I have a piece in Kindle Magazine‘s “Cities” issue on Chennai/Madras, where I have lived since late 2007. Read it here.
Paris was the gift I gave myself when no one else would have me. It was an armistice of beauty I bought in a time of despair. I had wept my way through a month in England and a week in Berlin and arrived, fragile cargo, at the city of light. There, I breathed easily for a handful of days near the end of that summer. And then I would go back to India, and to much worse yet to come. But those few and blessed days became some of the most precious stones I’d bead onto the thread of my life. I knew them by touch: a memory I felt for whenever I doubted my gifts, my deservingness or my capacity to love myself. They still shimmer.
This is what Paris is to many people – those who have set foot in it, and those who know it in fantasy. On Saturday, I woke up to the news about the terrorist strikes on the city. I saw the mourning on social media first before I saw the reason why. “An attack on Paris is an attack on love”, someone* wrote on Facebook. And indeed it is. Not just love in the romantic sense, but love in the sense of altruistic compassion, which is formalised in the ideology known as democracy. Something about the city stands for freedom – whether that is the freedom to kiss or the freedom to think. Paris is beautiful in ways both intangible and palpable. It stands for the idea that life can be beautiful, and then it shows you how. At a distance, the city is a muse. In attendance, it is living magic.
I took a room in Montmartre that overlooked a ficus-gilded wall. For four days, I wandered by the river, in the churches, to the museums. I saw a woman with a cobalt blue parrot in the Latin Quarter one day and outside my hotel the next. I clicked a love-lock into place. In the most charming sequence from those days soaked in the miraculous, I found myself crying with joy in the Tuileries one afternoon, unable to believe that I could feel anything other than pain for the first time in a long time, and when I left the gardens and crossed a bridge, a stranger stopped me and gave me a gold-plated ring. She said it belonged to me. And so it does.
This is not entirely panegyric. My first day in Paris was spent in its outskirts, in its underbelly if you will, among refugees. That’s a story for another time. But I know that story too.
Does Paris matter more than Beirut or Baghdad? Does it matter more than Damascus or Maiduguri? Does it matter more than Muzaffarnagar? No. I am sad about Paris not because of outraged sentiments, but because of pure sentimentality. I am angry, about other places near and far, every single day. None among us is omniscient, which is the simple reason why our indignation or concern appears to be selective. We learn later, and then we know better next time. If you are upset about what happened in Paris because terrorism is terrible, then recognise fear-mongering under any name it appears by. If you aren’t particularly upset about what happened in Paris, but you care about liberté, égalité, fraternité, then recognise what is at stake. Everywhere. Maybe the attacks on Paris hurt so much because the city is a civilisational catalyst, one in which those principles are already – and I use this word deliberately – enshrined.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
*With thanks to Narayani Nadesan
Do check it out – lots of goodies here.
It’s called “Ghazal of the Cooum”, and you can read it here.
Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.
The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.
I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.
How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to it?
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.
I was asked to introduce the speakers at the relaunch of The Caravan magazine in Chennai the other evening (featuring Mukund Padmanabhan, Anant Nath, Sadanand Menon and Pankaj Mishra), and observing the panel discussion and interactive session afterwards reminded me why I am such a fan of the non-fiction narrative form.
Here is a feature I wrote for The Caravan last year, which I had titled “The City As Canvas”, and which is no longer online since their website was updated. I’ve noticed that of late, possibly in connection with Chennai Sangamam and the festive vibe the city takes on during December and January, there seems to be a great deal of interest in the street art of Chennai. Several events and pieces in the media, particularly on graffiti, are cropping up at this time, and it occurred to me that this might be the perfect segue into reposting this article. This appeared in the magazine in September 2009.
THE AESTHETICS OF CHAOS
Great cities are like rumours – they inhabit a space in the imaginations of even those who know nothing of their realities. Paris for romance, Istanbul for cultural mélange, New Orleans for jazz and voodoo. That cities have distinct personalities, have appearances and accents and accessories, is a rarely questioned premise, even among people who look upon the idea of anthropomorphism with skepticism.
