Tag Archives: writers

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.

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard From Bundjalung Country

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I write this to you by hand from a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane. My companions have gone to an animal show, while I have chosen to catch my breath and reflect. I am surrounded by bird calls (I promised you this a few weeks ago) and the quick footsteps of excited children. I still have white sand in my shoes from a beach I stole away to on my last morning in Byron Bay. This brings to mind the first time that I travelled to this land, when I’d lain on my back under regal trees and it was Singapore by the time I washed Larrakia country out of my hair.

But that was Darwin, in the North, and it is Bundjalung country I have been in this time.  On one of three rainy days, the writer Jeffery Renard Allen and I were having coffee when a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to meet one of the Elders. That woman was Dale Simone Roberts, and as Jeff leant to be introduced to the seated Elder, Aunty Dorrie Gordon, Dale turned to look me in the face and said “Bless your journey. I can see a little bit. You’ve been fighting for the women.”

I burst into tears.

I don’t know what it was: the history and trauma embodied by Aboriginal people like Aunty and Dale, and the ordeal and fresh wounding embodied by Jeff, as an African-American man in the world today; or the fact that while I was contemplating the everyday resilience of others, someone had seen right into mine. Aunty blessed me in her way, and I touched her feet first, as we do in mine.

Immediately after, a precious conversation with Helen Burns, a local writer with whom I’d forged an instant bond upon discovering that we are both writing fiction projects on Andal. She told me how sometimes she sees a person in Tamil Nadu, on a bus perhaps, and could swear that they were Aboriginal. In Pitjanjara (one of many indigenous languages), she said, the word for ‘parrot’ is ‘kili’. I fished into my handbag for my notebook to write this down, and it fell open to an image of Andal I hadn’t realised I had carried to this distant continent.

How many countries are within each nation? How many countries are within each individual?

Among my panels was one on multicultural influence. My passport declares one thing, my heart and tongue claim another, and my history sprawls though acres of a third.

But an Australia-India Council grant has brought Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I here to promote our feminist anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, and over and over again we found ourselves simultaneously adding nuance to popular narratives and expounding on the dire condition of women in India. One journalist told us that a national Year 12 exam asks students to write essays on the same. On us.

 And when she asked about India itself, I told her a list of things I was afraid to speak about, and in this way I named them – the many countries within a nation that only on some days do I call mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Some Recent Press

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I talked to Isahitya (October 2012) about vulnerability, mysticism and the book I’m concentrating on now.

And to Doodleblue (August 2012) about my old column, “The Venus Flytrap”, and what I dislike about India.

And to The New Indian Express from London (July 2012) about participating in Poetry Parnassus.

The House and the Kitchen Table

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So V.S. Naipaul thinks no woman writer is his equal. Boring. Why waste column inches – let alone energy – on outrage? I take Naipaul’s statement about as seriously as one should take any statement by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries – it might make for an awkward dinner party, but if you’re there at all, you can spend it plotting what to include when you deliver his eulogy. His former editor (and most recent object of his derision) Diana Athill has gone on record to say she used to remind herself in moments of strife, “at least you’re not married to him”. We, thankfully, don’t have to entertain the invidious Sir Vidia in person at all.

So there’s really nothing remotely rewarding about taking apart Naipaul’s arrogance. There is, however, one other thing that the eminent curmudgeon said about this matter that’s of some interest. Somewhere in his diatribe about sentimentality and “tosh” in writing by women (which you are no doubt already familiar with), Naipaul is also quoted as having said: “”And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

Now that is an almost empathic statement. Too bad about the context.

In their own way, Naipaul’s words echo a different response to the question of women and fiction. When it was put to Virginia Woolf in 1929, Woolf went on to write the canonical essay “A Room of One’s Own”, which posited that financial autonomy as well as actual physical space are imperative to the writing process. She argued that it is necessary, in short, for a woman to be able to literally lock herself into her work and lock the world out in order to produce it at all.

Decades later, the African-American womanist Alice Walker challenged and expanded what she believed was Woolf’s privileged point of view: she wrote (in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”) that before a woman could own a room with a key, she first had to own herself – a prerogative literally denied to slaves and others of disenfranchised backgrounds.

So when Naipaul speaks of a woman not being “a complete master”, he actually wanders into feminist vocabulary, an interesting if unwitting step in an otherwise unexcitingly misogynist contention. It is, in effect, a concession: the acknowledgment that one’s experience of the world is limited by gender, and that gender roles in turn continue to be asymmetrically demarcated. Naipaul is correct in saying that the perspectives of women writers are influenced by their lack of dominion in various spheres of life. He is inexorably wrong, however, to dismiss these perspectives as any less important than his own or those of any other male writer.

