Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Venus Flytrap: Songs In Another Language

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There is no music nearly as atmospheric as a song in another language, a language one doesn’t know. Familiar torch songs may dispense the sweet, alcoholic comfort of their lyrics, instrumental scores may swell with their melodrama, but nothing comes close to the sheer pathos of words one can only repeat without comprehension – as resonant yet as empty as drums.

Music in languages one doesn’t know is music for everything that hurts too much to feel in words, or which words turn into something that loses shape, slip-sliding away. Music that one knows only with the body, with what is evoked by and within it.

When I lived outside my country, I listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhojpuri and Baul songs, and difficult Tamil. I listened to the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam; now I don’t even have it in my iTunes. And M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1957 rendition of Suttum Vizhichudar; for some reason it made me think of my grandparents driving down a coast, their children in the backseat, my grandmother complaining about how the speed at which he drove made it hard for her to breathe. Nostalgia is remembering things we didn’t know we were experiencing at the time. It’s also remembering things we didn’t experience, but may as well have.

I stopped listening to that music when I came back. Maybe I didn’t need to. Or maybe the person I had been, the person who had needed it, only existed elsewhere.

I would listen to Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela so much in my teens that I began to understand the dialogue in Spanish films. The enigma ended in some ways – and deepened in others. I chose multilingualism over mystery. That was worth it.

But Farida Khanum broke my heart for years with that ghazal, and I should have left that honour with her and not handed it over to my own experiences. Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. I discovered eventually what it translated to – don’t leave tonight. And at that point a new layer of meaning glazed over it, the ache of being always the Bond girl and never Bond, always the one having to endure the long ride back from the airport. But until then it meant nothing. And so it meant everything it could possibly mean. Now it can only mean one thing. All that was latent within it is gone.

Perhaps there is something to be said for innocent impressionism. When a song is heard as sound and not story, something special happens. Its semantic spaces broaden. Our understanding draws blanks, and our imaginations fill them in. The human voice becomes an instrument in its own right. The whisper of a throat racked with failure can turn seductive; the grieving crescendo of a mourning song may rouse instead.

There are points in the film of my life where I am happy to not have subtitles. I don’t want to know what the opera my friend was singing years ago, days after he told me his secret, really meant. It may have been a bawdy, or boring, thing. But to me it meant his illness and his mortality, the fragility of that performance itself. Its irretrievability. I don’t want to know what some of the baila of my childhood means, because so much of my creative impulse comes from trying to recreate that time. I need those wide open spaces, for they are my canvases. I used to be a dancer; it was important then to correlate the languages of the body and mind. I used to deconstruct. Now I am happy to just dance.

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

“Dark Is Beautiful” Poetry Contest

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Vasantha Surya and I are co-judging a poetry contest for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, jointly helmed by Women of Worth and the British Council, Chennai.

The competition is open to anyone living in India (of any nationality), regardless of gender, aged 18 and above.

Deadline for submissions is February 28 2009.

Detailed instructions for submissions can be found on the web site, www.darkisbeautiful.in, and may also be picked up at the British Council, Chennai. Select entries will be displayed at the British Council library and prizes awarded there on March 7.

The Definitive Cure For Penis Envy

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If you’ve followed my columns, you will know I am a major faghag and have occasional penis envy.

Bitching with one of my beloveds on chat today, I said, “I am so glad you are gay and I don’t have a dick, so that we never fuck up our wonderful connection with sexual tension.” Eureka moment.

Ah, thank god for anatomical incompatibility. Happy Valentine’s, my loves, you know who you are!

Pink Panties, In Protest!

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Ignore my most recent column in its entirety. This is exactly what you should be celebrating on February 14 this year. Girly guerrilla activism! I love it!


Join A Consortium of Pug-Going, Loose and Forward Women on Facebook. I haven’t been this gleeful to get a group invite in forever.

Check out the blog.

The campaign is in response to the attacks two weeks ago by a group of Sri Ram Sena moralists on women patrons in a pub in Mangalore.

The Venus Flytrap: The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day

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I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day in my life. Don’t ask me why. But considering the popularity of armchair activism in Tamil Nadu lately (yoo-hoo, bona fide Sri Lankan Tamil here, and yes I am talking to You), I’m sure I’m perfectly qualified to proselytize on the subject.

Presenting then, The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day. Because face it – with the torch song graveyard that is your iTunes playlist, no one believes you when you claim to be a cynical misanthrope. Here’s a much more believable list of excuses to justify your chronic inability to get laid.

1. The heart transplant wait list – Want to simultaneously give someone the shivers and get them off your case? Offering them an intense look as you take their hand and whisper, “Thank you for the chocolate heart. May I have your real one now? As in, the organ pumping blood. I want to be around for the next season of Lost and really kind of need it,” should do the trick.

2. Women’s rights – I’ll confess I didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day for a few years running because I was celebrating V-Day, aka Vagina Day, the international campaign to end violence against women. The revolution was my boyfriend (I’ve still got that on a tee shirt). I was simply too busy sending e-cards with visuals of suggestive open fruit and forwards about reclaiming the word cunt to do mushy things with the real one. This probably explains why I find supermarkets so very sexy.

3. Alphabetical objection – Alternately, claim to have a serious issue with the letter V itself. Why does it come before the letter W, which is a double V and therefore twice as cool? Spend the day coming up with a complex theory, invoking words like “semantics”, “hegemony” and “dialectics” as many times as you can. Avoid words like “verisimilitude” and “Voltaire” as far as possible. Then, in the grand tradition of Valentine’s lone rangers, blog it for the miserable masses. If all goes well, by next year, you could even have a chat date with someone you’ve never met in your life (unless Orkut counts as life).

4. Penance – Get by on your glory days. Say you celebrated twice last year, in two different time zones (if you can pull it off, slip in a mention of joining the mile-high club). And that in the interest of fairness, you felt a bit of restraint might be in order this year. You’re planning on celebrating your birthday twice, anyway.

5. Adventures in internationalism – In South Korea, Black Day is celebrated on April 14. Singles go out to eat black noodles and commiserate over their lonely hearts. Tell your friends that in the interest of expanding your cultural perspectives and your palate, you’re going to do this the fully traditional way, and earn your right to be utterly miserable on Tamil New Year.

6. Anatomical accuracy – As someone on a quest for truth and enlightenment, you are shocked by the simplified heart symbol that has come to stand for that most noble of causes, love. Express your disdain by going “visceral realist” (thereby squeezing in a reference to Roberto Bolaño that’ll be sure to impress literary types like, umm, yours truly). Just be sure that any anatomically accurate tattoos you might get aren’t of your heart. We both know that’s really made of marshmallow.

If all else fails, remember: you can still stay at home with your torch songs and a bottle of Shiv Sena-sanctioned non-alcoholic wine. It’s only for a day, anyway. As gastroenterologists say, this too shall pass.

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