Monthly Archives: January 2008

What I’ve Been Reading…

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So here’s an admission that someone who probably owns 700 or 800 books shouldn’t make: all of last year, I think I finished only one novel. I couldn’t read novels last year. I was dead in vast swathes of spirit, and none of what was left could accommodate the mindspace of a novel. I was living from border run to border run and then, difficult, surreal reorientation to the self not split between borders. If you have no idea how living that way shrinks the landscape of one’s system, don’t try to find out.

The only novel I remember finishing last year was something I would not normally have bought at a place like Kinokuniya. It was not even the Ondaatje one I bought at the equivalent of Rs.1200 on the day it came out — which I waited for for months and when it was finally in my hands, could not start. It was The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I was splurging with purpose, a risk on something popular, possily pedestrian, on a bookshopping date. The book moved, sentimental as it was. I recommended it.

Over the weekend I got some bonus money for something I had already been paid for. I did what I firmly believe one must do with unexpected money — either splurge or give it away. I splurged. I bought five novels. Two by authors I trust. One out of curiosity. One the way I bought The Time-Traveller’s Wife, on simple faith. One whimsically.

And because my computer at home exploded and I am only in the office for three or four hours in the late mornings, I’ve been forced to return to something I used to love. I finished one book the day before yesterday, another the day before that, a hundred pages of yet another yesterday.

And yes, I did bring the Ondaatje back with me. After not reading it for so many months, despite having even given it to someone else (who did finish, and loved, it) I must wait for a quiet moment. It will call.

What I’ve been reading:

The whimsical choice: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

I started with this book because I had read the first two chapters in the bookstore, and knew that despite its suspiciously chick-lit flavoured cover, it was going to be a smart, funny read (and being the most expensive of the books, its purchase really did have to be justified). The Greek gods and goddesses, being immortal, find themselves in contemporary London. Redundant, reduced to less than almighty professions (dog-walker, TV psychic, phone sex operator) and filled with ennui, not to mention unable to discuss all of the above and the potential political struggle that could change things, immortal life really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be anymore for them.

The book is as cynical as it is funny — and, if you’ll excuse the snobbery, it is this cynicism that places it in a better literary situation than the average rom-com romp. The underworld is a dreary place. Haunting the upperworld as a ghost is no better. The sense of touch does not exist — so there go food, drink, sex, playing the piano. Hell, yes. And heaven? Doesn’t exist.

A good dose of blasphemy — Christianity, as it were, is the make-believe religion, which puts the converted Eros into a bit of a sad pickle — and perfectly commonplace incest lend themselves to a smug wickedness. The dynamics of the immortal (and immoral) family and the sad humour therein reminded me of the similar dysfunctions of those in Wes Anderson’s work. I think the novel will translate very well into film, even more entertainingly than on the page. You could snip-snip the actors out of The Royal Tenenbaums right into this plot but oh! — Kim Cattrall as Aphrodite, hands down.

An author I trust: Now Is The Time To Open Your Heart by Alice Walker

When I say I trust Alice Walker, I mean I trust her. Completely. She may be the bravest novelist in the world. Could anyone else could have written so wrenchingly, so frighteningly, about female genital mutilation as she did in Possessing The Secret of Joy? She writes out of her iyari, without fear. I believe her when she says she had an ancestor who was a lion. When she says she communes with their spirits. I believe her just because for someone who speaks out of their iyari, all these and more are possible.

Kate, a well-published author who’s somewhere between middle and old age, goes into the rainforest in a journey of self-discovery aided by natural hallucinogenics and the shamans who administer them. It is a journey she has undertaken before, and this time she goes because she finds that even Buddhism, that most practical of religions, has failed her. And she fears for the loss of the earth itself.

Walker herself is a shaman. I usually get tremendously upset to read or watch material about the destruction of the earth. It’s an issue that depresses me too deeply to consider at length. Reading Alice Walker is like having someone hold your hand and take you through it, the terribleness of it. And this book in particular — at the end of that journey is a truth no politician, no activist, can tell you. And it is profoundly reassuring.

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Blogging on Red Room

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I just cross-posted the previous entry on Red Room, a very interesting new website which describes itself as follows: “Welcome to Red Room, the official home of the world’s greatest writers. Through original, author-generated content, we offer a trustworthy and creative social network unlike any other. Here, you can connect with your favorite authors, access current industry news, and comment on engaging features. By fostering true community between authors and readers, Red Room showcases esteemed writers and inspires the next generation. We also give back to the community we aim to nurture with our commitment to the Causes We Support.”

I first heard about Red Room a few days ago (via whose blog, I can’t remember — but thank you!), and applied to be one of their authors, just trying my luck. I was surprised and honoured to learn that I have been accepted. Some of my favourite authors, including Amy Tan and Salman Rushdie, are involved as well. My page is here, but it is not up yet. Hopefully they’ll approve it, now that I’ve made a submission and added some other content. (Update — it’s up.)

Speaking of writing communities, someone asked me to share more about what happened last night. It was a small event at Eric Miller and Magdalene Jeyarathnam’s home, with special guests New Yorkers Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club, Ram Devineni of Rattapallax Press and language conservationist Catherine Fletcher — as well as members of the local fishing community whose storytelling and oral narrative techniques were shared and discussed. Translations by the sportingly irrepressible Meena Kandasamy, a bit of folk singing from her father, and a debate about whether or not it would be appropriate to have mourning songs sung in a home with a baby livened proceedings up considerably. A personal moment I am proud of was when Bob asked me to perform a poem from memory impromptu in front a video camera, and I did “Witchery”, the opening poem from the book, and a few lines into in, all other conversations in the room had ceased. “You stopped time, you stopped the room,” said Bob. By the end of the evening, I felt very stimulated, very certain that what I’m trying to do in Chennai makes more sense now than ever before, that something is about to spark.

