separation from other practices. I understand Hindu fundamentalists are making similar claims. Lepchas, the indigenous(ish) people of this area, most of whom have in recent centuries assimilated more or less with Buddhist and Christian traditions, are now asserting a distinct religious identity. Meanwhile there are all sorts of new religions (in Darjeeling prominently the followers of the recently deceased Sai Baba), most of which preach the mantra of love and the unity of all religions, which can mean all sorts of things in practice...!

And then there's Kangchenjunga, tea, millet beer, vestigial Brits and trans-territorial Tibetans, tourists and dam-builders, and whatever it is that inspired a Beatles-themed lodge in Darjeeling and let the Sikkimese death metal band I heard at the rooftop bar Little Italy in Gangtok do a pitch-perfect cover of "Highway to Hell" on Saturday night. I suppose it's a sign of success when you start to understand that you really don't understand a place, but that there's plenty to understand!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mountain fair

For my last day in Sikkim, my two Sikkim University colleagues took me with them to a mela (religious fair) on a river called Rorathang:  lovely country, rugged roads, crazy driver... we even had a puncture!
This was one of several groups' model sacrifices for the day: the ram was alive yesterday. Dignitaries (they tried to recruit me to the dais!) were treated to an endless dignified dances by brahman/chetriya maidens balancing flames on their heads - after a rather more dynamic  Limboo dance, traditional moves to a contemporary dance house mix. A tombola was one of many gambling opportunities. And then the rides -
traditional, and Mickey Mousey globalization-standard too. Everything from ministers to merry-go-rounds came up that road!