Tag Archives: poets

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: Damsel In Dangerlok

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Being of a consummately indolent species, and what more, having recently crossed into the zone of being over a quarter of a century old (and therefore prone to, and hopefully excused for, senility and imperiousness), I consider it a bit of an achievement to finish reading two books in a day. The two I read on that particular day were both autobiographical to some degree – one was candidly subtitled as a memoir, while the other carried all the markings of thinly-disguised non-fiction – but were diametrically opposed in the domestic lives of the women protagonists in question.

Isabel Allende, in The Sum Of Our Days, offered a relatively vanilla account of her matronly interference in bringing her “tribe”, her “people”, together over the course of a decade or so. Eunice De Souza, on the other hand – or more accurately, her alter-ego, Rina Ferreira – went about with parrots sitting on her head (there is proof of this elsewhere – a glorious photo of De Souza doing just this while smoking in her kitchen in her bathrobe exists) in Dangerlok, her scrumptious novel about a lecturing poet, single and past middle age, enjoying her solitude and flexing its margins as and when she pleases. There may have been some vanilla in this book, but it was probably infused in vodka.

I know who my tribe are, and I know them to be both a very small group and one that is widely dispersed. This is how I prefer it, although it helps to have a few dear ones within a reasonable radius. I feel the same way about my “people”, and by this I mean (see the earlier point about imperiousness first) my readers. Recently, I had to count the publications my stories and poems have appeared in and noted there were two dozen – half of which featured my work in the past fifteen months alone.  What made me happiest was that if I made only one new reader as a result of each of those journals, that tallied up to enough. How many true readers can a poet have in her lifetime anyway? A colleague – or a comrade if you will – once told me that he placed the agreeable number at around twenty. That night, having taken my estimate (and a nightcap for good measure), I slept contentedly, assured my work in the world was plodding along as it should.

What occupies me more and more is not the question of whether to live alone or not, but how. I think my needs are relatively simple. A room to sleep in, a room to work in, a well-stocked fridge, some plants, unobtrusive neighbours (if any), and some sort of animal – either a cat with a sanguine personality or a small dog (I didn’t grow up with dogs and want one thanks to both an acquired affection and a need to compensate). Friends are always welcome but can’t borrow my books or trinkets. Nobody ever wakes me unless explicitly requested to.

How soon can I do this and how far away can I get? 25 and already a curmudgeon (but I will tell you this: I was never young). You can rest assured, though, there will be no parrots in my hair. Owls in a tree, though, if I can have that. And butterflies.

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.

Review: “60 Indian Poets” edited by Jeet Thayil

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There is no doubt about it: English poetry by Indians – even by Jeet Thayil’s broadened definition that includes the likes of David Dabydeen, Jane Bhandari and Sudesh Mishra – is a minority genre.

Unlike their counterparts in prose or vernacular languages, its littérateurs are easily the country’s least known and least celebrated – readers are usually also writers, a second edition is a miracle, and profit is a laughable concept. Bookstores carry Dr. Abdul Kalam’s collections in quantities as embarrassing as the books themselves, but the award-winning Tishani Doshi’s is unavailable. When someone asked recently if the large cheque my publisher had entrusted briefly in my care was my advance, I scoffed, “What do you think I am, a novelist?”

This collection, therefore, is not just a risk, it’s a bit of marvel. Sixty poets and fifty-five years of work are here, traipsing the breadth of experience – love, sex, exile, the city, existential angst, the body, gender, death, and family. There are some exceptional choices, including Mamang Dai, G. S Sharat Chandra, Srikanth Reddy and Vivek Narayanan, who deserve greater local acclaim.

And there are notable exceptions, in spite of influence (Agha Shahid Ali), fame (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Reetika Vazirani) or recent notability (Meena Kandasamy, Temsula Ao, Sridala Swami). Alongside most of the other usual suspects, names largely unknown or unremembered take their place, among them Gopal Honnalgere, Subhashini Kaligotla, Karthika Nair, and Kersy Katrak.

In some cases, this recognition is posthumous or out-of-print, and could bring the work to greater attention. In others, the springboard provided by inclusion may portend some promising careers.

Either way, Thayil has taken some gambles, and this is commendable, for doing so augments the canon. In the past, anthologies (including two Oxford University Press ones edited by R. Parthasarathy and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) have stayed loyal to a tested fifteen or so names. Even Ranjit Hoskote’s Reasons For Belonging, with a meagre fourteen poets, encountered criticism for being filled out with “mediocre” choices. If nothing else, 60 Indian Poets will serve to detonate the perception that only a handful of English-writing Indian poets are worth attention.

But there is more to savour in this book than just the poems. Thayil’s introduction is so precise in contextualizing the place(s, as it were) of the Indian poet writing in English that it holds the attention more than some of the poems within. Two essays by Bruce King and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra are also included – King’s on the Holy Trinity of Bombay poetry in its heyday, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Nissim Ezekiel, all of whom died in 2004, and Mehrotra’s on “the Indian poem”, using Kolatkar as a base. All three essays are a pleasure, and a few more would certainly have added perspective to a collection that in its ambition clearly intends to encapsulate not just the poetry but also its milieu.

