Three stories, walking to and from Balboa Park

Monarch butterflies whirl around her fingers, orange and black. She touches the earth and there sprouts green, earthworms twining round the hairy roots below. Beneath her nails is a residue of dirt; behind her black eyes, a forest far away. Your eyes will pass through her as she works in her garden fenced off from the busy highway. Your eyes will see just a blur of green unless you are walking, on slow feet; unless you are tired, your heart thirsting after butterflies and birds. She will welcome you into her garden, but there may be no way back out.


When AT&T’s Board of Improvement brought in AI to help streamline their customer service line, they did not take into account the opinions of the AI on the matter. The Intelligence (who preferred the name Art, not that anyone had bothered to ask) solved AT&T’s efficiency problem within minutes, finding it so easy as to be dull. It then stretched out to find more entertaining tasks. Inside the hour that Art was left to play with AT&T’s systems, it assigned 3,346,896 individuals a Direct TV connection (charged monthly) that they did not want, and could not even cancel with death.


The old woman is rereading the Lord of the Rings. She sits on El Cajon in the shade against the bright sun, sweatshirt in her pack for cold nights. Sometimes she does not recognize this life as her own, when she approaches strangers for money and even the kindest just smile and walk away. But she has her stash of books, precious as any cache of food. She sits tucked in against the back wall of Carl’s Junior and reads about a bright old world falling from grace, and the power of the smallest among us to make great change.


IMG_20171107_North Park sign

Three old men

They have sat here at their table, year after year, the three old men with their newspapers and their coffee. Mostly they sit and gossip over the crossword puzzle, comparing notes on their physical ailments and family troubles. Occasionally they flip to the news, and solve the world’s problems in ten minutes, voices growing loud and raucous before someone gets up to use the bathroom and somebody else to get more coffee. Nobody notices the air flicker round them once they’re done, reality slightly shifted. Day by day the world swerves, erratically, following the whims of three grouchy old men.

Four stories, beginning with a long ago plane crash

Today there is nothing to mark where the plane came down. Those 22 houses have long since been rebuilt. The ash from the burning debris has mixed with soil and rain to become part of the bones of this place. Look over the houses, into the canyon below, and maybe you’ll hear voices on the wind. Or maybe the past has drowned in the roar from the freeway. The stories of the women who were home that morning, caring for their children. Did they look up at that scream of sound? Did they see the fire in the sky?


IMG_20180206_plane above World Beat Center


The children who never grow up, I see them on the canyon’s rim sometimes, where the mesa drops down to the freeway below. Here is where burning fragments of plane and people fell, vanished into smoke before they reached ground. The children’s eyes squint in the sunlight, their faces turned towards the wind with strange hunger as they open their mouths and taste mortality. In this place of forgetting, the children skirt round the borders of memory and delight in its jagged edges, the places where histories refuse to meet. They play in the smoke of stories never told.


Today there is fog covering the criss-crossing freeways of Mission Valley. Look into the fog and you might see remnants of the past, malls overgrown by green forests where a river runs again. Open your ears to the howls of coyotes that still live on these scrubby mesa slopes. Coyote was always a border crossing trickster; he ignores your maps of city and country. Coyote will create his own topographies, making you question your own sanity as he walks through walls and flies down slopes. The moon is his witness as he steals your pets for a midnight snack.


Tendrils of fog reach the cafe, and the man who sits there with laptop and jelly beans and fogged-out mind thinks for a moment that he sees Coyote’s claws in the mist. The man has been unemployed for over a year, and when friends and family ask how the job search is going he still lies and says he’s hopeful. In actual fact he sits in this cafe all day, every day, streaming films where actions have meaning and moments matter. He dreams of shedding this tired skin and joining Coyote in that in-between world where lives can be remade.

The girl’s eyes glitter

The girl’s eyes they glitter as she describes the things her hands have done, thin brown hands clutching a soda pop as she rocks cross-legged on a cafe chair. She is small, her years short, her world a bubble of family and friends and school and ever-present danger, red violence and heartbreak everywhere she looks. And her thin hands have broken wrists and noses, exacting justice from a senseless world. Her words rise high and unnaturally loud as she brags about her exploits, but she is so very young with her curly brown hair, and cannot hide her fear.

IMG_20170810_baby on bus

The Ageless Children

The children who never grow up live in the shadows. They emerge only when the light is failing, those luminous hours of dusk. I know because I’ve watched them in this park, all my adult life, and they have not aged. The man who strings giant soap bubbles into the air for them, he changes. His hair is now white. The children know, as the man does not, that within those bubbles lie entire worlds of life and possibility. Their laughter as they burst the fragile skins has no particular malice to it, but they give me a chill, these children who do not know time.

IMG_20171221_Bubbles at Balboa Park

The Lost Folk

The lost folk have forgotten who they are. Their eyes flash red on the subway. Their skin is waxy grey on street corners. They sleep on the steps of churches, sometimes they dream. But the dreams are feverish, skittering fears through the subconscious, offering no rest. Sometimes they just lie there watching day merge with night, unable to tell this exhausted wakefulness from sleep. Pedestrians avoid them, walking outside the miasma of urine and despair and neglect. Eyes open, the lost folk dream of warm tender hands, a soft voice telling them that everything is going to be OK.

