Monthly Archives: July 2008

Poem: Frida to Sharanya

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This is my favourite photo of Frida.

By the time this photograph was taken in 1938, Frida had mastered the art of the unwavering gaze, not to mention the projection of masculinity. The Trotsky and Cristina affairs that wreaked havoc on her marriage had happened; she was in the midst of her first solo exhibition in New York, and would both go to France at the invitation of the Bretons and get divorced the following year. In short, she knew by this time very well who she was and what she wanted. But here she appears vulnerable, unposed, astonishingly feminine. This is why it is my favourite photo of her. Out of the many I have seen (I have dozens more photographs to update that site with, and hope to find the time to do so soon), few have captured her this way. It is as though Julien Levy clicked his camera at the very moment the persona was dropped. It is as though he unmasked a woman famous for the ways she brutally unmasked herself.

I wrote this some time back, and read it at the Viva La Vida reading on Frida’s 101st birthday. Today was my 23rd birthday, and I thought I would share it now. It was inspired by her letters.

FRIDA TO SHARANYA

Sleep wherever is most convenient for you.
Whoever and whatever is left in the morning,
take home. Be kind. All the world is yours for
the taking, long as you know that your little heart is
theirs for the breaking. Leave lipstick on their
china and on your letters. Make sure they know
that you’re a mariposa, blue as copper sulphate,
or blue as the sea, blue as a baby stilled too soon,
darling wench, and you never really intend to leave.
Set love free like a boat with neither oars nor anchors.
Trust it. Don’t trust yourself. Accept every familiar
that comes, even if one happens to be a goat. Forgive
less of people. Remember that things come in triptychs.
Be magnificent, like Coatlicue. You only owe it to me,
but break a mirror now and then, if you can afford it.
Kiss as much as you want to, and as few. Be difficult.
It will make you more desirable. If it will help you to
let him go, cut off your hands. They will grow back.
You don’t need them. You don’t need him. The older
you grow, the more you will amputate. Dance on stumps
if you have to, but don’t stop. Wear one item of red
every Wednesday and when death comes for you,
you will go as his bride. Burn every bridge you ever
built, and build as many as you possibly can. The one
that takes you home will be the last one standing.
Sing over the bones. Go slow.
Don’t forget me.

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Calling Poets, Poet-Wannabes, Poetry-Lovers (And Lovers of Poets, Too)

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If you are poet, want to be a poet, or are not sure if you’re either but love poetry anyway and will be in Chennai anytime between August 18 and 24 2008, I want to hear from you. A friend and I are co-curating a major exhibit and reading series in conjunction with Madras Week, celebrating the official birth of the city 369 years ago.

Write to me at sharanya(dot)manivannan(at)gmail(dot)com. Introduce yourself and send me two poems, if you can. Or just write to me. We’ll take it from there.

The Venus Flytrap: Surrendering To Serendipities

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A dear friend of mine resigned from her job today to be with her toddler – and see where life takes her next.

This is no small step for my freespirited friend, someone widely acknowledged as the blithely charming PR queen of her country, someone who has chased eclipses in Iran, honeymooned in Iceland and worn a dress of orange and blue to her wedding.

“I will honour my promise to you,” she said. “But I will be a humble stay-at-home mum from now on.” She had told me some time before that she was considering taking up an artform, an idea I had applauded. The truth is, other than her beautiful house décor and uncanny ability to pick the perfect present for anyone, I have no idea what her creative talents might be. But what I do know, and what I told her, is this: if she does art, she is an artist. No gallery, committee or critic needs to sanction her – or anyone – as such.

I wanted to be an author since I was seven years old. By my late teens, thanks to a series of serendipities catalyzing around my discovery of the magic of spoken word, I already had some semblance of a cult following. But I kept dreaming of having a book – a book would be evidence. A book would make my writing real.

I had the good sense, however, to not jump at the first fishes that bit. I rejected at least two offers to publish a collection because where they came from didn’t sit well with me: a print-on-demand run by a communist with a fetish for hijab-ed women in high heels, and a representative of a multinational that packages spirituality with pyramid schemes.

When I finally found the combination of people and promises that suited me best, I thought the rest would be quick and easy. Little did I know I had more to learn: three months ago, the funding for the book was abruptly withdrawn.

