Monthly Archives: February 2012

TOI iDiva: A Toast To The Ladies

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Everybody knows that the second greatest euphemism in the food and beverages industry after “Rocky Mountain oysters” are the words “ladies’ night”. The suggestion: the clinking of glamorous, girly and most importantly gratis cocktails against a backdrop of softcore feminism. The actual serving: vodka deposited with an eyedropper into a sea of diluted juice against a backdrop of hardcore desperation.

Cheapskate tactics? Maybe. Maybe folks only want women to drink if they pay money to do so, which would be perfectly fair.

But then I recall two scenes, not far apart, at the same restaurant in Chennai: in the first, a female friend and I ordered a bottle of white wine. The waiter, asking no further questions, walked off to get us one. In the second, dining with a male friend, I asked for a single glass. “White or red?” I told him my preference. “Chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc?” In the presence of male company, regardless of how minimal the expenditure, female drinking was deemed respectable enough to warrant choices. In its absence, regardless of how extravagant the resulting bill, it was not.

Let’s not even contemplate the topic of the TASMAC adventure, wherein the undercurrent of judgment sensed in prime establishments is more like a riptide.

No wonder then that the news of what the world’s largest alcohol company, Diageo, did earlier this week for its Indian operations has been met with some thinly-disguised consternation. Out of 30 managerial positions at Diageo, 12 have been filled by women – and a further four women have been appointed directors. Additionally, the press reports that the Indian operations of major high-end manufacturers William Grant & Sons, Moet Hennessy and Pernod Ricard are either headed by women, or employ a large percentage of female executives.

“Will a woman really get that?” sulked one very sexist article. That being booze. That being the booze experience.

You know, just like how women don’t get mathematics, or philosophy, or any of those tough, tough things.

What’s ironic is that women here probably know far more about liquor than their male counterparts, because all pleasure that occurs surreptitiously intensifies. Our society is permissive when it comes to men imbibing alcohol. With women, however, it happens differently. Either she is inducted into the enjoyment of liquor by liberal relatives, or she learns how to keep it a secret. This means that she figures out her capacity, how to keep a clear head, what to do if she’s gone overboard, how to conceal the traces. She figures out what she likes and doesn’t, and why. The act of imbibing is not simple for her. I don’t intend to glorify alcohol or gloss over its ill effects, but when it comes to India and alcohol, women have everything it takes to run the show: sharply-honed senses of planning, self-preservation and maverick nonconformism.

Some years ago, I was told about a pink autorickshaw that sold bootlegged liquor. I’ve never been able to verify this, and of course it sounds about as mythical as a women-friendly TASMAC. Still, there’s something about the news that the Indian operations of these beverage enterprises are going to be led largely by women which is almost as delightful a thought as such a vehicle. It may be “just business”, as some might say, but the news is no less than a toast – to all the women out there who by virtue of having to hide, seek, rebel and relish as only the forbidden can be relished learnt not just how to hold their liquor, but how to hold their own.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

A Poem In Dr. Hurley’s Snake Oil Cure

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Sometimes I let my formal-verse freak out. In Dr. Hurley’s Snake Oil Cure, “Monsoon Terza Rima“.

Also, all proceeds from Cura Magazine Vol 1 (which contains three of my poems) go toward a childcare agency, Covenant House. All the contents of Cura are fully available for free online, but purchasing a print copy will assist the organisation.

Book Review: Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka edited by Ameena Hussein

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In the title of her introduction to Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka, editor Ameena Hussein references the Isurumuniya Lovers, a 6th century stone carving portraying a woman sitting on the lap of a man, her hand raised in a gesture that could be read as one of refusal, demureness or even blessing. The couple is not locked in embrace, gazing at or holding one another in any recognizably participatory erotic act. Instead, their faces are turned forward – the observer gets a better view of them than they do each other. Although left unexplored in the introduction, their posture serves as a perfect presentation of the question, “What is erotica?” The eye of the beholder, the eye of each beholder, differs.

The twelve stories in this slim collection, the first English-language publication of its kind from Sri Lanka, won’t necessarily appeal to a diverse range of beholders, but together they achieve a narrative coherence that for an anthology comprised mostly of debut and pseudonymous authors is surprisingly successful.

The majority of these stories are lightweight, not enough to get the pulse really racing, but pleasant tidbits nonetheless. The book opens with Sam Perera’s “The Proposal”, which – while guilty of containing an unfortunate reference to a male organ being slurped “like a string of spaghetti” and the almost unforgivable howler, “as the tip of my iceberg touches her volcano” – is striking in its sheer urbaneness. Colombo could be any city at all, not necessarily the capital of a nation recovering from war with itself. This is a smart move for erotica, which often operates at the remove of fantasy, and the rest of the collection retains this convivial note. When we encounter “the war that’s waged in our heads as our bodies seek peace” in Natalie Soysa’s “Bi-Cycle” later on, it rings as a line not of sobering but of understated acknowledgment.

But the Sri Lanka of tourists? Twice, yes. Of the two stories set in hotels, the sexier one is “Room 1617” by Marti, one of no less than four lesbian-themed pieces in the book. By contrast, only Tariq Solomon’s “Bookworm” explores male homosexual desire. Some diversity in this regard would have been refreshing, more so because “Bookworm” (like Nazeeya Faarooq’s “No” and Sam Perera’s “Hot Date”) muddles the lines of consent somewhat. While transgression is undoubtedly titillating, nothing challenges stereotypes and social constraints quite like a sense of agency.

