Monthly Archives: December 2011

Joshua Muyiwa: Sex, And Yes, The City

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Note: This was written during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival, December 2010, and was meant to be published in The New Indian Express’ “Sexualities” column, which was discontinued shortly afterward. This year’s Festival reminded me of the article. Some of the information may be out of date, but I hope that as a profile of an interesting, emerging Indian poet it may still be relevant.

When Joshua Muyiwa confesses that he was recently, embarrassingly, called “Bangalore’s gay icon” in a profile, it’s clear why this information cannot be taken unsalted. It isn’t that he is gloating. Neither is it that the mantle is necessarily untrue. It’s just that, like many things about the 24 year old writer, it’s a descriptor that might come too easily. Openly queer, over six feet tall, handsome, dreadlocked, with a forearm’s length of silver bangles, huge quirky glasses and his father’s distinctly Nigerian features, Muyiwa’s identities – self-created and otherwise – demand attention, and get it.

Yet it would also be wrong to say that Muyiwa is a celebrity because of a mere semiotic effect, and not what he does. His poems about the urban queer experience, specifically his own, bring an anomalous voice to the Indian confessional poetry landscape. If that voice is anomalous because the man is, then so be it. “I’m most grateful that the word ‘poet’ is used,” he says. “Any adjective before it is a great marking tool, it gets you asked to do readings, gets you published, lets you travel, but beyond that what more does it do?”

Aside from two blogs’ worth of poetry, Muyiwa doesn’t publish, preferring performance. In Chennai for Poetry With Prakriti, he has also been featured at the Nigah Queer Fest (Delhi) and Bangalore Queer Film Festival. “I wouldn’t be a poet if it wasn’t for Youtube,” he says. His initial influences were the Def Jam videos and “angry black poets, like Stacey Ann Chin”, yet his reading style is casual and natural, without any sense of rehearsal or affectation.

“I don’t think that poetry needs the theatrics that go with theatre,” he says. “I don’t want that illusion. I travel with a set of poems, but don’t decide what to read. For me, the shock value of the poem is when I get reacquainted with it at the time of reading. I’m a different person each time I go to the poem”.

Joshua Muyiwa writes on love, sex, the city and all else in between. His current work includes an autobiographical collaboration, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, with the photographer Akshay Mahajan.  “In a lot of my poems, the lover is absent but people assume it’s about a man,” he says thoughtfully. “Believe it or not, there’s nothing harder than a male-male relationship. It’s two people who’ve been taught their whole life to be dominant and secretive and then they’re in a relationship and forced to talk.” He laughs. “Women relate to my poems because sometimes I say men are pigs.”

Muyiwa moved to India with his half-Malayali, half-Nepali mother when he was less than four years old, after the deaths of his twin and younger brother. When his mother also passed away suddenly and soon after, he was raised by his grandparents, and credits his dramatic, chain-smoking Nepali grandmother as a big influence. He never had to come out of the closet. He has lived in Bangalore most of his life, and when he says “marijuana” in a poem, he pronounces it “maaruvana”, sincerely South Indian.

He is a hipster in a country where the word still refers to a style of jeans – “the Williamsburg crowd” he says offhandedly, listing his musical influences. His Bangalore is Koshy’s, Temptations Wines and Richmond Town; they are parts of his persona, absorbed with the deliberation of all poets who mythologize their love and loathing of any place. “Being in a city is like being with a lover,” he explains. “You have to constantly seduce it. There’s no other way to negotiate a city”.

But the charm is in how open he is about his fascination with artifice. “It’s like, why do gay men like old Bollywood? It’s the melodrama. You know it’s artificial but you know it comes from an honest place.” This is exactly how Muyiwa comes across: aware of his baggage but unburdened by it. There’s an absence of pretense – when asked how he would contextualize his poems to Shiva in relation to the homoerotic subtext of the paeans of all male poet-saints past, he shrugs off the opportunity to place himself into a lineage, simply saying “It was in those poems that I first read about a certain sexualness, but I don’t know if I have the same structure or deep faith that they came from”.

He also chooses to be consciously non-political in his work.  “My views on [Penal Code Section] 377 or gay rights activism are not in my poetry. I’m talking about love and things which may be antithetical to the ‘rights language’. Even when I do write political poetry, it’s askance, it’s not coming from a statement-making intention. I’m not sitting down to do it, but if you read activism into it, who am I to take that away from you?”