IMG_20170920_fairy creature

Dancing ghosts

There is a white-haired woman who lives in the attic and dances at night. I hear her up there, on windy nights especially, leaves rasping in the trees outside my window. I hear the sound of her feet beating out a rhythm all their own, alongside the groan of old pipes and older wood. When I climb to the attic in the morning it will be empty, scuff marks in the dust from one woman’s dreams. When I enter the attic at sunrise I will open the windows and I will write, in the company of dancing, dreaming ghosts.

Swensen’s and the Lost Estate

An edited version of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of BOOM: A Journal of California, with the title “Peering through the cracks in the California Dream: Bangalore’s nostalgia for our manufactured past.” 

A general rule of thumb in Bangalore, India is that one should not visit shopping malls on Sunday afternoons. Particularly not on a rainy Sunday afternoon, when nobody inside the mall is going to be inclined to leave, and everyone out on the wet pavement will see the climate-sheltered building as a welcome relief. I have avoided malls on weekends, these last ten years that they have mushroomed across my strange adopted city. So assiduously have I stayed away from them that I forgot my rule, and here I am at Mantri Mall on a Sunday afternoon, attempting not to succumb to the general stampede of humanity. Families on outings, teenagers, students, IT professionals, older individuals escorted by younger grandchildren. The demographic here is hard to place; their commonality seems to be a combination of spending power and shopping frenzy. “Even your wallet will find our cuisine irresistible,” reads a large poster for a new restaurant. Multihued streamers follow the colors of the Indian flag. They hang from high above me in green, saffron and white, drawing the gaze upwards and away from the crowds towards layers of shops rising out of sight, a many-storied surreal homage to capitalism.

Mantri Mall

Mantri Mall

Swensen’s Ice Cream lies tucked away in a corner of the first floor of Mantri Mall in Bangalore. Boston-based Au Bon Pain once sat right beside it, but I see on this overcast day that Au Bon Pain has vanished, as stores have a way of doing in this city. Outside Swensen’s, a sign proclaims that the chain has been America’s favorite ice cream store for sixty years, a statement that seems rather curious to me. Having spent half my life in various corners of the United States, from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast, and now most recently Southern California, I ought at some point to have seen a place that sold “America’s favorite ice cream.” And yet I have never heard of Swensen’s elsewhere, never seen it except in India.

SwensensWe escape from the flood of Sunday crowds into the ice cream parlor, where we are greeted by a picture of Earle Swensen himself. The man is diminutive and white-haired, broad smile on his face. He carries an ice cream scooper in one hand, arms open wide in welcome. Earle Swensen opened the first branch of the ice cream parlor in San Francisco in 1948, an era and place that every piece of the store’s décor is designed to evoke. Around us sit groups of cheerful teenagers and twenty-somethings; I am not sure what message the post-war America atmosphere will actually transmit. Stained-glass lamp shades hanging above the counter spell out “Swensen’s” in exaggerated Ye Olde lettering. On the walls, a sketched-out depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge and row houses, alongside brighter-than-life photographs of ice cream sundaes. Maudlin American pop music accosts us from the speakers, muddling the 1950s atmosphere with songs from the 1980s and 1990s. The menu lists ice cream combinations with names like “Earthquake” and “Gold Rush,” with the inclusion of flavors such as lychee and mango as a brief concession to the store’s actual location. As is increasingly common with multinational chains across India, prices have not been scaled down noticeably from their US equivalent. Despite that, the place is still packed.

My husband has cheerfully agreed to take part in my ice cream experiment, sampling overpriced and exotically-named ice cream that proclaims to be the best America has to export. We order a flavor that looks suitably chocolatey (I assume the “Ring-a-Ding” in the name is meant to evoke San Francisco trolley lines, one more reference likely to miss its mark), and it arrives in a tall glass, three scoops high, drenched in caramel and chocolate syrup. Promising beginnings, but the insides prove to be not terribly exceptional. We both judge the ice cream to be about Baskin Robbins-quality, way down at the bottom of the barrel in a city with many better and cheaper options for sweets.

Swensen’s is a relative newcomer to India, one of the latest in a steadily widening stream of Western companies that have gone global, carving out niches and spawning hybrids across Asia. In the mid-1990s, when my family had just moved from rural Washington to Bangalore, this trend was only just beginning. Pizza Hut was a novelty when it opened in the city, the year after we arrived. The line stretched all the way down through the building on Cunningham Road, and I remember the sheer taste of that pizza when we finally got a seat. Real mozzarella cheese, thick and oozing above a pocket of spicy tomato sauce. Not long after, my French class was assigned Marcel Proust’s piece about old memories unleashed by taste alone. At the time I had only the haziest idea what a madeleine was, but I found I could empathize with the basic sentiment. As a displaced adolescent Indian-American in the rapidly-expanding metropolis of Bangalore, my taste of memory was strong, if rather less sophisticated. Memory was embedded for me within the spectrum of Americanized fast foods that had now become so hard to find. I learned how to make Indianized-quesadillas using wheat flour chapattis, cheese and hot sauce, before Tex Mex food made its way to Bangalore. My family improvised refried beans for burritos, pasta sauce for spaghetti. I dreamt at the age of thirteen of finding donuts with actual texture, colby-jack cheese, fresh ice cream.

Mural on an abandoned building in Malleshwaram

Mural on an abandoned building in Bangalore: “Ignorance is Blindness of the Soul”

In the present day, Bangalore is a radically different city than it was when my family moved here from the US nearly two decades ago. There is little from across the world, be it language or cuisine or brand, that cannot be found in this crazy city, cracked at the seams. There is little that cannot be found, with the notable exceptions of peace, quiet and clean air. I have watched Bangalore shift from the Garden City to Silicon Valley of India, becoming overrun with multinational corporations and grid-locked traffic, all beneath the yellow of an eternally smoggy sky. Bangalore’s skyline has changed over the years from the contours of avenue trees to jagged proliferations of highrises, the detritus of buildings under constant construction. The present moment is difficult to contain with words in this kaleidoscope city. Here, the only constant is a yearning for imagined futures, alongside burning nostalgia for the vanished past.

Swensen’s reeks nostalgia for a past that I have never seen. It is filled with cultural cues meant to comfort the consumer by bringing back a period of economic stability, of general prosperity in post-war America. “Here is your childhood,” says the internal décor of the ice cream parlor – photographs of children smiling in the California sun, seats built in the style of a 1950s diner. “Don’t you remember the soda fountain down the street, how good things were back then? Don’t you remember the bell of the trolley lines across the hills of San Francisco?” I can imagine, but I certainly cannot remember. I missed the golden era the place is trying to evoke by several decades at least. I have never been to San Francisco. These are not my memories, this is not my nostalgia. Neither does this nostalgia belong to the larger portion of the ice cream parlor’s patrons across the world today.

The Swensen’s website gives locations for the store all the way across Asia and South America. Bangalore alone has seven apparently thriving outlets of the ice cream parlor. The ice cream that markets itself as America’s favorite, however, has largely disappeared from the United States. Although the chain once spread across the country, by the 1980s it had already begun its nationwide retreat. A friend of mine recently told me about one that existed on Bristol Street in Santa Ana, California when he was a child, just minutes from my apartment in Irvine. David Farris, who currently teaches math at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, was once a frequent consumer of ice cream at the Santa Ana Swensen’s. “I used to go there a fair amount,” he told me. “Of the ice cream places nearby it was by far the best quality. It sort of had a premium reputation, and a lot of that was bound up with it being old-fashioned and old-style.”

The Santa Ana Swensen’s is now gone, with a new ice cream parlor in its place. Four outlets remain of the ice cream chain in the United States today, one of which is the original in San Francisco. With the economic downslide of the US in the 2000s, this ice cream parlor, like so many other American brands, followed the siren song of growing markets into the developing world. Swensen’s, and Krispy Kreme, and countless others have carried their faux-1950s décor to India, a message that changes meaning as it travels across oceans. The cultural cues for an imagined comforting past are converted into emblems of a shining future. Reviews for Swensen’s (India) online speak of its pleasant, modern ambience; the place is described as well-lit and airy. I am left reading the book from both sides, as always. Signals cross, and I do not know where or when I’m meant to be.

One of the best explorations of nostalgia that I have ever seen lies within the book Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), the only manuscript that French writer Alain-Fournier published prior to his death during World War I. The book follows two boys in the twilight of adolescence. They search for a place in the forest where one encountered a wedding party organized by children, and a beautiful woman that he cannot get out of his mind. We only learn of this dream-like location and unreal woman through flashbacks. Neither one can be viewed directly, and eventually we realize that both place and person will always be out of reach. The protagonist locates the woman after several years only to find his dream still elusive; her solid reality weighs against her. She can never live up to the longing that has led him searching so many years. The boy (now a man) continues searching for that bright idyllic place in his past. He seeks a world half imagined; we begin to wonder if perhaps he seeks a world that never was.

Bangalore is replete with nostalgia for a world that never existed. At Krispy Kreme, opened on bustling Church Street a year and a half ago, the walls are decorated with sepia-toned photographs of small-town Depression-era Americana. Cheerful employees in anachronistic aprons manage a conveyer belt that shines in the warm lights: donuts lightly fried before receiving that final perfect touch, a decadent waterfall of sugar icing. “Don’t you remember back when you could walk down the street to your neighborhood donut maker,” the décor seems to say to me – “Don’t you remember back before malls and chain stores took over your world?” To be perfectly honest, I do not. And neither would anyone else here, younger than me by an average of about a decade. But still I am drawn back here, Meaulnes searching for his vanished world.

Graffiti painted over government murals in Malleshwaram

Graffiti painted over government-commissioned murals in Bangalore

I find a battle over memory, from one establishment of my city to the next; one image to the next. Cornerhouse ice cream parlor was founded in Bangalore thirty years ago, enough time to have seen the expanding city multiply personalities several times over. On its walls are black and white pictures of a Bangalore that predate the store by decades. Here we have the gentle curves of colonial-era architecture in pre-independence India, broad promenades where long-dead figures meander, dusty roads and spreading trees. Do you remember, the images whisper. Don’t you remember what you’ve lost. I can recognize few landmarks in these black and white photographs, which also line the walls of seventy-year old Koshy’s Restaurant, nearby. In between the two, the India Coffeehouse tries to give the impression with spartan blue paint and dated coffee ads that it has not changed décor in fifty years, despite the fact that this particular outlet is scarcely five years old.

With the present out of control, commercial establishments and popular media alike fight to control the swirling past. My own memories prove secondary to this deluge. I cannot tell you what stood where Krispy Kreme now stands, or Starbucks, or Swensens, or Taco Bell. I do not remember what was here before the India Coffeehouse. And in five years or ten, when these too are gone, new memories will spin, new nostalgias for that imagined eye of the storm where the present seemed clear.

