March 24, 2015

The Books that I Missed Re-Reading

When I visited my parents' home a couple of months ago, my mother presented me with cartons full of my old books and shoes that I was unable to have shipped over to the States when I was living there. I had been able to bring quite a lot of my clothing to the States but the books and shoes, alas, no  - and I have to admit that I missed them all. I spent a happy few weeks re-reading my favorite books and of course, sorting out and slipping into my shoes (I always feel that shoes/clothes which I haven't worn for a while and  subsequently, find tucked away in the back of a closet or bottom of a carton after ages become new in my eyes once again!)

I am in the process of re-building my library here in India and I am adding the books that I have so enjoyed reading over the years to it. For me, re-reading books not only makes me appreciate them anew in each encounter but it also contributes to the cache of memories that I have accumulated of reading them. The act of reading is as important as the books themselves.

Here are a few of my favorites: 

Manju Kapur's Difficult Daughters

This is Manju Kapur's first book and I must say that it remains my favorite one after having read two more of her subsequent works. Even though I usually don't judge a book by its cover, I would like to make an exception for Difficult Daughters though (at least, of the edition that I happen to have). The front cover features a sepia-toned image of a young, wistful looking woman while the back meanwhile depicts a similarly-hued portrait of a grave bespectacled man. I am always curious as to the extent to which an author's biographical details seep into his/her work and I recall reading somewhere that the novel was based on the author's parents and their love story, the portraits presumably being of her parents. Regardless of whether that's true or not, the novel is still a compelling reading of a young woman, Virmati growing up in a traditional Punjabi Hindu household in Amritsar prior to Independence, forsaking tradition for illicit love and pursuing higher education in the backdrop of the Indian independent movement and soul-shattering horrors of Partition. I remember reading it for the first time on a hot summer night at my grandmother's home in Jodhpur; there was a power cut and my family was gathered in the room where a single tube light flickered, the fan feebly cut through the air, and we could smell rain and night flowers from the garden outside. I have read the book many times since but I still remember that night and how oblivious I became to everything as I became further and further involved in Virmati's story.

Kamila Shamsie's Kartography

I was in a bookshop in Heathrow, searching for a good book to read for my flight back to Muscat when I spotted Kartography. I had never heard of Kamila Shamsie before and had also been wanting to read a new Pakistani literary voice. I picked it up and began reading the first page - and the second - and then, the third before realising that the departure time for my flight was swiftly approaching and it was a good twenty minute walk to the gate. I bought the book and started reading it even before the flight took off. Arriving home and in any case, too jet-lagged to immediately fall asleep, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning to finish reading it. I have since then read and loved everything that Shamsie has written but this novel too remains my favorite of her works. She brings Karachi to such tremendous life in the book, her voice heart-breakingly gentle, fiercely protective, and affectionately teasing towards her clearly beloved city; as the book's name tells us, she is a cartographer of multiple Karachis and Karachiites and their stories. 

Ahdaf Soueif's Map of Love

I bought this book in my university bookshop and somehow, waited to read it on my flight home for Easter holidays (I am beginning to see a pattern here!) After reading The Map of Love, I scoured bookshops and libraries to lay my hands on everything else everything she had written: In the Eye of the Sun, Aisha, and Sandpiper. It was partially to do with her writing as well as the fact that I have been an earnest Egyptophile since I was eight years old and been longing to visit Egypt for years. I have mostly read about her depiction of Cairo in her writing though and she presents it in all its untidy, grand, ancient, colorful and chaotic glory. The Map of Love is really about two parallel stories of Amal, a middle-aged woman in Cairo who discovers the chest containing letters and objects belonging to a 19th century English woman, Anna, who had come to visit Egypt following the death of her husband only to fall in love with and marry Amal's great uncle and an Egyptian Nationalist, Sharif Al-Baroudi. A  couple of years later, I wrote a paper during my graduate studies about British colonial women's travel writings of accessing the zenanas in India. I have to admit that The Map of Love and Soueif's presentation of Anna's wanderings into Egypt and what she makes of this exciting, strange land planted a seed in my mind about the dramatic, transformative possibilities that travel  afforded for Victorian women in the 19th century.

