Monthly Archives: June 2008

Review: Viva Santiago by Colin Fernandes

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At the outset, Viva Santiago has a lot going for it. There are its pleasingly psychedelic cover and long lunch-friendly 137 pages, for a start. More importantly, there is its promise, as can be deduced from the synopsis, to be that rare thing in Indian literary fiction: a jovial, light-hearted read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But then, being confronted with the groan-inducing email forward cliché – “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in a well-preserved body; rather, to slide in sideways, mojito in one hand, Mary Jane in the other, screaming whoo hoo… what a ride!” – that is its first paragraph swiftly sets the tone for the rest of the book. In an odd way, this novel both tries too hard and doesn’t try at all.

Alonso Gonzalez, a typical college student in Delhi, finds himself taking an impromptu trip back to his Goan hometown with Yvette, a Canadian woman who claims to have known his deceased grandfather. Grandpa was infamously devilish: perpetually stoned, surrounded by women, addicted to Bob Dylan, and into heavy pseudo-religious tripping (and vehemently blasphemous, of course). And as it turns out, he also seems to have left a treasure hunt of sorts for Alonso, which he embarks on and solves with unlikely ease.

There is a convenience to the plot that makes it completely unrealistic. The mystery is over quickly, with absolutely no room for suspense (and it’s no spoiler to say that everyone becomes privy to what the treasure is but the reader). Way too many deus ex machinae show up – from Yvette, whom our protagonist inevitably hooks up with (laughably, for a book that’s supposedly about hedonism, in a very chaste manner), to the shady character whose mysterious gift sets the whole ball rolling. Yes, life is often stranger than fiction, and with its random drizzling of photographs, Viva Santiago seems meant to be read as autobiography. But bad fiction is not strange, just boring.

Fernandes has a good feel of laid-back student types, and draws Alonso and his friends reasonably convincingly. He also has a flair for macabre and stoner humour, that terribly unoriginal first paragraph notwithstanding. But there is no real arc of logic to the way in which arbitrary anecdotes about life in Delhi and Goa are thrown together. Plus, there is a boastful undercurrent to the book which erases, if it were ever intentioned or present, the kind of nostalgia and broader concerns that underpin the best memoirs and memoir-like fiction. But like everything else about this book, even the self-absorption isn’t fully-realised. There were several points at which I wondered whether I was reading a casual blog post or an actual book.

It’s rather little saving grace, but Viva Santiago is the kind of novel that only makes one think about how disappointing it is after breezing through it. Perhaps that’s too kind a statement for such an unfledged read, but to its credit, it’s decently-written enough to irritate the reader above all else only with the failure to be the supremely cool novel it could have been. And this is a pity – one suspects that Fernandes is actually a fine author, but lets himself coast by on the bare minimum of effort. The note at the end of the book acknowledging that it was written in three weeks confirms this.

Which makes me wonder: is Viva Santiago, the book, just like all the anecdotes contained within it? Perhaps the challenge of writing it was for exactly what one gets the feeling Grandpa’s and Alonso’s shenanigans are supposed to amount to: impressing someone who’s being chatted up. In which case, this girl, at least, isn’t charmed.

An edited version appeared in yesterday’s The New Sunday Express.

The Pretentious Breakfast

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Chandrachoodan and I really want to be pretentious. We’re found it helps alot in matters of productivity-evasion and general world domination. So we’re going to have breakfast/brunch at Amethyst tomorrow and do the Pinky and the Brain routine as per usual. The difference is, come join us! Drop by if you’re interested in the readings we organise. Bring poems if you want to be really pretentious. Do not come if you take yourself too seriously. :)

The Venus Flytrap: Between Bread and Betelnut

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I was raised by my Sri Lankan Tamil maternal grandparents, and among my various cultural heirlooms comes that famously recognizable accent. That conversation-stopping, glint-in-the-eye, connotations-stirring, “Yaarlpanam-ah?” accent. The one my mother, in her less matriotic moments, tries to pass for Malayali. That political, poetic, deeply personal dialect that I call my mother tongue.

