Older Indian Uncle, please may I have some scotch? No, Younger Indian Uncle. You may not.


I met Girish Karnad for lunch along with other colleagues when he came to Seattle in 2008. This was the first year of my job as a professor, fresh out of college. Perhaps my demeanor and body language were too informal and not sufficiently respectful. I remember that the first thing I told him after being introduced to him, was that I was teaching a class on melodrama. Somehow that rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps he expected me to sit quietly and answer questions when asked. I can’t tell in hindsight what exactly ticked him off, but I know he was cold and aloof the rest of the lunch and then in my attempt to talk to him after his lecture as well, when he said he wouldn’t have the time to chat again, which was…well, my loss. I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically.

We are all products of our social worlds and the social hierarchies through which we build our sense of self-worth. Now I’m reminded of other occasions when I had rubbed people the wrong way by not appearing sufficiently deferential: uncles in the family, older husbands of first cousins (damaad/older brothers-in-law types), unrelated Microsoft tech-pioneer South Indian mamas I’ve met at parties. I’ve learned this through experience.

If you’re a younger man in an Indian context in front of an older accomplished man, humility, circumspection, reserve are required modes of comportment. That means for instance, don’t argue if lectured about responsibilities towards parents as you get ready to leave for higher studies abroad, as it happened to me when I was in my early 20’s. Don’t sit cross-legged and leaning back – actually don’t lean back, man-spreading or cross-legged. It means you’re relaxed and that’s just wrong in front of an older uncle. Don’t laugh too loudly if they say something jovially. It crosses a subtle line of authority. Don’t disagree, for god’s sake if some uncle starts to talk of how Indian movies are vastly inferior to Hollywood because Indians lack sophistication. Since I’m 46 now, and these rules of decorum and etiquette continue to apply, let me rephrase: If you’re a younger uncle in front of older Indian uncles, act sufficiently respectful.

The punishment can be swift and brutal if you don’t. Laughed too loudly? Expect a series of rhetorical questions right away about the total worthlessness and lack of “practical value” of something like film studies. Crossed legs and sat on the couch in front of Microsoft mama? Forget about being offered whiskey and peanuts. Instead, drink up the perungayam and karivepilla-flavored mooru (asefoetida and curry leaves flavored buttermilk) and watch while all the other 70-something mamas are invited to have more whiskey and discuss plans to go to Scotland for high-end scotch-tasting vacations, while you wonder how much it would cost to drive two hours away for a couple of days on your 1998 Honda Accord. Argued with older husband of first cousin? Expect nasty sarcastic comments each time you return to India (“thank god he’s back to see his father at least once a year!”)

Anyway, so this is not really about the recent death of a justly famous and accomplished life that I’ve had the honor of meeting all too briefly. But I wanted to reflect on how my encounter with that person is meaningful (comically so, and not without regret, I think) for me personally.

The gift and the loan

Time can be a gift or it can be on loan. One encounters talk of being gifted time in stories about heroic battles with terminal illness. The living talk of the gift of time spent with dying loved ones. The dying speak the same language, or in a more sober vein, of time being on loan. In neither case is time owned. But the language of gifts and loans can be comforting. And the language is crucially redolent with meaning only against the backdrop of an otherwise assumed normalcy: of time that is indeed in one’s possession, expended wisely or unwisely, adding layers of experience to life or layers of regret.

(To want to die, incidentally, is to want to let go of this possession, to not want to possess this normalcy without which gifting and loaning, of receiving and borrowing time, would not come into play as meaningful and satisfying forms of engagement).

But I want to suggest that there is a state of being – or conditional being as a permanent attribute of customary and normal life – in which one can no longer tell if time is a gift or a loan. Put another way, in this state of being, time is both sinister gift and coercive loan, coercive beneficence and sinister credit. One cannot tell when the gifting will cease, and when the loan will be withdrawn, when one loses the right to receive and borrow time. A question: “Would you have time to meet tomorrow?” can seem like the deployment of time as a weapon, a cautionary indication of a conditional life. A greeting: “Hope you have a peaceful summer!” can sound like a threatening reminder that one has forfeited the right to receive and borrow, including the natural ravages of ageing and disease that might grant this right. Instead, the gift comes as the imposition of a sovereign will external to oneself, the loan as the weight of a stifling liability.

Perhaps most crucially, in this state of conditional being, the reciprocity of the gift and the repayment of the loan are ruled out as options, as responses. One receives, one accepts without an ounce of volition. A carceral condition for sure. To absolve oneself from this situation, to want to cease to exist, is not to want to cease possessing time. After all in this state of conditional being, time is not possessed in the first place. In this state, to want to die, is to want to cease enduring the imposed perduration of the loss of time as one’s own, and to reject the horror of the gift and the loan alike.

On timing

Three consecutive fall quarters on a sabbatical. My father died after the third sabbatical quarter was done. Did he know and did he decide it was time to go? A colleague tells me he had a similar experience with his father’s passing.

Youth may be wasted on the young, but a natural death is too parsimoniously distributed. Would that the body would waste away on a whim.

For T.S-san

April is a cruel month.

In May, words falter into pictograms.

June leaves blotches on rice paper.

July, a hoarse voice.

August took language away.

September wastes the cat.

In October, ties bind…oh they bind.

November brings frost bite to these plants.

And he claimed Winter kept us warm.

Only December can tell.

On Abandonment

“He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order. (This is why in Romance languages, to be “banned” originally means both to be “at the mercy of” and “at one’s own will, freely,” to be “excluded” and also “open to all, free.”) It is in this sense that the paradox of sovereignty can take the form “There is nothing outside the law.” The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment. The matchless potentiality of the nomos, its originary “force of law,” is that it holds life in its ban by abandoning it. This is the structure of the ban that we shall try to understand here, so that we can eventually call it into question”.

Giorgio Agamben HOMO SACER: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

“And everyone is entitled to privacy protection, even those whose morals might seem dubious, because privacy and freedom of speech are like two sides of a coin: Each is required for the other to thrive. And the last thing a country desperate for freer expression needs is a self-righteous crowd doing the authorities’ work for them.”

On bare lives and manual scavenging

After watching Divya Bharati’s documentary Kakkoos (about bare lives and manual scavenging in Chennai), I told my mother about the documentary. She responded instantly with some indignation in her voice that a week into her marriage, the toilet in her apartment in Naraina in Delhi got clogged from all the family and guests that had been visiting and her father in law asked her to unclog it because they didn’t want to pay anyone to do it. So she did with her bare hands. “I kept washing my hands for three days”, she said. When she told my father he said: what do you want me to do? Not go to work? The jyotish had pored over the horoscope to say it was a marriage made in heaven. 13 years and two children later, the marriage was over.