Weird Kitchen Science

IMG_2187.JPGSome old friends of mine were recently in town and came over to make dinner. N, whose family is from Andhra, does lots of cooking stuff differently from me, and it was fascinating to hear her talk about it. We (okay, she; the other two of us mostly chopped and helpfully tasted) made three dishes. One: a South Indian-style daal with veggies in it. (I’ve long plopped frozen spinach in my paruppu, but tomatoes for some reason never occurred to me.) Two: chana with mushrooms from a recipe that we found on the Interwebs… And three: the piece de meat resistance, lamb curry.

We ate and drank and made merry and curry. It was fun, and I learned a lot from watching N. She has a deft hand with spices, and the curry aged well, too. So well, in fact, that I was moved to try some experiments. Continue reading

auntie netta Returns

I first saw Nimmi Harasgama on a plane. I don’t know what year it was. I think I must have been either on the way to Sri Lanka or on the way back; I was exhausted, but when I discovered a captivating Sinhala film, I didn’t want to sleep–I wanted to watch. I was particularly compelled by one of the film’s storylines, which featured a young woman desperate to find her missing husband. The actress had a striking face and delivered a sad and memorable performance. It was perhaps the first Sri Lankan film I had ever seen–indeed, because I found it in progress, I did not even get to see the whole thing. Still, I was transfixed, and impressed.

The dark feel of the film stayed with me for years. Then, in late 2008, a friend sent me a link to a Sri Lankan comedienne doing an auntie character I found hilarious. One of my favorite lines from the first video: “I’m calling from abroad–yes, that’s why I’m wearing a hat, and everything–you can’t see, no?” (At about 20 seconds in.)

When the friend mentioned that the actress had also appeared in the Sri Lankan film “Akasa Kusum,” I did a bit of Googling, and thought that without her auntie getup, she looked familiar. Had she been in the film I’d seen on the plane? I read the descriptions of the rest of the films in her IMDB history and realized that on that flight, I’d watched bits of “Ira Madiyama / August Sun”. She had played the young woman desperate to find her missing husband. And that luminous actress was ALSO auntie netta. Now I was intrigued.

Through the friend, I called the actress up for a chat and she told me a little bit about how she’d come up with auntie netta, and also that she was thinking of maybe developing the character into a stage show. I last posted about her right before that show, auntie netta’s Holiday from Asylum and promised a follow-up that would include a q&a with her.

This interview with Nimmi Harasgama, the award-winning London-based actress behind both of those performances, references that first conversation, so I’ll preface the q&a with some of the background I learned then… and will follow with another post including the more recent exchange. Continue reading

In Conversation With Vijay Iyer, Part II

Yesterday, you saw Part I of my conversation with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer (who, by the way, is playing at Birdland again tonight!). Herewith, Part II!

Video of Vijay Iyer Trio’s version of M.I.A.’s “Galang”

Vijay Iyer Trio’s award-winning album, “Historicity

VVG: What does it mean to be someone not only interested in making art, but also in articulating what it means? How did you get into writing? In a dialogue with your longtime collaborator, the saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, you talk about being accused of being “full of words and full of himself.” (I have some sympathy with this, having once been described as “fast-talking.”) You say, “But I felt like, either frame the discourse with your own language, or else let them take it over and completely misrepresent you.” Does this get at why you chose to take on writing as another facet of your career? To what extent do you feel that you are required to explain yourself, your philosophies of work and your work itself more because you are South Asian?

VI: I didn’t frame myself as a writer at first, but I’ve been publishing things here and there, first in academic journals, then in anthologies, then in some online media, and then in print magazines. Most of it has been by invitation, and the last few times I even got paid, so I guess that clinches it!

But seriously, I think the space where I’ve strived to produce specific discourse about identity was in the liner notes to my albums. I’ve always taken this task upon myself, sometimes to people’s dismay. (The “words and himself” quote was from a prominent jazz critic who actually likes my music.) I think of it as a textual counterpoint to an album, or as a letter to the future. But also it’s a rare opportunity to reach a captive audience; people don’t necessarily intend to read anything when they buy an album, but now they’re going to have those words in their hands every time they take the CD off the shelf. (At least that used to be the case when people still bought and listened to cd’s!) So it becomes a way to reach thousands of people over many years. People who revisit the music will at some point revisit the words.

I did find that I had to contextualize the music and my relationship to it. For all the rhetoric of tolerance and inclusiveness, there are some things that just don’t go down easy for Americans, and a South Asian American jazz composer-pianist is one of those things. It also doesn’t go down easy for jazz audiences, or other South Asians, or for people in general!

