Tag Archives: Bombay

The Venus Flytrap: Rock Salt And Two Types Of Terror

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“So you’re doing a Bombay quickie,” said Sukanya Venkataraghavan as we lunched at the iconic Café Mondegar last weekend. I was packing all I could within two and a half days: art gallery, shopping, sightseeing and work. I was there for a wonderful Lakmé Fashion Week preview event, at which I read a poem and participated in a panel on feminism and fashion with Laila Tyabji, Mallika Dua, Anita Dongre and Nisha Susan at Godrej’s India Culture Lab. I also had a deadline at the final proofs for my new book. And it was my first visit to the city! Bombay quickie, for sure.

Mario Miranda’s murals loomed large over us, and the Saturday afternoon crowd was louder than the music. Sukanya and I had connected as writers on Twitter (her fantasy novel, Dark Things, came out earlier this year). Secretly, I was feeling drained and anxious, the result of several weeks of travel and intense focus. In the offhand way I gloss over it, I said I was feeling exhausted after having been very social and around many people’s energies.

“Rock salt”, she said – and suddenly I knew I was among kindred. She was referring of course to the aura cleansing powers of the kitchen condiment. I reached over and squeezed her hand in relief. “I know. I just forgot to bring some!” I exclaimed.

The conversation took a decidedly mystical, and more open, turn. “There are a lot of nice weirdos out there,” said Sukanya. “I think of myself as a functioning introvert.” As someone who is the same, who literally sets aside hours for solitude, I instantly grew comfortable.

When we wandered over to cold coffees at the also-famous Café Leopold, which had been Sukanya’s first choice, I confessed why I had said we should just do Mondegar earlier. It had been because of what she’d told me about the 26/11 bullet holes there and how they had become a selfie spot. I hadn’t wanted to put myself in a site of trauma when I was feeling exhausted and delicate. But connecting with her had brightened my energy and centred me somewhere familiar. I could shop the Colaba Causeway, I could laugh like always. Being able to share that I am quite shy and extremely sensitive – an empath, if I were to use the term that’s become popular – conversely helped me bloom.

On the way back to my guesthouse, I stopped at a small shop and practised the new Hindi words she taught me: akkah namak. Rock salt sells by the quarter kilo, so I now have some from the west coast.

I’m sure there are more than a few nice weirdos reading this, because our tribe is vast, even though we each think we navigate the world alone. I saw a lovely Georgia O’Keeffe quote the other day, and it may speak to you, too: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Go forth and wander, courageous one. And don’t forget that rock salt, lavender oil or healing crystal as you go.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 25th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World Of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro

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In August of 2005, the state of Maharashtra introduced a bill of law which put an estimated 75,000 women out of work.

Among these women was a 19 year-old named Leela – sharp-tongued, strong-willed and very “bootyful” – the star of suburban Mumbai’s Night Lovers dance bar, and the eponymous beautiful thing of this thought-provoking exposé. When we first meet Leela, she is trying to coax a sleeping customer out of her bed so she and Sonia Faleiro, at this time a reporter for a national news magazine, can chat. It’s January 2005 – just months later, the bill (which banned dance performances in all establishments rated three stars or below, thus forcing an entire service industry into unemployment or sex work) would be implemented.

Initially researching an article that would be axed, Faleiro was welcomed by Leela and her colleagues with an unusual trust, which later allowed her to document their world as it came to an unceremonious end. She is introduced as a friend to their clients, their families, and to members of all aspects of Mumbai’s underbelly. If there are any doubts about the author’s motives, they are quelled – few women in India today would choose to spend that much time in brothels and bars, fraternizing with both patrons and purveyors, sharing their rooms and their food, travelling with them and accompanying them to hospitals and hotels alike were it not for an emotional investment in those whose lives these are.

But to praise Faleiro for being intrepid enough to venture into this domain is to be all the more awed by the bar dancers themselves. Above all, Beautiful Thing is feminist commentary – by giving us an intimate view into their lives, this book has the capacity to change, or at least challenge, public perception about much-maligned sex workers and bargirls. Perhaps the most important stereotype that it dismantles is that they are people who operate from a position of disempowerment. On the contrary, many bar dancers rose out of sordid circumstances – Leela, for example, was pimped out by her father from a young age, offered for frequent rapes by policemen, abused to the point of being forced to eat her own vomit. Bar dancing bought freedom. Not only lucrative, it gave the women the option of not having to trade sexual favours for money. The nakhra, or artifice, of performance was enough to keep them desired, comfortable and fawned upon – but without necessarily having to service a customer. Unless one wanted to, or didn’t mind, or fell in love.

