Continuing to this Today
Updated: Jul 22, 2019
There are two typos, that I catch, in the Art of the Arab Lands and Islamic Calligraphy gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On an opaque Sunday afternoon before the 2019 Met Gala, I am surprised to drift through five rooms alone. The olive-toned walls shimmer with illuminated scripts and with a silence broken only by the shadow of some dark-haired interloper or by the sound of rain glancing off the roof. While my younger sister poses in front of Rothkos on her brief recess from a jostling lurch through the white-walled American wing / , whose plaques admit no mistake, / I read a different room. I read, beside “Seascape with Three Boats” / , each ship a beige word curled over stunning blue, / that the calligram, an abstraction of Islamic calligraphic scripts, “occurred well before the advent of twentieth century Western modernism...and continues to this today.” Behind me stands a statue by Iranian born Paviz Tanavoli, “Poet Turning into Heech.” The Persian word for nothingness winds into a bronze body and two eyes, staring directly at the misprint. A “Poet Turning into Heech” is a poet turning into the Sufi conception of emptiness, from which God created everything.
The heavy, bold-scripted statue, though, slugging rods of light through thick air, does not evoke nothingness. Each folio page in the eerily empty exhibit, / each page of each copy of the Qur’an on display, / features a small text box, but the surrounding space is never blank. Never empty. Four-inch margins are laced with gold, / winding like melon vines or musk roses, / or they are flung with bold pigments, / splattered like the orange mud stains that I haven’t been able to scrub out of my kurta since leaving the Deccan a year and a half ago. Nothingness is supposed to be simple. How can we trust even God to create goodness from excess and stains?
I expected the poetry to be my favorite part—in both places, the Met and Hyderabad. I did not expect those places to crumple me. I did not expect their pain to be so precious.
The semester that I studied in Hyderabad—a city in the Deccan region of India—coincided with and contributed to the most painful six months of my life. But it also housed some of my best memories. On the blazing day I arrived at the international hostel that housed me, I noticed stones covering every drain. A sign above them read “NOT MOVE ROCKS OR SNAKES AND RATS COME THROUGH.” The image of a striped snake rising from the clogged shower drain as if from a snake charmer’s basket still amuses me, and the warning seemed unnecessary since I would see more rats in one weekend on the NYC subway than in that bathroom. (In that bathroom, I was electrocuted by a shower knob, without warning. I required an echocardiogram upon return to the United States.) All of my India stories seem to end that way. They’re overwhelming in delight (and despair) .
Each morning, there, I clambered up to the roof of my hostel and practiced yoga beside mewling peacocks as boar rooted through the red-blossomed jungle below. By the end of monsoon season, I was alone with the flickering butterflies and green horizon, then not even that (: all the peacocks were poached, and the roof caved in, nearly killing one of my friends as they laid in bed on the second floor) .
Whenever storms knocked out our power as they had the roof, my floormates and I sprinted through sheets of rain to a man selling roasted corn on the street. We’d leap over puddles with our chile- and lime-coated, charcoal-smeared corn and rush back to the covered porch, where we’d eat the cob one kernel at a time and lick spices from under our fingernails and gossip as purple lightning crashed through a cloud-blackened sky. (One friend got dysentery from street food. She rode a bus to the hospital.)
In October that year, the lakes I once jogged around (drowned) Akash, the first Indian student I’d befriended at the University. Akash was writing a dissertation comparing the rise of Dalit poets to the influence of Maya Angelou. He cared about dark bodies, and he dove into the lake to save the bodies of two women one night. They survived. (He never climbed out. Never finished his research.) Akash’s name means sky (, and his lungs flooded with water at the same time his monsoon-flooded namesake reached peak saturation, filling up the rivers and step wells) . The University staff (, with whom I was not supposed to speak,) drank from that lake’s (muddy) waters. Lotus bloomed there. There, water buffalo shattered their own reflections.
(Off my meds and crushed by losses in my home country as well as terror in my new home ((followed, injured, harassed, grieving)), I was too shattered to finish the semester. I flew home from Hyderabad a few weeks before final exams. I don’t remember how I got to the airport.) Someone must have called me a taxi.
Pausing as I enter the “Art of the Deccan” room in the Met, seventeen months after boarding a plane I cannot picture, I am reminded of the teaching that kept me alive—that brought me to this today. SIP620: Islamic Art and Architecture in the Deccan.
Each morning in Hyderabad, I slunk out of a depression in humidity-sogged sheets for that class. Slid over monsoon-slick stones for diagrams of mosques. Stilled shaking hands for my professor’s voice that drenched the classroom in low hum. He smelled of sweet cigars. He sang us ghazals. He brought us to his home. He showed us the Muslim quarters of a city that did not participate in Partition / fed us during Muharram / brought us to concerts and tomb restorations / and history and hope.
Sajjad Sir showed no particular interest in me—he tried to convert us all, not to Islam, necessarily, but to his love for it. At the Met, I spend over an hour in a portion of the building smaller than the museum’s cafe and bar. I suppose he succeeded: I’m angry these rooms are empty. / I am glad no one is here to see me cry.
Art last seen in a place where, at any given moment, I could reach out a pollution-yellowed arm and graze the bodies of ten people / , yet I’m alone in the room. There’s a sterile tragedy to this exhibit.
Leaning over the Shahnama, the Book of Kings, I let tears streak my cheeks. Everyone seems to know the grandeur of the Book of Kells / , lines to see even one page extend out the door of the Trinity College Library / , but the intricacies, the shocks of orange and teal, the exact shapes of the Shahnama? / How could I be the only one standing before eight leafs? How could a mess of epic in Nasta’liq script and opaque watercolor dragons pierce me with such stillness?
One of my favorite memories ends just as all India stories do / , I am hit by a bus in a motorcycle accident, and we are lost in the Old City at night / , but the sticky jasmine sweat of the evening and its chalk of exhaust that lines my lungs cannot be tainted. In this memory, I am on the back of Pawan’s bike. Pawan’s a peer in my Islamic Art class, an MFA student, a painter with kind eyes. We are returning to campus after a house party in the Old City where we padded through a hallway lined with calligraphy, listened to some of Hyderabad’s best ghazal singers, and drank masala chai on a floor packed with heavy bodies.
As we weave through traffic, the call for evening prayer careens over rooftops. The air slips toward darkness. Tentatively, I uncurl my fingers from the handle on the back of the seat / , balance for a moment, / then throw my arms out wide as bats wing overhead. The hot haze of dusk shifts through sweat-stained linen, and I revel in the night’s embrace / , in the magic of riding a painter’s motorcycle through an ancient city, / in the prayers keening louder than the traffic and the dancing and the Bollywood blasting from one restaurant, the Egyptian singer from another / . My margins are laced with beauty.
So at the Met, I weep / , overwhelmed by extravagance, / before the Book of Kings, and there is no one to witness me. There is no one to curl fingernails under plastic, place a heel high, and wrench inadequate plaques from the walls. Anger and Appreciation shuffle through the museum taking photos of each other in front of their favorite works.
Crowded out by the curling script of stories, pain splatters the glass encasement, and I smear it with a grey sleeve to see both book and blur. The lotus, an Indian symbol of purity, rises on the page from murky waters. It is created of swamp and stain. How fucking poetic is that? That God, or life, or whatever, can create, not from an absence of pain, but alongside it? That museums are a cacophony of silence?