There was the brief, requisite shock at this bad fortune, but what alarmed me most was my surprising ambivalence. The ground had given away not because I’d lost my long-cherished dream, but because I was forced to acknowledge that it was no longer my dream. Other people wanted to see this book much more than I did – I was more infatuated with the process than the project. “You wanted to be a writer, right?” I asked myself. “Well, you already are. Book or no book.”

But this story doesn’t end with an excuse. When I finally, wholeheartedly, accepted that my book wasn’t going to happen (at least, not the way I wanted it to), the miraculous happened: a new investor showed up. Just like that. I hadn’t looked. I had asked only in the silence of my own heart. Most of all, I hadn’t expected.

And this is what I think holds me in good stead as I prepare to leave familiar waters. Whatever happens to this book, I am what I am. What I wanted in the first place was not fame or wealth. It was to write. I will do just that, and trust that all else will follow. I am humbled by this journey enough to see that I do not control it at all.

In Om Shanti Om, Shah Rukh Khan says that when you want something enough, the whole universe conspires to give it to you. What I’ve found to be truer still is that if you are something enough, if you own and inhabit that skin in a way that doesn’t fixate on its outcome, the universe aligns itself in equally serendipitous ways.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Grace In Aliases

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I have a friend who has a name so supremely cool that I’m concerned it cannot even be mentioned in this column without incurring royalties. It is Chandrachoodan, which despite meaning something as poetically wimpy as “the one with the moon matted into his hair” sounds like “the one who will have you eviscerated if you take his parking space”. I unfortunately, am a Sharanya. The prettiest name in South India – as all of about 20 million sets of parents seem to have realized, including mine.

However, as only people with access to my legal documents and hardcore stalkers may know, it’s not my real name, in a technical sense. My real first name, my spiffy business-like alter-ego who collects cheques, signs debit card bills and occasionally gets interrogated at immigration, is one that really does live up to my (entirely fictional, my also-fictional lawyer insists I add) reputation of eating men for breakfast. But what follows that secret sobriquet takes the cake: an alias sign. Also known as the @ in an email address. I bamboozle you not. I have a glyph in my legal name.

There are even more interesting reasons to be grateful for my monikers. I got to thinking about this topic because of the excitement over what the new Brangelina twins have been christened: the perfectly sensible names of Knox and Vivienne. Is normal the only remaining fetish in celebrity baby-naming? Not being called Apple or Audio Science might be the last taboo, a curse guaranteed to make you really unpopular in Hollywood playgrounds, and your parents total revolutionaries.

This, therefore, would make my parents incredibly ahead of their time and cool. Which doesn’t exactly compute with data already at available to me, but still.

The great disadvantage of a common name that can be pronounced two ways, however, is that mine inevitably gets pronounced in the way that I don’t like. Without the H. Ironically, one of the names I hate most contains only letter less than my own.

But there’s one specific advantage to so unexceptional an epithet: there’s already a planet that shares it, and I’m not even very famous yet! Minor asteroid 17092 Sharanya was named for an upcoming scientist from Coimbatore. Do you know who else has one of those named for them? Andy Warhol. That makes at least two things that put me in his league: incurable kitschiness and planet co-baptism.

If that doesn’t make me cosmically cool, I don’t know what will.

I could accessorize the planet with a star bought off the Internet, but that’s not extraordinary anymore. And a perfume or clothing range is just too boringly bourgeois, so the unimaginative can keep those options. I’d rather have the quirky stuff.

So among my dreams are to have two seemingly paradoxical things named after me: a cocktail and a hurricane. The second will be an act of god and the first will be simply divine.

In some folklore, such as in the story of Manawee and his twin brides (as retold by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With The Wolves), knowing the name of something indicates power over it. The truth is this: I considered reverting to my legal name even as recently as last year. And then things beyond my control pushed this name, the name you know me by, into a public sphere. There was little I could do but take possession.

Now I know both my names. And I am powerful in both. To the world at large, I have a common, frequently-mispronounced, everyone-has-a-relative-who’s-a… name. But I plan on owning it like none of the others ever have.

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.

Poem: Mamihlapinatapai

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Mamihlapinatapai

Yahgun (Tierra del Fuego): a look shared by two people, each of whom wish the other would initiate that which they both desire, but which neither one wants to concede.

The saddest word in the world
has a piñata nestled
within it. You will never
know the richness of
your own heart until
you have held it high
above the totem
of your body and
blessed its
rupture.