It’s never enough just to solve the problem internally for yourself. You’re always encountering people who are at some other point in the journey of awareness, and so you are constantly re-solving it for someone else. So that discourse becomes pretty crucial; fragments of it are going to keep coming back into the conversation. Continue reading

In Conversation With Vijay Iyer, Part I

Speekenbrink_HighRes_01.jpg photo by Hans Speekenbrink

Acclaimed jazz musician Vijay Iyer’s trio put out an amazing album last year. Historicity got terrific reviews. And the Jazz Journalists’ Association just named him Musician of the Year!

I have the album and love it and wanted to chat with him for the Mutiny; he was gracious enough to agree, and so here, in the first of two parts, is our conversation (which we did online).

(Tracks that are likely of special interest to some Mutiny readers: This track, a cover of M.I.A.’s “Galang,” has deservedly gotten lots of attention. An earlier album, Tragicomic, features a track called “Macaca Please.”

VVG: It’s been so exciting for me to watch your success, especially this year with “Historicity.” My older brother and I both played tenor saxophone relatively seriously when we were younger… Today, coincidentally, I am going to practice again for the first time in years! Your website describes you as “self-taught.” How do you teach yourself/practice? What’s your routine/process? How does your day as a musician work (when you’re not touring)?

VI: Thanks, Sugi! I am honored.

I’ve mostly grown musically over the years by trying new things. Sometimes that means trying to work through some existing musical idea that challenges me, and doing it very slowly; other times it’s about composing challenges for myself to try to play; still other times it’s through collaboration with others, whether in my area of music, in other areas of music, in other artistic fields like poetry, film, and theater, and even in less arts-oriented disciplines like the sciences. I don’t have much of a routine because I find every day is different – but my basic way of learning anything is by working on something for long enough that it’s not “practicing” anymore. As a player, I mostly practice being spontaneous; I practice improvising.

As for my day-to-day when I’m home, I spend an unwanted number of hours each day on business matters – emails, phone calls, paperwork, logistics. But I manage to make music every day, either playing or composing. And I spend as much time with my family as I can, especially my 5-year-old daughter. Continue reading

We Regret To Inform You That Your Condolences Cannot Be Accepted At This Time


As Amardeep noted last week, we are at about the one-year anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka. For the occasion, Groundviews did a special edition, to which I contributed a short story. I’m cross-posting it here.

We Regret to Inform You That Your Condolences Cannot Be Accepted At This Time

a short story

We regret to inform you that your condolences cannot be accepted at this time. At present, both our pain and our hope defy that word, which has been offered and denied us, which we need and do not need, and which in any case we cannot accept, because they (your condolences) will not reach from what has happened to what will come.

We find the word condolences stunning in its insufficiency for past and future.

We evacuated our homes in the light; we vanished from our homes in the dark; we walked away from our families, toward the weapons, and wished that we could turn around. Our bodies entered the earth in places we cannot now identify, and so we are everywhere, blown to dust. By both dying in and surviving this place, we will live here long after your condolences become a ghost in your throat.

We joined others’ battles, willingly and unwillingly; we walked forward on paths not our own when the paths we would have chosen were closed to us. We were incidental; we were vital; we were enemies; we were friends; we were disputed; we were uncounted. In a small country, we felt far away from you. In a small world, we felt far away from you. We were your people and not your people.

We could not wait for you to remember us.

Continue reading

Guest Blogger: In Which Vivek Shares Some Roti With Us

I know that you, like me, may be sad today: Lost is over, and that means no more Sayid–no more curly-haired desi smartypants!

But I’m here to tell you it’s going to be okay: here at SM we have discovered his doppelganger.


This is Vivek.

You might recognize him: he’s been an SM comment thread regular, and he’s one of the co-founders of Pass The Roti on the Left-Hand Side. (The all-growed-up version of him does bear a resemblance to Naveen Andrews.)

He is funny and smart and incisive and an excellent writer, and even better than all those things, he is generous and kind! The blogosphere needs more of all of these things! So we thought we’d invite him into the bunker for awhile.

Vivek was born in Madras, grew up in Tucson, and resides in New York. He makes a living as an “IT dork” (his words) and also cooks a mean mutton biryani. Like me, he plays the saxophone. Bunker jam session shortly.

Welcome, Vivek. It’s gonna be fun sharing Interwebs with you. Continue reading

Tea Party Official Apologizes To Hindus After Insulting Muslim “Monkey God”; Local Hindu Says, Take Your Apology And Shove It


Oh, you thought there was going to be a Tea Party and nobody was going to invite The Hindus? Oh, The Hindus are INVITED. The thing is, this particular Hindu is booked with other, more rational and less racist political affiliations. I have to wash my hair that day, Tea Partiers. AND FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, WHENEVER ANYONE LIKE YOU CALLS. Because guess what, I have lots of Muslim friends and they are awesome, and I am not going anywhere where they are not ALSO invited.

The short version is that Tea Party Express chairperson Mark Williams, who is a CNN commentator, made a comment in which he slammed Muslims for (get this) worshipping “the terrorists’ monkey god.”