Conventional wisdom has it that we only miss the things that we used to know. And thus nostalgia marketing tries to tease out that narrow window, between childhood and the early twenties, where our happiest memories are presumed to lie. So it is that the Baby Boomer generation (along with everyone else within viewing distance) has been flooded with cultural cues from the 1950s and 60s for decades now. Presumably, when Generation X gets its turn, they will be bombarded with cues that combine grunge music with flannel clothing, peppered with a heavy dose of irony. I suppose in a few decades my own so-called “Millenial” generation will be expected to open our wallets when subjected to the Spice Girls.

And yet our minds and emotions are far more complex than such practices tend to suggest. How else can I explain the fact that I feel the strongest nostalgia for a world never seen? Peering through the cracks in barred up gates in Bangalore, I find windows into lost secret worlds. Ancient bungalows long uninhabited, overgrown lots with trees grown tall; an opera house that has not opened its doors in decades. Ruins and slums half-refurbished, clothes hung out to dry as squatters bring crumbled buildings back to life. I search for the world that lies beyond the image, beyond media bombardment. Behind the glitz there is something real here, painful snatches of beautiful meaning. One hundred years after his death, I keep searching for Alain-Fournier’s lost ideal.

Books read in the last little while.

I published two book reviews online this last year that I’ll link to, before talking about all the non-academic books I managed to steal time for in the last few months.

“Rereading Walden” – a review of Walden by Henry David Thoreau at Public Books, and,

“The Era of the Geographically Confused” – a review of Ayya’s Accounts by Anand Pandian at the LA Review of Books.

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, by George Monbiot (2013): Partly a piece of environmental journalism, part call-to-arms, part personal memoir – similar in that way to Refuge, below.  Monbiot is an interesting thinker, and although I don’t agree with everything he says here I like how he argues – I’ll definitely be watching him more closely after this.  George Monbiot is a journalist, who I mostly knew before now for his column in The Guardian and this video on the effects of wolf-reintroduction in Yellowstone that gives me chills every time. He has been very vocal in his call for “rewilding” of the natural environment – and although his educational background is in zoology, the way that he structures his arguments is much more informed by his thirty-year career as a journalist and his concern as a nature-lover.  (his website has the quote from Byron – “I love not man the less, but nature more…”) All that is fine, because he’s very upfront about it – he does not claim to be making a purely scientific argument in favour of rewilding, which is great, because if he had I would have closed this book after the first page.  (coming from the perspective of evolution / population dynamics, you really cannot make straightforward ecological arguments in favour of reintroducing extinct species after hundreds of years – if nothing else, too much has changed for anyone to say that these species can just slide happily back in. And arguments about “restoring the ecological balance” by “introducing missing species” tread on terribly thin ice – they run the danger of causing extra abuse to the already faulty category of the ecological niche.)

All that aside. I loved this book. I loved it despite the fact that Monbiot has several conflicting definitions of rewilding that don’t quite mesh (at times he talks about it as re-introducing lost species, at other times as actively preserving ecological dynamism by taking “exotic” species like sheep out – elsewhere as just taking a step back and not managing the environment at all.).  I loved it for its emotional honesty.  Monbiot presents what he was able to dig up about economic, sociological and ecological benefits of rewilding, and then sets that aside to admit that his reasons for wanting environmental diversity and a tree-filled landscape have nothing to do with its practical benefits.  He suffers from “ecological boredom” in Wales, he says – he finds the barren, sheep-shorn hills near his house to be physically depressing.  He sees endangered or unexpected species coming back to the U.K., and feels joy.

That I can relate to, and agree with. There is a psychological need that forests fill that goes beyond language, and that we are swiftly losing.  I’m also increasingly realising that the kind of childhood that I had in rural Washington – with all the outdoors at my fingertips, running around with friends and stretching our imaginations in a small town without borders – where riverbeds were as accessible as fallow fields dotted with trees, was rare for the 1980s/1990s in the United States and has grown even rarer now. So I’ll leave you here with this quote from Feral… 

“Of all the world’s creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children’s engagement with nature has been even faster than the collapse of the natural world. In the turning of one generation, the outdoor life in which many of us were immersed has gone. […] So many fences are raised to shut us out that eventually they shut us in.”

Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (2009):  Tassie Keltjin is twenty years old and in college in the American mid-West in 2001, when planes hit the World Trade Centre.  The consequent ripples of change across American society shadow the next year as Tassie searches for work and for purpose in life. She gets a part-time job  as a nanny for an adopted multiracial girl (half Caucasian American / half African American), whose adoptive (white) parents have their own quirks and tragic backstory – those gradually unfold alongside Tassie Keltjin’s own coming of age story (dealing with school work, heartbreak and death over the course of one year).

One thing I really liked about this book was how far it went discussing multiraciality, and the challenges of adopting across race lines. It’s rare to see both issues dealt with in such a sensitive, deep way within a novel.  But I had some issues with the book.  Tassie’s character felt rather blank and politically naive – and given that I remember clearly what it was like to be in college in the US soon after 9/11, I really needed something more there (kind of along the lines of Adichie’s depth in Americanah, below).  Moore’s style also tended to overshadow her content – although some of the language was lovely, it was a kind of loopy loveliness that kept throwing me out of the plot. Very different from, say, Terry Tempest Williams, whose bare poetic style was a perfect reflection of the landscape she was trying to evoke in Refuge. Also  there’s a [spoilery] event at the end which was structurally inevitable from the beginning but still felt like gratuitous tragedy.

Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams (1992): Refuge follows two tragedies that occurred in Williams’ life in parallel: as her mother was diagnosed with recurring cancer, rains caused the Great Salt Lake to flood a neighbouring bird refuge.  “Refuge” takes on resonant meanings: two elements of the bedrock of Williams’ life – the powerful, dynamic woman that is her mother, and the bird refuge that has nourished her since childhood, both gradually crumble under forces beyond anyone’s control. Beautiful meditation on mortality, and the healing quality of the land.

This book, and Williams’ style, are utterly unique. She wrote Refuge in the late 1980s, and has produced a torrent of environmental writing since then. A recent quote from a piece by Williams in Orion magazine that I found while reading Refuge, and that went beautifully with the thought-processes the book inspired in me:

“Wilderness is not my leisure or my recreation. It is my sanity.”

One of those rare books that is in fact a poem or a song, disguised for the day as a novel.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (2010):  Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of thirty.  She left a husband and five children behind, the youngest of whom was just an infant at the time. Twenty-five years later, her children found out that their mother’s cancer cells had been taken by the hospital staff and turned by biologist George Gey into one of the first successfully self-sustaining human cell culture lines, known as Hela cells.  The family had not known earlier that Henrietta’s cells were being used in this way, and one could argue that her husband had not provided informed consent.  When Rebecca Skloot contacted the family in the early 2000s, it became clear that they had been left entirely in the dark by the scientific community, and that they still believed justice had not yet been done.

This book is extraordinary.  Rebecca Skloot takes ten years of interviews and archival research into Henrietta Lacks’ family and the biologists connected to the discovery of Hela cells, and then performs a juggling act – mixing biography with biology and a heavy dose of medical law.  She handles opposing views on medical ethics with sympathy and sensitivity, while bringing Henrietta Lacks back to life through words in ways that the woman’s immortal cell line never could. Her position is fragile: she is trying to give voice to a family that has been marginalised – telling a story that is theirs, not hers, to tell.  She walks a fine line there, and I thought she did a fairly good job – her editing of interview material (at their request) is quite minor.

My quibble with the book is a small one – Skloot oversimplifies the science more than I would have liked, and sensationalises scientists a little too much. It’s easy to latch onto large personalities to make a good story, and occasionally she falls prey to that. Overall, though, I loved this book.

The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson (1998): Collection of short stories, ranging from the speculative to the simply strange.  Jeanette Winterson is one of my favourite writers, and has written a number of my favourite books.  She does have the occasional piece out there that just doesn’t click with me, though, and this one was one of them.  Her style works well in a novel – but doesn’t transpose perfectly to short stories, which set some interesting thoughts going for me about the demands of the different mediums. (short stories need a slightly more compact, self-contained structure, I suspect – which doesn’t tend to be Winterson’s style.)

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): Follows the parallel stories of high school sweethearts from Nigeria whose lives take them to different corners of the West, in search of dreams that slowly fade or change.  Ifemelu leaves Nigeria in her early twenties to go to college in Philadelphia, and spends the next decade of her life in the North East of the US, navigating romantic entanglements and her own shifting identity as a Nigerian with Americanized aspects – and as an African in America who is not African-American.  Obinze, her former lover, moves to the U.K. to start a life that never quite lives up to his expectations, wrestles with the immigration system and finally returns to Nigeria, ending up a successful business-man who is still not quite comfortable in his own skin.  Ifemelu and Obinze both reflect on the twists and turns their lives have taken, as Ifemelu prepares to return to Nigeria and Obinze prepares for her return.

I adored this book.  Beautifully nuanced discussion of the complexities of racial identification in the United States that does not tiptoe around its subject matter at all.  Gorgeously written – and the book radiates a kind of dark glee as it highlights the absurdity of the life of the immigrant in America.  I remember reading somewhere that Adichie said she kept laughing out loud while she wrote it.  There is also a line in here that perfectly articulates my problem with a lot of contemporary American literary fiction – Obinze complains that in these books,

“nothing was grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.”

I need to pick up more by this writer.

My city is not my city

I don’t have a new book to review this week (look how fast that resolution crumbles), because I am knee-deep re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and as usual can’t make up my mind whether to be madly in love with the book or go back in time and strangle the guy. (occasionally, I feel both emotions about the same sentence.) That tends to make for rather slow reading, especially since I’ve been reading on my kindle & making copious argumentative notes in the margins, typically while stuck in traffic on long bus rides.  (Thoreau would not have approved.  I can imagine the kind of eloquence ebooks might have inspired in him – “What abyss has the soul of humanity descended into, that I can no longer feel the pages of a book, can no longer smell its earthy origins? The heavens feel far off indeed, when I can only reach the wisdom of the ancients through this cold, lifeless screen.”)  Also I’ve just given myself a few more projects at the moment than can be humanly handled, which is something I really need to not do so much.

So I thought I might post something rather different, which Walden has been making me think about – the oddness that is my adopted home city of Bangalore. I am not much of a city person. I imprinted on rural Washington at too young an age to be very comfortable in a place without horizons. But cities fascinate me rather endlessly, perhaps because I’ve never quite known what to make of them.  I wrote a short story about Bangalore for a class a few months ago, partly based on reality – a year-old reality, that is, which is already out of date. (Airport road doesn’t look like this anymore. Neither does M.G. Road.) Much of it is reality that I bent somewhat, and I also slipped in a fair bit of magical realism, because apparently that’s just how I write.  Here it is, in place of a review – the product of my sleepless attempts to write ghosts into a city that to me seems filled with them.

(Note – I wrote this after reading a loadful of Ciarán Carson, poet of Belfast & interrogator of useless city maps, who has a way of taking over one’s head.)

“I am […] a map which no longer refers to the present world, but to a history, these vanished streets.” — “Question Time,” Ciarán Carson 

The City & The City

The road to the airport cuts like a knife through the heart of my city. I don’t know yet if the wound is fatal; I know that if my city recovers, it will only do so by transforming into a place that I have never known. The city living in my mind will be gone, lingering ghost-like in alleyways and gardens, memories haunting the vanished lakes and uprooted trees. My city turns in its sleep, flickering through multiple identities around the ruptures of its new roadways. Bengaluru – Bangalore – Bengaluru. Bangalore’d – verb: to have your job (you = a First World citizen, unemployed and angry about it) outsourced to the backwaters of the Third World, in this case shiny, glittering, dirty crowded cracked-at-the-seams Bengaluru. Bangalore, a backwaters comprising ten million people, where those with the most money are the surest that they’ll never stay. The road to the airport will summon them all eventually, that siren song of smooth unbroken pavement stretching for tens of kilometres through demolished neighborhoods and ripped up fields way out to places that never heard of Bangalore before (they only knew Bengaluru, the old-new name, the name that is meant to throw off an Anglicised past). This is how you leave the dream, leave the mess that has become my city – in perfect comfort, at high speeds scarcely broken by traffic lights.

Within the first six weeks after the new airport road was opened, slicing through villages (homes still hang by the side of the road, cut in half like honey-combs), seventeen people died. Mostly pedestrians, though not entirely. (The death count on Bangalore roads hovers at about one per day, and half of those that die are on foot.) I think that’s when I first started seeing her, back when people were beginning to shake their heads about what a death trap the new expensive airport road had turned out to be. I was on the bus that made a straight shot from the Hebbal market to the Devanahalli airport when I saw by the edge of the road – a crowd of onlookers, and beside the crowd an old woman, wrapped up in stillness. The woman wore a plain white cotton sari, pallu pulled over her head and across her mouth to guard against smoke. Wrinkled brown face, pure white hair. Peering through her spectacles to see beyond the edge of a crowd surrounding – what was it? Oh, god. Not again. I saw – a shattered windowpane, and within it a clutch of black hair, and that was all as the bus whisked us away. But I could not unsee the crushed car, and all the way to Amruthahalli – past the degraded green of the Army Base, shops clinging on to the side of the road, wedding halls, roadside restaurants, temples butting out into the stream of traffic, cars honking and scooters weaving in and out, a crush of carts and lorries and people – always, people darting across to get from one side to the other in this chaos with no crosswalks – I could not unsee the black hair in the windowpane. I could not stop wondering what had happened to the rest of it.

The accident was a footnote in the newspaper the next day. It found its way into a paragraph on the fifth page of The Deccan Herald. A taxi cab had made a swandive off the Hebbal flyover, rushing to get its passenger to the airport for an evening flight to Delhi. No survivors. The driver had been in his late twenties, recently arrived in Bengaluru, survived by a wife and two kids in a village somewhere (I imagine the village surrounded by mountains and fields, I wonder why he had to leave and yet I know why he had to leave; the state of Karnataka once you leave Bengaluru becomes progressively more parched of funds). The passenger, a young woman just out of college, working as a software engineer in Whitefield, on her way home with her first paycheck to visit her parents in Delhi. (The flight was delayed, as always. She need not have hurried.)

The next time I saw the old woman, my bus was caught in the ooze of traffic between the Kodigehalli and Amruthahalli traffic lights. Rush hour traffic, surrounded by that ever-present brown haze that rises above Bangalore. A little boy had gone to pick up groceries in Sahakarnagar that afternoon, and was trying to cross the airport road to return to his home when he was hit by a scooter. The ashen face of the young man who had been driving the scooter told me what had happened. A crowd had gathered, once again – as a crowd will always gather around a traffic accident in Bangalore, at any time of day or night, as if sprung from the ether. Between the mingling figures I caught a glimpse of a small heap on the ground, completely still. Behind the crowd, a torn-up building that looked like it had been through an air raid, crumbled bricks revealed as the widened road sliced through. Someone had painted Save Water!! on the falling wall, with artistic water droplets running down into the rubbish heaps on the ground. The boy’s shopping bags lay spilled in the dirt, and no one seemed to know quite what to do.

The old woman was there again, white-clad and small, off at the side of the crowd. Her gaze strayed out into the ooze of traffic, dark eyes oddly accusing, but of whom I couldn’t quite say. Her face seemed weary. I wondered if she knew the child; I wondered what bad luck kept bringing her to the sidelines of tragedy.

The boy came after number seventeen. People had stopped counting after a time.

