Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mapping Atlanta

Moving to Atlanta got me interested in the complex politics behind the public transport system here, especially the trains which only run to points along a four-way system: pretty sparse for a city known for its urban sprawl. Most middle-class and affluent people don't seem to take the subway at all and an affluent white school like Emory which has a train line running by it doesn't have a subway stop and doesn't figure on the route map.

This project began at the Data Center at Emory University where I began to learn how to map using Arc-GIS software. I mapped the electric routes across 50 maps of Atlanta from a large 1928 map of the city. I then began to name routes using a source in the Atlanta Historical Journal and am now filling in information about all of these routes as hyperlinks with text and photo data.

This is a slideshow which shows some of this work so far. The project is called Still in Transit because if there's one single thing to learn from a mapping project, it's that there is always going to be more that you can do ;)

It begins by demontsrating how mapping has been used in a contemporary feminist intervention, to map sites of street sexual harassment using apps on the iPhone and droid phones. More here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dance Bars

We heard that the dance bars had opened again in Bangalore, so on Friday we decided to go. Under shiny red neon lights spelling out its name, a round security guard with a round face stood guarding a heavy, padded black door, looking expectant. It was only 7 p.m.

"Dance bar," he said to us, cheerfully, standing firmly against the door. Dance bar, we agreed, in English. We want to go in, we told him, in Kannada. "Girls dancing," he offered, still smiling, still against the door. We moved towards him, pushing the door open ourselves. He stood aside willingly enough, smile pasted in place.

We found ourselves in a tiny enclosure, stairs leading off steeply to the left, and a man looking helpless on the right. Ahead of us, another black door. The man waved his arms about a bit ineffectually, and then stood aside as we pushed our way in. The door opened to blasts of thundering music, a starkly empty room, a neglected bar. In the dim lighting we made out a bunch of tall girls dressed in shiny ghaghra cholis hanging out by the bar, all facing the door. We looked at them, they looked at us. The place was empty; the music was deafening. A waiter-type man materialised on my left, looking unsure of what to do now, his notepad and pen hovering in mid-air. Breaking the impasse, I leaned in to him: "The music is very loud". He agreed. "Is there an upstairs?" We could barely hear ourselves shout. He signalled "no" - "as loud". We looked at each other. The girls looked at us. The strobes caught the tiny mirrors on their clothes, making flecks of light dance around the bar in mad circles. We left.

The night seemed still after the music, although it was a Friday and waves of people were spilling out on to the pavements, hovering around juice bars and paan stalls. Feeling we owed him an explanation, we told the security guard outside, "Music was too loud". He heard us - "Music perfect," he said, still smiling.

Two hours later at ten p.m. we went back. All kinds of men were streaming in and out through the doors we had so confidently pushed open. Bald men, tattooed men, men-you -wouldn't-remember-later-that-night, men-in-white-shirts-and-white-pants, men looking uncertain. The security guard was still smiling, but he looked as though he would rather be elsewhere. Maybe at the juice bar next door. We waited for a third friend outside and threw him a question idly: "Is it crowded inside?". He considered it. He agreed. We began to ask some more questions, killing time. His smile began to fade. A man at the juice bar leaned across, cigarette poised in his left hand, plastic juice cup in his right. "Why do you want to go in," he wanted to know. "It's not allowed, it's a dance bar". Don't deny a Bangalorean the right of entry to a place of pleasure: it amounts to a serious rights-violation in a city teeming with apolitical neoliberals. We began to get riled. A bouncer was summoned. A manager was consulted. We pleaded, explained, firmly insisted. Finally the doors opened; the security guard maneuvered us in with his palms sprawled upon our backs.

A bouncer ushered us up the steep staircase respectfully and in through a door that was held ajar. Inside, an eruption of music, strobes, dancing mirrors... and indifference. Ten or so girls, mostly tall, eight of them a size zero, two of them lushly curved, danced indifferently in a room that flashed light, and the images of plunging necklines, off its ceilings. Pillars in the middle were mirror-encased, inviting light and colour on its tall surfaces. Women stood around the main dance floor in sarees and glittering cholis, moving their hips desultorily, swaying their heads, framed by long straightened hair, to the music. They danced slowly, an abstract look on their faces in a sort of half-hearted gesture of seduction as their reflections bounced their sinewy outlines back at them. Occasionally they moved in to the mirrors, performing a gradual, somewhat vague dance of grace addressed to their own images: caressing, hugging, pouting, provoking themselves. These were intensely intimate moments, girls looking enraptured by their slowly swaying bodies.

