Saturday, June 25, 2011

One Hundred Billion of them

243 postcards in real color for Georges Perec

Many years ago I decided that I need to marry a mathematician some day, then forgot about it.
Back in '97 I was doing some sort of project about biology and poetry which led to an obsession with Rachel Carson and to a conversation with my math teacher where she explained her conviction that MATH IS POETRY. It made sense if you focus on the rhythm of the words instead of the rhythm of Mrs. White's stomps across the Math extra help office which we could hear from the other end of the hall because our high school was a social experiment of the '70s and had no walls.

A section of "Life A User's Manual" is a description of 243 postcards for Italo Calvino. Perec writes like a catalogue with lists and lipograms, because he was also an archivist. I have decided to be inspired.

One hundred million million poems on index cards,
dirty from being handled by the postal service and read by the postal workers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cotton Djinn

I went over to my cousin's house for dinner with my mother and she decided to stay over. I was wearing a red dupata and almost escaped Mom's emphatic cries for my protection in the dark from creatures of the night. I was already out the door when I heard her yelling yelling djinn! djinn! djinn! djinn! running towards me with her arms out trying to cover over the red headscarf I was wearing with the black headscarf scarf of my sister.

The last time we were in Kishtawar she taught me that the creatures that live beneath the ground are attracted by water and the cold and the color red. And probably by cold red water. While walking home from one house to another in the dark, we were taught not to wear bright colors. But since we only ever go to Kishtawar for weddings we usually had to cover ourselves in black cloaks or abayas like we were hiding from animals that could sense the heat in the warmth of the color. I wonder if it is because they are made of fire.

I was taught this and I believe it but I am careless about it. By force of habit, I ducked away from my mother's attempt at being superstitious and motherly, but regretted it immediately on the creepy drive home and subsequent walk up the lane. I had a sinking feeling. And chose the wrong night to read the story that made note of the time when the killer hit the girl over the head with a frying pan from behind. I looked at the clock at that moment, knowing it was not going to be 11:11, but also wondering if maybe it was 11:11. And it was. But it has been over two years now since I read that tory and so far it has been nothing but fear that hits me over the head from behind.

Tomorrow we are shifting from one house to another, a mint green house, the same color as the one that burned down in the same place before I was born. It is likely the reason that mint green is the best wall color ever.
This is a room we have stayed in before, with a history of housing djinn.  I was taught that sometimes the members of this creepy non-human race settle in empty houses before a new family moves in and then refuse to leave, and sometimes a house is built on a plot of land where djinn families with little djinn children are already living underground. They were minding their own business until provoked- not that I am justifying the mischief of these mysterious creatures, capable of producing that terrifying feeling that your blankets are pushing down on you and shadowy figures are standing beside your bed. Vivid, sinister dreams keep you up all night and steal your breath.

I hung my white slip on the wardrobe handle in front of the rotating fan and every fifteen second it looks like Casper the friendly ghost floating around me. A friendly ghost protecting me. I dreamt of a mint green house and did the math of how many walls I have painted that color, or small rooms in apartments I moved into because they were already that color. When I feel the sheets move and the walls shift I hear my mother yelling djinn! djinn! djinn! djinn!
I think I have enough walls to build an empty house to start a family in.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A List of Things

Ironic that "the girl with the project" about preserving Kashmiri language is the girl in the room that doesn't speak or understand it. G--- and I play for the same team- the introverted outsider who would rather spend her money on traveling than on jewelry. (Except for the obvious clip-on exceptions). She had a deep and rumbly voice like hard water running over something grainy and gradually disappearing. She kept referring to her Kashmiri skills or lackthereof as a "disaster." My mother often refers to me as a disaster, and so I immediately felt somewhat of a kindred spirit with this strange woman.
I was interviewing her at the Women's College in a large carpeted room with awful acoustics so the recording will probably never be heard. It was obvious that she was respected or possibly feared by the others, but didn't relate well with other people on a general level. Throughout the interview she would go on tangents about her faulty pronunciation of Kashmiri and pull someone into the conversation so she could make fun of herself out loud and get a laugh. She would ask whoever was closest how to say something or someone would correct something she said without her asking them to.
I asked her if there was something she had always wanted to do but never got a chance. She said of course, and listed faraway things she would do in faraway countries. I always follow up this question with a question about the children, as a way of assuaging regret with the hope that the kids can have what they did not. But she had already told me that she has no children, so the list of unfulfilled dreams was left just hanging there.

