Monthly Archives: February 2008

“The Lovechild of Anaïs Nin and Johnny Cash. Pure Sin on Amphetamines.”*

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(Or, Contrary to popular belief, I am not in love with the sound of my own voice.)

But I enjoy using it, especially in artistic expression. And there is some evidence (occasionally culled from speaking to distracted drivers from the backseat…) that shows that there are folks out there who kinda like it too.

No hidden brag posts here, just a nice dose of the shameless usual. I resurrected my Myspace account as a musician one, so as to upload spoken word recordings. You can find me here. Two poems are up now: Karna Considers Yuanfen and And If You Still Must Leave, both recorded by Kieran Kuek at 2am studios, Kuala Lumpur, last year. The latter poem is up in two versions — the violent rendering, in which I usually perform it, and a colder, more controlled one, which Kieran encouraged me to explore as an alternative method of delivery.

To be honest I wouldn’t say that it’s these two poems that should introduce people to my work, but those are the ones I have good recordings of.

I’ve found that I don’t enjoy recording in studios, or for the sake only of recording, very much at all. I slip up more. I feel less in my element. There is an absence of a certain haphazardness, which gets lost in multiple takes. I remember something I read in a magazine maybe a dozen years ago, when I certainly could not relate but was intrigued enough to keep it in mind — the singer Jewel in her pre-sellout days likening recording in a studio to faking an orgasm.

Nonetheless, there are more recordings in the works. The final cut of Poem, which I did with Kieran and also in a different persona, hasn’t grown on me enough for me to upload it. I did some recordings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last month, and if any of that is workable, will definitely upload.

I recommend using headphones, and listening to them loud.

Find me. Add me. Listen. If you like.

* That would be a quote. The subject line is because I think Jerome’s line, “poor man’s Kylie in shorts” is way cool. My friend the actor and credit card abuser Branavan Aruljothi offered me the above for a “sounds like…” comparison. It is not nearly as cool. But neither am I.

Flash Fiction: The Woman Who Feared The Sea

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I wrote this a few days ago, and today being Tell A Fairytale Day, thought it appropriate to post now.

The Woman Who Feared The Sea

The woman who feared the sea loved the sea. She loved it so much she saw its ugliness. Its deep, dark deep-dark. Her love, unlike most loves, was honest. Prying. In her love, all objects paled, their shadows turned into truths. She expected the worst, and in this way, could subvert its hold.

This is how she discovered that she feared it. She was sitting by the sea with the man who would become her husband. It was 3.30 in the afternoon, thirty years ago, thirty miles or thirty thousand from where you first hear this story. There weren’t that many people around. The shore was prettied with the pawprints of dogs. The man asked her to remove the hairclip she was wearing. It had a pink synthetic flower on it. She obliged. She left it in the sand, next to her thigh.

It was the second time she was meeting this man. Already, her future had rolled itself out in front of her. She could look into the sunlit blue of the horizon confidently. When he took her hand in his and squeezed it, she suddenly felt like she should leave a token to the sea. Like a ticket to a concert. Or a votive to the Virgin.

The waves flirted near her toes. A little nearer, a little further. She was thinking about how to say thank you, how to pay this debt, when suddenly the water swarmed around them. Her skirt became drenched. Sand stuck to her knees. As she stood, laughing, patting down her clothes, embarrassed and happy, she spotted something pink swirling away. Her hairclip was gone.

Ever since that day, she could never visit the sea without leaving a token. Sometimes she would decide the night before what she would offer. Sometimes, if she found herself by a shore spontaneously or serendipitously, she would leave something she would find in her handbag – a receipt, a name card, an unused tampon. There was something illegal otherwise. The only time she tried to walk away, she had gotten back home, turned the key in its lock, and seized by terror fled back to the seaside. Empty-handed, not even earrings to part with, she left her house key, watching it sink into the shallowest wave. It was still on the sand, being lapped, when she left. She didn’t want to touch it again, after giving it up. She told her husband she had lost it.

When she had her first child she took her to the sea. But the moment she stepped out of the car and shut the door behind her, she shivered. It was a downcast day. Her baby was strapped to her front in some sort of pouch, like they were kangaroos. She felt a chill run up her spine and at that same moment, the baby woke up with a shriek.

She took off her slippers and nearly hurled them into the water. Then she hurriedly got back into the car, started the engine, and sped away.

So her children grew up never knowing what playing on a beach was like. Ever since that day with the tremulous clouds and the wind and the fear, she knew she couldn’t take them to the sea. She knew the sea would extract revenge, a gift. Or two. Both her children at once, gulped away like in an ocean horror movie with every trick in the book.

After her divorce, she moved with them to a landlocked city. Her daughter, in adulthood, would take vacations exclusively to coastal destinations. Her son was more like her. He didn’t long for things that weren’t meant to be his. He was steady, certain, elegant in his sensible ways. On the morning of her fifty-third birthday she woke up to a phone call telling her he had drowned in a swimming pool.