We picked our way through the mass of dancers to a table that the bouncer was standing by. We joined a circle of men, sedate, sombre, framing the outer circle of the tiny room. We sat next to each other wondering where to look. A manager came up, gave us firm handshakes. We were bona fide, decent, members of the establishment now, Invitees. Menus were handed to us, parallel lines of inspired numbers - Rs. 250 for a lime juice forming the base of the pyramid of spiralling prices.

We ordered and then kicked back. Then we wondered where to look. We looked at the DJ, the scurrying waiters, the bored man next to us, seated alone. We looked upward at the mirrors, we looked at the reflection of the girls. We couldn't bring ourselves to look at the girls. We looked at a table of three who occasionally handed money to a tall girl in blue swaying violently in front of them and then splaying herself across the mirrors. Money was thrown occassionally, dutiful waiters placed wads of ten rupee notes in a pigeonhole system of numbers, each for a girl. A group of men in white shirts and pants walked in energetically and began fluffing up wads of ten rupee notes that fluttered in an arc around the plump girls who moved in front of them for a personal show. Waiters collected it; placed it in the box for number two. The tall girl in chiffon blue asked us not to put our feet on the leather couch. The group of three gave some more money; a man in white pants tried to jive with a dancer before being escorted firmly back to his seat by a vigilant bouncer. By now we had begun looking.

First we looked at our reflections off the ceiling. We looked at the men around us who barely noticed us despite our being the only women there apart from the dancers. We looked at the DJ, at the harried waiters, at the managers, one for each side of the floor. We looked at the reflections of the girls dancing to the mirrors, sometimes catching their eye in the glass. Then, finally, we began looking at the girls.

The music was deafening by now: Hindi, Tamil, English. Kishore Kumar songs, Lady Gaga hits. Our feet were tapping, our bodies were swaying. The girls were barely dancing, but they were swaying, smiling, fixating on their reflections in the mirrors. The girl in front of us was young, she looked like me. Her sky blue chiffon saree was falling off. She wore a faded red thread wound several times around her right wrist. An older girl instructed her on how to drape her saree. The young girl looked bored sometimes, impatient at others, barely curious about the men, or the music, or us. We were staring by now, wondering why a certain set of eyebrows made such a fiery arc; why a blue chiffon saree so persistently snaked down a fragile shoulder; how the group seemed to move loosely but surely to face all sides of the bar.

Soon we had our favourites. We watched them, they - sometimes - watched us back. We gave some money, in tens, in a five hundred rupee note, walking up to the girl to hand it over. They watched us patiently, sometimes moving gradually in or view to dance for us, but never explicitly. Men's eyes darted looks at us, increasingly inquisitive and persistent as the night wore on and our beer began emptying. The man on my right began moving in as our beer finished and our bill arrived. "They won't give me my bill," he said conspiratorially. The girl I paid was fighting a losing battle with her saree pallu. She looked dejected and bored, chewing gum vacuously. The girl my friend had paid had begun dancing for her. Mirror light flashed, the alcohol had made us numb and expectant, but we decided to leave.

Outside it was a cool monsoon night. The security guard looked pleased when he saw us emerge and put his hand on my shoulder as I walked past. He asked for a tip. "Next time," we told him, "when we come tomorrow night". People turned to look at us as we walked toward the auto stand, the music from the dance bar fading in our heads, a strange sort of exhilaration and contentment charging through our bodies. Out in the open, despite its sparse streets and nightly profusion of staring men, the city seemed safe and secure now, inviting us into its darkness.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

In memorium

This is unlikely for a relationship that goes back 14 years now, but I remember the first time I saw you: MAIS orientation. "I'm Joseph, from Joseph's." Was that an introduction? A challenge? A confrontation?

More distinctive behaviour at the Fresher's Party that followed. In between the haze of adolescent bodies encountering each other for the first time - in the dark, with alcohol - someone was seated firmly on the kitchen floor, declaring his only interests lay in "God, and books".

The next two years are a haze, and then I can pick up the strands at the start of college, when we were armed with new email ids, ready to spread our thoughts into the world. We started exchanging poetry, you and I. We discovered so many poets together. Thank you especially for the joys of Beat poetry - eighteen was a great age to pretend being Ginsburg in. You read Donne for class too, didn't you? And oh, we loved

'This is just to say'

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

by William Carlos Williams.
And then we discovered haikus and I wrote you one and then you sent it around and for years later people asked if I was the "haiku girl" :)

I don't even remember when one email a day became two and then three and then... soon we seemed to know the details of each other's everyday lives. Cambridge-Bombay on a weak internet link and long phone-card conversations, preceded by the shout down the hostel corridor "Hemaaaangini, phone call!" and then, hand-cupped over receiver, "I think it's Joseph!"