Notes Upon Viewing An Oppari

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Tonight the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped. She wept like it mattered — and it did matter.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight. Only poetry. And yet she wept as she took her seat. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her on both cheeks, led her to her chair. Someone else brought her, and the other singer she came with, fruit.

Their work is the mourning song. When asked to sing lullabies, they could not. Their melody could not change: it was entrenched in the work of grief, the work of allowing the bereaved to shake loose from their spirits the weights of loss.

The singer and the song. The poet and the poem. There is a moment of transcendence in which the two are indistinguishable, and this is rare. Epiphany. To perform is to be; to be is to perform.

Months ago, I wrote: “The work of the oracle is through body and voice. The work of the oracle is to give voice to the bodies upon which are inscribed our fates. The work of the oracle is to go beyond body-memory, to transcend into ancestral memory. To excavate. To restore. The work of the oracle is as much past as it is future.”

And so, too, is the work of the oppari singer. The one who serenades death and the departed, soothes those who are left behind. As much future as it is past.

It didn’t matter that only the song was real. No funeral. No reason to sing but an audience. Because the song was the only thing that did matter.

Sometimes I stand on stage and I don’t know anything but the page before me. I forget the life I must return to, the life from which I came. Sometimes I stand there and I cannot see a thing. I cannot feel my body. I am only a voice.

And sometimes I can feel my body but only because it is so small, it cannot contain me, it cannot contain this voice with which I am so full that I am fit to burst.

Koldovstvo Coming

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The witching hour draws nearer and nearer. After six months of sitting on a secret, I’m finally able to talk about my publisher (for my book of poems, Witchcraft). Bullfighter Books is tiny, new, Asian-centric. Their vibe is indie, guerrila, curious. Other books they’re putting out this year include poetry by Inzaman Amjad Khan and two anthologies.

We’re negotiating the cover of the book now, because I have my heart set on a photograph by Somebody Famous. The photographer has to okay it, and then BB have to see if they can afford it.

Once that’s outta the way, and it’s the biggest thing at the moment, we’re all set to print. So we’re looking at April, May, maybe June. Before the end of July, because I want it out before I’m 23. It helps to have a deadline. And I’m just vain that way.

Oh — Koldovstvo, my translator informs me, is Russian for “witchcraft”. Work on the Russian version hasn’t started yet, so the publication of that hasn’t been scheduled. (No, really, it’s coming out in Russian! Surreal isn’t it? The translator found me through the Internet last June, contacted me asking if I’d let them translate, and… Bless the blog, I tell you!)

So this is the first of the Witchcraft posts. Don’t really have a plan in mind, but I know one thing for sure — as the example of my translator illustrates gorgeously, I owe quite alot career-wise to having had an online presence for almost a couple of years now. So it only makes sense to share my thoughts during the lead-up to an event I have been waiting for since I was seven years old, an event which may have still been a long way off had it not been for the… dare I say it?… fans (lurkers and loud ones both) being online has generated.

The first of the advance praise specifically for the collection has come in. Cyril Wong, whom I first got to know after he had published some of my poems in Softblow, and Mani Rao, who heard of me through the poet and blogger Sridala Swami, liked my poems on Softblow and got in touch (my life has always been saturated in heavy-duty synchronicity) have given their blurbs, both of which are in the About section of the blog.

In the next few months, I’ll share updates, a few poems, and interviews (if any).

But better not jinx anything. ;)

Chennai Sangamam

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What I liked best about the Chennai Sangamam, performances aside, was how it had the air of a real festival. Performances weren’t preceded by speeches in English about culture and tradition and excavation. There were no tickets. No formal rustle of sarees and elite arts-patronage gossip. The night I attended, at Nateson Park, there was no stage. The crowds followed the sound of drums; circles formed of their own accord, within which performers stampeded and sang and shone.

I loved it. I loved how in my flat slippers, I could barely see above people’s heads. I loved how I could only hear the action most of the time, could barely photograph a thing, could only catch glimpses of bright costumes between the throng of bodies that was the standing audience. This was street performance at its truest. This was real, unfettered culture.

The festival was initiated last year, and mainly features folk dances, music and food from around Tamil country. Held over a week at various locations around the city, mostly public spaces like parks and beaches, I think it’s a wonderful way to encourage interest in heritage. Free of the co-opting and monopolizing that overpowers what we urbanites know of heritage, there’s a certain liberty to things. A certain authenticity.

Now that I’m on one of my sporadic trips to the land of the employed and days that end at 4am are no longer an option, I only managed to go one night of Chennai Sangamam. It’s an amazing addition to the city’s calendar of events, and I’m hoping that it turns into something as entrenched into our ethos as the Margazhi season — sans the cloying institutionalization.

“The Poet Offers Discord”

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“When the imagination is given sight by passion, it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love. These proud contempts, this hating love, often earn the writer a nation’s wrath. The nation requires anthems, flags. The poet offers discord. Rags.”

— Salman Rushdie, from “Notes on Writing and the Nation”

Read the rest. The essay appears in the brilliant Step Across This Line. I recommend reading the first piece, and then the others out of order. Reading his dispatches from the fatwa years before the essay I quote from, readings deepened by my own recent demonization from blogger among millions to enemy of the state, leaves me with an immense renewed respect for Rushdie. The person as much as the genius.