Where then would Chennai, formerly known as Madras, fit in, in this spectrum of associations? Even within India itself, the southeastern coastal city is most frequently associated only with its notoriously hot climate, and we all know that talking about the weather usually denotes little more than idle chatter and elephant-avoiding euphemisms.
But to step into this city and brave the singularly defining characteristic that is its heat delivers certain rewards. What it lacks in nostalgic charm, modern architecture or the abstract energy that is expected to pulse through a city is – or was – made up for in its larger-than-life street art, in the forms of hoardings and graffiti. In Chennai, the walls may or may not have ears, but talk they certainly do.
And what do these public walls talk about? Politics, mostly. All over the city, political slogans and images of leaders cover the street walls. If a visitor could read Tamil, it would seem as though the city was an especially militant one, or at least constantly having elections. For the visitor who cannot, the city is simply a riot of predominantly textual graffiti. And for the Chennaiite herself or himself, it’s debatable what this urban scenery means, if anything, at all.
Cinema comes a close second, mostly in the form of vinyl posters. These are reduced versions of the grand billboards that once dominated and defined the city’s skyline, a relic of a different time. Cinema posters aren’t nearly as passionate as the political ones, but frequently risqué in their own way – like the public dreams of a privately conservative people. These and a smorgasbord of other street posters are of particular interest to a set of scholarly enthusiasts, who have collected 900 such specimens in the archives of the Roja Muthiah Research Library since 2002. Other kinds of popular street posters include ones commemorating a death anniversary, always picturised with the deceased’s photograph and a drawing of a pair of weeping eyes, and hilariously mistranslated ads for sex clinics, listing a variety of ailments they treat, including “nightfall” (nocturnal emissions) and “sperms coming too fast” (premature ejaculation).The Library’s director, G Sunder, said in an interview with The Hindu last year “they encapsulate an entire tradition of communication — on the occasion of death or marriage or coming of age and other rituals — in certain urban communities.”
But this is a cultural anthropologist’s understanding of the public visual culture, not, unfortunately, the city’s average resident’s. Perhaps these pieces of pop art are so ubiquitous that they hardly even register on one’s field of vision, or perhaps they are simply embarrassing – evidence of a city that has not yet grown up enough to embrace civic mindedness and cleanliness.
Whatever the reason, as vivacious as Chennai may seem in terms of street art, there is a disconnect between the appearance of the city and the active participation of its populace in this appearance. Who are the artists behind the city’s kitsch walls? They are, by and large, paid to either paint or stick posters up on the walls. In the broad light of day, any passerby in an autorickshaw might see them, perhaps calmly stenciling the word “Amma” in Tamil, in the political black and red colours, paid to splash opposition leader Jayalalithaa’s popular epithet across the walls of some street. Or sticking up some hyperbolic poster of a local political leader, comparing him to Che Guevara, or lionising another one as a deity. Even if technically illegal, there is no sense of transgression here. It’s all part of the propaganda machine.
According to Clause 6 of the Election Commission of India’s Model Code of Conduct for Political Parties and their Candidates, “No political party or candidate shall permit its or his followers to make use of any individual’s land, building, compound wall etc., without his permission , for erecting flag-staffs, suspending banners, pasting notices, writing slogans etc.” The Tamil Nadu Open Places Act 1959 also prohibits the vandalising of private walls at any time, regardless of whether the act is related to elections.
Ironically, there is virtually no graffiti that is not funded by a political party. Neither does there seem to be a desire to be anti-establishment, and subvert this state of things. One would imagine that spoofing the way in which Chennai’s political machinery turns the whole city into one massive polling booth would be the most obvious, effective and altogether appealing method of radical artistic protest, but this simply – bafflingly, in fact – isn’t the case.
Perhaps the fact that the powerful have co-opted as propaganda what traditionally has always been a tool of the visionary leaves its citizens’ unconvinced about the potentially radical elements of graffiti art. Or is it possible that Chennaiities, on the whole, aspire for a sterile, neutral-looking city? But that feels too simplistic, not to mention fundamentally at odds with the psychology of the urbane, as seen elsewhere in the world. If we consider the notion that the manner in which a populace marks out its city reveals the psychology of its counterculture, could it then be possible that the true problem we are grappling with is not an absence of tools, talent or reasons – but an absence of a counterculture itself?