The book’s two most outstanding stories come from the editor and Shehan Karunatilaka of Chinaman fame. In Ameena Hussein’s “Undercover”, a married and robed Muslim woman finds her sexual frustrations assuaged by the anonymous hands of a man who sits beside her at the cinema. Day after day, she returns to be pleasured, and gradually learns how to take control of the fulfillment of her desires. Shehan Karunatilaka’s “Veysee” offers, through a protagonist who may be closer to the book’s core audience than any of the others (a horny, heterosexual male), a story that is complex in what it says about human need and human greed. While it has been suggested that literary erotica (as opposed to visual erotica) caters largely to female readers, there is something more earnestly convincingly about Karunatilaka’s story than the others that offers a contradictory position. Speckled through the book are other pieces memorable for the right reasons: for an author born in the 1940’s, Tariq Solomon’s “Bus Stop”, when it eventually gets down to the actual sex, has a frankness that laughs at our rebellions as compared to generations past, and Marini Fernando’s “The Lava Lamp” contains an elegant but not overwrought visual of mango leaves in silhouette in a space of lovemaking.

Blue is reprinted in India a year after its original Sri Lankan publication by Perera Hussein Publishing House. Its first edition had been supplemented by black and white photography in lieu of story dividers – a gratuity which was dropped in this market. Not having seen these images, it is difficult to venture as to whether this was a wise idea, but wiser still would have been the categorical omission of all five poems included in the collection. One is at a loss for words when trying to understand their presence in this book. A more perfect summary cannot be found anywhere other than in the poems themselves; to quote from the lines of Layla’s “Sex in the Hood”: “Poetry and originality? / Zilch! / What the fuck were you thinking?”

 Hussein’s assertion that Blue is “a milestone in Sri Lankan writing in English” is not to be dismissed on the basis of whether or not these stories work on the level of arousal (which is ultimately an entirely subjective understanding). More interestingly, this collection was culled from only thirty-five submissions. If the dozen stories that made the cut from so small a pool are of this standard – and it must be noted that aside from Karunatilaka and Hussein herself, all of the writers in this book are new voices – then there is much to look forward to in the literature yet to come from the island.

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

TOI iDiva: UnValentine’s Day

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Wandering through Wonderland, the intrepid young Alice encounters a hubristic Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, wearing a beautiful cravat. The cravat, as it turns out, was an unbirthday present. An unbirthday, he explains, is every one of those other 364 days in a year on which one might also receive gifts. It is, as he says, “a knock-down argument”: by celebrating unbirthdays she can avoid getting terribly hung up on that one day, that albatross, the birthday.

Yes, we all know what Humpty Dumpty’s fate is. He, like some of us, will never get put back together again (although lots of men, and maybe some horse-like satyrs, will try). I know Valentine’s Day can be very hard for some people. Seeing as it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore it even here in Chennai, there seem to be two ways to deal: be Anti-Valentine’s, or be UnValentine’s.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to waste a fortnight, spending thirteen days feeling edgy (and not in a fashionista kind of way) in anticipation of the one that will make you bristly or downright miserable (add a margin for heartsick hungover-ness). To be UnValentine’s is to spend 365 (it’s a leap year!) eating chocolates.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to say you don’t care when you really, really do. To be UnValentine’s is to care – about yourself and how you deserve to be treated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to secretly buy expensive lingerie just in case someone notices you in your glorious misery and gives you some mercy luck. To be UnValentine’s is to hopefully get laid more than once annually.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to be discouraging of insipidly meaningless extravagance. To be UnValentine’s is to be encouraging of profoundly meaningful extravagance.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to obsessively analyse information on your exes to work out how they’re spending mid-February, and with whom. To be UnValentine’s is to already have them blocked on all your feeds, because there is no day, ever, when unsolicited news of them is welcome to upset you.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks to be alone. To be UnValentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to go on a date ironically. To be UnValentine’s is to not have to call it a date in order to feel validated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to begrudge your coupled friends their coupledness. To be UnValentine’s is to not stoop to entertaining the regrettable idea of coupling with your friends just because they’re around.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to observe Single Awareness Day (SAD). Because, you know, one is so critically unaware of one’s singledom otherwise. To be UnValentine’s is to know one’s loneliness but not be distinguished by it.

In South Korea, Black Day is observed on April 14, eating black noodles and commiserating about being single. In Chennai, this particular UnValentine’s Day happens to once again be a public holiday. You can eat black noodles if you like, but you’ll have to share it with your relatives (how’s that for misery?).

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to Valentine’s what militant atheism is to organized religion. Don’t shake your fist at something that doesn’t exist. To be UnValentine’s is to be a believer: in yourself, and your right to red roses, right-hand rings, assorted ridiculousness and loyally royal treatment. Any day you damn well please.

(“It’s a knock-down argument”.)

Here’s the truth: I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day. I have no idea what it means to be wined and dined and defined by one person’s attention on one particular day. What I would miss on that day I might miss on any other day of the year – and so, what I could celebrate on that day, I could celebrate on any other day of the year as well.

Romance is sweet. Revenge is sweeter. But nothing is as sweet as self-respect.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.