Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Poem In Willows Wept Review

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It’s called “Ghazal of the Cooum”, and you can read it here.

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Reading at Spaces with Yalini Dream, Shailja Patel and Ramki Ramakrishnan Tomorrow

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It’s an honour to be one of Yalini Dream’s special guest performers at her show at Spaces, Besant Nagar (1 Elliots Beach Road, Chennai) tomorrow. The show will start at 7pm, and will also feature Shailja Patel and Ramki Ramakrishnan (on veena). I will read for about five or ten minutes — my work is the least performative among tomorrow’s poets, so I hope you won’t mind me mellowing the evening out for a little bit!

I’m sorry this is both last minute and rushed and I haven’t provided all the relevant links – I encourage you to look up more details!

The Venus Flytrap: Doing The Sari

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Dresses may come and dresses may go, but there’s nothing like a sari.

This isn’t the story of how I fell in love with a difficult garment. I’ve never struggled with the sari, not the way I struggled with the bindi (which you can see I’ve fully appropriated), not the way I struggled with dark skin or with dark moods, or anything else with a similar gravity, the congenital weight of things beyond one’s choice. No, there was never a time when I thought that the sari was anything but prime plumage. Watching women wind lengths of cloth around themselves was where I learnt the meaning of the word “covet”, the floreo of pleating fingers the thing that must have mesmerized me into dance. There is a photograph of me at about three years old, wearing a miniature approximation in yellow and green, a fake nose-ring, my grandmother’s wig and an aigrette of pink flowers. I am not cute, I am coy, guilefully aware; at this age more so than at any other, the sari’s magical transformative effects on my demeanour are evident. The image is nearly prophetic. Somewhere in my baby brain I had set my sights on what I would grow up to look like, and through tube tops and sundresses, through denim and leather, that was exactly where I wound up arriving. And I was born knowing the sari signified, above all else, arrival.

I fought to wear saris long before anyone thought I was ready for them, just as I had glued a faux diamond to my nostril for a whole year until I was allowed to pierce it at fourteen. In both cases, the redemption was instant: it was plain to see that my vanity did not dwarf me. Vindicated though I was, for a decade, I saved the sari for “special occasions”, motivated in most part by the time it took to drape one, and in some part by wiles: the knowledge that the garment conferred on me what I call deadliness – it (or I) could stop both hearts and traffic. I’m still careful about when I take it out of my arsenal, if only because in love and in war timing is everything, but I’ve also stopped treating it as sacrosanct. I suppose that happens once you discover how much more interesting it is to keep it on, while doing the thing that usually requires taking it all off.

Today I deal with my wardrobe, and by extension the world, with the maxim, “when in doubt, go with the sari”. There are sequin-strapped blouses for when upstaging the bride is the order of the day and demure, high-backed handloom weaves for when a disingenuous innocence needs to be affected. There are gloriously unaffordable inheritance silks, but these come with taboos: call me prudish, but there will be no kinky romps in anything that used to belong to my grandmother. For that: frivolous synthetics that fall easily, cling flirtatiously.

I know for some the sari connotes respect or codes of restriction. But more and more, this is what I suspect about the true nature of the sari’s timelessness. It has survived the ages because depending on the wearer, it may murmur or it may sing, but it always says the same thing: ravish me.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Unsentimental Fool

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Sometime last year, after a lifetime of oversensitivity and a positively medieval sense of the tragic, I thought I had finally become unsentimental. Which meant, in optimistic terms, that my days of weeping in restaurants might finally have been put behind me. I was quite relieved about this. I had spoiled a lot of mascara crying over spilt milk.

I thought I had become unsentimental about, for instance, Leonard Cohen, the artist formerly known as my downfall. So what was I doing at four in the morning, at the end of December, riffling through page after page of Agha Shahid Ali’s collected works to correctly source the poem from which the line that had haunted me all that day had come from – just so I could put it in a letter? And not even a real letter, the kind that sensible people write in order to communicate, but one of those hopelessly twee things I’ve called a postcard: a poem not even sent to its intended, but left in the open (because actual communication would be, you know, too much for the nervous system).

I thought I was over Cohen, but he was in my subliminal impulses, as every thing that ever crosses one’s way becomes. And there I was, having perfectly internalized his mythology, playing it out without a thought.

In any case, I could not find the line anywhere in the book. “I’ve seen how things/ that seek their way find their void instead”. I fell asleep to the realization it wasn’t at all from Ali, but from Federico Garcia Lorca, a hero both of mine and – incidentally – Cohen’s. Fitting, considering that my new year’s resolution is to fully inculcate my complete demonic self, demonic the way Lorca meant it, which is to say – not so much to consume with a mad passion, but to once again also let myself be consumed, be possessed, to stop standing in the way of life, and love, and ferocious intensity.

Which, as you might correctly surmise, might just be a noble way of saying “start crying again in restaurants, if you like”. But it goes a little further than that. What I’ve learnt from my period of emotional austerity is that yes, unsentimentality is a survival mechanism and its opposite (intensity) is a choice – but to choose to live deeply doesn’t mean to choose to live without discretion. Too much contrived emotion only results in not knowing the difference between god and chemical – every sensation inducible, and hence inauthentic.