I couldn't bring A Suitable Boy back with me this time round but that is one book I religiously re-read every year; it is akin to a literary pilgrimage for me. I first read it in my last two months of school, manically studying for my exams and alternately dipping into Vikram Seth's superb albeit gargantuan saga of four Indian families in newly Independent India - and it has never failed to enchant me over the years. The book perhaps deserves a post of its own and in the meantime, if you haven't read it already, please do so (the length is a tad intimidating but once you get into the thick of things and have sorted out one branch of the family tree from the other, I promise that the pages will just fly by). I am meanwhile eagerly anticipating the release of its sequel, A Suitable Girl in 2016!

Do you like re-reading books? Which ones do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

March 17, 2015

The Blog's Tomorrow and Link-Sharing!

Spring. Travel. De-cluttering. It's got me thinking about where this blog is headed to - and if it has run its course. Should I start something completely new? Or not? I am increasingly using Instagram as that space to muse or ramble and I feel that a lot of what I post here simply seems to be an extension of my Insta-thoughts.

As I ponder further about the blog's tomorrow, I would like to jump on the link-sharing post bandwagon that I have seen on several blogs that I follow. I am mostly on Twitter to check out the interesting links and be privy to multiple conversations so it's easy to lose track of what you discover and more importantly, what you would really like to thought I would present my list of what caught my fancy in the last few weeks.

*I can't remember when I first started reading Gretchen Rubin's blog but it's always been an useful and thought-provoking resource, encouraging me to think about about how introducing seemingly minimal changes into my routine and lifestyle can contribute to a happier bigger picture. I have yet to read any of her books but I have been following her blog for years. She's going to launch a book about cultivating habits tomorrow and she had been interviewing a personality each week to learn more about their habits in the run up towards the book's release. While I enjoyed reading and learning more about the author, Hannah Nordhaus's habits, what I was even more intrigued by was the book she's recently written, American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest. Ghost, gender, desert, memoir, travelogue: this is exactly my sort of book!

*Having written nothing but poetry for the first ten years of my writing life, I abandoned it for fiction and then, subsequently, non-fiction and journalism. I have started to write poetry in fits and spurts again and even though the results are far from what I would be satisfied with, it's nonetheless giving me pleasure. I thought this was a beautiful piece about an ecologist mother turning to poetry to provide succor to her troubled teenage daughter.

*I so want to visit Spiti Valley after reading this!

*I fell in love with Chinki Sinha's stunningly written essay about the travails of love in the time of internet. Just take the opening paragraph for instance: "And then, there were no lilies. Although when she stops by the florist sometimes, she tries to imagine what a thousand of them would look like. Then, she hurries to the grocery store, and never buys lilies. The promise of lilies remained suspended. In time, and in anticipation, and later in memory."

*I have bit of an issue with the notion of a day called Women's Day! For me, it amounts to tokenism, simply singling out a day for half of the world's population to recognise, revere, and respect their innate strength and dignity...when it instead should be a constant, continuous process to be performed every single day, rather than just one. Nevertheless, when National Geographic asked seven of their women photographers to share a powerful image of the women they have photographed over the years in honor of Women's Day, they came up with these moving photo-stories...and which I found hugely inspirational.

PS My first post without pictures! Well, that's a first for this blog...

March 11, 2015

Japanese performance and installation artist, Chiharu Shiota: Drawing Memories in the Air

Trace of Memory, The Mattress Factory, 2013 (Photo: Priyanka Sacheti)

I remember being thoroughly enchanted the first time I encountered Japanese installation and performance artist, Chiharu Shiota's work, Trace of Memory at The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh. I had been wanting to visit this curiously named museum all throughout the time I had been living there but I only managed to make time just a couple of days before I left the city - and am I glad I did! I had been primarily interested in dropping by the museum to see the work of another Japanese artist, Yasoi Kusama, whose signature polka dot + infinity mirror installation works were one of the museum's most exciting and fun spaces and which I regularly saw popping up on my Instagram feed. However, I returned from the museum visit, having become a big Chiharu Shiota fan instead and subsequently eagerly read up on her large, varied body of work. Almost a year later, I have been fortunate enough to personally interact with the artist when I recently. blogged about her work at Her Blueprint, where I regularly write about international women artists. Read on to find out more...