The introductions to each poet also speak volumes, such as the subtle suggestion that Kamala Das’ scandalous reputation may be no more than the effect of various personae, or when Thayil says of Bibhu Padhi, “His poems have the numbed conversational tone of someone who has been so long in mourning that he has forgotten the origin of his grief”.

And there are the photographs of the Bombay poets, a wonderful touch that discreetly but too infrequently punctuate the collection. One in particular, of Eunice de Souza in a caftan with a bird on her head, is delightfully candid.

The question remains: is this a definitive anthology? Indian poetry in English has some way left to go, and this book appears at a significant junction; its publication may in fact be the most visible harbinger of an upcoming revival. A fresh interest in poetry, as evidenced by mainly low-key efforts in cities including Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai (Bombay is exempted here for its headstart and iconic status as the country’s capital of verse), suggests that in a decade, 60 Indian Poets could well be no longer representative. And this, if this minority genre meets its potential, is as it should be.

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Piracy, Privacy, Popularity and Poetry

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It’s not every day that one finds oneself as a subject of a social experiment. At the risk of being frozen out of polite poetic society, I have to admit: I felt just a mite gleeful at having my identity misappropriated for inclusion in a 4000-page pdf anthology of pirated poetry.

The idea was simple: collect together some 3000-odd names of poets, randomly generate cryptic and rather dreadful wordlists assembled into poetic syntax and misattribute one to each, publish the whole thing as a pdf without the authorization of those whose names are used, and watch a congregation of middle fingers go up in the blogosphere.

Now, most people don’t take poets very seriously. The word alone conjures up an image of a limpid-eyed, lily-livered, lovelorn loon. This may be why 20% of us die of suicide, overcompensating as usual for all that lack of attention. You see, poets take themselves very, very seriously. Nowhere better can this be seen than in the reaction to the For Godot anthology, put together by three self-described “poetry researchers”.

The personal contact details of one of the editors were distributed by a poetry community organizer. Comments flooded in demanding deletions (and yes, apparently lots of poets have Google Alerts for themselves). The word “anarcho-flarf” was invented for the new genre. Anarcho obviously referring to anarchy, and flarf meaning “avant garde poetry that mines the Internet with odd search terms, then distills the findings into verse”. The less offensively intelligent among us stuck to “pirated poetry”.

But with all due embarrassed blushes for some of my fellow poets, the fake anthology does raise some interesting questions. To what extent can one really control one’s public identity, and at what point does one’s name become public property? If one’s name is public property, does this by extension mean that the person is also fair game?

I’ve had a lot of secondhand rumours come back to me. Some have a vague basis in truth that has been distorted, while others are so far-fetched that they’re clearly the work of vicious minds. For instance, I am supposed to have posted pictures of myself in a bikini online, thereby blemishing my fitness as an appropriate role model for impressionable Indian girls. Trouble is, I have never owned a bikini. I am also supposed to have tried to murder my mother-in-law. Trouble is, I have also never owned a husband (and not because he was suitably disposed of too, either).

So I do see the point of some of the anger over this anthology. It is annoying, at the very least, to have one’s name misappropriated. Also, if the world is destroyed and all that remains is the Internet, those awful generated poems are going to be credited to us. We’ll be to aliens what Sarah Palin is to SNL.

But truth is, as far as the anthology is concerned, I don’t mind so much. I have a soft spot for guerrilla art, and it’s a backhanded honour in its own way, since piracy always means popularity. It’s also pretty unlikely that my name will be noticed amidst the 3,163 others, and I wouldn’t care about the hardcore stalkers who might find it anyway. It’s equally unlikely that I will ever again share space all at once with Dorianne Laux, Anna Akhmatova, Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. For the non-reader, suffice to say that they are also known as some of the frequent cameo roles in the modern poet’s wet dreams (and isn’t that too identity misappropriation?). And that little giggle is surely worth a terrible poem I didn’t write.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Blasphemy Reading

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Venue is a mystery because it is extremely cool.

RSVP to find out.

Ok, we discussed it and changed our minds.

It’s the Rama temple in Koyambedu, near the outstation bus stand and the market. Meet us at the little cupola-like thing (CC’s description: small platform with a roof) outside. 10am. Bring poems that fit the theme.

“The Second Coming”: The Reincarnated Poem Open Mic

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After the success of the reading at Thalankuppam just over a week ago, we decided to hold something a little more mainstream, just to spread the word that poetry, open-mic style, has come to Chennai.

“The Second Coming” (all puns and cleverness intended) is going to be a mix of two formats. Original poetry, and poetry in translation. The idea is to not only encourage people to get a feel of performing their own writing, but to also hone poetry appreciation and performance poetry in itself, by sharing some of the best verses through the ages. Because March 21 is World Poetry Day we celebrate translation in particular, the gift it gives to the world at large. Basically, in addition to any poetry of your own, bring along a poem that was not originally in English. Think Octavio Paz, Rabindranath Tagore, Anna Akhmatova (for examples) and you’ll see what we’re trying to do.

Friday is a public holiday, and Mocha in the mornings is a lovely setting. This reading will be held on the upper floor, with special permission from the management. All are welcome.

Please click on the flyer below for details. It’s a little cluttered but they’re there. Really. ;)

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