Monthly Archives: November 2009

Book Review: My Name Is Will by Jess Winfield

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One of the best things about Shakespeare is that he isn’t a sacred cow – rather, he is more like the last carcass in a shortage. Every bit of his body of work can be put to use in some way – his writing finds extended life in everything from parody to purist portrayal, allegory to animation. You must forgive this slaughterhouse imagery – in the brilliantly blasphemous My Name Is Will, we find the young Shakespeare in much similar circumstances: chasing daily after hens in his father’s butcher shop, which are promptly decapitated, divided, and dined upon by his family.

We also find him, invariably, disarming the tunics off medieval lasses, lost in the arms of a hallucinogenic trip or taking up arms against persecution. But the teenage William isn’t the only one whose misadventures with politics, women and drugs we encounter. Enter William Shakespeare Greenberg, aka Willie, American graduate student in 1986 California, who’s having trouble getting his thesis on his namesake finished. His distractions include his professor’s alluring assistant Dashka, an unfettered relationship with the activist Robin, Oedipal issues and making sure that he gets a giant psychedelic mushroom delivered and paid for without getting incarcerated.

Cleverly juggling the plot between William and Willie in alternating chapters, My Name Is Will finds the two young men at stages when they are about to come into their own. Both are at turning points with women – will duty or desire make the decision? Professionally too, both linger at the threshold of their destinies. And both are deeply engaged in the politics of their time. As with all eras in which those in power wield it without moderation, the counterculture thrives – and both Will and Willie are fortunate to be a part of these dissident environments, and indeed it shapes their fates.

And there is drama aplenty – serious cliffhanger-style drama at that. Winfield is astute in his construction of the novel, leaving protagonists dangling so precariously between chapters that the book is rendered utterly unputdownable. With its ingenious, engrossing narrative style and its generous servings of sex with a side of wit, the book strikes a winning note.

William finds himself in the possession of a sacred relic that leads him to uncover a clandestine network of Catholics in the authoritarian Protestant Elizabethan regime (centuries later, Willie’s thesis postulates that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic). Willie has his own sacred relic – the giant mushroom, which he too must ensure gets delivered into the right hands – at the risk of losing his own freedoms under President Reagan’s crackdown on illicit substances. Though running on different trajectories in space and time, at points, largely owing to the transcendental effect of the said illicit substances, the two lives entwine and intersect.

My Name Is Will is a delight from start to finish. Its puns are deliciously bawdy in true Shakespearean style – Winfield never overshoots the humour, and in fact the most audaciously wicked joke in the book is such a subtle one it might escape a less dirty-minded reader.

Also to the author’s credit, the impressive amount of research into the Bard’s works and milieu that clearly went into this novel, as well as his own extensive study of the texts, never overbears on its entertainment value. And rare is a funny book that raises legitimate questions about civil freedoms, free speech, moral policing and government (even twenty and four hundred and twenty years after its protagonists struggle with them), without losing its punchlines to polemics. My Name Is Will is a terrific novel – funny, incisive and original. Despite its irreverence, or perhaps because of it, it captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal and comes closer to greatness than many self-proclaimed tributes.

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

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.

Guest Column: IDiva’s “Break Free” issue

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I had a guest column appear in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. The brief I was given was “life as a PYT (pretty young thing) in Chennai”. What fun!

Whatever anyone might say about me and my having grown up abroad, take this: I lived in Sowcarpet for eight months in my late teens. How’s that for street cred? And when I say lived, I mean it – glam, bling, potty mouth and all. So whenever I think that even Nungambakkam can’t take my sass, I remind myself: if I was rocking my divahood in a North Madras labyrinth five years ago, this city better learn to keep up with me!

But it’s true: life as a PYT in a decidedly unsexy city like Chennai is a challenge, and the secret to it is to never forget it. Never take it for granted. So every time a girlfriend and I have a Zara’s or 10D lunch and order a pitcher for just the both of us, every time I take the 29C in a sleeveless blouse and don’t get hassled, every time I stare down that horrible policeman who patrols my road on evenings, harassing single women, until he revs up his bike and retreats – I celebrate it!

The way I see it, it’s a choice. You can let the parochial mentalities and hypocrisies depress you, or you can engage with the city as it is. Like all sexually repressed societies, Chennai is obsessed. Which means that as women, we are actually far more objectified than we would be in freer societies. I say, embrace it. If every Raman, Soman and Quick Gun Murugan on the street can admire your goods, why can’t you? We live in one of the few places on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear flowers in your hair, for any occasion and for none at all. Sarees, salangai, all of Pondy Bazaar rolled out for your choosing. A great town to look like a woman, as my transgender friends will attest. Reclaim the kitsch. And the chic.