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Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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Up until somewhere near its midway mark, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – the story, primarily, of a boy’s voyage on a ship from Colombo to England in the 1950’s – proceeds with a certain deceptive simplicity. The boy, named like the author as Michael but known to most of his fellow passengers under the nickname Mynah, is the 11-year old child of divorced parents on a migratory journey, being sent to reunite with his estranged mother. While this echoes, biographically speaking, Ondaatje’s own early background and departure from Sri Lanka, an author’s note insists that this is a work of fiction – and indeed, the events on board the Oronsay are fraught with such drama and intrigue that one would not necessarily imagine otherwise.

At sea for twenty-one days, Mynah befriends Ramadhin, whose troubled heart lends him a cautious nature, and the confident, thrill-seeking Cassius. The trio find themselves assigned the same table at mealtimes – the eponymous Cat’s Table, as one of the other diners calls it, far from the Captain’s and seemingly not of particular ranking or importance. Free of serious adult supervision for the most part, the boys enjoy the small autonomies of travelling alone – sliding on polished floors, dive-bombing into the pool and staying up late – alongside varying encounters with others onboard, who reveal, by their own examples or in direct interactions, numerous things about adulthood that will tincture their understanding of life for a long time afterward.

He remains friends with Ramadhin after they walk off the gangplank, and eventually becomes a part of his family, but loses touch with Cassius. Still, he never stops circling his old friend in some way: a successful writer in adulthood, Michael goes to an exhibit of Cassius’s paintings – inspired, he discovers there, by their time on the Oronsay – and signs the guestbook as ‘Mynah’ yet leaves no address. And although he says that he has rarely thought of the voyage, its impact on the way he understands consequence, relationships and change is profound, deeply sublimated.

And this is where something shifts in the narrative. About halfway through the book, the adult Michael’s voice becomes truly adult in its reminiscences. There is a kiss that “knocks the door down for the next few years”, “an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie”, and suddenly we are seduced – here again is the idiom Ondaatje is famous for.

While the sustained intensity of The English Patient or Anil’s Ghost, to name his two most acclaimed – and stunning – novels, never quite manifests in the same way, The Cat’s Table contains its moments of beauty. If the name Michael appropriated for a narrator who is adamantly fictitious is a sort of reverse red herring, then there are others that the devoted Ondaatje reader will recognize and delight in. On board the ship is a handicapped girl who had once become a trapeze artist, after tracking down a long-lost aunt in a troupe that performs in “a new village in the southern province every week”. Immediately evoked is a poem from his 1998 collection Handwriting entitled “Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus”. This is what it means when an artist, over the course of his career, successfully creates a whole world in his body of work – wandering it, the reader finds herself in familiar rooms.

Later, in the book’s most breath-catching passage, the one most reminiscent of the elegance of his earlier prose, Michael reads a letter from the hitherto incomprehensible Miss Lasqueti to his cousin Emily. Both had been on the ship: the former is the one who has so named the Cat’s Table, the latter is onboard by coincidence, but her presence affects and alters the young Mynah deeply. Lasqueti writes of a time in her past when she had fallen under the spell of a powerful man, just as Emily has, and of what the experience taught her and what had been taken from her as a result. In one luminous line, she mentions in passing the artist Caravaggio, for whom Ondaatje named a protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient.

What begins as an adventure story is thus revealed to be a novel about adulthood as disillusionment and the untraceable origins of damage. What happens to Mynah on the ship is not anything as obvious as trauma; he is simply an observer, and in this way the events of those three weeks influence him in a subtle but indelible way. And there are events aplenty: how could there not be, when his co-passengers include a prisoner, a botanist transporting an entire garden across the world and a businessman with a curse on his head, to name just a few.

Good books by great authors sometimes suffer on account of their siblings. Though by turns moving and delightful, The Cat’s Table is not Ondaatje’s most wondrous work, but it helps to keep in mind that this is a book by a master of his craft being compared to other pieces of his own oeuvre. It is not an opus composed at the height of his powers, but coasts on a pleasant, if modest, plateau.

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

Many Lallas: An Interview With Ranjit Hoskote

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Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla recasts the poems (vakhs) of the 14th century mystic Lalleshwari as the collaboration of many authors over six centuries. Excerpts from a conversation during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival.

You’ve entitled your book of translations as “I, Lalla”, and believe that although there was a historical figure (a poet and mystic) by that name, over the centuries the body of work that was attributed to her was in fact composed by multiple people, many Lallas. So on the one hand you have the palimpsest and on the other, a persona that emerges from it. What was your experience of working with both?