The most elementary rule of writing is that one must write what one knows about. Good writing, even fiction, comes from an empirical place. So if the narratives produced by women writers reflect, as Naipaul says, a “narrow view of the world”, then the more pertinent question is – do they reflect that world truly? Do they speak for it? Are they authentic?

So if we are to assume that most women, in some regard, live without autonomy, then we must also allow that those who write have done so in a variety of less than ideal compromises: in secret, under pseudonyms, at the kitchen table, between feeding times, in custody, against regimes domestic and otherwise, without intention or access to publish. They have done so, more often than not, not from the comfort of a private office, but in the liminal spaces and snatches of time afforded by lives that do not, generally, afford much space or time, or respect.

If their writing is coloured by the fact that they are mothers, wives, daughters, wage-earners, dependents, care-takers, then by that same token Naipaul’s is surely also coloured by the fact that he is a racist, masochist, elitist, sexist misanthrope. But the circumstances out of which these women – or anyone, regardless of gender, who is disadvantaged in any way – write out of do not diminish their work any more than Naipaul’s infamous abuses in his personal life and corrosive statements do his own literary output. To write in spite of possessing a “small” life is an act of agency. Naipaul, whose own father took to writing as a means of escaping poverty, should certainly know this.

The work of the writer is to bear witness – but this is not as grandiose a trope as it sounds. To bear witness to life is to bear witness to its kitchen tables, its bedrooms, its little heartbreaks, its disappointments, its pettiness, its fleeting fulfillments and – yes – its sentimentalities. If the fiction produced by women writers does all these things, then I would say they are doing something correct. A narrow but clear view of the world is far preferable to something sprawling, sweeping, but ultimately in denial of the world itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

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.

Book Review: Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia

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There is only one problem with “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda”, the exquisite introductory story of Aamer Hussein’s collection on dislocation, travel and binding ties. In snippets of monologue rendered with the subtle elegance of watercolours, a Pakistani man in Andalucía revisits the thought of an erstwhile beloved, seeing their ghost in every glass and fragrance. The perfect pitch, devoid of overt sentimentality, of his lingering ache sets the bar for the rest of Insomnia high – too high.

That precision never again quite surfaces in the book. Although several of the remaining pieces in this slim collection of seven stories have their own pleasing qualities, nothing as memorable or as stirring occurs again. The story that immediately follows “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda” suffers especially. The sophomoric romance of “Crane Girl”, about a student in London who falls for a moody Japanese girl, dulls in comparison to the richness of the preceding piece. But this is also because the adolescent voice is not the author’s strong point, as “The Lark”, about a student Nawabzada from Karachi (exoticised in Britain as “the Black Prince”) who is about to set sail back to an undivided India, confirms. There is something under-developed about Hussein’s younger characters, and it is not because they themselves have yet to mature. Throughout the book, all of his protagonists come from a certain elite cosmopolitan background, but where his adults are skillfully rendered in their accumulated worldliness, jadedness and emotional complexities, their younger versions come across as shallow, their motivations uninteresting.

Nowhere is this clearer than when “Crane Girl”’s protagonist, Murad, makes a reappearance in the eponymous story, now a globetrotting intellectual, that character niche at which Hussein is most skilled in his rendering. In this instance, as with all his melancholy adult artists and scholars, the story is executed with charm and believability. When the adult Murad, speaking to an Indonesian poetess in Italy, summons the memory of trespassing a peach orchard at age twenty, it’s hard to believe that this is the same character who had proved so facile in “Crane Girl”.

Writers are frequent protagonists in this collection, most notably in the excellent “The Angelic Disposition”, in which the subversive author S.S. Farouqi grieves the loss of a contemporary, whose friendship had sustained her spirits and her work. This is the book’s other standout tale – it is scaffolded by its historical context of Partition and military censorship yet avoids becoming overwhelmed by it. Similarly in “Hibiscus Days”, in which a translator contemplates his deceased friend, colleague and rival, and the time a small group of Pakistani academics shared in the 1980’s, commuting between continents together and apart. The world of Hussein’s strongest characters is a finely-etched one: dynamic with journeys, conversations and layered emotion. Besides these three stories, “The Book of Maryam”, about a feminist poet – another friend of Murad’s – reading poorly-received political work to an audience in the West, is an almost sly interlude, almost a statement on Hussein’s own mellow touch. It is not the strident characters who remain with us as we leave the book.

Insomnia is, at its best, a wistful meditation on what it means to be of a certain class of global citizens – of a diaspora that may well find the term itself outdated – and it stands out at a time when the postcolonial hangover still hasn’t quite retired its hold on the subcontinent’s literary output. Its more successful characters, by and large, are past that. It is not cultural angst that plagues them, but something more timeless and delicate, profoundly intimate yet recognizably universal.

