Monthly Archives: September 2010

Op-Ed: Chennai’s Moral Police

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In Chennai, the term “moral police” is too often a literal one.

Two relatively high-profile incidents in the past week cast the city’s police force in a frightening light, as enforcers of a deeply misogynistic worldview who go as far as to violate the law in order to uphold their principles.

In the first case, a married woman who was with a male friend at the Kotturpuram railway station was apprehended by a police officer, who then physically assaulted the friend in question and cast aspersions as to why the duo were together. When told that her husband was fully aware of this friendship, the officer threatened to make bystanders testify against her.

In the second instance, a 21-year old lesbian who had left home and subsequently been reported as a missing person by her parents voluntarily went to the Thiru-Vi-Ka police station to declare herself an adult operating under her own autonomy. She was detained for a day, and released only into the custody of a relative. Activists from the gay rights group Sangama, who were supporting her, were harassed.

The moral universe occupied by too many members of Chennai’s police force is a murky one, bolstered by a flawed understanding of “Tamil culture”, unchecked sexism, and an abiding disrespect for the law itself.

But these are hardly isolated incidents. If anything, they have only served to reinforce what every woman in this city already knows: the police are more likely to harm than help. As journalist Chithira V put it to me, the security-heavy Gopalapuram neighbourhood – where the state’s CM resides – is a dangerous area, not in spite of but because of the presence of the police. Even the 20 all-women police stations in the greater Chennai area cannot effectively address the daily threats and aggravation that take place in public spaces, by members of the force itself.

Chennai is a city of fear and loathing, and the deep distrust in its sanctioned protectors is not a phantasm of urban legend. The city’s profound conservatism is in conflict with the needs of a modernizing population, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the manner in which its police relegate law and ethics in favour of their private concepts of morality.

The misogyny of the police force finds an accomplice in the unresponsiveness of Chennai’s ordinary citizenry. These instances are too omnipresent to enumerate, but one in particular, also shared by Chithira V, illustrates this pervasive attitude to chilling accuracy: some weeks ago, three women were attacked by a man with a knife on Besant Nagar beach. When they scattered, screaming, the man calmly walked away unperturbed. None of the families or couples sitting near these women paid any attention to the skirmish. The women called the police; an officer arrived, rounded up two random men, and insisted that they were the attackers. The real attacker not only went unpunished, but surely orchestrated the attack expecting this. Even in a group of three, the women were – in the city’s understanding of this word – “alone”.

So deeply embedded is the belief that one must be vigilant of the vigilantes that many women go to lengths to avoid interactions with the police, even at their own peril. A friend who was being followed by an ex-boyfriend felt she could not approach the police if the stalking became more invasive, because her former relationship with him would surely be held against her, and render her a target for humiliation and harassment. I personally leave home well before dark whenever I have planned a night out; having been questioned twice by a policeman on a bike right in front of my apartment, I changed my schedule. This is only an inconvenience, but the sinister underpinnings behind why I had to do it are hard to ignore. When my parents enquired about what the policeman was doing, they were told that a brothel was allegedly operating near the premises. There is no brothel here, as far as I know, but there is a women’s hostel.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.

A Story In Curbside Splendor

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As threatened, here is “Dashboard Confessional”, a short story about auto drivers, published in the very appropriately named Curbside Splendor.

I also recently had a micro-story published in One Forty Fiction, which you can read here.

And finally (for now), “Cassandra’s Ghazal”, a poem which was published earlier this year in Clementine, was picked by VerseDaily as their weekly feature.

“First Language” – Two Videos

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Here are two videos of me reading my  poem “First Language”, which appeared in Witchcraft (and before that in the journals Ego Magazine and Istanbul Literary Review).

At How Pedestrian, a website that brings poetry to random places, a simple single-shot video of me reading the poem while sitting inside a cycle-rickshaw, early one morning in Chintadripet, Chennai.

And here, a longer companion piece of me reading the same poem — this time from within both a cycle-rickshaw and an autorickshaw — which captures more of the sights and sounds of the city, and includes one of my other favourite things to do here: buying flowers from the curbside.

Both videos were directed by R. Rathindran Prasad.

A Word About Autorickshaws

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The autorickshaw already has an ambassador, a certain entrepreneurial Mr. Samson. As I don’t even know how to ride a bicycle, it would be quite dastardly of me to angle for this title.

But I can’t help but feel like I’m halfway there. Today, by sheer synchronicity, a short story of mine about an auto driver as well as two poetry videos (shot with me in either an auto- or a cycle- rickshaw) will be posted online. In the next few weeks, another story about auto drivers will also be published.