It’s actually an inference you make after going through the material – you realize that it’s actually a polyphony. The corpus attributed to Lalla is a collection of many tonalities, lines of argument, different kinds of musicality, and different bodies of imagery. And it is possible through some turns of phrase and choice of words to infer that certain pieces came from earlier or later periods. There are certain internal evidences. For instance, certain administrative references (which existed in the 18th century but not in the 14th). Or when Shiva is referred to as “sahib”, as a word for “lord”. The poems have been continuously rephrased for contemporary usage; they are not frozen in an old Kashmiri text. There is no mythic old Kashmiri text.

You’ve used the word “confluentuality” to situate Lalla in spaces which are, alternately or at once, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other identities. This is a confluentuality that unnerves those with narrow sectarian interests. Tell us more.

I think the hard-edged identities of religion or ethnicity are to a great extent modern constructs. If you look at pre-modern India, what you’re really looking at is a set of intersecting geographies. The three major dynamics are trade routes, pilgrimage routes and invasion routes. You find a constant migration of people: new cults, new texts, new religious ideas and also new secularities. From the 12th to the 18th century this is what you have. A lot of this activity is in fact confluential – people who extend themselves beyond what is permitted to them canonically. We’re still playing out the politics of the 20th century to a large extent – which was a really divisive, annihilative politics, creating hard-edged identities at the expense of the other. In a situation like that everybody suffers but what are most damaged are forms that developed at the intersections. A particularly sad example internationally would be the culture of the Arab-speaking Jews, a flourishing culture from Morocco, Iraq and Syria, which completely fell between the lines of Zionist and Arab interests. It’s impossible to continue, pushed into an either/or logic. The imagination becomes less capacious in these terms.

The term secularism is often upheld as the preferred, politically correct narrative – how does an essentially syncretic figure like Lalla add to or complicate the debate?

Secularism is technically an equidistance from all religions. In India it’s come to represent an ability to embrace all religions. The tragedy is that however you interpret it, it involves simplifying or damaging the sense of all religions, their richness of detail. If by secular you mean something that is skeptical of the sacred, then that’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the religious imagination. My problem with this is that secularists tend to embrace the cultural concepts of religion while shying away from the philosophical and ideological.

This work is also interesting in the debate about cultural authenticity. You’ve said that “authenticity suggests an original against which comparisons can be made”, and that Lalla is “a perfect argument for how culture is always a hybrid invention”.

Until the earlier 20th century, the vakhs were orally transmitted. In the 1920’s there was a print version, which assumes authority, so what were earlier versions became variants. So long as it was oral or in the form of script it was still an open-ended text. This theory I’ve put forward of a contributory lineage allows us to look critically at the whole concept of authorship. From my point of view the corpus is full of performers, writers, editors and the unlettered people of the [Kashmiri] valley. In the nature of how such contributions work, what is important is not the name of the author (which cannot be known) but attributes made.

Men on quests of faith had the acceptable trajectory of being a son, a householder, a retiree and then a renunciate to look to. Female seekers like Lalla had to reject the system entirely. What are your thoughts on how gender might have come into play in the life and work of Lalla?

In the life more than the work. I would think the Kashmiri Saivite tradition has always been a tradition of householders. Even if there were ascetics who retreated to the forests, they were chiefly householders. For Lalla there was no other option. Her spiritual quest was at odds with what was expected of her as a woman, so she took up the life of a wandering seeker. The conventional reading has been to talk about the historical personage using scanty biographical evidence, mostly chronicles. To my mind this is not the most productive way to do this. I am more interested in the poems. The vakhs themselves contain very little personal information. I find it difficult to reduce it to a gender position. A statistical example would be that there are not more than four or five references to female labour in the vakhs. The rest are of male labour. It is wishful thinking to regard this in a gendered sort of prism.

You’ve worked on these translations for two decades, and as you belong ancestrally to the Kashmiri diaspora, lived with the idea or presence of Lalla for much longer. How has Lalla shaped your own writing or sense of the world?

I think that as with all translation projects, you are shaped by what you translate in ways that are manifest and sometimes not so manifest. It’s been very important to me in terms of extending my own work. Many people have commented on how these translations don’t sound like my poetry. The aim of the translations has been to restore the jagged, colloquial, very sharp quality of the originals. It’s been an amazing opportunity.  It has allowed me to sort through a number of ideas about the sacred and to understand the sacred as something that stands beyond orthodoxies. The sacred is compelling and it is elusive; it eludes the names and the forms.

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

Three Poems In Cura And A Pushcart Nomination

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Three poems — “Interior”, “Winter in the City Without Exits” and “Echo” – appear in CURA.

Also, I’m happy to share that Rougarou has nominated my poem “I Will Come Bearing Mangoes”, which they published in their Fall issue, for a Pushcart Prize. Read it (again?) here.