In most parts of the world, graffiti is a tool of anarchy and expression. It is a legitimate artform – some of its more legendary proponents include the American Jean-Michel Basquiat, who went from street art signed off pseudonymously as SAMO (“same old shit”) to posthumously commanding five and a half million US dollars for his work, the semi-anonymous Banksy (Britain) and the Belgian Julian Beever, whose trompe-l’œil pavement chalk drawings have probably been forwarded to your email inbox at some point. It can be a tool of political protest, beautification, or simply adding to the mystique of the urban machine. In all cases, it is a manner in which the city itself becomes the canvas on which its inhabitants not just observe it or leave their impressions of it, but in symbolically charged terms, own it.
The same cannot be said for Chennai. In mid-2008, one of the city’s best kept secrets was revealed. Chennai, it turned out, is replete with trees and green spaces, a fact otherwise little known. That we ever overlooked this is perfectly forgivable, because until mid-2008, when a state ruling engendered their removals, the city was dominated by hoardings. Larger-than-life cutouts and advertising loomed above the city’s short skyline, obscuring these trees, enlivening the city with a mix of the garish and the glitzy. In mid-2009, another state ruling came into place: that the arterial Anna Salai and Kamaraj Salai roads would be whitewashed of their graffiti. Both rulings were met with tremendous public approval. The days of towering billboards has ended, and the days of cacophonous walls may soon follow.
All this begs the question: does the aesthetic of Chennai, the one which had characterised it for decades as a kitsch, chaotic place, mean nothing to its population? And if there really was no attachment to the hoardings and vandalised walls that so typify it – why not?
For illustrator and advertising executive Mihir Ranganathan, there is a fundamental lack of quality in the art that has so far appeared on the city streets. “I have never associated good quality with the kind of street art I have seen in this city,” says the Chennai native. “The portraits often only resembled the actual subject rather that being a good or near-perfect portrait.”
In his late 20s, Ranganathan was raised on a diet of foreign cartoons, was heavily influenced by his father’s interest in fantasy art, and gradually developed a taste for another niche form: rock album covers. Unassuming, yet aware that his scope and inspirations are different from those other Chennaiites might have been exposed to, he works with pen, ink and digital mediums, and sees graffiti as a difficult medium. It holds no particular appeal to him. “It requires a lot of skill, working with large formats. Drawing a grid on the face of a building or wall would be complicated and require a specific set of technical skills.” He says it’s possible that other artists in the city feel similarly – and coupled with the lack of recognition that comes from anonymity (or the arm of the law that might pursue those who seek credit), it doesn’t seem like the most welcoming medium for those seeking to show off their talents.
I realise then that to argue that graffiti is by nature a spontaneous and subversive act may not correspond with this particular city at all. What if the absence of a subculture is a matter of perspective? After all, the entire notion of “street art” itself is an evolution of what was once considered vandalism in the very cities where it is now glorified. If we situate Chennai as being, frankly, behind the times in this regard, where can we find elements which may one day develop in such a way as to create an authentic, representative aesthetic?
The first thing that comes to mind then is the traditional domestic kolam (or rangoli). In fact, the only street art in the city that might be said to sprout from an organic impulse to beautify, rather than as a commercial enterprise or propaganda statement, might be the kolams that adorn many doorsteps. In lofty terms, this would then make the simple, housewifely gesture of drawing a temporary, unpremeditated pattern on the ground with rice powder a particularly pure form of art – impermanent, impulsive and instinctive. One can imagine that in the Chennai of tomorrow, an aspiring street artist who wishes to use an indigenous form would do well to incorporate the humble kolam into his or her repertoire, and make profound statements about time, loss, gender roles, symmetry and decay worthy of grand art theories and galleries.
Religious paintings themselves – more often than not a harmonious pantheon of various faiths and their iconographies – are not uncommon. Crudely painted in bright colours, they are particularly visible among slum areas. They are the only form of street painting in the city that is non-commercial and non-political in nature. They are, however, conformist in terms of imagery. One would be hard-pressed to find the artistic innovations associated with street paintings elsewhere in the world.
