Monthly Archives: October 2008

Grandiose Things

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“Every night before I sleep, unless I collapse, I think of you because I hope I’ll get to dream about you that way,” he says. Her grandmother is dying. Her dreams are vivid, of him, of them, of children they will have, of earthquakes, of poor fashion, of women who have judged her. He tells her that one night as he was falling asleep, the name Amrita Sher-Gil came into his mind, that he looked her up the next day and thought she might have been her in a past life.

“No,” she tells him. “I’ve spoken to you about her before. I have that biography.”

“I think you have a lot in common,” he says.

“No,” she says. “I don’t think so,” she says, like she hadn’t asked her friend to find her that book in another country, another currency.

She thinks of her grandmother, ferociously beautiful in her illness. She had never thought she resembled her until she saw her that way, her high cheekbones, her strong jaw, the way her body’s betrayal had sculpted her beauty back into it. When she dies her mother will go back to work in that same hospital, every day, and she doesn’t know how she could stand such a thing. She is always running away.

She decides to read their old correspondence. He writes grandiose things: I want to have you, as I have lungs and vertebrae. I want you to be so much apart of me that I won’t remember what it was like to not have you, and she sees that some of his mails have also been sent to an address he had created for her in her name. If she noticed this before, she must have forgotten. So she wasn’t the only one with designs on embalming. She remembers the horrible postcards she sent, the year she ran away from him, horrible because she wrote them knowing anyone could read them and she wrote them anyway. She wonders if he saved them, but that is a stupid question. He is the man who saved one of her toenails when she went away for a month. She was very cruel to have left him in that house with all her things, the most recent time. She hopes it isn’t the last time. She wants to always be leaving this man, always be going back to him.

The first time he wrote to her was the day after they met, and he wrote of Nicanor Parra and how if they were to never see each other again she should stay away from nasty pretentious folks and use her not inconsiderable gifts to the fullest. Within three weeks he would become her first real lover. She thinks of the Eliot he liked to quote back then. She remembers the slight shock she felt when she’d repeated the first line to someone she met a long time later, and he had completed the verse. Let us go then, you and I, while the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient, etherised upon the table. How did she end up with this man so long? He seemed as brutal and as delicate as a necklace of bones now, or a surgeon.

Apart. A part. What had he meant, and was it what he had said? They were one but not the other. They were both but neither one. They were always, forever, running.

Previously: Stream of Unconsciousness.

What It Feels Like For A Girl

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I’m glad Meena Kandasamy wrote this piece, and said as much — although I realise there are some difficulties in the manner in which she expressed it — because I do understand what she’s trying to get at at the bottom of it all.

The same issues — of privacy, persona, being a public target — have come up repeatedly in my conversations with other women writers. Some have stopped blogging, restricting their truly meaningful insights and anecdotes to mass emails and Facebook notes. Some turn off commenting on their blogs altogether (the fact that the vast majority of hateful comments come anonymously or under pseudonyms is extremely telling). I moved to WordPress last year because of the flood of  virtually entirely anonymous hateful comments, death threats and frightening gestures I received in the aftermath of having spoken out about the Malaysian apartheid. I became painfully aware that there are people who in the non-virtual world would have tea with me, and then proceed to log on anonymously and try to tear me to shreds.

No one sums up more eloquently what it feels like to be a woman writing under her real name , putting herself out there as she really is and not as some Internet construct of self-portrayal, than my dear friend Petra Gimbad; I post an excerpt from her private note here with permission

“”But we make this choice because having our say is more important than all the fear in the world that assholes out there can create in us. Until you have experienced the fear of being stalked (which has happened), sexually harassed (yep), raped, criticised for being attention-seeking or being attacked personally for your political ideas, you have no fucking clue how scary it is to be a woman and to put yourself out there.”

So I think it’s about gender? Yes. I do.

The Venus Flytrap: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

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.

Podcast Interview By Poonam Sagar

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Poonam Sagar, who moderated one of the panels I was on at UWRF, spoke with me for a podcast over lunch at a restaurant overlooking a gorgeous vista of rice fields and a smallish infinity pool. You can listen to the podcast here. Just a couple of little corrections: Witchcraft has already been published, and the novel-in-progress is called Constellation of Scars.

Madras Week 2008 Thank Yous

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If I don’t do this now, I won’t ever get around to it, so here goes.

Thank you very, very much to everybody who supported Madras Week at Vanilla Place, August 18-24 2008.

In particular, I would like to extend my thanks to the following people, who read poetry and prose of their own or by others, during the course of the week’s nightly readings: Vivek Narayanan, Kuttirevathi, Eric Miller, Sivakami Velliangiri, Syed Ali, Srivatsan Murali, Mihir Ranganathan, Arun Ramkumar, Gowri Visvanathan, Menaka Raman, Dr. Preetika Chauri, Gautam Gurumurthi, Suraksha R, Sathya Narain Muralidharan, Arun Ganesh, Dilip Muralidharan, Anand Krishnamoorthi, Shillika Chandrasekhar, Lakshmi and Ramya.

The Venus Flytrap: Ways of Worship

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It’s 8pm on a full moon night in October and the spray of the huge waves shoots above the barricades and drizzles us from time to time. This is a village on the Balinese coast, a day before the writers’ festival begins. When the sun is out, the sea is postcard-stunning. It looks just like what someone who has never seen the sea might imagine it to be like. At night, it is this: vivid, histrionic.