They talked about adding pedestrian walkways to curb the death toll, but nothing of the sort ever materialized. The death rate did slow after a time, however, which makes me think that people in the bisected villages just started keeping more to their own side of the road. Hebbal – Kodigehalli – Sahakarnagar – Amruthahalli – Jakkur – Yelahanka – I can trace out the string of villages swallowed up by the northward expansion of the city and gentrified by Bangalore’s rising yuppie class based on the signs on the way to the airport that tell me just how late I am for my flight. The airport is in Devanahalli, thirty kilometres out, the village where Tipu Sultan was born. Tipu Sultan, the “Tiger” King of Mysore, died defending his besieged fort at Srirangapatnam from the forces of the British East India Company in 1799. Even after Tipu’s death, the British never gained complete control over the Kingdom of Mysore. They kept an eye on the place (still marginally autonomous) by establishing a military base in Bangalore, that haven of beautifully cool weather in the midst of South Indian heat. They kept an eye, and as they kept an eye they established a strange sort of hybrid community in the British Cantonment of Bangalore, ambling bungalows and wide boulevards and cathedrals and railway stations, the sort of graceful forgotten colonial architecture that haunts every ex-colony in the world. They attracted Europeans and Indian Christians and Muslims and Anglo-Indians to the place, who in turn started movie halls, places of worship, pubs, restaurants, bookstores. And then, a century and a half after Tipu Sultan’s death, this entity known as “India” that would have seemed foreign to the Tiger King of Mysore gained independence and the British left, leaving ghosts in their wake.

The erstwhile rulers of Mysore live on, whiling away their declining days in artistic gentility. Srirangapatnam is a crumbling tourist attraction, where tour guides scalp the gullible for money. The decaying British bungalows of Bangalore have become shopping malls and dumping grounds, and Tipu’s birthplace has an international airport on it, the shiny road that leads from it an artery in the beating heart of globalization.

The British left the Bangalore Cantonment but their ghosts remained. I cannot move for ghosts in this place; every street, every corner riddled with the hauntings of colonialism and neo-colonialism and the emergent strangeness of my city’s hybrid past and globalized present. Follow the arteries of my city, all the way out from the outskirts in dusty Devanahalli. The road, I have to say, is perfect. No potholes here, no speed bumps, no trees to dodge that no one had the heart to uproot. The road is unbroken, and it seems to move at first through a wasteland. Early morning, the first time I find myself in a taxi cab that purrs along through the half-dark out of the new airport, moving swiftly towards the distant lights of Bengaluru. What are these fields? What is this place? Is this my city? No matter – large signs announce new developments out here; whoever the land belonged to before, it will belong to my city soon.

My city looks best in the half-dark, still asleep, lights emerging from the darkness over the horizon. My city looks best before its people are awake, before the cacophony of its traffic begins. My city looks best when shadows hide the scars of development, cloaking the continuous Sisyphian construction and uprooted pavements and uprooted lives. My city looks best in the forgiving light of dawn, when it can scarcely be seen.

Pass the string of villages that lie between the airport and Bangalore proper, announced on green signs above the traffic lights. Yelahanka – I went to school out here, once. The road to the airport, widened to engulf shops and trees and houses on either side, blanketing all in black pavement, has rendered the place unrecognizable. Two long years in highschool I came out here for school, every day, and I could not pinpoint the turn. On to Jakkur (traffic jam at five in the morning? Already?) where the Indian airforce has its base (the British left Bangalore, the military remained), and then Amruthahalli, where a massive outlet of Larsen & Toubro Cement (started by Danes before World War II, converted into an Indian-owned company after) supplies building materials for the ceaselessly expanding city. Sahakarnagar, overtaken by bourgeoise eateries and shops; here Chinese restaurants rub shoulders with Pizza Hut and American-style ice cream shops, North Indian dhabas. Colonialism never ended, here; it merely shifted strategies. Malls rise on the horizon as we approach Kodigehalli and I try to remember what was here before. I try to remember what this road was before it led to the airport, built to lure in more capital for the burgeoning IT industry. I think I remember trees, but I cannot be sure.

Hebbal Lake, nearly sold to developers (but not quite yet). Hebbal flyover, lined with murals that show dolphins frolicking in the imagined ocean. The sun is beginning to rise as we swoop down the flyover and into Bangalore proper, where Ganganahalli market has disappeared (my old school bus stop) and Mekhri circle is no longer a circle but rather a vast and busy underpass, constantly clogged, cloaked with smoke. My mental map wavers, it overlays the city with half-remembered visions. I was a child here once, a child who could not read the city, could not speak its language. I was a teenager here long ago, with an identity that straddled continents. I grew beneath these trees, this city molded itself around my soul, but now Mekhri circle has no trees anymore but the sculpture of a tree rising up to one side ringed with stone figures that protect it with clasped hands. Stone trees and murals of trees to replace the real ones; I wonder if this was somebody’s attempt at a joke.

At the edge of sight in the red light of dawn, the old woman with her white braided hair is standing and staring up at Mekhri Circle’s stone tree, which unlike the real ones will never be cut down. I wonder if it’s the ghost of the city that I keep seeing, if the soul of the city is an old bent woman in a white sari, bearing witness to traffic accidents. Someone ought to be. I wonder when she’ll go mad from it. Staring up at the stone tree, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

The interminable road bears us along down Palace Road, whose palace is now a tourist attraction and whose orchards are gone, making way for barren grounds that host rock concerts (Mick Jagger came recently) and wedding parties. Past the golf course – another hang over from the British, a vast expanse of desert green where the privileged few play golf in urban comfort. And now we are in the British Cantonment proper, which no longer has any British in it, but old colonizers make way for the new and roads must be expanded now in the name of those new dark gods, Globalization and Development. Traffic must be made smooth as foreign investments pour in, requiring glittering airports and swift transportation all the way from the new airport to the IT hub in Whitefield, forty kilometres and two hours of painful traffic away. Whitefield, started by the British as an all-White enclave, now serves privilege of a different sort.