Maybe you’ll find what I say next more diffident than demonic, but I’ll say it anyway. Today I bought a gramophone, an impulse acquisition, right off the side of a street. An unthinkably romantic purchase if there ever was one, and one I would never have made ever before. I have neither vinyl nor space for décor – and for the longest time, too much drama about anything resembling a symbolic commitment. I have, however, finally found the space in my life again for a little tenderness, a little twinkling; and enough lines in my head, and enough groove in my body, to provide the music and lyrics – but only the kind that comes of its own volition, not the kind that’s just blank noise interfering in a dense, deliciously loaded silence.

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.

January 2011 Events in Bangalore

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I have two events in Bangalore this weekend.

I’ll read briefly at the Toto Awards on Saturday the 8th, as I am shortlisted again this year. I have “always the bridesmaid” syndrome when it comes to this sort of thing, but we shall see… :)

And on Sunday the 9th, I will read at Poetry Across Borders at Jaaga. Please do come.

Book Review: Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World Of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro

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In August of 2005, the state of Maharashtra introduced a bill of law which put an estimated 75,000 women out of work.

Among these women was a 19 year-old named Leela – sharp-tongued, strong-willed and very “bootyful” – the star of suburban Mumbai’s Night Lovers dance bar, and the eponymous beautiful thing of this thought-provoking exposé. When we first meet Leela, she is trying to coax a sleeping customer out of her bed so she and Sonia Faleiro, at this time a reporter for a national news magazine, can chat. It’s January 2005 – just months later, the bill (which banned dance performances in all establishments rated three stars or below, thus forcing an entire service industry into unemployment or sex work) would be implemented.

Initially researching an article that would be axed, Faleiro was welcomed by Leela and her colleagues with an unusual trust, which later allowed her to document their world as it came to an unceremonious end. She is introduced as a friend to their clients, their families, and to members of all aspects of Mumbai’s underbelly. If there are any doubts about the author’s motives, they are quelled – few women in India today would choose to spend that much time in brothels and bars, fraternizing with both patrons and purveyors, sharing their rooms and their food, travelling with them and accompanying them to hospitals and hotels alike were it not for an emotional investment in those whose lives these are.

But to praise Faleiro for being intrepid enough to venture into this domain is to be all the more awed by the bar dancers themselves. Above all, Beautiful Thing is feminist commentary – by giving us an intimate view into their lives, this book has the capacity to change, or at least challenge, public perception about much-maligned sex workers and bargirls. Perhaps the most important stereotype that it dismantles is that they are people who operate from a position of disempowerment. On the contrary, many bar dancers rose out of sordid circumstances – Leela, for example, was pimped out by her father from a young age, offered for frequent rapes by policemen, abused to the point of being forced to eat her own vomit. Bar dancing bought freedom. Not only lucrative, it gave the women the option of not having to trade sexual favours for money. The nakhra, or artifice, of performance was enough to keep them desired, comfortable and fawned upon – but without necessarily having to service a customer. Unless one wanted to, or didn’t mind, or fell in love.

In other words, bar dancing allowed them to break the cycles of exploitation that trapped them within their societies and families, and gave them careers which made up in independence what was lacking in public respect – a level of independence often denied even to educated Indian women.

Out of the 75, 000 women who lost their careers when bar dancing was banned, Leela’s is only one story, and Faleiro paints her with such humour, chutzpah and empathy that it’s easy to see why the author herself was so mesmerized by her. Just as a bar dancer teases and tempts before getting down to business, we are first entertained by dramatic fisticuffs between Leela’s best friend Priya and the man-stealing, self-mutilating Barbie, and the demands of Leela’s difficult mother Apsara, before the book settles into its ultimately sobering effect. Faleiro charms us with Leela’s grit and glamour before taking us into the red light district of Kamatipura, then to the HIV wing of a hospital, and finally into the inhumanity of the ban itself. When we accompany the ladies to the beauty parlour before a birthday party, we have no idea how disturbed we will be by its end, the gathered weeping to a song from Umrao Jaan as in the near distance, a recently-castrated hijra moans in her bed.

Yet somehow, this glimpse into a subaltern reality seems insufficient by the book’s end. As compelling as Leela’s story is, there is the sense that Beautiful Thing could have had just a few more layers – the author says she conducted research and interviews for years, and one wishes more of this had been distilled into the work. But perhaps this is just the complaint of a reader who, captivated, wishes the book hadn’t ended so quickly. And that, then, would be Faleiro’s triumph: to have seared into our consciousnesses – and more importantly, our consciences – a Leela so forcefully alluring that we are dismayed to have to let her go. Is this the author’s nakhra, persuading us that what we have seen is just not enough, that there is even more beyond the screen?. And if it at all obliges us to not turn away from the corollaries of societal misogyny and look deeper into the misogyny itself, it would be proof supreme of Beautiful Thing’s importance.

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

A Poem In Muse India

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Happy new year, everyone! Here’s a poem from the early post-Witchcraft period, two years ago. It’s called “Mahabalipuram” and you can read it in Muse India. I was a bit surprised to find it in the new issue of the magazine, because I had received neither an acceptance nor rejection note when I submitted it, which obviously isn’t standard protocol. Strange.