Monthly Archives: March 2008

Ameen Merchant’s The Silent Raga

Standard

Anything that combines the powerhouses that are the Madras Book Club (supposed to have a membership of 800) and the Prakriti FoundatioAmeen Merchant & Sharanya Manivannann equals, at the very least, fantastic turnout. I calculated between 150-200 people at the Taj Connemara last night, at the launch of Ameen Merchant’s The Silent Raga. Reading from the novel were Madras Players’ Yamuna and Deesh Mariwala, classical singer Subhashri Ramachandran and yours truly, as well as the author of course.

The Silent Raga was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and is published in Canada by Douglas & MacIntyre and in paperback (Rs 395) in India by HarperCollins. A couple of interviews with the author are here and here.

With Ameen at the post-launch gathering at Amethyst

The Shaming of Scarlett Keeling

Standard

(Cross-posted at Ultraviolet)

That violence against women rarely grabs any attention except for in the presence of gruesomeness, sensationalism, drama and tragedy is already known. But more disturbing by far than the fact that the murder of a teenage tourist in Goa last month has been making headlines precisely due its cocktail of all the above elements is the level of moral sanctimony that accompanies the media coverage, the ensuing debates, and even what are ostensibly the responses of those who knew Scarlett Keeling and her family.

On February 18, the body of 15-year old Scarlett Keeling, a British national, was found on a Goan beach. Police initially chalked up her death to drowning after consuming too much alcohol, despite evidence of severe bruising and rape. But investigations and post-mortem investigations revealed contradictory facts, as did eyewitness accounts by people who had seen the girl during her final hours. Scarlett had been in India with her mother Fiona MacKeown, MacKeown’s boyfriend, and her siblings. They were frequent visitors, and on this instance were on a six-month-long trip.

Allegations were quickly leveled against MacKeown for her negligence of Scarlett. The moral higher ground was quickly swamped by those chastising her for her irresponsible behaviour. One whiff of scandal led to another, and details about MacKeown’s private life were dug up. Scarlett’s diary entries were exposed in the media. The bottomline message was that somehow, by choosing to lead lifestyles that included partying, sex and substances, they had asked for the tragedy that befell them. Terms like “alleged murder” were popular, as though it could have been anything else, until today’s gruesome revelation: Scarlett was murdered by having her head held underwater for between five and ten minutes. She asphyxiated to death.

It is alarming to watch the cruelty of the media – from possibly every newspaper in the country to even NDTV’s usually fairly progressive We The People to the blogosphere – and what can be gauged of common opinion by it. Despite the horrifying brutality inflicted on a person who by Indian standards was still a child, and the overwhelming confusion and despair her loved ones are no doubt experiencing, the attacks made against the victim and the family censure them with only superficial demonstrations of sympathy. Political officials in Goa are calling for the revoking of MacKeown’s visa and a ban on her entering the country again, blaming her for maligning the image of the state. She has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life from both the drug mafia and state officials whom she has linked to them.

Scarlett’s boyfriend, an Indian citizen named Julio Lobo, has been taken for medical tests to see if he is “sexually active”. A DNA test of substances found on or in the victim’s body would not be unreasonable, but pray tell, what does his being or not being sexually active reveal about the horrific tragedy? Is it necessary, given that in her diary, Scarlett had written not only that she had sex with him, but that she felt he used her for it? Is there a test that proves sexual activity in males? Or is this like one of those repressed, backward ideas about broken hymens and being able to pee in a straight line? That this person’s private life is being pried into in a manner that is unlikely to shed any light on the senselessness of the incident is nothing more than one of the many ways in which the blame is being pinned on “the wanton Western way”. The boyfriend, we are to assume, has sinned by his affinity to this lifestyle of debauchery, which – we are also to assume – is imported to India by the likes of the Keeling family. But even that doesn’t quite crack it: Lobo is being tested not because of his character – but because of what the conclusiveness of science is meant to tell us about hers.

Lobo, in turn, has retaliated by attacking MacKeown because she had been aware of Scarlett’s lifestyle (but she says Scarlett was neither a binge drinker not drug abuser, to her knowledge). This, too, is reprehensible. At 25 years old, a decade older than Scarlett, his relationship with her could amount to statutory rape. Clearly, prior to the murder, MacKeown’s liberal parenting style benefited him. His attempt to deflect attention from his actual law-breaking by ganging up against the bereaved mother with the rest of the patriarchy squad is sickening.

In other words, the condemning of the murdered girl, her family, her friends, their lifestyles and their choices is a typical misogynist response – the wicked woman gets her dues. And this time, there are not one but two “wicked women”: Fiona MacKeown, mother of not just the victim, but of several more children of “varying paternity”, and Scarlett herself. That the women in question happen to be from the West (that corrupter of our chaste and virtuous ways of life!) is icing on the cake.

Rape, murder, the works – apparently, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, they can all be justified.

Make no mistake. What we see in the media today is not an enquiry into a crime. It is slut-shaming, plain and simple. The nation is not in shock because a 15 year old has been so brutally treated. Those are not the sounds of protest and outrage; they are the sounds of many hands rubbing in glee, so thrilled to be vindicated of their position that women who break the rules deserve what’s coming to them, and what’s coming to them is exactly what happened to Scarlett Keeling.