Chiharu Shiota's Mattress Factory installation utilised both the spatial landscape of an abandoned 19th century row house as well as specific objects such as a wedding dress, hospital bed, and a pile of suitcases and which she enmeshed it all in intricate black wool-thread creations. Everything was visible and yet, not; it was not unlike cobwebs studding the dusty corners of an abandoned house, simultaneously representing decay and life. In a sense, Shiota's work resurrects an otherwise dead house, creating a physically tangible web of narratives through the confluence of thread, space, and air. Perhaps, enchanted was also an appropriate word to describe my engagement with her work, for there was a fairy-tale, other-worldly quality to her work that I had never previously witnessed or experienced elsewhere. Researching further and talking with the artist herself, I discovered that the wool-thread is a signature motif of her work and through which she quite literally binds memories, past, people, and objects.

Born in Osaka, Japan, Chiharu moved to Berlin, Germany in 1997, where she studied with Marina Abramovic and Rebecca Horn, forerunners of the performance art movement; she has exhibited all over the world, presenting her installation art in both solo and group exhibitions.

What does installation art specifically mean to her? “I love empty spaces; the minute I come across one such as an abandoned building or an empty exhibition space, I feel as if my body and spirit transcend a certain dimension - and I can then start from scratch,” Chiharu says, presenting the abandoned or blank exhibition space as one void of references or associations and which she is subsequently free to re-interpret and realise her imagined worlds in. What particularly excites her about installation art is the immediacy of communication and engagement with the viewer. “[The viewers] can immediately feel as to what I am trying to show...unlike a painting or sculpture where you may have to engage with it for quite a while before distilling its meaning,” she opines.

While her work is largely rooted in the soil of her personal memories and concerned with theme of remembering and oblivion, it also sprouts and entwines itself with larger collective memories as well; one glimpses it in installations such as Dialogue from DNA in Krakow, Poland and which was subsequently recreated in Germany and Japan. Currently living and working in Germany, Chiharu reminisces about how it is linked to the time she returned to Japan three years after moving to Germany. "I wore my old shoes and experienced a curious situation; they didn't fit me any more even though they were the same size. This sense of dislocation persisted even when I was interacting with my parents and old friends. Nothing specifically had changed - and yet, I felt differently about them," she says.

The scenario made her start thinking about the gulf between the idealised memories when one is away from the home and yearning to return to it -- and actually being in home itself. "I began to interrogate the idea of missing and memories and I fused it with the idea of old shoes and the memories associated with them," she says, elaborating that the installation consisted of 400 disused shoes that people had donated along with notes containing specific memories associated with the shoe. Looking at the installation (below), it is almost as if the threads anchor the memories in form of the shoes in place, lest they vanish into nothingness and being unremembered.

Chiharu Shiota, Dialogue from DNA, (2004) Manggha, Centre of Japanese Art and Technology, Krakow, Poland, Shoes, Thread Photograph: Sunhi Mang

Chiharu has often remarked that working with thread is a bit like drawing in air. “When I began working as a painter, I felt that two-dimensional drawings were limiting me. I needed more space so I started working on installations and using thread in order to achieve a three dimensional drawing, so to speak. The threads since then have been a fundamental aspect of my work,” she says. These threads represent multiple meanings in her diverse output of work, whether of connections or ensnarement or opacity.

Apart from the threads embroidering the surface of Chiharu's installation spaces, they are also home to objects which Chiharu frequently and quite literally weaves into her works; these objects are plucked from the quotidian, facilitating both the unspooling of a narrative while crucially being a narrative in themselves. They also signify absences, absences which become the works' fundamental bedrock. "Specific objects inspire me when I experience a personal association or link with them as I did when putting on my old shoes. Abandoned objects are laden with even more memories and associations," she mentions, suggesting that this surplus of memories adds further narrative texture to her work. "The object itself has a meaning, being a signifier and then my role would be to weave its memories and meaning together using the threads."

Chiharu Shiota, During Sleep, (2004), Saint-Marie-Madeleine, Lille, France, Thread, Beds, Performers
Photographer: Sunhi Mang

While objects frequently figure as the central components of her installation works, her works are also distinctively body-oriented, as evidenced in works such as During Sleep, which features real-life women asleep on hospital beds and the space enshrouded in her customary fog of thread, bringing to forth gendered associations with the fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty.