Burning Down Our House

March 2007 Book Review of Raj Kamal Jha's Novel Fireproof

On a chill, late February evening five years ago, a gang of marauders stopped and torched the Subarmati Express near Godhra, about 150 kms from Gujarat's capital city of Gandhinagar. The case filed later by the police claimed several Muslims conspired to burn the train and its passengers, but two subsequent court decisions were inconclusive. Either way, the deaths of 59 Hindu passengers – including several returning from Ayodhya, where they had been campaigning to build a temple in place of a mosque destroyed ten years prior – sparked an unprecedented communal conflagration across the state. The deliriously violent five-week spree of fire and rioting destroyed 25,000 shops and homes and resulted in over 1000 mostly Muslim deaths.

Award-winning novelist Raj Kamal Jha covered the carnage for Indian Express, where he is executive editor. Sifting through the detritus of Ahmedabad's Gulbarga Housing Complex, which had been torched with residents still inside, he came upon a child's workbook. The cover was singed but inside were several pages of exercises and a number of surprisingly mature poems. One stunningly relevant verse stopped the author in his tracks and inspired him to pen a fictional account of the tragedy, one that could encompass all of the horror and the guilt, the suffering, fear, and denial that pierced the heart of India in the late winter of 2002.

The result is "Fireproof," one Ahmedabad man's fantastical, fearsome hurtling through the anxiety-drenched first days of violence and a visceral fever dream of a book readers will find hard to put down and impossible to shake. Although occasionally stomach-churning, Mr. Jha's new novel is not only a crackling good read – a thrilling bullet train of mayhem, mystery, and magic realism – it is also a wake-up call.

The book opens with the protagonist, Mr. Jay, at the hospital. Due to a difficult delivery his wife is unconscious and his newborn son horribly deformed: wrapped in dark, burnt-looking skin; without arms and legs; and with a slit for a mouth, a two-holed bump for a nose, and a soft, lumpy head. Only the eyes are like other babies', allowing him to keep watch as events unfold. Flummoxed by his progeny, Mr. Jay dubs the baby Ithim, a mash-up of "it" and "him."

While waiting to see his child he spies a woman standing in a window across the hospital courtyard. She scribbles "HELP ME" on fogged-up glass then vanishes along with the words. That night, after Jay has taken Ithim home, he receives a call from the mysterious woman. Miss Glass tells him to meet her the following afternoon at an undisclosed location a few hours outside the city. She says she can fix Ithim. After some indecision Jay acquiesces, leading to a riveting journey through which he begins to fully appreciate the horrors that have gripped his city.

A Greek chorus of soon-to-be-killed bit players delivers a warning shot in the Prologue, making readers aware, right from the start, that this will be no walk in the park. And indeed, tongues are cut from mouths, women raped and killed in front of their children, and bodies rain from the sky. The brutality and gore are presented with such forthrightness the reader finds himself riveted even as the steady drumbeat of death appalls.

"Then they rape the daughter-in-law. They strangle her with a towel. They slit her throat. They wait for her to die. They slit her stomach, all the way down. From her breasts to her pubic bone. They take her baby out. They throw up, at the sight of unborn flesh. And, of course, the blood. They throw up on the kitchen countertop, over the vegetables she was peeling. Then they set the house on fire."

The above is from one of three lengthy eyewitness accounts attached to an email Miss Glass sends to Mr. Jay providing directions for his journey. In these tales the witnesses and victims have names but the perpetrators are simply called A, B, C, and D. And between each chapter a member of the chorus of the dead – Head Nurse, for instance, or Taxi Driver – recounts his or her fiery end at the hands of a similarly nameless, faceless gang. The acts of violence remain vivid but anonymous, for now.

And the gruesomeness of these literary body blows is intended. Gujarat was vile and indefensible – over a month of jaw-dropping communal murder on a vast canvas – and Jha is attempting to recreate the aura of shock and disgust, danger and fear that swallowed the state like darkest night. THIS REALLY HAPPENED, he is reminding us, and such matter-of-fact recounting of horrors – Jha keeps the prose mostly plain rather than purple – rings more of history than fiction.

In an audacious and hilarious set piece at the railway station, however, Jha looses his pen. Jay is awaiting his escort to Miss Glass when a dwarf named Bright Shirt appears. Waltzing through a puddle of trousers, shoelaces, and a lengthy black and white-checked scarf, the stubby one freezes Jay in bemused awe:

"He was running, on the spot, stomping and stamping in this puddle, his clothes flapping like giant tropical birds perched on his body. He was jumping up and down, his elbows and knees jerking back and forth, restless, impatient, like a player limbering up before a game. …
'Forgive my looks, for I am just a clown,
My job is to cheer you up, Whenever you are down.
You look very tired, sir, you look quite beat,
So let's sit down for a while, and get something to eat?'
Then he turned, with a flick of his heel, a stamp of his foot, like a soldier in a parade, and was off. He walked as if there was no crowd, barging right into people, banging against their suitcases and their bundles, almost knocking his head against their knees. This strategy of his seemed to work, though. For the crowd was parting for him, easily and spontaneously, and he was walking, running, jogging, as if this were a playground and he were a child."

The comic relief is short-lived and serves mainly as a bridge between the atrocities of the book's first two-thirds and the surreal fantasyland of the finale. Here we find dead families swimming in water-filled homes, books and towels doing stand up, and juggling, singing fire-wielders. With the last fifty pages Jha floats to heights of silly surreality and stoops to somewhat reductive social commentary. The clash with what has come before is jarring, yet in the cacophony a potent message rings true.

Even as Gujarat burns and hundreds die, this is a story about Jay. We never meet his wife, and in a way we never meet Ithim, either. And all of the lesser characters end up dead. There are clear echoes of Kensaburo Oe's piercing novel Bird, in which the titular deformed son reflects a physically and psychically scarred post-WWII Japan. But in Fireproof it is the protagonist, not his misshapen offspring, who stands in for a devastated Asian nation.

Once upon a time Gujarat was just one of 28 Indian states. A pleasant enough spot snug up against Pakistan and the Arabian Sea; unremarkable, perhaps, but with decent beaches and Asia's lone lion preserve it kept up appearances. Today the word describes not only India's stubby most-westerly appendage but also a time and place one would prefer to forget.

Five years later the violence has waned but tensions have yet to ease. Some 30,000 of the 200,000 Muslims made homeless by the pogrom still live as refugees in 81 relief camps across the state. Afraid of inciting violence, Gujarat's theatre owners regularly refuse to screen controversial films: last year Fanaa was banned because of Aamir Khan's controversial political stance and just last month it was Nasaruudeen Shah starrer Parzania, in which parents search for their young son, one of the countless lost in the madness. And it appears a lack of political will is as culpable as lingering communal animosity: as of June 2006 only 10 convictions had been made in over 4000 criminal cases originally filed by the police in connection with the carnage.
Gujarat, then, is the great national nightmare from which India has yet to awake. With Fireproof, Mr. Jha endeavors to ring the alarm.

A Long and Winding Road

Album Review of Sufjan Stevens' 2005 release, "Illinois"

Undoubtedly the most ambitious musical project undertaken since Harry Smith endeavored to record the history of American folk music fifty years ago, folksinger-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens’ grand plan to lay down an album for each of the 50 states reaches full flower with his second in the series, the lush, vibrant, and uncategorizable “Come on Feel the Illinoise.”

His fifth album since going solo in 1999, “Illinois” follows up last year’s quiet “Seven Swans,” a departure from the states series that began in 2000 with “Michigan,” about Stevens’ home state. Like that album, the 21 tracks of “Illinois” evoke their eponymous state with literate lyrics, but ratchet up the meandering soundscapes. Stevens has again practiced his lyrical travel writer’s craft on a worthy locale, but with this release drifts further from his folk rock roots. The album credits include a string quartet, the Illinoisemaker Choire, various friends singing back-up and blasting horns, and Stevens playing over 15 instruments, including an oboe, a glockenspiel, and “Laura’s rickety accordion,” and it shows.

The tracks, some with titles as long and twisted as a Dylan song, alternate between long and winding tales of historical people and places and short, lush instrumental numbers that break up what might become monotonous in lesser hands. The tale of serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is detailed and disturbing (“He took off all their clothes for them/He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands/quiet kiss on the mouth.”), while “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd,” honors the first lady who went insane after her husband, Abraham Lincoln, was shot dead next to her at the theatre. “THE BLACK WAR…” is a barker’s call to the fantastical festivities, with a slow building of voices and strings and wind instruments that climaxes in triumphant horns and drums; “Welcome to Illinois,” the song practically screams, “the greatest show on Earth.” Stevens steps on the gas with the twirling, swirling “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” which lifts from piano scales to a jazz hands-eliciting bounce of horns and percussion in taking us back to Chicago’s dazzling White City, built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893: “Chicago, the New Age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?”

One shudders to think, but surely even Mr. Wright would blanch at the nightwalkers in “They are Night Zombies!!” The long intro has gotten short shrift in alternative music of late, yet in that track, as well as others, Stevens uses a simple layering technique to brilliant effect. Start with slow, long piano keys, add bass guitar riff, cymbals, and drum beats, top it off with excited strings and a women chanting in fright, and you’ve got yourself a perfect mazelike sound. Stop! For just a second. Now drop some breathy, nervous lyrics and start ratcheting it up again. Repeat. Rinse. Not bad. Now change instruments, lyrics, and performers. Do it again. In “Chicago,” Stevens reaches orgiastic heights employing a similar scheme, with sleigh bells, shakers, and a clarion trumpet call that perfectly compliments the harmonies of the choir.

Some may call Stevens’ lyrics twee or his singing voice precious. A reasonable complaint, but with grandiloquent musical statements like these, the closeness of his voice and the sentimentality of his writing personalize the wild goings-on more than they drift into syrupy emo.

“Illinois” is an unqualified triumph, with echoes of Beck, Iron & Wine, the Shins, and the psychedelic pop of Athens, Georgia’s Of Montreal, not to mention many artists long gone. Stevens has created an album that is as broad, expansive, and unpredictable as the nation he is only beginning to document. Whether the 27-year-old will live to finish his musical road trip is impossible to know, but he should certainly make all efforts to do so. Like an improvised road trip in an amorphous roadster with an encyclopedic and musically gifted uncle, “Illinois” is a rich, informative, and stylish tour of the long gone and underappreciated.


Kung Fu Cartoon Chaos

Film review from April 2005

A visceral, visually explosive kick, Stephen Chow’s "Kung Fu Hustle" is one of the most enjoyable, elastic, and relentless films of 2005. Where his previous film, 2001’s “Shaolin Soccer,” mostly kept the whiz-bang of CGI-pyrotechnics to the soccer pitch, the visual exploits of Kung Fu Hustle know no such bounds. (“No more soccer!” one gangster says early on, after stomping on and deflating the ball three young boys are kicking around in an empty lot.)

Part homage to Hong Kong chop-socky, part ode to 80’s American cartoons and film parodies, and part paean to recent sci-fi spectaculars like “The Matrix,” Chow’s film serves up a wealth of aesthetic delights: spectacular combat sequences, a grinning Buddha in the sky, suited gangsters dancing with hatchets, a weapons-grade harpsichord, and an immediate classic of a chase scene lifted from the Road Runner. The viewer stumbles out woozy, stomach muscles sore from laughing and cartoon tweety birds circling his head.

And, oh, yes, there is a story as well. In Pre-Revolutionary Shanghai, the Axe Gang holds sway, turning cops, peasants, and crooks into lackeys, and making Sing, an unaccomplished street dweller played by Chow, yearn for membership and respect. Stumbling upon the aptly named Pig Sty Alley, Sing sees an opportunity to impress the Gang and tries to intimidate and extort its residents, who are more than up to the challenge, to even their own surprise. The Axe Gang soon shows up seeking vengeance and is quickly dispatched by three kung fu masters who had been hiding in plain sight as Pig Sty residents. From there, the stakes, chaotic carnage, and fantastic visual and physical gags swell to Looney Tunes proportions, climaxing in a vertical battle between Sing and a killer known as the Beast for what might well be the entire Universe.

There is a cutesy love story thrown in for good measure. As a child, Sing was told by a wizened con artist that he had the look of a one-in-a-million master of the Buddhist Palm kung fu technique. After buying an instructional book from the man and flipping through it, he tries to save a deaf girl from bullies. The young Sing is beaten badly and gives up his dream of being a master, but the girl, who will of course be seen again, never forgets.

But concerning ourselves too much with narrative misses the point, for Chow uses the tale mainly as a vehicle for broad comedy and fantastical physical exploits.

Although a deft, fearless comedian, Chow smartly chooses to focus less on Sing and lets the other players shine. Comprised of several former Asian action greats that Chow practically resurrected for this film, the cast is uniformly good. Yuen Wah, known to Chinese audiences for his many baddies, plays the split personalities of the Pig Sty landlord to insouciant perfection. Lueng Sui Lung’s Beast, a physically volatile yet emotionally contained assassin for hire, is undeniably one with which we would never mess. And special recognition must be given to Yuen Qui as the landlady of Pig Sty Alley. A former Hong Kong action star returning to film acting after a 28-year absence, Yuen gained 30 pounds to play a chain-smoking human powder keg that dominates tenants and husband both physically and verbally. A comedic force of nature, she steals every scene she's in.

With its brutal violence and occasionally pixilated images, Kung Fu Hustle is a mishmash of X-box fighting game – the Toad Style and Lion’s Roar are two of the combat moves – and animated violence from Tom and Jerry and the Road Runner, but jacked up on crystal meth and peopled with slightly more human characters. The combatants’ ability to withstand impossible beatings and the outlandish nature of many visuals, however, render the brutality benign and entertaining rather than cringe-inducing. When the Landlord is slapped about his own home and then thrown through the window by his wife, only to land face first on the stone ground three stories below and have a flower pot crack on his head, we do not feel his pain but relish the perfectly executed beating. There may be a loss of empathy that results from such cartoonishness, but it’s hard to complain when having this much fun.

Whither a Peacekeeping Force for Darfur?

This article, published by UPI in March 2006, could, with a few minor cosmetic alterations, run again today.

Speaking Tuesday at an Arab League summit in Khartoum, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan echoed a common and disheartening refrain concerning Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.

“People continue to be killed, raped and driven from their homes by the thousands,” Annan said. “The security situation has worsened as a result of fighting between Chadian troops and Chadian armed opposition elements on the common border.”

In an update to the Security Council last week, the U.N.’s top envoy in Sudan, Jan Pronk, offered scant evidence that recent agreements and cooperative steps had made any impact.

“The ceasefire does not function; the Joint Committee does not meet; the sanctions…exist only in theory,” he said at U.N. headquarters in New York, adding that countless human rights abuses threatened the peace in Sudan as a whole.

From Pronk and Annan to U.S. President George Bush and U.N. Human Rights Chief Jan Egeland, and from International Crisis Group to Africa Confidential and Human Rights Watch, a growing chorus of discouraging updates and urgent warnings has ratcheted up the urgency on Darfur over the last fortnight. Yet as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis deepens, a lack of international cooperation has underscored the logistical and political hurdles to swift and effective intervention.

Some 200,000 people have been killed and 2 to 3 million displaced since the conflict began three years ago, and in February the turmoil spilled over the border into neighboring Chad, igniting another proxy war and endangering additional hundreds of thousands.

This month Egeland predicted a rise in mortality and dubbed the region “the killing fields of the world,” Human Rights Watch urged the application of sanctions and an arms embargo on Sudan in an open letter to Annan, and an International Crisis Group study warned of an imminent disaster, placing the blame on the Sudanese government and calling for the immediate deployment of a 5,000-strong intermediate stabilization force.

“Darfur has become even more explosive because of tensions between Chad and Sudan,” said Africa Program Director for the International Crisis Group Suliman Baldo, referring to government-sponsored raids, cross-border incursions, and criss-crossing refugees. “I don’t foresee any improvement in coming months because I don’t see any change in the attitude of key players; why would the situation improve?”

The vocal tide has swelled on the heels of a March 10 African Union decision to accept U.N. intervention after its September 30 departure.

“I was pleased with the AU decision,” said Pronk, highlighting a lack of international preparedness. “Even though I had expected nine months [to prepare] because I don’t think we can do it, the transition, technically, in six months. We need troops and where are they to come from?”

Two days later the Security Council, expressing a similar query, formally asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to develop preparatory planning options for a UN-led Darfur mission. Not only thousands of highly-trained troops and advanced military supplies are needed, but, also consensus from a variety of players including the United States, NATO, and the Sudanese government, which again reiterated its stance against United Nations interference at the Arab League summit.

Key members of that government, the National Islamic Front, were in Abuja, Nigeria, this week at peace negotiations with opposing rebel forces of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. The U.S., European Union, and other international observers are pushing for an April 30 agreement on the Improved Ceasefire Protocol, but since the NIF violated the January 2005 agreement and has been openly supplying the janjaweed militia and controlling access to the region, analysts foresaw little real progress.

In violation of previous agreements, “the government is still blocking aid and there is virtually no access for non-governmental organizations and aid workers,” said Gillian Lusk, deputy editor at Africa Confidential, an insider’s weekly newsletter, who visited the region this month.

“Sudan may sign an agreement with the rebels, which will not go far but will allow the NIF to save face,” Lusk said. “If the U.N. is coming in, Khartoum will try to get as much as it can beforehand.”

Precisely how the U.N. comes in—including the number and allegiance of troops, degree of mobility, and, crucially, whether the mission is given a Chapter VI peacekeeper mandate, or the more robust, action-oriented Chapter VII, or peacemaker, distinction—is crucial.

Eight African nations announced their willingness to send soldiers after a closed-door meeting at the Arab League summit, while the U.S. and NATO have offered logistical and material support but committed no troops.

Baldo was pessimistic on the potential impact of a 20,000-strong NATO-led force.

“There could never be a military solution to this problem,” he said. “Greater international involvement and a cooperative U.N. force could stop the terrorizing of civilians, assist humanitarian and aid workers, and perhaps bring those responsible for this manmade disaster to account, but a political resolution is absolutely necessary to bring about legitimate social reconciliation in Darfur.”

Crisis Deepens in Darfur

The following story was published in the Sudan Tribune early last year.

Feb 9, 2006 (UNITED NATIONS) — The lone AU peacekeeping presence in Sudan’s western Darfur region is ill equipped, understaffed, and fast running out of funds. Violent rebel raids have recently torn tens of thousands from their temporary homes. And gun battles regularly spill over a neighbor’s border, threatening to further destabilize an already tense region.

As Africa’s best attempts to manage the crisis have faltered in recent weeks the region has fallen deeper into chaos. Yet as discussions on replacing overextended African Union forces loom the United Nations was working aggressively to garner international assistance while the United States sought to turn down the volume.

The 7,000-strong AU force had done an admirable job keeping a lid on Darfur’s cauldron of hostilities since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, but as the $17 million per month mission has sapped its thin resources, tensions have spun beyond its control. The conflict, which began after the end of a long-running civil war in late 2002, has claimed about 300,000 lives and displaced over 2 million.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan differentiated between the AU force and a possible U.N. mission, which would require Security Council approval.

"The African Union forces did really courageous and noble work," Annan said Thursday, adding that they did not have adequate soldiers, logistical support, or mobility. The U.N. "force would require the participation of governments with highly-trained troops, who are also well-equipped.

"It is not going to be easy, [but] the big and powerful countries...will have to play a part if we are going to stop the carnage," said Annan, who included the U.S. in that group. "They will have to commit troops and equipment."

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to contradict these words on Tuesday.

"It’s a huge area; it’s difficult to get at, but we have been actively involved," Cheney said during a televised interview. "I am satisfied we are doing everything we can do."

Last week U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer downshifted the American rhetoric on Darfur, citing genocide only in the past tense. Her comments came just days after U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council, which will soon begin discussions on the Darfur mission.

"The U.S. has said that genocide has occurred in Sudan, and we continue to be concerned about the security situation in Darfur," said Frazer. The situation "is very different than what it was. It’s not as systematic...there isn’t large-scale organized violence taking place today, [but] a series of small attacks and incidents."

The scene on the ground belies the American assertions.

After the Sudanese Liberation Army assaulted a government building in Golo last month, Khartoum-prodded Janjaweed raids on displaced persons camps in the Mershing and Shearia areas exploded, leading to the forced ouster of up to 70,000 refugees. Another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, recently accused the Sudanese government of seeking to extend the conflict into neighboring Chad by supplying troops and equipment along the border, according to the Sudan Tribune. Chad, in turn, has beefed up its Darfur border presence and humanitarian groups in that area have complained of increasing violence.

"The developments in western Darfur and the borders between Chad and Sudan have caused grave concerns,...whether inside Sudan or in the peace process here," said JEM leader Ahmed Tugod from the ongoing peace negotiations in Abuja, Chad.

A Security Council report released Wednesday detailed a thriving and mostly government-sponsored arms trade from neighboring Chad, Eritrea, and Libya. The report, which came on the heels of a survey chronicling late 2005 Darfur violence from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, recommended sanctions against the three countries in violation of a Security Council arms embargo.

Additionally, a study released last month by the Physicians for Human Rights detailed not only the usual rapes, killings, and various violent attacks of the past 40 months, but also "the disruption of all means of sustaining livelihoods and procuring basic necessities." After three extended visits to the region and more than 100 interviews in a two-year period, PHR found that "the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed have created conditions calculated to destroy the non-Arab people of Darfur in contravention of the ’Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.’"

At the center of the Security Council negotiations will be the size of the force and its mandate. In January, a U.N. military official cited a ceiling of 12,000 troops, which would most likely necessitate either U.S. or European involvement, if not both. And there is a vast gulf between the Security Council’s Chapter VII mandate—which confers peacemaking authority—and a Chapter VI mandate—which gives forces peacekeeping authority.

Annan described the U.N. mission he sought.

"I would want to see a highly-mobile force on the ground in Darfur...to be able to send a message to the militia and the people causing the damage, that we have a force that is capable to respond, a force that is everywhere, and a force that will be there on time to prevent them from intimidating and killing the innocent civilians."

Asked about the possibility of igniting a holy war in Sudan, the Secretary-General was cautious yet sanguine.

"The African Union needs to work with us to convince the government that they are coming in to help contain the situation, not coming in as an invading or a fighting force," said Annan. "I don’t think it’s impossible to get them to agree...and so I’m very optimistic about that."


Second-Hand and Vintage Shopping in Williamsburg

This visitors' guide was written in late 2005 for a non-local magazine.

Tired of the stratospheric prices of shapely dresses at Donna Karan yet unwilling to bow one's head in submission to Gap or H & M? Venture to the home of hip: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where affordable treasures abound. A clutch of quirky shops sell rare and quality second-hand clothing, handbags, and furniture, and high-end vintage stores offer the latest in retro-bohemian fashions. Just a short subway ride from Manhattan, with less crowded shops and streets and satisfying sustenance close at hand, Williamsburg should be your next shopping stop.

Beacon’s Closet

The Vibe: A youthful scene of uber-cool, where hipsters dig for deals among color-coded circular racks and a soundtrack of Bowie and Bright Eyes blares through the three-room space.

The Goods: Rows and rows of affordable jeans and pants ($15-$25), jackets and coats ($30-$100), sweaters and shirts ($10-$40), as well as dresses, records, and random funky finds like classic wool hats and cheesy 70’s lamps.

The Lowdown: The second-hand Mecca of Williamsburg, Beacon’s Closet expanded considerably after moving into its current digs three years ago. Ever since it has been embraced by both locals and informed foreign tourists. Vast selection, so persistence pays.

* Beacon’s will buy your clothes in return for 30% of its value in cash or 55% in store credit.

Pirate Supplies

The Vibe: Models of pirate ships and nautical knickknacks dot the small space and sidewalk display, offering the intrepid shopper the peaceful solitude of the sea. Proprietor Bonnie Bloomberg says the name originated from the idea of her store as a treasure chest of sorts.

The Goods: Amid books, boots, hats, and a diverse and quirky selection of clothing for men and women, a classic black leather jacket in good shape was priced at $60 and a pretty polka-dot summer dress $25.

The Lowdown: This cute, eclectic store, which also serves as a salon for many area musicians, is the perfect place to find a high-quality vintage gem at a good price.

Ugly Luggage

The Vibe: A constant stream of Bedford Avenue passersby slip in and out of owner Marcus Tyler’s time machine, where he spins old 45’s on a creaky record player as classic wood furniture and old tchotchkes whisk them into their past.

The Goods: Yes, there are pieces of luggage, primarily boxy brown leather cases, but the offerings here are all over the place. Fifties black Kodak cameras go for $40-$70, a porcelain lamp of a Chinese nobleman and his concubine will cost you $66, and antique wood tables start at around $300.

The Lowdown: For a hip trip down memory lane, there may be no better place in the city. “If you grew up with it,” says Tyler, ‘we’ve probably got it, or something similar.” Whether or not you want to take home a souvenir is another matter.

Amarcord Vintage Fashion

The Vibe: Sleek, white-walled outlet of vintage European styles with 21st century soundtrack and stylish employees.

The Goods: Imported from Europe, the clothes are fashionable and priced accordingly. Hats, sunglasses, and scarves speck the space, where shiny leather purses go for $70-$100 and a great selection of vintage zip sweatshirts $50-$70.

The Lowdown: Bring a chunk of change and a bit of attitude, and you might leave with something your friends will secretly envy.

Salvation Army Thrift Shop

The Vibe: Musty and smelling of mothballs, this sprawling space is the old gray lady of Williamsburg second-hand, and wears that moniker on its sleeve.

The Goods: Everything except the kitchen sink. Blazers and pants, books and cigar boxes, shelves, tables, chairs, couches, t-shirts, albums, and ancient sweaters, all decidedly affordable.

The Lowdown: It is nearly impossible to visit the ‘Burg without passing by this centrally-located shop at some point, so why not pop in? You might find just what you weren’t looking for.


For a break from the bustle of Bedford Ave, slip into Spike Hill, a comfortable brick and black wood restaurant-bar with semi-private booths, about 30 single-malt scotches and 50 bottled beers, and an excellent brunch on weekend afternoons. Just across the street is Bliss, a vibrant vegetarian café that offers hummus and lentil soup, a delicate, tasty quiche, and a wide, people-watching front window. Or, in clement weather, step into The Read Café, walk directly past the cashier and small kitchen, and settle into a table in their quiet back garden, where you can soak in the serenity and refuel with a fat mug of dark, rich coffee.

Smokers' Revolt

This article was published in a Brooklyn weekly in mid-2005.

Just before midnight on a recent Thursday at an intimate, darkly lit bar in Williamsburg, an attractive young woman – let’s call her Cynthia – pulled a Marlboro Light out of her purse, flicked open a lighter, and brought cigarette to flame in plain sight of the bartender. She inhaled deeply, blew a billowy gray cloud into the previously unsullied air, and smiled. Within minutes, a nicotine domino effect had smokers lighting up in every corner of the cozy space and the bar had gone back in time, to New York City circa 2002.

“Once again, we’ve taken back the night,” said Cynthia, proudly surveying what she’d wrought.

A little more than two years after Mayor Bloomberg’s Indoor Smoke-Free Act went into effect in April 2003, the city’s late night bar goers are conveniently “fuhgedding” about it and lighting up indoors late at night. What was recently the sole provenance of the city’s few tobacco bars is fast becoming de rigeur for happening New York nightspots after midnight, posing public health risks and often infuriating abstainers.

“When the ban first went into effect we would only let people smoke in here every once in a while, and even then only after 2 a.m.,” said Heather, a fast-talking, raven-haired bartender, from behind her Williamsburg bar recently. “Now the cigarettes come out every night after midnight, and it’s the same in a lot of the bars around here, too.”

A recent Friday night survey found indoor smoking in 8 out of 20 Williamsburg bars, including Zablonski’s, Blu Lounge, and the Brooklyn Ale House. In another hot neighborhood, the Lower East Side, the numbers were slightly lower, at just under 40%. Even with the temperature rising and Bloomberg offering free nicotine patches to any quitter who calls 311 looking for a quick fix, smokers seem undeterred.

Chad Gracia, 35, a non-smoking theater producer who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and frequents bars in the Meatpacking District and Lower East Side, pointed the finger at the smokers themselves.
“It’s the fault of this cutting edge, smoking hipster class, who think it’s just a harmless end of the night indulgence,” he said. “In reality its cuts through my ability to have an enjoyable, peaceful evening. More importantly, it’s a legitimate health risk.”

Indeed, the dangers of second-hand smoke have been widely-reported and the law itself claims that employees of smoking establishments have a 50% higher risk of lung cancer whether they themselves smoke or not.

“Last night I did some late night bar-hopping in the Village and Meatpacking District with some friends, and I can’t remember a single place where we weren’t surrounded by smokers,” Gracia said. “Now my throat hurts and my clothes stink. It’s like 2002 all over again.”

“It’s definitely a hazard to public health,” said Lauralee Munson of the American Lung Association’s New York chapter, who has monitored the effectiveness of the ban. “Something should be done.”

The law itself places the responsibility squarely on the city, stating “the department shall enforce the provisions of this [ban].” Yet a 311 operator, who had recently taken several smoking complaints, quoted a Dept. of Health brochure that read: “enforcement of the ban is the responsibility of the establishment.” Repeated requests for department clarification and comment were left unanswered.

“The inspectors were originally sent around after the ban went into effect to make sure bars put up no smoking signs and removed ashtrays,” said Munson. “That work is done so they’re not coming around anymore. Now it’s really up to the bar owners, and lots of them would rather have the smoking crowd.”

The reality bears out Munson’s assertion, with many late night establishments turning a blind eye. In the Tribeca club Mannahatta, cigarette smoke mingled with manufactured dance floor fog as revelers puffed with impunity on a recent Friday. The bartender, a slim 30-ish Ukrainian woman who was also smoking, said, “It’s like the law never happened in here.”

Asked if the owner of her bar was aware of the nightly smoking, Heather laughed and said, “She pretends not to know.”

Colum, an East Village bartender, was more forthcoming.

“Of course the owner knows – it was his idea,” he said, as several patrons drank and smoked at the bar behind him. “Look, would you rather five, ten smokers standing outside making noise at 1 a.m., waking up the neighbors and causing problems, or would you rather have them in the bar buying drinks? After midnight – sometimes even earlier – we prefer the smokers to stay inside.”

Desire for increased sales and neighborhood tranquility may have helped, but lax enforcement from the Health Dept. has played a major part.

“At the start, the inspectors were here pretty regularly,” said Colum. “We even got a couple of fines. But now they’ve pretty much disappeared. I haven’t seen an inspector in months, so we feel like we can do what we want.”

Citing sales concerns, city bar and tavern owners have been vocal in their opposition to the ban since Bloomberg first broached the topic in 2002. This past March, the state legislature approved a bill that gives public officials the power to give a waiver to establishments that are experiencing financial hardship because of the ban.

At the same time, the disappearance of inspectors appears to coincide with increased business for these establishments. A state Department of Taxation and Finance report released earlier this month revealed that, after six months of falling sales following the advent of the ban, New York City bars and taverns have experienced growth in four straight quarters, going back to late 2003. The report suggests that smokers have been flaunting the ban in increasing numbers.
Suggestions for better enforcement were less than revelatory.

“The inspectors have to get back on the beat and owners need to step up their enforcement, too,” suggested Munson. “Otherwise it will keep getting worse.”

Gracia recommended vigilante justice.

“People just have to keep an eye out,” he said. “I did it myself once. Went up to a guy trying to be the trailblazer and politely asked him to stop. He immediately put his cigarette out and apologized profusely.”

It is unlikely, however, that all New Yorkers will be so polite.

Prichard Smith, a Williamsburg filmmaker drinking among smokers in an East Village bar recently, sees complete obedience as an impossibility.

“In New York City, when you go out, you gotta expect to run into some smokers, some rule breakers; that’s what this city is all about,” said Smith, a nonsmoker who is not bothered by the return of the late night haze. “If I wanted everybody to follow the rules, I’d live in Iowa.”

"Snake in Fridge"

Theatre Review

The Themantics Group production “Snake in Fridge” is misnamed. Call it hungry home, or the lonely house, because we hardly glimpse the titular reptile and the twisted, noisy abode where most of the action in this sex, drugs, and anxiety-drenched story takes place ultimately becomes the most interesting character in a rather dull tale.

Like any number of predecessors, “Fridge” lays out the lives of six twenty-somethings living in that large Toronto home and attempting to navigate the waters of youthful hedonism and mature responsibility, and mostly failing.

“It’s not like I’m damaged,” one character says early on, and yet it seems all involved are just that in one way or another. The creaky old house, with its rhombus windows and angular doors and which one character repeatedly claims is haunted, is owned by Corbett, a closeted, drug-addicted, and self-consciously short young man who shoots steroids and pumps iron incessantly to compensate for his shortcomings, and his sister, Violet, an imperious, amoral careerist who lives elsewhere. Caddie, an angsty stripper, and her older, delicate sister Donna, who was sexually abused by their older brother years ago, spend their days in a muted tug-of-war for control of their relationship, while the studly Randy, who works for and sleeps with Violet, and his sweet girlfriend Stacy, who moves in with him early in the play, drift apart. Victor, a big, strong, and responsible black man, is Corbett’s best friend and apparently the only undamaged character here.

Stealing bits of “Less Than Zero,” “Rent,” and even “Reality Bites,” Brad Fraser’s story involves three main strands: Corbett’s drug habit and clubbing is catching up with him and he needs to take desperate measures to pay the rent; Violet offers Randy and Stacy $2,000 to be the first couple to have live sex on her new cyber-porn site, driving a wedge between the lovers; and Caddie grows increasingly upset and frustrated with her sister Donna’s flirtations and excursions with their new housemate, a gawky 40-ish man named Charles, who recently left his wife.

Although “Fridge” is directed with considerable energy by Blake Lawrence, with short scenes that pop up in one corner of the stage and melt away as the lighting moves to another spot, the story droops. The almost-youths enter and depart, grow upset and party, scream and screw, and progress predictably. The grungy slacker and gay club worlds seem dated, more out of 1990 than 2006, and the characters are mostly two-dimensional. A “Warning and Disclaimer” from the show’s promotional cards and emails proves accurate – the play does contain both male and female nudity, drug consumption, and even a couple of sex scenes – but rather unnecessary because it all feels tired rather than shocking.

The performances, too, are less than extraordinary, excepting those of Susan O’Connor (Donna) and Sean Baldwin (Charles). We watch with considerable interest as these two figures grow into themselves believably through the action, Donna from shy, almost-retarded waif to assertive, passionate young woman, and Charles from potential stalker to strong, protective lover.
Unfortunately, the action is not focused solely on them, and so we end up in the basement, with that little seen snake slithering somewhere in the shadows and Corbett tied to a pole after robbing and killing a drug dealer. “There’s no wrong when nothing makes sense anyway!” he argues to Victor. The angered house – shaking its disjointed windows and doors and sending residents scurrying with shouts for “More!” – would probably agree.

Snake in Fridge

By Brad Fraser; directed by Blake Lawrence; Sets by Jennifer Varbalow; costumes by Erin Murphy; lighting by Carrie Wood; sound by David Gilman; video design by Corey Behnke; production stage manager, Angela DeGregoria; production manager Beth Slepian; choreography by Tesha Buss; props by Sara Katzoff; dialect coach Kate Lavender. Presented by Jay Aubrey and the Themantics Group. At the Sol Goldman 14th Street Theater, 344 E. 14th St., Manhattan; 212/868-4444. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

With: Sarah K. Lippman (Caddie), Susan O’Connor (Donna), Angela Ai (Stacy), Christian Feliz (Travis), Matthew J. Nichols (Corbett), Sean Baldwin (Charles), Mimi Bilinski (Violet), and Gabriel Grilli (Randy).

Shopping in Pahalgam, Kashmir, India

Kashmir is known for its cashmere – “Sex and the City”-popularized pashmina in particular – and Pahalgam is no exception. Along MM road are over a dozen shawl, stole, and scarf sellers, the best of which is Kashmir Kalla Emporium across from the Pahalgam Hotel. Below are several alternatives to the ubiquitous wool hawkers.