But what happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with if she had sex, if she did drugs, if she drank. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with why her mother so frequently chose to travel to India or lived a bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has only one reason: some places in the world are not safe for women, not because of culture or tradition, but because of an absence of respect for them as individuals. India is one of them. India killed Scarlett Keeling – and every day, kills many less sensationalized individuals. That Fiona MacKeown has seen this is not delusion on her part.

“The Second Coming”: The Reincarnated Poem Open Mic

Standard

After the success of the reading at Thalankuppam just over a week ago, we decided to hold something a little more mainstream, just to spread the word that poetry, open-mic style, has come to Chennai.

“The Second Coming” (all puns and cleverness intended) is going to be a mix of two formats. Original poetry, and poetry in translation. The idea is to not only encourage people to get a feel of performing their own writing, but to also hone poetry appreciation and performance poetry in itself, by sharing some of the best verses through the ages. Because March 21 is World Poetry Day we celebrate translation in particular, the gift it gives to the world at large. Basically, in addition to any poetry of your own, bring along a poem that was not originally in English. Think Octavio Paz, Rabindranath Tagore, Anna Akhmatova (for examples) and you’ll see what we’re trying to do.

Friday is a public holiday, and Mocha in the mornings is a lovely setting. This reading will be held on the upper floor, with special permission from the management. All are welcome.

Please click on the flyer below for details. It’s a little cluttered but they’re there. Really. ;)

mocha-copy.jpg

 

In Today’s The New Indian Express

Standard

untitled-5.jpg

I don’t have a scanner, and I apologise for the clunky thing above. Please click on the image to take you to the file’s page, then click on the image again. Then, zoom in to read. Sorry!

For a change, am pleased with this print article that appeared in today’s The New Indian Express, in the City Express (Chennai) supplement. There’s a write-up on Poetry on the Pier, an interview focused on my feminism, and one of my poems.

At Thalankuppam

Standard
jump

Some very friendly boys and their dog, on Thalankuppam beach. All photos above are by me. Larger sizes and black and white versions are on my Flickr page.

Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and I came up with the idea of holding a poetry reading at Thalankuppam, north of the city of Chennai, while talking about coasts. Like many artists, we are both obsessed with them to some extent. When I told him about my own favourite beach, which is widely regarded as a crappy excuse for one but stirs me still, he told me about Thalankuppam. He had discovered it by accident, while riding without any particular destination in mind, leaving the city behind. By this time, we and a few others had been having a lot of discussions about the necessity and opportunity present to create a community, one which not just writes and reveres the written word, but takes joy in the spoken.

Thalankuppam made sense on several levels — gorgeous yet discreet, it has an interesting story which few know. We wanted a small event, something in the indie spirit. No sponsors, no pish-poshness. We also wanted something that had the ethos of the city in it — an ethos which we hope to shape, in our own small ways. As I have written and said elsewhere before, I feel blessed to be at this point again for the second time in my life. The right place at the right time, just as I was six or seven years ago in KL. Chennai is pulsing with something which, if harnessed, will set the city alight. Trust me on this one. I’ve seen it once and am certain I’m about to witness it again. Or the city will, in any case, with or without me.

On the afternoon of March 9th, a small group set forth from Madras University, hugging the beach northwards for under an hour until we reached the area of Thalankuppam. We entered a settlement area, and the further into it we drove the more I realised that truly, this was the kind of beach that could only be stumbled upon. When we finally parked to walk, near a delta, we were confronted by a small hill of sand. Human-made, from sediment that clogged the factory-bordered river otherwise.

Beyond this hill was the beach. And jutting from this beach was the abandoned pier. Chandroo’s camera will say things best, so please go ahead and harass him to post his photos up.

We settled on the beach to start the reading, which was pleasantly delayed by the far from camera-shy boys above. Matthew played sacrificial lamb, reading a poem which Sivakami, who had had to leave once we reached Thalankuppam, had left with him. He delivered her homage to the masculine and feminine properties of the sea beautifully. Chandroo read three poems, one of which was a translation of Subramania Bharathy. Katia, Matilda, Sarah and Jenny — the unsuspecting newspaper interns we whisked off to this deserted, untouristy part of greater Chennai — most impressively shared some of their favourite poems by others from memory. Katia read some musings from her journal. I read a few pieces, including one about a dream I had about a sea that was startlingly similar to the view mid-way on the pier. Julian did not read, but lent his quiet support.

We had held off from actually getting on the pier and walking to its end because Chandroo, whose 25th or thereabouts trip this was, had recommended we wait until closer to sundown, when the colours of our surroundings would take on different properties. He was right — it was worth it.

Walking the pier itself was probably the most incredible experience of an altogether brilliant evening. The good kind of scary, like a rollercoaster, only more dangerous, because the only safety devices we had were each others’ sweaty hands and our own intrepid footsteps. You can’t tell from the picture we used on the flyer, but that is no bridge. It’s like a horizontal ladder. Lose your step and you plummet into the water.

It was like walking on waves, the ocean surging around us. Absolutely stunning.

At the end of the pier was a wonderful little sheltered platform. I tried to imagine watching a thunderstorm from there, the terrible thrill it must be like. We were joined by two latecomers, who hadn’t carpooled and had gotten lost hence. Here, I read two more poems before we headed back, beating the dusk.

Thank you all — who were interested but could not make it, who came, who will come to future events. We had a wonderful time and will keep you posted about the next event. Suggestions, ideas — let us know. Sivakami Velliangiri left a poem responding to the event in the comments section of the announcement post; do check it out.