The truth was, for me, there was a defining moment – what I call my “When I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Embrace My Expat Status” moment. It took months of Fab India kurtas, polite smiling, neutralizing my Ceylon Tamil accent and general diffidence before it happened. But once I realised that nothing was worth losing my spark for, I stopped compromising.

Finally, it helps to keep a sense of perspective. One of my favourite Chennai anecdotes is of when my older friend (who was as much a badass in her time as I am today, and even more so now) suddenly put out her cigarette with a mumbled expletive, then went up to an old woman and her grandchild and made small talk.

When she came back to see me laughing at this show of conformity, she said, “You know that old woman? She has issues with my smoking – but she once sent a nude photo of herself to a friend of my dad’s”. My laughter turned to shock. My friend winked. “Bet you wish I’d told you that before you saw her, eh?”

Oh yes, my fellow PYTs (and our wannabes) – this town has seen a lot before us, and will see a lot after us too. I just plan to leave stiletto tracks visible enough for the next generation. No hypocrisy here.

The Venus Flytrap: New To The Neighbourhood

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Congratulations on your successful relocation. I know you’re feeling a little lonely out here, but the easiest way to settle in is to throw a party. I understand your new neighbourhood is a diverse one, so I’m here to help you ensure that everybody is comfortable and catered for. Start by picking the right time and date – avoid any hours or days during which your guests might be allergic to prevailing light conditions, committed to annual appearances, or generally too busy with their afterlives. Don’t even think about a full moon bash.

Next, take into account dietary preferences and restrictions. Finger food is generally a good way to go – and do take that literally. A sit-down dinner won’t let your guests float around freely. Contrary to what you might have heard, this crowd does enjoy sophisticated twists when it comes to beverages. For a nominal extra fee, I will throw in my bestselling book on the subject, which includes recipes such as the delicious likes of Bloodorange Martini, Non-Symbolic Eucharist and Very Bloody Mary. Please serve in pre-chilled glasses, okay? Fresh cadavers are so retro.

Something to not take literally, however, is your role of host. You are hosting a party, not letting your body be the host of another entity. Capiche? All meanings apply. Also, no matter how unholy a racket gets raised, don’t snort any powder you notice. It will make you see Tinkerbell. No, really. That minx is not to be trifled with. Remember: the guests are there for fun, but your job is to keep your head on. Decapitation messes up the mood – and your carpets – big time.

As your new home is in highly recognizable surroundings, there are wont to be troublemakers, some of whom may show up on your doorstep on the basis of dares, Dutch courage or to disprove the very existence of the company you’re keeping. They will make lovely takeaway gifts: just cut them down to size, giftwrap, and leave on a tray by the door. Remember to confiscate any garlic they may be carrying. You may serve it to any guests suffering from the eating disorder commonly known as vegetarianism.

Some entertainment is always a good idea, otherwise your guests will simply stand around and nibble on each other when the appetizers are through, which is all well and good but this isn’t high school anymore. Depending on the feel of the gathering, arrange to have some nice music playing. No, neither “I’ve Put A Spell On You” nor “Alligator Wine” are appropriate. What’s wrong with you: do you want to get turned into a toad or something? When in doubt, go with Enya. That rule applies even in these parts.

If you’re a “full of life” sort – and I’m duty-bound to remind you that most of your guests fall firmly outside that category – you might want to take it a step further. Arrange for some games. Monopoly takes an eternity – but we’ve got that, don’t we? Or a piñata might be nice. I know just the right person to string up.

I hope your welcome party goes splendidly. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. Did I also mention that I specialize in funeral rites and resurrection ceremonies? Haven’t heard of those? You will. Here, have a brochure…

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.

Interview in Sify’s Stree

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An interview I gave to Sify much earlier this year has finally been published in Stree, their women’s section. I quite enjoyed these questions, and find that my answers would be much the same even today. And I thought it was funny how the title has one word, the url another, but at least the article contains the accurate quote — and whoever edited it must have thought long and hard about the many implications of what I had meant! You can read the article here.

“Kitschy Cool”, Said TOI

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Versions of this article ran back in March in three of Times of India‘s Chennai supplements. They weren’t available online, and I’m not very good when it comes to collecting or archiving press clippings, but I was given a copy at some point, and I’ve only just managed to scan it up. Here’s the version that ran on the front page of Times of T Nagar. To read, please click to enlarge.