So what is my deal with autos, anyway? My love-hate relationship with Chennai is no secret. But my feelings about the autorickshaw are straightforward. They thrill me. I love that money-driven, masculine world which I get to glimpse into only as “Madam”. I love the vehicle itself, adorably shaped and irresistibly Pondicherry ochre. I love chatting with the drivers, who are as complex and varied as any set of human beings, and neither stupid nor soulless. To me, the auto is the single dynamic idiosyncrasy of this city — all the rest are just stereotypes.

Next week will be three years since I moved back to Chennai. I’ve already had a big cry or two about this. No, it’s not a long time/ Yes, it is a long time. Complicated or not, I can think of no more apt celebration than all this auto-centred work. I’ll post it as it comes. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Book Review: Subimal Misra’s The Golden Gandhi Statue From America (translated by V. Ramaswamy)

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Where has Subimal Misra been all these years?

This question recurs to the reader throughout the reading of this masterful collection of the Bengali cult modernist’s early stories. And the answer is duly supplied: The Golden Gandhi Statue from America comes with helpful addendums from the author and translator, explaining Misra’s views on anti-establishment literature, the reasons he has eschewed all forms of mainstream publication, and what it means to “live the practice (of writing)”, as exemplified by Sartre.

As to why the work of a writer so defiantly underground has now been translated into a language as ubiquitous as English and marketed by a distinguished press, a major counter to four decades of dissidence, there is no better answer than the stories themselves. They deserved wider recognition. And as readers in a time of anti-establishmentarianism so fashionable that it becomes co-opted within the same system it claims to oppose, it’s eye-opening to see what real anti-establishment literature is.

The world of Misra’s characters is a Kolkata underbelly of deviance, madness and the fantastically gruesome. “I feel humiliated to be in the line of litterateurs like Rabindranath Tagore,” he complains in the appendix, though it’s hardly likely that he will be hung from this same tree. Reading this collection, however, a picture of an entirely different dynasty emerges, populated by current Indian writers of the increasingly popular genre of experimental fiction, and it’s arguable that – through a nexus of influence and imitation – Misra may well have been at its source.

Written between 1968 and 1973, these fifteen stories are not for the reader who can’t stomach a little rape, a little cholera and a more than ample serving of homicide. But this is hardly the work of a raving mind. These stories are premeditated, thoroughly crafted, carrying all the markings of a writer who reads intently and acknowledges his influences. Misra readily admits inspiration from authors including Dostoevsky and Kafka and the auteurs Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard (to whom the book is dedicated).

In “Commentary ‘71”, Kolkata’s streets run with blood and the memory of earlier massacres; in “Bare Bones Awakened”, the city faces its apocalypse. In “The Naked Knife”, the question of exactly what a woman consents to when she holidays with two men is pushed to an almost misogynistic extreme; in “Fairy Girl”, a prostitute’s corpse is mutilated and enjoyed. The beautiful “The Bird”, in which a young man “keeps his heart’s sadness within his heart” as he accompanies a band of birdwatchers, ends in a twist that’s almost an antithesis to O. Henry. In the stunning “Blood”, a battle with mosquitoes turns darkly existentialist. Long before Roberto Bolaño, Misra had captured the disturbing, enigmatic landscape of the counterculture, in a way that is subversive without being pretentious, Indian without being exotic, and somehow both contemporary and classic at once.

One question remains. The publication in English of The Golden Gandhi Statue from America will probably propel Subimal Misra to a celebrity he has derided throughout his career. What will happen then, when his cult becomes conventionally cool?

An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Hallowed By Thy Claim

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A recent article in Mother Jones contributed an interesting historical detail to the debate over the construction of Park51, an Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan that is better known as “the Ground Zero mosque”. Several blocks of the city of New York are built atop a mass grave, 25 feet underground, containing the bones of some 20,000 African slaves. Therefore, the article contended, if the site of the former World Trade Center is to be understood as hallowed ground, by that same logic, the area which was used as the final resting place of those slaves was also hallowed ground, and swathes of prime American property (including Wall Street) were already a desecration of their memory and the atrocities committed to them.

As someone who has neither stake nor trauma related to the controversy, I do not feel I have the right to opine. But the very notion of hallowed ground intrigues me deeply. There are places which are hallowed by historic incident, and therefore on some level affect or move large numbers of people. But there are also places hallowed for profoundly personal reasons, and their violation — for it is perceived that way, to the person who holds it thusly — is a pain that must be suffered privately, without the release of mass outcry or public catharsis.