We’re a table of a dozen, half of whom are too far away to politely shout at over the sound of the waves. We have come from all over the world – one of the coordinators mentions that a writer called in tears from an airport somewhere between here and Mozambique. This is the calm before the storm: by the time the festival starts, 110 writers would have arrived here.

I’m fascinated by the kind-faced educator from New Zealand and the playwright who lived with AIDS orphans in Burundi for a year during the early 90’s. The American who sits down across from me turns out to be John Berendt, the author of the acclaimed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I give him my book. To my surprise, he asks me to sign it for him.

It is the day after the anniversary of the 2002 terrorist attacks on this island, the ones that confounded the world, because who in their right mind would bomb paradise?

We talk about temples. Bali is over 90% Hindu, practicing a highly ritualistic and animistic variant of the religion with a profoundly philosophical bent. The agricultural system, for instance, is based on the notion of “Tri Hita Karana”: the three causes of happiness are good relations with God, other people and the environment. Incidentally, “Tri Hita Karana” is the theme of this year’s festival.

I am menstruating and will not visit the temples: there is nothing taboo about doing so based on what I believe, but I will not violate those of a place I visit. Besides, I know from experience that even the ruins – no, especially the ruins – possess immense power. Last year, at another festival elsewhere in Indonesia, we were reading at the 11th century Borobudur stupa. The vibrant local dance closing the evening came to an abrupt halt – one of the dancers was possessed. She could be heard screaming and crying as she came out of her trance.

Jean Bennett, the educator, speaks of the psychogeography of elevation: you can read the spirituality of any place based on what stands at its highest point. Around the world, there are the pilgrimage points of cathedrals, and then there are those of capitalist gods. We manifest what we worship upon our landscapes.

Driving into Ubud town the next day, where the festival will be, we pass two striking statues. One is of a Durga unlike any I have seen. She looks like a Kwan Yin riding snakes. The other is a dramatic Arjuna standing atop an elephant’s back. Bali is unapologetic about its spirituality. It’s neither a place that trumpets its ways of life militantly, nor does it suppress it under the guise of progress. This is not a place that ever deserved a terrorist attack, let alone two.

The festival is about to start. The literati will descend on Ubud and turn it, for a few days, into an artistic nucleus. I have a new book, a brand new batch of business cards, the validation of being a guest of this prestigious event. I’m a poet in paradise. I cannot wait to see what I will come bearing back to the world.

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

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival

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I’m leaving tonight for for a week in Bali (and yes, on work!), to attend the Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008.

Other than general official engagements and anything that happens impromptu, my readings and panels, in case you’re there, are as follows:

Thursday 16 Oct: Performance Poetry Extravaganza, 19.30-21.30 at Warung Opera

Top performers and comedians from Australia, India and the Philippines present a riotous medley of rhythm, sound and song. Lexical dexterity will be at work in this high-energy, cross-cultural celebration of the literary spoken word. Tug Dumbly, Sharanya Manivannan, Edwina Blush. MC: Benito di Fonzo.

Saturday 18 Oct: Mindscapes, 15.45-17.00 at Indus

Novelist Charlotte Bacon tells us what happens “when geography rubs up against people’s emotional states.” Matthew Condon’s novel The Trout Opera was inspired by the stark beauty of Australia’s Snowy Mountains. Carrie Tiffany, an environmental journalist, explores agricultural issues and the lives of rural people in her fiction. Poet Sharanya Manivannan believes in the magical quality of water and coasts. These writers get together to consider the way exposure to different geographies shapes human experience and action. Moderator: Poonam Sagar.

Saturday 18 October: Wine Tasting, 18.30-20.30 at Casa Luna

According to Persian mythology it was a woman who first discovered wine. For that we are thankful! Join us as award-winning Indonesian wine writer Yohan Handoyo leads us through a menu of full-bodied wines matched with some of our most sparkling Festival writers and accompanied by tasty tapas in this celebration of wine, women and words. Featuring: Peter Zilahy, Tishani Doshi, Sharanya Manivannan, Dino Umahu. Cost: Rp. 650,000 | AUD $82.

Sunday 19 October: Poetry of the Body 15.30-17.00 at HSBC Lounge

Whereas poet and dancer Tishani Doshi sees the body as the place “where the spiritual and the sensual combine”, Sharanya Manivannan has a fascination with the ancient Tamil concept of a potentially malevolent force that exists in women’s bodies. These two Indian poets will discuss poetry, women, dance and the body along with readings of their work. This session will be followed by a 30-minute documentary film on Indian dance featuring Tishani Doshi and her teacher Chandralekha, legendary dancer from South India. Moderator: Debra Yatim.

I was really looking forward to another panel on sacred geography, but it was cancelled as the other writer is not able to participate in the festival this year.

On another note, Books Actually in Singapore will stock limited copies of Witchcraft from next week.

I’m told that the website from which you can order the book will probably go up while I’m away. More info will be available soon. Hold your horses please! Will let you know when I know. Ditto about launches, etc. And lastly, remember the Exec Assistant? Yeah, she’s out of the picture. Irresponsible would be an understatement. So for any enquiries relating to publicity, interviews and events, please contact either sharanya dot manivannan at gmail dot com or bullfighterbooks at gmail dot com.

Okay, I’m off to island-hop and shoe-shop… I mean, work. :) See you after the 20th.