In retrospect it's easy to remember the warmth and the sunshine, but I recently heard that a strong relationship is not necessarily one that has had no conflict; it might be one that survives a lot of conflict. And I remember the fights, the bitterness, the accusations and hurt of those two years. As I remember the crazy highs.

Visiting me in Bombay and blind-rushing through the crowded streets, art galleries, neighbourhoods, stealing floor space in the tiny apartments of random friends, seeking out empty spaces where we could find them... And then Goa, rain-lashed, wind-whipped, overnight bus ride away. Sitting awkwardly in the lounge while you flashed your i-card and asked for a student discount. Student discount. At the Taj Village, Goa. But you got it of course.

I remember making you a package for when you went to Calcutta: letters and photocopied stories. And I still have the areogramme you wrote back, describing the heat and crowds, but also the work you were doing.

Ups and downs: the emails, the calls, the long chats, then the silences, the awkwardness, the make-up CD. Did it really have that Macy Gray song on it with the lines: 'My word crumbles when you are not here'?

Things have been so great recently: that wonderful warmth of familiarity and comfort blended with some kind of edgy play. Thanks for being so there for me when I was unemployed for what seemed like forever. For introducing me to wonderful-wonderful Feldenkrais. For being together in election planning, at city activist interventions, film festivals.

I wish I was back in Bangalore now: I would drive you around in your car again because you liked "being chauffered"; we would play at Arjun's house, you would turn me upside down, screaming, make my head spin; we would visit Jyo again, pretend to her that we had decided to get married; watch films; drink juice at the club; talk about bodies and minds and life and then we would say bye and I would see you again, so soon.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Big teeth and an IMAX hall

Pic: Lee Celano/AFP/Getty Images

My earliest memory of Michael Jackson is from a story my mum tells me about when I first encountered him. An IMAX theatre at Disney World, or MGM Studios, or somewhere. We're dwarfed by the mammoth screens expanding all around us, my mum and I, and just before the show starts, she leans across to inform me that: "Michael Jackson is a very famous singer". In her telling of the story, she never forgets the details lacing the narrative: that I had rectangular bunny teeth and big glasses. I'm ten years old and with that definitive piece of cultural context, the film begins. It turns out that was all it needed to have me hooked on to him.

Maybe it was because cable TV had only just come to India. Home-grown, all we had was Remo Fernandes and who's-that-guy "Dil Dhadke, Mera Dil Dhadke...". Exchange x number of Pepsi or Miranda caps for a Fido Dido poster. Or a cassette, the one with the Alannah Myles 'Black Velvet' song on it. And then of course MJ. And Madonna for those who liked their rock stars punky and spunky and in-your-face. And Billy Joel's Uptown Girl.

But Michael Jackson was a personal favourite. The 'Dangerous' tape was a cherished birthday gift - just right for an eleven-year-old: the cover sort of Goth-but-not, just a little bit 'bad' with dark colours and gold, but not overly so. The 'Thriller' video was definitive cool: all I remember of our tenth grade farewell party (apart from the mandatory 'Who the F is Alice' screaming) was my Crush doing the Moonwalk... justifying my impeccable taste in having selected him as the honored Object of My Affections.

This morning I am talking to a 22-year-old who is probably wondering about all the shock over Michael Jackson's death. When we were kids I don't remember being particularly disturbed by his nose or his colour or even knowing much about the darker Neverland Ranch aspects of his life. But growing up now, thinking of MJ is probably thinking about him as my friend does - post-Whiteness (and wondering why on earth), post-baby-dangling (and wondering why on earth), post-pedophilia charges (why on earth) and Neverland escapades (...). It's a whole different view. It's an adult view of a adult; not a child's view of a super star who did the Moonwalk.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Pink chaddis and other eye-catchers

February and March were crazy months in Bangalore. Following a whole host of attacks in Mangalore, there were some seven attacks on women in Bangalore as well. Brazen attacks, sometimes right in the middle of the day, pulling young women up (and assaulting them) for clothes they were wearing or languages they could not speak... or for no reason at all except that they were out, in a public space, as a woman.

Fearless Karnataka/Nirbhaya Karnataka was formed in late February: a bunch of friends and groups who came together at ALF one evening to try and frame a response to the recent madness. A website came up: and a series of events and petitions, including petitions to senior police officials and big events across the city.

The media was on the job, overtime. From the Pink Chaddi campaign to the Valentine's Day protests to the FKNK initiatives. An attempt at analysing their involvement in Infochange India, out recently.

The campaign was not defensive about its location as middle class and urban, and the media seemed overjoyed at their most feted demographic finally coming out onto the streets, ready to talk and happy to be photographed with provocative sloganeering. The middle class was making real news, and the English media was covering it every step of the way.

Read the entire article here.