The idea of the hallowedness of a place is, in essence, a sort of secular sacredness. And although blessedness, or tremendous positivity if you prefer, can also render a place hallowed, nothing quite exalts in the manner that tragedy does. In examining some of the sites which to me are certainly hallowed ground, it’s always been the element of despair that engendered the profound meaning they came to hold to me. You can miss a place you were happy in, but what you miss is the happiness itself; but when you yearn for a place of more complicated emotion, it is for the place itself, for the intensity it imparted. Like holding your fingers to a flame not because you want to be burnt, but because the heat is so exquisitely real.

Some months ago, a pigeon began to nest on my balcony, and I put up with the smell, filth and inaccessibility for weeks because I knew what would happen if I cleared what was, to me, no more than a mess: traumatised by the incident and drawn back to the site of that trauma, the pigeon would never stop hanging around, disquieted by grief and yet potently drawn to it. I thought of how I too am magnetized to the sites of some of my upheavals, and saddened, wanted to spare her this experience if I could.

Hallowedness renders “holy”, but more importantly, it reflects our humanity: our mortality, as in the cases of the mass burial ground and disaster site of Manhattan, but also the persistence of memory — not necessarily just in what we choose to honour, but also our unwillingness to tear ourselves from a moment of transformation, the intensity of a shock that affirms over and over, “I felt this, this was real, and seared forever by it, I am”. A place that is hallowed also hallows, in the double-edged way which diffrentiates that which is blessing, and that which is luck.

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.

Book Review: Siddharth Chowdhury’s Day Scholar

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Day Scholar makes you laugh – in the good way – by the end of its very first paragraph, surely an auspicious start to any book. Which isn’t to say that this slim novel, Siddharth Chowdhury’s third, is exactly a rib-tickler, though peppered as it is with moments of great hilarity, that could certainly be at least one accurate description of this notable coming-of-age tale set in a Delhi boys’ hostel in 1992.

Hriday Thakur, aged 17 and a recent NCC cadet from Patna, lives in the squalid Shokeen Niwas boarding house, along with his best friend Pranjal and a cast of characters pumped full of mediocre expectations, masculine aggression and various types of angst – not least among them the incumbent demigod Jishnu Da, to whom everyone else defers. Everyone, that is, except their landlord, the notorious and vindictive Zorawar Singh Shokeen. The boys pass their time in the typical fashion of all impoverished students, scraping through exams, mastering the art of sexy cigarette-lighting, and occasionally discreetly watching as Shokeen uses their rooms as an assignation point with his current mistress, Madam Midha. Hriday, however, has aspirations – he wakes at 5a.m. every morning to work on drafts of short stories, mined from his own experiences.

But things are grittier here than at most hostels. For one, Shokeen is known to be murderous when desired. Even the students’ showy fights and curse slinging carry undercurrents of bigotry based on community, caste and economic background. This is a casually violent world in which shots are sounded to create a scene and knives are carried as a matter of routine. Women are seen only as sex objects, sisters or significant others. When Hriday is roped in to tutor Midha’s school-going daughter in her studies, he understands for the first time the complexity of the other gender, something for which he very nearly pays for with his life.

As far as coming-of-age novels go, this one stands out because of its significant lack of sentimentality, which in some ways is a rather refreshing perspective. In fact, the only points at which Chowdhury falters in this otherwise thoroughly engaging telling are when things take a turn in this precise direction. When Hriday describes his first love Anjali, a senior enamoured of the literary life who undergoes a complete physical and attitudinal makeover in order to fit in with Delhi’s writing circles, that’s exactly what it is – just a description, dull, tinged with some amount of cynicism and with very little nostalgia. And though, like any student living away from a happy home, he suffers from pangs of longing for his parents, there is something unconvincing about this too – some leap of evolution between being the son of a Billie Holiday-loving professor and becoming a Shokeen Niwas resident that doesn’t quite ring consistent.

That Hriday is a writer, ostensibly of some repute later in life, isn’t very interesting. It lends an air of pompousity to the narrative, and detracts from the daily drudgery and conjunctures of his life as a student. Day Scholar fares best, unlike the wards of Shokeen Niwas, when it doesn’t take itself so seriously. When Hriday loosens up on the whole writer-as-observer thing and actually participates in what is, by any standards, an eventful college life, the novel sparkles. In this aspect, Chowdhury is absolutely like his protagonist – it is very much in the everyday harshness of life in Shokeen Niwas, the ordinary heroism with which Hriday decides to rescue his pupil and her mother from a sordid fate and the dirty humour and myriad commonplace shenanigans of his cohorts that the stuff and substance of a great story are to be found. The rest, sadly, is overkill.

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