The spectacular Asia Writes Project has reprinted two poems from my 2008 collection, Witchcraft. You can read “Scratch” and “Kumpi (The Work Of The Oracle)” here.
In the two years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve tried to be honest. I’ve tried to share my life in ways that might be meaningful to strangers. I’ve written about things that might be controversial, if not in themselves then in their autobiographical quality – depression, death, violence, desire. While writers’ block might have resulted occasionally in pieces I can best defend by quoting Maugham – “Only a mediocre writer is always at his best” – never have I known exactly what I had to write about and yet felt so sickened, fearful or bereft at the thought.
How many ways can I tell you this story?
I can tell you the facts: two weeks ago, a close friend of mine was sedated, taken into custody on false claims, and detained in a mental ward where he was sexually abused and improperly diagnosed. I can tell you that this was orchestrated by collusion between his family (who had disowned him months earlier), the hospital, and the police. I can tell you, so that you don’t write to me with information that can’t be used, that this happened in another country, with a different set of laws.
I can tell you about the distance, about the bafflement and panic that ensues upon receiving an alarming text, from a number that cannot be reached afterward.
I can tell you again about human circuitry, the connectivity I always feel to my dearest ones, and how it came alive. I was the first person he texted with his last cents of phone credit – and the only one who came through. All the way from here, I tracked him down. The activist who advised him on his rights, the social worker whose care he is under now, the writer who helped him get down the unspeakable in a police report – every person came through me. (“You texted INDIA?” he was asked over and over, once he was released and seeking legal aid, and in his typically dramatic way, he said, “I was semi-sedated and even then I knew the best help I could find was half a world away, but the closest thing to home”.)
I can tell you about the complexity of emotions that come with being in a situation like this, struggling to protect someone very far away. The uncertainty over what to write – and whether to. The gratitude at the help that arrived. The dismay at how eager people are to turn a person into a poster boy. The outrage at Dr. Siras’s suicide, so closely timed to my friend’s own persecution, and for the same reasons why his family turned against him. The chills I still get thinking of how much hinged on me receiving that one text and taking it seriously. The disgust. The anger. The fear.
How many ways can I tell you this story? Trying to tell it at all cleaves me – do I conceal in poetry, rage in polemic, inform as a journalist, or tell it like I just have – a story about which I am only one part, one participant.
How many ways can I tell you this story? Is it enough to say: these unspeakable things are no story. This is reality. My friend has a witness to the world. There are others who have no such testimony.
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.
“There’s a beautiful photo of Marilyn reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. She liked Joyce and Dostoevsky and Rilke. Everyone made fun of that. Once, Marilyn was chucked into a loony bin, like Sylvia, like Mary McCarthy, like Carson McCullers, like apparently most women artists and icons. Marilyn and Sylvia and the others were always feeling lonely and unloved and un-rescued, to hear it told in history. They were mooning over sexy older men. Fame or beauty or poetry or brilliance or icon status never seemed to save them. Arthur Schlesinger described Marilyn as exquisite, beguiling, and desperate. Maybe I will someday come across an account of a straight male icon, a writer, a David Mamet or an Arthur Miller, or one of the ones who went nuts, a genius who shot himself or gassed himself, and it will describe him as “desperate.” But I doubt it.”
– Elizabeth Bachner in Bookslut
There is only one video of me in the entire universe that I like. It was shot, handheld and without me noticing it, in April 2007 at No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur. Some people lose count of their lovers — I lose count of the places I’ve read at, but count I did recently, and realised that in the past eight years or so, I have read at an approximate fifty venues. No Black Tie remains the one closest to my heart.
Now, in the years of the drought — I feel like a jaded thing, but once, I read in jazz bars. I could only afford rhinestones, but there were stars in my eyes.
(About the poem – here.)
I like auto drivers. I really do. I’ve met some very nice ones, and employ the services of the yellow brigade on an almost daily basis. Three years of quarrelling, fleecing and one slightly infamous incident with a live chicken in the backseat have neither made me learn how to drive nor kept me homebound unless chauffeured. (The bus? Another story.) I’ve long accepted that I live in a mafia town – and while I can ignore the sambhar mafia, the maami mafia, the bad restaurant music mafia, the Tambrahm Twitter mafia and various other such coteries, the auto mafia has, if not my loyalty, at least my cooperation.
But not without grumbling.
The trick to negotiating life in a mafia town is to claim the small victories. Particularly the hard-boiled ones. Those warm fuzzy moments when the auto driver bypasses the haggling repartee and accepts your first quote, or doesn’t charge you at all and attains moksha immediately are either (a) rare or (b) fantasies you invent to drown out his bitching. All that is just petty change. Fine if it suits you, but it’s fun to just let him keep it.
And let him have it, too. Some people enjoy the victories that end in a blaze of cussing, working out suppressed aggression, or working it up, so they stay edgy and cutthroat for the rest of their office hours. Some like a spot of intimidation, some rude mudras and grimacing perhaps – nothing like a shot of mock macho to start the day. For some, if it doesn’t end in a movie-style chase, it’s not even worth it.
Because, let’s face it, no one who can afford to take autos at all needs that ten rupees enough for that much drama. He knows it, and so do we. The time-waste tango takes two. All that effort for a matter of principle – wouldn’t it be interesting if we applied the same in situations with more at stake?
Personally, what I claim as a victory is having the last word. I have a standard line for when I’m refused the change I’m rightfully due. It loses its histrionic imperiousness in English, but retains its underlying intent to shame philosophically: “If you lie to and cheat people like this, the money you earn won’t stay in your hands”. And with that I saunter off on the moral high ground. My karmic smugness gets further boosted by giving the same amount I was ripped off to the next beggar I encounter.
In my imagination, the auto driver’s conscience is a prickly one. This isn’t wishful thinking. As I said, its bad apples aside, I like the auto mafia. They work hard, stay loyal to each other, have inspiringly syncretic dashboard pantheons – and no one else north of Pondicherry loves that yellow ochre as much as I and these guys do. In a city as harsh as Chennai, they are my intrepid navigators. Holidaying here once years ago, I looked over my photographs and noted how ubiquitous autorickshaws were, noting in a journal entry how they “enter frame after frame of my pictures like seashells caught in a net for fish”. Love it or loathe it, they are the city’s spine. Its ethos – ours – owes more to them than any small change can adequately convey.