According to the NY Daily News’ first story on the topic:

“A National Tea Party leader protesting a proposed mosque near Ground Zero set off a firestorm of anger Wednesday by saying that Muslims worship “the terrorists’ monkey god.”

Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express, blogged about the 13-story mosque and Islamic cultural center planned at Park Place and Broadway, calling it a monument to the 9/11 terrorists.

“The monument would consist of a Mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god,” Williams, a frequent guest on CNN, wrote on his Web site.”

(The article on his website is now password-protected, and to get the password, you have to buy his book, which is not on GoogleBooks as far as I can tell. Possibly because Google’s slogan is “don’t be evil.”)


Williams APOLOGIZED. But not to, I don’t know, HUMANITY and especially Muslims, but to his “Hindu friends.” (Who ARE you, dudes? You Hindu Friends of Mark Williams? I imagine an extremely small club.) From his blog:

“I was wrong and that was offensive. I owe an apology to millions of Hindus who worship Lord Hanuman, an actual Monkey God.”

Oh, an ACTUAL Monkey God. You’re bending your opportunistic reality to accommodate an Actual Monkey God, as opposed to the one you concocted from the space in your brain where your education was supposed to go.


Continue reading

What To Do? Ask Auntie Netta

I first encountered my favorite (imaginary) Auntie, Auntie Netta, almost a year and a half ago, when a friend of mine sent me the video here:

I thought Auntie Netta was pretty frickin’ hilarious: she’s cunningly raunchy and very specifically Sri Lankan in some of her humor. Now, Netta’s creator, actress Nimmi Harasgama, is taking her to the stage, in London. The show goes up tomorrow night, Londoners–get your tickets!

Update: In an e-mail, Nimmi says that while the show is about Netta’s “craziness,” “it is also about her seeking asylum and as such has a serious side to it too.”

There’s a whole series of Netta on Funny or Die.

Facebook event here.

My chat with Nimmi about the character will hopefully be an upcoming post, but I wanted the flag the show for those of you who might be interested (and flag the videos for those of you who might have headphones at work). Continue reading

Sean Panikkar: He’s an Opera Singer, But Back Then “Nobody Knew I Could Sing”

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Sean_Panikkar_-_Photo_by_Lisa_Kohler.jpgThis past fall, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to begin teaching at the University of Michigan. One of the first people I met here was the opera singer Sean Panikkar, a University of Michigan alum who’s singing at the Metropolitan Opera in Ariadne auf Naxos this week.

I’m a bit of an operahead. (For those of you who have never been to the opera, if you want to try it affordably, I recommend my usual method: standing room tickets at the Met, which go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of the performance. But I’m going to Ariadne courtesy of Sean. Many thanks, Mr. Panikkar!) Sean was the second opera singer I’d heard of who had some Sri Lankan background. And his tenor has gotten great reviews from the likes of The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, as well as a host of others. I asked him if he’d be willing to do a bit of Q&A for the Mutiny. Here’s an edited and abridged version of our interview.

Can you share a little bit about your family background?

I was born in Bloomsburg, PA, which is a small town of about 12,000. My parents are from Sri Lanka and came to the United States in 1975. My mother is Tamil and my father is Sinhalese, which is why they left.

When and how did your striking voice first come to attention? What was it about opera specifically that appealed to you? How did your family feel about it?

I had always been involved in music from the time I was little. I played piano, violin, and trombone while also singing in choirs. I never considered myself musical, but it was one of the things my parents wanted us (my brother and I) to do along with sports. My parents often thought I was lip synching during choir concerts. They never knew I could sing.

When I was in middle school a Juilliard-trained soprano named Li Ping Liu moved into our area…. She had nobody to teach because opera isn’t something people in central PA really know much about. I thought it might be interesting to take voice lessons, but I wouldn’t do it unless somebody went with me so for the first few lessons my father and I had lessons back to back. At the time I was into Michael Jackson and Billy Joel so that is what I brought to sing. She made me sing it like an opera singer and I thought it was the worst thing in the world. Just imagine singing high pitched “hee hees” like an opera singer! Needless to say that didn’t last long. Continue reading

Travel Writing, Annotated

In the time-honored journalistic tradition of lists (o, you home of nuance and subtlety and click-worthiness), the NYT exoticism Travel section gives us The 31 Places to Go in 2010.

1 on the list? Sri Lanka. Wouldn’t you know it, but “for a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune.” Seems that way, doesn’t it? “But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era…” Timesdudes, is that misfortune all GONE? Sweet! Except for all the people dealing with the conflict’s aftermath! Including the hundreds of thousands of displaced! Not to mention all the bereaved!

(Also on the list… Mysore, Mumbai, and Nepal. The last may be the “next gay destination.” Trend-o-RAMA! (h/t to Anup))

Let’s annotate, just for kicks. Continue reading