As fiercely in love as I am with this tongue, I have had to rein it in. Living in Chennai and having to haggle with auto drivers on a daily basis does that to you – do you have any idea how much they charge otherwise? I learnt to imitate the coarser rhythms of Madras Tamil out of the need for defense – like a stereotypical Ceylonese, I keep my allegiances close but my wallet closer still.

Still, it’s an accent that never fails to surprise me. The affirmative om that perks up in place of the ama I’ve conditioned myself to use in India. The fact that I cannot bring myself to use the personal nee when the neenga I am used to is just that much more pleasingly polite, and somehow, to my ears, more intimate. My accent gives me away when I least expect it to, like a blush-inducing pinch that makes sure I don’t forget. Just like how my v’s and w’s mix when I argue in English, any Tamil conversation in which I wholly participate is jazzed up (or if you’ll excuse the blatant exoticism, baila-d up) with my real accent. The one I had before I knew it was an accent.

My accent is too pretty to make fun of, I think. But some of my island-inflected vocabulary isn’t.

When I was 18, I spent half a year living with my local grandmother. Bless her, for she tried her best to take care of this half-and-half foreign-returnee. I think her patience was sorely tested by a few incidents in the kitchen (which is not called quisine here – sigh!), in particular.

I wanted some paan, I told her once, incurring her disdain. Paan, as far as I knew, was bread. Paan, as far as she knew, was betelnut. Not getting the hint, I tried to describe a sandwich. Finally, a wave of clarity broke upon her face and she exclaimed, “You mean roti!”. But roti, as far as I knew, was what’s known here as the Malabar paratha.

Equally flummoxing was when I asked for kochikai (chilli, to the Ceylonese). “What you mean”, someone corrected me, is “mizhagai“. “No”, I insisted. “That’s pepper!”

But the linguistic faux pas that I didn’t stop using until literally months ago is the one that takes the cake.

Grand old Ceylonese ammammas, at least in my experience, greet children by grabbing their chins, sniffing both cheeks, and muttering in rapturous tones, “Enda kunju!” Or (once again, to show you how little I knew), “my little one”. Fancying myself a grand young Ceylonese lady, it’s a term of endearment I also use to embellish my speech.

Imagine my glee and horror when my very irate sister informed me recently that kunju, as far as Indian Tamil is concerned, means penis.

So don’t blame me for my dirty mind. It’s genetic.

I love that my Ceylonese accent gives me away, because years and years from the first home of my childhood in Colombo, not so far away at all from losing my grandparents, it’s one of my dearest possessions. An accent like the surprise of sweet in mango pickle, I wrote in a poem once. So leave me to my broken Tamil and my quaintly scandalous expressions in it. It’s one of the few ways that I know how to love and remember love.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

On Spoken Word As A Sort Of Shamanism

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This appeared in the Chennai edition of The Times of India today, under the “What’s Hot” section.

Years ago, I read that when a woman weaves out of her iyari, she doesn’t need to copy a design. I took this to heart, or took it back into my heart, rather – iyari is the Huichol concept of heartmemory. Eventually, I would twine this with the concepts of duende – the dangerous driving force behind Andalusian flamenco deep song – and ananku – the lost Tamil idea of the sacred malevolence in certain objects and locations, including the woman’s body.

To me, although widely divergent geographically, this trinity of concepts represent one and the same. It is what I enter and try to evoke in performance. I’ve been doing spoken word since I was 15 years old, long enough for me to know my element and try to draw others into theirs. So I teach, and co-organise events. Spoken word is my shamanism.

Having experienced firsthand the transcendental and transformative power of poetry in performance when it hits a point of alchemy somewhere between rock concert and book reading (but not, as some may have you believe, theatre), I am convinced that Chennai is ripe for it.