I paused the recording whenever she asked me to and she maneuvered my enormous headphones over her dupata so she could listen to it over again. She was smiling and laughed at herself and it was obvious that she felt ok about it. She kept silently looking into my eyes with a somber expression and said we should hang out some time.  It was the "I can see myself in you" sort of look. I get those from older women a lot. And not only because I dress like an old woman, but maybe something about my hopefulness and willingness to let the wind take me in whatever direction it feels like, understanding that there will be a lot of tumbling involved.

We sat down for chai and she gave me a wild, intense look and said "If I could, I would spend all my money on a car and gas and drive from my continent to your continent! ... but no! You're only eighteen!"
She sounded very sure of this, but I had not lied to her about my age. There was no opportunity to do so. But it was likely because I was clearly not married and in Kashmir, youth is the most obvious reason for this deficiency. But it then occurred to me that maybe she was not married.
"Okay. When you learn how to drive, then we can plan."

I thought about whether I would want to do any of the things she had mentioned earlier. Shop in London. Eat cake in Paris. Drive a fast car. Ride a camel in the desert. Spend all of her money on traveling. It seemed like I had done most of the things she had listed. I wonder if she would add 'get married' or 'have children' to that list. Because I would rather do those things than continue tumbling around the world under strange circumstances.

Before she said goodbye she wistfully gave me the look again, which I now understand as the 'you have a list of things, go do them!" look. And I agree. And I'm doing one of those things right now. And as long as I still look like I am 18, I don't mind spending another month stealing cherries and recording stories.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Methodology / Elephant Butt

In the process of interviewing, there is short and long. I like long because it reminds me of when we were kids and shared a room, my brother and I used to collect chewed up gum and stretch it from one wall to the other wall and stick our artwork to it like a clothesline. It always managed to stay up at least long enough for someone else to see it.

But the short is unavoidable. Always waiting in the shadows, stumpylike.
Today I interviewed three women in a row and couldn't get more than ten minutes out of any of them and a lot of the time they were just talking to each other about my questions instead of answering them. They did not want to be in a room alone with me even though I am not a frightening person until you get to know me. They were waiting in line like three women in a row waiting for a dentist appointment because my cousin told them they had to do it, like how people tell you that you have to go to the dentist and it makes your life shorter because you have to go every six months and it never feels like it has been a whole six months.
I had to make a 'stumpy interviews' folder on my desktop. I keep it in a dark corner and refuse to give it a color until it shows some initiative.

I am partially to blame.
Six minutes in, I was asking "woman-3" about important people in her life and she told me that she had lost both her father and her only sibling, a younger sister, and she had meant everything to her. It is the sort of thing that is hard to respond to in any situation. let alone during an interview being conducted in a language that I do not speak and only just barely understand. I let it linger for a few seconds and then awkwardly moved on like a little animated slug who is not very sure of himself and who has no friends.

The first woman answered all of my questions as if she was scolding me loudly and eventually changed places with a different woman who clearly did not want to be interviewed and most of our conversation was about how much she did not want to take part in my project and the trajectory of how it would fail.

It is hard to know what to shoot for. We pushed through sixty minutes today and every time I woke up from my inappropriate corner-slumber the guy was looking at me as he spoke into the microphone about his life and times as a painter of traditional Kashmiri paper mache. He was annoyed that I did not understand anything he was saying but happy to be captured on record for posterity. He still smiled at me as we were leaving and let me take a picture of his paint-covered yellow hand.