A Valentine To The City

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When Blogbharti approached me sometime back to commission a piece for their Spotlight Series, I really wasn’t sure what to write about. Then Kuffir, the website’s editor, mentioned that he missed “the fiery poet” who seemed absent from this new blog. For reasons that will be obvious to those who followed me here from the old blog, I’ve certainly tempered things down. So I got to thinking, what provokes me these days, to the point of writing? I wrote this on Valentine’s Day. It was published this morning here. The photos above were taken by me on the fourth Chennai Photowalk.

A VALENTINE TO THE CITY

Sometimes, I hate this city. I don’t deny that. There is so much to hate here. It is merciless. A crude, cruel, unforgiving bitch of a city. The meanness of its people. Sycophancy, moral (dis)order, parochialism pimped out to the tune of “heritage”. Sanctimony. There is the deliberate Anglophilia and its darker – in colour, too – twin, self-loathing. I abhor its hypocrisy, its incestuous orbits, the claustrophobia it induces. How it is its women who are the torchbearers of its patriarchies. The oddness of an illogical concept like caste running this whole machine. I cannot stand its Edenizing of the tremendously racist nation of Malaysia, its unexceptional immigrant dreams; nor can I stand the chest-thumping that trivializes the very real defects of our own. The weather. Hell on earth is Madras in May. Even the rains cannot soften this city.

Sometimes, I hate this city. I do.

And sometimes I take an auto through a road strewn with rose petals, a funeral wake having passed through minutes before. I breathe in that macabre glory. Sometimes I carry my little camera along with a group of mostly large men with large cameras, men who know this city, who can speak of its architecture and its history, who can point to a place one might have seen a thousand times and illuminate it, suddenly. I fall in love this way. Like Rushdie’s man who viewed his bride in pieces, through a perforated sheet, so too I fall for my city, mutilate it, make it mine.

“Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” wrote Orhan Pamuk in his definitive book on the city of his soul. “I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”

And in its distance, the irrevocability of never having grown up here, and then the inevitability of having had to return nonetheless, it wields the same influence over me.

And so this is my secret. I have been speaking to this city, in my head. I call it, typically perhaps, her. I make this city mine just as she unmakes and reassembles me. The dialogue between us is one of cause and consequence. Will you hurt me this time? I ask. What if I never told anyone when I hate you? What if I never let myself speak about leaving? What if I act like I never will, I say sometimes, and that is the most poignant of questions – because sometimes, I think I never will.

So here I am. And here I am. And here I may always be. And even if I leave, to here I will return and return and return, each time in a different sentiment. I will return with rancour. I will return with regret. I will return without routes in mind. Uprooted. Belligerently. In cavalier attitudes, have holidays I will barely remember later. Bouyant and broken and beyond description. I will return, and return, and return.

She has never known the smell of jasmines, doesn’t give a damn about henna on the hands or the hair. She is nothing like who she thinks she is. She stands at the bottoms of hoardings and stares up at misrepresentations of her face, her cleavage, the look in her eyes. And not one passerby recognizes her. She’s slutty: she belongs to millions, and like all of them, I like to think she comes home to me. Still, nothing makes her melt more than S.P. Balasubramaniam’s voice in a flick from the ’80s, nothing breaks her heart quite so sweetly like being called Kannamma. In arguments, and only then, she mixes her V’s and her W’s. She may suggest otherwise in certain company, but cannot speak a word of Hindi. Not a word.

Petulant as a child on a summer holiday trying to sleep in the backseat of a 1994 Maruti 800, neither her hands nor her eyelids able to shield her from the sunlight. Powerful as an MGR speech – Thaimakale! En rathathin rathame! Kitschy and tasteless as a political poster, and just as tactful as a man pissing against it. Coy. Cunning. Deceptively simple.

Living here has turned me from being spiritual to a blasé agnostic. Trees that inspire awe and humility are rare – but one of the better things I did the week before last was to walk the entire stretch of the rather long road on which I live and found, to my surprise, some decent ones. The Marina looms fifteen minutes from home, but too many paces from the call of the soul; even disappearing into the coast in this city by the sea is perhaps too obvious an escape to be worth it. I could stand on the terrace of my family’s apartment, toss pieces of coloured paper into the air, and have each one land on a church, a mosque, but mostly some small roadside shrine. It doesn’t matter. I find myself worshipping nothing but the City. My awful and wonderful god. Dictator of my future, arbitrator of my past.

You don’t inspire me anymore, I tell her. You’re just another city, like the hundreds out there. You’re just another place on the map. You don’t even smell like you used to.

Silence. The persistence of horns. The particular sound of the engines of autorickshaws. Someone whispering nasties to a girl who pretends not to hear as she walks by, someone else uncurdling phlegm from her throat and spitting.

So – what then? I demand. You think you own me?