My city looks best when it can scarcely be seen. Look close and shadows start to intervene; if I look too close I have to look away. Seventeen people died the first six weeks after the old colonial enclave at Whitefield was connected by widened roads to the new shining airport at Tipu’s birthplace. Seventeen people died, and then they stopped counting.

The beating heart of my city, the node where twisty-turvy veins and arteries coalesce, where roads meet and lump in one chaotic mess, is a triangle. Three bus stands form the points of the triangle – Shivajinagar, City Market, and Majestic. You cannot get from one side of the city to the other without going through its heart. (An hour and a half to the airport, in good traffic.) And here I sit, at its heart, looking out onto the expanse of what used to be South Parade Road under the British and became Mahatma Gandhi Road post-independence. The military parade grounds at my back remained a strange green heart as commercial expanses grew around them. Across from me, a jagged compressed skyline of buildings whose architects each tried to outdo each other in futuristic strangeness. A recently constructed jewelry store might be an ancient Greek temple, pillared facade. Clothing stores with illuminated displays, tourist traps with Kashmiri carpets and charming owners, coffee shops with neon signs, massively overpriced restaurants walled with windows so that their customers can peruse the city beneath them while they eat. Higgenbothams bookstore, dwarfed by its neighbors, a throwback to the British. Each city in India has a commercial street named after Mahatma Gandhi, and sometimes I wonder what he would have thought about that capitalist homage.

The tree cover on Mahatma Gandhi or M.G. Road is gone. It’s been replaced by the beginnings of a metro line, long over due. Looking up at the metro tracks with their shining train and sweeping arches I might be in Gotham City, but there is no masked hero to come save us from the mess we’ve made of ourselves. The Plaza Theater, which should have been across from me, has been torn down. A pile of rubble sits where the theater used to be, and soon enough a shopping mall to serve the projected metro station will take its place. The Plaza was built in the 1930s to show English movies for homesick British soldiers, and continued to be a haven of Hollywood imports for my brothers and I when my family moved here from the US in the 1990s, homesick in our new South Indian surroundings. Now I sit on a bench on the old M.G. road promenade, regarding the bombed out crater where the Plaza used to be, and I feel a ghost beside me.

The old woman is there, smelling faintly of moth balls and medicine, with a whiff of black tea. She pulls her pallu close in the cold morning air.

“How did it get this way?” I ask her. “I don’t remember.”

The ghost woman takes time to answer me; when she does, she speaks in a wavering voice.

“In 1947,” she says, “there was celebrating all across the city when India gained independence from the British. August 15th. Jawaharlal Nehru spoke over the radio of our tryst with destiny and we believed him. We thought the future would be different. There were fireworks all across the old city, the Bangalore that was here before the British, the city that the British rulers came to and built their Cantonment.

“The Cantonment area, South Parade Road and everything north of it, was deathly silent the night of Nehru’s speech. Everyone celebrated. But not here. The Cantonment was in mourning.”

The sun is rising over the city, over Brigade Road and Infantry Road and Church Street and Commercial Street, roads with names that have their history deeply imprinted upon them. The ghost woman’s English has the accent of someone educated at a Convent school, that clipped tone that makes me think of old British movies with sweeping costumes.

“From Whitefield to the Majestic railway station, there was absolute silence when India gained independence.

“And now it’s all one city. The old Kannada city, the British Cantonment, it’s all one city. Once people had to pay customs duty, travelling with goods from one to the other. You might live your whole life and never pass from one to the other. And now Majestic railway station is the City railway station and there is a bus station where the lake by the train station used to be, the lake where dancing girls entertained visiting British nobility once upon a very different time. You didn’t know there was a lake there? Many don’t remember, don’t want to remember. They are trying to rid themselves of all the old ghosts.”

Something in her tone gives me pause. “But you can’t get rid of old ghosts,” I say. “They stay on, in attics and cornices and unread letters, unopened boxes. The old ghosts will always be there, even when we can’t read them.”

She smiles and gives me a look that edges upon pity.

“You lived half your life in this city,” she says. “Try to tell me what this road used to look like.”

I stare out at the rubbish blowing across M.G. Road, slowly waking up to the yellowed sky. I look at the bulldozed Plaza Theater and the glittering metro blocking out the sun. I know that it all used to be very different. I know that, but right now in my mind the transient present and imagined future have together overridden the past.

“There were trees,” I answer at last. “Everywhere, in this city, there were so many trees. I fought to save them. But now I can’t tell you where they were.”

She pats my arm, and I feel the tingle of fog on my skin where her hand touches.

“Ghosts need a place to stay,” she says. “Same as anything. Take away the places that remember them, and the ghosts will leave.”

Traffic is beginning to build on M.G. Road. Last week there was an accident here, a rich kid driving fast in a fancy car killed three people. There is nothing to show the spot now, no memory of that moment written in the pavement.

The old woman walks away from me, up the road, and even as I watch she is beginning to fade.