In other words, bar dancing allowed them to break the cycles of exploitation that trapped them within their societies and families, and gave them careers which made up in independence what was lacking in public respect – a level of independence often denied even to educated Indian women.

Out of the 75, 000 women who lost their careers when bar dancing was banned, Leela’s is only one story, and Faleiro paints her with such humour, chutzpah and empathy that it’s easy to see why the author herself was so mesmerized by her. Just as a bar dancer teases and tempts before getting down to business, we are first entertained by dramatic fisticuffs between Leela’s best friend Priya and the man-stealing, self-mutilating Barbie, and the demands of Leela’s difficult mother Apsara, before the book settles into its ultimately sobering effect. Faleiro charms us with Leela’s grit and glamour before taking us into the red light district of Kamatipura, then to the HIV wing of a hospital, and finally into the inhumanity of the ban itself. When we accompany the ladies to the beauty parlour before a birthday party, we have no idea how disturbed we will be by its end, the gathered weeping to a song from Umrao Jaan as in the near distance, a recently-castrated hijra moans in her bed.

Yet somehow, this glimpse into a subaltern reality seems insufficient by the book’s end. As compelling as Leela’s story is, there is the sense that Beautiful Thing could have had just a few more layers – the author says she conducted research and interviews for years, and one wishes more of this had been distilled into the work. But perhaps this is just the complaint of a reader who, captivated, wishes the book hadn’t ended so quickly. And that, then, would be Faleiro’s triumph: to have seared into our consciousnesses – and more importantly, our consciences – a Leela so forcefully alluring that we are dismayed to have to let her go. Is this the author’s nakhra, persuading us that what we have seen is just not enough, that there is even more beyond the screen?. And if it at all obliges us to not turn away from the corollaries of societal misogyny and look deeper into the misogyny itself, it would be proof supreme of Beautiful Thing’s importance.

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

Manifested Apocalypse

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I feared many things as a child: thunderstorms, plane crashes, the bubonic plague come alive from the pages of books, every flea the potential carrier of a manifested apocalypse.

In all these things, a single binding thread shot through. I never feared losing myself. Only others. I wanted them gathered around me, so that if anything happened, it happened to us all. The dead do not mourn each other.

Today, Mumbai burned. Some have likened it to the events of September 11 2001. I don’t know whether or not it is. But I do know that both times, I cried. Cities I do not know, but know I must get to know.

As someone in a long-distance relationship, events like these rouse particularly tender nerves. To get to the one I love I will need a visa, air tickets, a flight. A friend once told me about a heartrending reality of her relationship: as the half-a-lifetime younger partner of someone whose first wife was very influential, she will not be allowed to go her partner’s funeral when he dies.

This is not the first time I have been in a portmanteau love, split between places. But this is the first time it has been an unwilling separation. I spent the initial couple of months in a sort of morbid surreality. When my partner travelled and didn’t call as planned, I Googled for crashes between origin and destination. There was one time when I actually found one, and I remember feeling all the blood literally rush to my head. The feeling lasted until I realised it was an old report.

My partner and I both moved countries in an effort to carve a viable future out for ourselves, together and apart. It’s been worth it for us both professionally. It has not been worth it otherwise, and these terrorist attacks remind me of it. Reading Sonia Faleiro’s post on being extremely close to one of the points of attack, I thought: blessed are those who are safe because the ones they love are near them.

Recently, a foreign newspaper wrote that the “cultural vibrancy” of my city gives me all the inspiration I need. That isn’t true. In the year since I moved back, I’ve had a certain degree of material success. I’m not ungrateful for this. However, there are things which a healthy bank balance and career recognition cannot rectify. Such as how I watch my back around here, because it’s evident that I am admired but not supported – I am surrounded by crocodile smiles put on because I’m an interesting person to “know”. Such as how I count less than a handful of people here as real friends. Such as how I never fully recovered from the trauma of leaving a city I knew almost as home, because I am still not home. Such as how with my grandmother’s death, I live in a house with a steadily decreasing amount of affection directed my way.

What then, does this mean for me? I don’t know yet. I was talking to a friend about Oprah’s quintessential question tonight: what do you know for sure? I know for sure that in a world increasingly fraught with uncertainty, the distances we place between our selves are only that. Distances we place between ourselves. Distances we choose to.

We were once together in an earthquake. I was angry. “I don’t want to die with you,” I said.

I lied.

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.