And that’s when she gathers her skirts – yes, in the plural, she is mad and dramatic and imperious that way – and flees to a more considerate lover. Cruel mistress of mine.

And I am left still sitting here, penning paeans, shooting pictures. Smitten. Sodden. Gone.

Italian Intrigue

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The editors of the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore emailed me a few days ago to say they had received a note from the Italian journal Buràn which said that they had published a translation of the excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Constellation of Scars, that QLRS had first published in 2006.

Neither QLRS nor I had been contacted for permission.

I am not upset (not even about the fact that they credit me to Malaysia, but hey who cares — never will that country be able to lay its claim to me again) but am certainly intrigued. Mailed it over to an Italian-speaking friend for an appraisal about the quality of translation. Any other Italian speakers/readers out there? What do you think?

The original is here.

Why I Dropped Out of Kitab 2008

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When I was 17, I was a much more ambitious person than I am now. I wanted not just to write and create, to love and to live, as I do now – I was firmly committed to being the change I wanted to see in the world. It was, perhaps oxymoronically, altruistic ambition that drove me. I wanted to save people. Women, to be exact. I categorically read nothing but feminist literature. I wore sloganned T-shirts. I volunteered. I picked fights with people at every single sniff of sexism.

I was serious. And one of the things I did at this time was to start producing alone what I envisioned to be a series of events that would combine my two passions: live performance and activism.

This series was called “CRESCENDO: Raise Your Voice”, and its first installment was in aid of a Petaling Jaya-based women’s rights organization. It grew out, in part, of the opposition I encountered trying to produce and perform The Vagina Monologues at my college at the time (a compromise was reached: I could do one monologue and one piece with another actor, under the title The Valenki Monologues. Valenki is Russian for felt boots. Right up to when I left KL, I continued to be surprised by someone or the other who remembered me from the performance, years later — the little lace and leather skirt really must have been something, but I’m digressing). CRESCENDO was zero-budget and featured poetry and music by artists performing pro bono, with all funds raised going toward the charity.

A few days prior to the event, a mass email by someone who had directed, by coincidence, a production of TVM for said organization and who had had a massive falling out with them sent out a mass email calling for the boycott of the event I was organizing. To cut this long story short (and there is also much I could say about the similar propaganda-type hostility I encountered a year or two later trying to organize a CRESCENDO event in Chennai, but I won’t), the mass mail was timed so as to have a direct impact on the scheduled event. Interestingly, the fallout gained me a certain notoriety that dogs me to this day – and roped in even more performers who had heard about it only because of the controversy. But here’s the thing — whether the organization had been at fault in their dealing with the director was not, to me, the issue by this point. That a long delay in addressing the issue was made, and somebody else’s hard work was capitalized upon in order to finally do so, rendered things unethical.

Something similar happened to this year’s Kitab festival. While I won’t go into details, allegations were thrown. Allegations timed to coincide with the few days before this festival, professional and personal battles that really should have been handled months ago. The timing reeked of deliberate sabotage. Because of my prior experience, I could not empathise with those who chose to bring up their allegations now. They may be right. But their methods leave me out in the cold.

Counter-allegations came. By this point, the damage was done. Sponsors fled. Bad press (and this is why I can blog about the matter: it’s already out there). The whole picture is still emerging, and there may be more than just two sides to this coin. Having been responsible for my own flights and accommodation, the difficult decision of whether to take a risk on what had suddenly become a very unsolid investment had to be made.

I chose not to go. I can reroute my tickets. But I won’t be able to recoup the losses of paying to be at an event with bad turnout or bad publicity (and please — if you’re thinking about giving me the line about no publicity being bad publicity, hold it — I would know. As Jeet said, controversy is my poodle: she follows me everywhere).

I am deeply disappointed – I was looking forward to Kitab since the middle of last year. But logic prevails. Being self-sponsored, in simple terms, means that if an investment will likely not produce returns, one doesn’t make it. The terms of my invitation – zilch sponsorship and no honorarium – were accepted in the interest of what seemed to be a good, strategic investment. But they no longer make sense.

I wish Pablo Ganguli and Kitab 2008 the very best. I regret not being able to be involved, but due to the current circumstances, my participation does not seem viable. While I do not wish to take sides in the current situation, and can clearly see that neither party is guilt-free in the matter, I certainly do resent the fact that the commitments, time and even expenses of participants like myself who only have to lose should the festival fall through were not taken into account by those who waited a year to publicly make their complaints.

Also see: Peter Griffin’s all-sides round-up.

Kitab 2008 in Mumbai This Weekend

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I have been wanting desperately to announce that I will be doing the opening event of this year’s Kitab Festival ever since I was asked to!

The schedule on the website is subject to update. All events are free and open to the public except for the nightly parties.

Me, me, me time: I am on at 11am, Friday February 22nd, at the Asiatic Library. Will be reading poems and fielding questions from the audience.