“When I first met Ranbir Sidhu, he was a resident at the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk and while there, he displayed tremendous talent and dedication. His work takes risks, is often daring and imaginative, and I appreciate the intelligence he brings to his craft. I look forward to reading his new collection of stories, GOOD INDIAN GIRLS.”
—Edward Albee, author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I spent yesterday listening to the news of the Boston Marathon bombings on the radio, because I have no TV where I’m currently staying. If I had TV, I would have been glued to it, watching obsessively. But this time, I kept turning the radio off, and walking upstairs to try and work. The work didn’t happen, and I knew it wasn’t going to. I found it hard to go back to the radio. Each time I heard someone talk about all the limbs lost, I froze inside, feeling ill. I’ve stood next to a car bomb when it exploded and know something of the terror it causes. Everything disappears, your body shifts into auto-pilot, and you start running. A feeling of pure, blind panic fills you from head to foot. I also lived through 9/11 in New York City and vividly recall walking around for a week feeling numb inside, no longer sure what day it was.
The deep sadness I felt at the news of the bombing, and the slowly mounting death toll, was infected by another kind of sadness. I kept thinking about the bombs that still regularly go off in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, and in the provinces of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those bombs kill as many as sixty people in a single blast and injure hundreds more, and they happen because of the instability caused by our invasions. I was never a supporter of the war in Iraq, though I did support the war in Afghanistan and believed we had a purpose in that fight. It makes me feel ill today thinking that every week in both those countries there are bombs exploding far more powerful than the two bombs that devastated the Boson Marathon. Car bombs, IEDs, mortars, mines, our own bombs.
The last thing I want to do is diminish the terror and pain and loss and grief felt by those in Boston, and by their family and friends in other parts of the country or the world. I’m grieved and shocked by it, and want the perpetrators brought to justice, be they home-grown right wing nutcases or Al Qaida-sympathsizing goons. But as I sit here thinking of the loss and grief, I cannot help but think of my own complicity in the ongoing loss and grief of families in Iraq and Afghanistan, however worthy or unworthy the cause might have been. In some parts of the world, it’s Boston every day, and though I don’t like to admit it, as an American, I helped to make that happen.
So my thoughts are with the people of Boston. They deserve our good wishes and prayers. But they are also with grieving families in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other battlefields in this past decade of wars. Let us try and build a decade where no one has to grow up with the sound of bomb blasts ringing in their ears.
At the end of November last year, I gave up taking the subway. A few reasons. I’d just returned from a six-month trip to India and being confronted with the same grim faces on that underground steel coffin brought home to me the fact that I was… well… home. And being back here, how profoundly not at home I felt again in New York City.
Of all the tedious rituals of city life to return to, the subway was the most dispiriting. It starts with the descent into those airless caverns, and only gets worse, at least for me. I hate waiting. In fact, hate is too mild a word. I abhor it, I vilify it, if I met Waiting in a dark alley in the middle of the night, I would do my best to snap its ugly neck. There is something deeply infantilizing about the long (or short) waits we have to endure before the train arrives, for here we become wards at the mercy of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the unloved orphans it consumes daily and who must always bow to its caprices, begging, “Can we please just get on your train, sir?” Maybe the train arrives within thirty seconds, and we find ourselves thankful for the wretched crumb of timeliness thrown at our feet, or maybe we wait a quarter hour, or even longer, staring down at the devastated concrete that floors these torture chambers of the modern world, if only so as not to look at the devastated faces surrounding us, in the mornings ejected unhappily from their beds, in the evenings ejected exhausted from offices.
In and of itself, the wait seems reasonable. The subway is a public good, it provides the infrastructure to move millions of people every day, and keeps a city like New York from grinding to a halt. And it’s good for the environment, and for health, and nominally, there’s a democratic spirit at work. We’re all in it together underground, a bit of London in the Blitz transported westward. But as one wait piles on another, as one line is added to another, those dreary, stifling minutes underground become intolerable. For the modern city, that compacted horizon of lives stratified, one on top of the other, each crushing the one below, finds its condensate on those lonely platforms and inside those deadening train cars. The city, if it is anything, is a dirge of choruses all of them memorializing “the wait.” The wait at the stop light, the wait for the elevator, the wait in the lunch queue, the wait on the phone for customer service, the wait for the delivery man, the super, the cable guy, the wait at the laundromat, the wait for a table for dinner, the wait at a bar for the barkeeps’ eye, the wait for the sorely underpaid cashier to acknowledge your existence, the endless wait for the city to do the same.
And once you’re on the train, it gets no better. For inside, you sit or stand, carried along powerlessly, literally shuttled back and forth underneath the city, not even blood in its arteries, for blood has a vivifying function as it pumps along. Inside the train, you become a null, a being waiting again to arrive, as if you have been murdered and await resurrection as a zombie. We become children once again, ruled by the whims of an unknowable and towering parent, powerless in its presence, and all around is the evidence, the faces of the fellow travelers reduced to ashen replicas, their nearest counterparts the democracy of bodies turned to stone in Pompeii. If this is democracy, it’s democracy of lives lived in hell, it’s democracy of the coming apocalypse, it’s democracy stripped of soul, of breath, of anything that might be imagined as human, a cudgeling, murderous reduction of city dwellers to cave dwellers, and cave dwellers to the newly dead.
Perhaps I’m laying it on a little thick. People do take the subway, sometimes they smile, sometimes they laugh, and most of them arrive on the other side apparently alive. And without it, the lives of the vast majority of people in this city would become intolerably difficult. But with it too, I believe, life becomes intolerable. When millions are forced, on a daily basis, through the meat grinder that is the subway, year in and year out, what else can it do but make ghosts of us, demoralized and hypnotized by an industrial ideal of the efficient city and its proper functioning.
All these incredible images by Travis Ruse.