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

Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish

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At a certain point in his piscine-inspired circumnavigation of India, Samanth Subramanian does the one thing that seals the deal as to his dedication to his research: he swallows.

Although he contends, in conversation before the Chennai launch of his book, that he could have written the remarkable non-fiction debut that is Following Fish even if he were not a fish-eater, his swallowing of a live murrel fingerling (not to mention the utter relish with which he describes the seafood he consumes on his travels), suggests otherwise. For someone who spent a decade getting over the disgust of seeing a whole steamed fish as an adolescent, this book is a more than satisfying penance for the deficit.

But rarely is this exploration of fish purely epicurean, although some of the most evocative segments of this book are precisely about this aspect. In Kerala, for example, fish becomes quite literally a side dish in the pursuit of toddy. In Mangalore and Kolkata, searches ensue for different variants of the perfect fish curry. But there’s much more. The live murrel fingerling is ritually swallowed whole in Hyderabad hardly as an adventurous challenge to the palate, but as a cure for asthma. Mumbai’s fish curries are first marinated in the tensions of migration and the question of whom a city could truly belong to. And these are only some of the kinds of fish he follows – even the fishes he encounters that are released back into the water upon capture, or never even seen but understood as the linchpin on which a story pivots, serve as introductions into ways of life and coexistence. In nine eloquent chapters, Following Fish casts lines all along India’s peninsular coast, from Bengal to Gujarat (Orissa is given a miss as two strong leads presented themselves in Maharashtra), and at each place, its author seems to reel in a completely different catch.

Asked what the fish would be to him if it could be only one thing, Subramanian says, “a window”, then apologizes for the clumsy metaphor before continuing. “But it’s multiple windows isn’t it? Every place you open a window, you get a glimpse of another world.” Clumsy or not, it’s a neat capsule for the many narratives that emerge: food and culture, sport and commerce, history and change.

There is much to admire in this collection, not least among them a particularly assured writing style. The narrator himself surfaces infrequently; as far as possible, the stories are about everyone other than himself, and its spare sentimentality is one of its greatest strengths. This is doubly commendable not only for having eluded the modern tropes of the confessional voice, but also because in spite of it being a work with an certain detachment, there is no sense anywhere that this is a dispassionate project.

“I would still classify a lot of this work as journalism, or perhaps narrative journalism” says Subramanian. “And of course, the first rule of journalism is to put yourself outside the story. You have to go there knowing that you have zero knowledge and everybody else is relatively an expert.” Marketed as the first travelogue in the nonfiction narrative genre in India, Following Fish sets a high standard in its reportage and the perfectly balanced pitch of its reserved yet engaged voice.

Nowhere is this skill more evident than in two captures dealing directly with dying cultures. In what is arguably the book’s richest chapter, a community of Catholic fishing-peoples in the Tuticorin district are brought alive in an account that is at once part anthropology and part farewell tribute. Elsewhere, Subramanian lets down his characteristic objectivity in his documentation of the effect of tourism in Goa, where he says the loss of a fishing culture is particularly poignant, because “everybody fishes – not just commercially”. Modernization and its impact on fishing communities troubles him, but he labours under no delusions of activism: “The eternal plight of the journalist is, can he change things? A journalist can only write things. The next step depends on others. In every single state I visited, I heard this complaint. It’s probably the single uniting factor among the communities. The displacement is happening everywhere and in a lot of cases it’s a particularly poor state of affairs”.

Among the many things that this book might be, it stays truest – and does proudest – the purpose the author has intended: a travelogue. “A travel book should not be a how-to-travel book,” he says later at the launch. ‘It should just be a log of what was experienced – that’s where the word travelogue comes from.”

And travel writing in this age is significantly different from its predecessors (Subramanian pegs the beginning of the genre at the writings of the 5th century Greek historian Herodotus) by virtue of how easy it has become to actually cross distances. “Earlier, the journey itself was about the story. For Marco Polo to go to China was difficult. Now it is so easy to get on a plane – so the work becomes focused on the destination itself.” Following Fish was not, as its structure might indicate, a faithful journey along the coastline, but the culmination of a series of trips over around two years to locations along it. In this sense and in others, it is a methodical book, tightly plotted and cohesive, yet with possibly more charm than a more meandering exploration might have.

Following Fish is a highly accomplished debut, the kind that makes it tempting to assume it as a barometer for the future of its genre in this country. While so grandiose a proclamation might best be withheld, suffice to say: the splash this book deserves to make should have quite an interesting ripple effect.

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