Fresh Milk Shop (5a-11p, no phone.) Habibullah took over from his father a few years ago, but this tiny blue storefront still serves up the area's best milk, cheese, and yogurt, same as it has for over 40 years. Try the sweet kesar (saffron) lassi (Rs 15) and praise nature’s glorious bounty.

Smiling Gifts (428437, 9am-9pm, summer) Satisfy your plastered paper jones at this 50-year-old papier-mache fantasyland, where brightly colored hookahs (Rs 400-600) and ducks jostle for shelf space with keychains, bells, lamps, jewelry cases, and music boxes. The intricate and unusual wood-carved gifts include cigarette holders and tri-level pen and pencil cases.

Pahalgam Color Centre (5am to 8pm daily) Young owner Aishad and his minions have been churning out enough bread for the surrounding villages -- over 2500 Kashmiri rotis per day -- at this former copy-print store turned kiln-fired bakery for 10 years. For a healthy, tasty breakfast at less than Rs 20 pair two with a lassi from the nearby Fresh Milk Shop.

New Market -- Kolkatta, India

One block north of Sudder Street, New Market (10.30am--7.30pm Mon to Fri, Sat till 2:30pm) is definitive Kolkata and a bargain hunter's paradise. Opened in January 1874 as an up-market alternative for Britishers loathe to jostle with "natives" at hot and dusty bazaars, this sprawling shopping center is the brainchild of then-Calcutta Corp. Chairman Sir Stuart Hogg, for whom it was formally named in 1903. A northern portion added in 1909 and the 1930's addition of the renowned clock tower -- of a piece with architect R. Bayney's broad-shouldered, red brick style and ringing out every quarter hour -- have made the grand edifice one of the more appealing Raj era structures downtown. Even a fierce 1985 fire, after which several northern sections were re-built, failed to diminish its appeal.

Designed with airy, 19th century European shopping arcades in mind, New Market has since morphed into something entirely Indian. With over 2000 shops, the interior is choc-a-bloc with stalls and stands of every shape and size, from spicewallahs and their wares crammed into twenty square feet to the ample space and abundant salespeople of the Jamna Departmental Store. From sweaters to saris, chapals to cardamom, leather goods to luggage, toys, flowers, tea, pet supplies, sporting goods, cosmetics, jewelry, and a great deal more, a determined shopper can find anything here, often at prices that preclude haggling (this is where Kolkatans shop, too). Stores are grouped by product offerings – dairy goods in the NW corner, for example, and flowers on the SE – for easier perusal and greater competition. Essential stops include: Nahoum and Sons Confectioners, an oasis of warm baked goods and dark wood near the NW corner, offering popular Western-style brownies and dense, rich fruit cakes; Bombay Dry Food has a lock on the best nuts; and at Curio Cottage, brass Dancing Shivas and wooden Ganeshas share shelf space with white and blue habit-wearing miniature Mother Teresas. Additionally, an attractive variety of only-in-Kolkata specialties -- glass bangles, palm sweets, cane baskets, and fine embroidery -- can be found at the back, or northern end, of the market.

Although the licenses of the ubiquitous, wicker basket-carrying coolies patrolling the grounds attest to the continued existence of Sir Stuart Hogg Market, their place of work has been widely known as New Market for decades. Be not leery of their services; many have been working the market for decades and can lead you to the finest Kalimpong cheese or Kashmiri shawl at the best price in no time, and since they are paid a commission from the seller with every purchase, they expect no more than a nominal gratuity.

Finally, the market has matured beyond its original structure and purpose. Tentacles reaching into nearby alleys and side streets have transformed the surrounding seven or eight blocks into a single, slapdash shopping district. One block east on Mirza Ghalib, for instance, is a row of music shops. Record Prince offers the latest Western and Hindi CD's and an eclectic collection of old 45's; a quick flip-thru turned up Judy Garland, Charley Pride, and the Bay City Rollers.

After dusk, most of the interior shops close and New Market becomes a lively outdoor gathering place, with tea stalls and snack shops crowded with munching, chatting patrons and well-manned area shops staying open and brightly lit til late. The Chaplin Theatre in the northeast corner occasionally shows plays or performances, and numerous cinemas, restaurants and bars just north do a brisk business in the evening.

SPOTLIGHT: For the strong of stomach, a stroll through the Gothic masterpiece of a meat market that divides the New Market building into east and west wings is essential, and a powerful sensory experience. Less a place to buy meat -- although that is still an option -- than to absorb the glory of gore, the space seems to have dropped in from a previous, more forbidding century. The aroma of fresh animal viscera smacks the nostrils upon leaving behind the market stalls for the slaughterhouse. Cleavers crack through bone and meet tenderized tree stump with a thud as chicken-feathered blood runs wine dark thru small canals edging the butchering floors. A smiling Bengali jabs his arm elbow-deep into the body of an upside down-hanging goat, bobbing feverishly to separate furry skin from flesh and bone while nearby his colleague peddles two-gallon tubs of cream-colored animal fat. Overhead, dozens of cawing blackbirds perch on crisscrossed, cobwebbed ropes and wires, hedging hopefully towards freshly skinned shanks of pink meat. Hazy fingers of light streaking through shattered windows and vents bearing a century's worth of dust complete the Grand Guignol aura, as well as the eloquent argument for vegetarianism.