What I’ve said must sound terribly pretentious. And I’ll tell you the big secret: it is. Ironically, vocabulary limits us when trying to describe the overwhelming. But music, words, visuals and movement have saved my life time and again. Who hasn’t lived through a night sustained by a single song, or sat in the cinema and wept until everyone else in the hall had left? This is why I do what I do. Because art is meaningful. Ultimately I myself, my great loves and disasters and fears, may mean nothing. But what I create on this time on earth could – just maybe – make someone, somewhere, feel less lonely for just one profound moment. And that is enough.

The Venus Flytrap: Hoping For A Revolution

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A friend of mine says you either have a soul, or you don’t. It’s a dispassionate way of looking at compassion, as contradictory and yet as perfectly truthful as when Tori Amos sang, “I believe in peace, bitch”.

Faith in humanity, in the face of the obvious proof that some people really are that irredeemable, is hard to maintain. Real faith, not what we profess at fashionable fund-raisers and through email signatures. Anonymous altruism is the real test – can you send love out into the world, with no expectation of acknowledgement?

Take it a step further. Can you send love out into the world without knowing who its recipient will be?

The love I speak of here is not romantic, but love in the Buddhist sense of metta (loving-kindness). Love that comes from the wish for the wellbeing of the world. Impersonal, all-encompassing benevolence that takes within its stride the fact that to hate and to be hated are inevitable, but that compassion for people beyond their actions is an achievable ideal.

A woman in New York decided to do exactly that earlier this year, initiating what she calls The Hope Revolution. The idea is simple – leave “love notes” in public places. Notes that say kind things to complete strangers, because in the times we live in, a little more thoughtfulness could go a long way.

Imagine it: the discovery, the intrigue and the joy of finding encouragement. Something left on the seat of an auto, or tucked between the pages of a browsing copy of a magazine. Consider the thrill of finding a message that seems almost heaven-sent, written as though it was meant for no one but you, a marker on your personal journey. That reassurance is something we probably don’t get enough of ourselves, and how good it feels to be able to bestow it!

Of course, there is one practical limitation: not everybody can read. So here’s a thought – what if those who can read them are gently nudged about this reality when they stumble on a love note? Whether it’s a reminder about literacy issues (a more basic humanitarian concern than many people realise), or a simple line about taking a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to have the written word in one’s own life, it’s another way of setting into motion the ripple effect of the message itself.

Maybe I do believe too much in the inherent goodness of people, when there’s plenty of contrary evidence around. But is twenty seconds to scribble a line on a napkin and put it back in the stand asking for too much?

I have a theory I hold on to very naively, willfully ignoring the damage I have seen belief in it cause, but here it is: love is a boomerang. You get what you give, sometimes not for years, sometimes seemingly never. But it comes back.

So today I will go out and leave handwritten notes. I will tell someone I have never set eyes on that they are beautiful, and someone whom I may find insufferable that they are on the side of angels, and someone who may have a propensity to hurt me that they have the power to heal the lives of others.

Because sometimes all we need is a little reassurance to grow into that which already sleeps within us like a seed, dormant but alive. And someday, somewhere, at a moment when I need it more than ever, I could find the perfect love note too. The one that seems as though it was written for no one but me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

A Little Live-Blogging

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I’ve seen Julie Taymor’s Frida maybe 25 or 30 times, for what I assume would be obvious reasons.

I’m watching it right now on the World Movies channel. There’s a good deal of expected censorship, and some quaint re-subtitling, like “fucking revolution” becoming “stupid revolution” (the expletive inaudible). Cutely enough, some expletives, like pinche, are not translated but kept in the subtitles.

But what took the cake, so far — and we’re only at the part where Alejandro comes to tell Frida he’s leaving for Europe — is when “vagina”, in a purely medical sense, gets subtitled as…

elsewhere.

Update: OMG! “I’ve always wanted a man with melones bigger than mine” (one of my fave lines from the film, because, umm, it happens to be a preference of mine too) becomes… “I’ve always wanted a man who was better than me”.

!!!

Hmm. I think I’ll post up an old article I wrote on my weakness for chubby men soon…