However, an interesting development of note is that a few months ago, coinciding with the Lok Sabha elections, a juxtaposition of the popular political and religious themes could be seen in a few quarters. Unlike the cliché of likening a political figure to a deity, however, the likes of Christ, Ganesha and the image of a mosque were painted side by side with the word “Vote” on each icon. A rare happening – a public service message not motivated by the agenda of any specific individual or organisation – which suggests that this may have been one of the very few instances of a person or group of graffitists treating the city as that extremely underused thing, a citizen’s canvas.
Then, there is the matter of the urban legend that is “P. James Magic Show”. All over the city, in a font that seems casual but is so Xerox-perfect that it can only be stenciled, are those words, followed by a phone number. They are 14 years worth of ingenious advertising by a magician whose shows one may never have seen, but whose name is known to virtually every English-literate person in the city. Until 2007, when he was ordered by the Commissioner of Police to stop doing so, P James would bicycle around the city and publicise his famously pigeon-friendly party magic show (for reasons of pure pop culture trivia, which all legends deserve, he seems to have an avian soft spot – rumour has it that in the 80’s, he operated under the name Mr. Peacock). An estimated 30,000 instances of his graffiti, as mentioned in an article in The New Indian Express, were found in the city at the peak of what some have correctly identified as his guerrilla art/advertising tactics. No one else in recent memory has done anything like it in the city – and granted, that’s not necessarily saying very much.
Over the phone, P James says that he does see the place of his advertisements in the larger context of street art. “I do encourage struggling people to take up street art,” he says in Tamil. Yet, as with the dubious success rate of his ads, very little evidence of a proletarian paintbrush streaks the city. P James’s legacy, too, seems set to fade. “They’ve whitewashed most of my ads,” is almost the first thing he says to me. There’s a trace of hesitation in his voice; he eventually hangs up the phone – not rudely, almost fearfully – as it becomes clearer that I intend to talk art, not hire him. Throughout the conversation, he addresses me with the polite “Madam”. He seems completely unaware of his own urban legend status. It probably has had no bearing on his life whatsoever.
And no wonder. The fate of the ubiquitous “P. James Magic Show” graffiti is sealed. As with the hoardings, this crucial nugget of Chennai’s visual culture is disappearing. Will anything take their place, or is early 21st century Chennai doomed to be a city of absences and indistinct aesthetics?
At his modest studio in Vadapalani, with its stacks of cinema hoarding cutouts fading in the sunlight, M. Aathidhatchnamoorthy speaks with sadness and hope about the death of the city’s aesthetic and what this has meant for those who had worked on the Chennai skyline in its glory years. It has taken a couple of months to track him down; when the laws changed, an entire industry lost its livelihood.
“There must have been 2 or 3 lakh people working in the cinema hoardings and banners industry,” he estimates. “This includes not just the artists, but also constructors, erectors, various types of labourers. Now not even 10 percent of that population can survive in the field. Where we used to work with ten assistants, we now have to make do with one. These days, having been forced out of their jobs because of a lack of revenue, they are now drivers, gardeners, carpenters, watchmen and coolies.”
Aathidhatchnamoorthy has been extremely fortunate owing only to his seniority in the field. The winner of the 2000 Best Banner Artist Award from the Tamil cinema Kalaimandram and the lead artist behind a coffee table book, The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings, which sets the popular iconography and lyrics of Tamil cinema against the tenets of the Natyashastra, he has maintained a commission-based clientele who continue to support his work. He points out that while financial struggle is a reality, even with his expertise, the repercussions extend even further that basic survival. “A person in this field today loses value in the marriage alliance market,” he says, illustrating an example of the diminished status of those in the field. “Prospective in-laws ask, and not without reason, ‘how can you even be an artist when there is no art itself anymore’?”
But something keeps him in the industry, something greater than 20 years of experience alone, and it quickly becomes clear what that something is. In his late 30s or early 40s, he dresses like a businessman, and speaks and shakes hands with a certain authority. When he begins to talk about the industry in its heyday, he turns deeply passionate, even visionary, and one gets a clear sense of where he sees himself in its continuum, and where he hopes to stand in its eventual revival.
There’s no trace of bitterness in his voice – if he spoke of being crestfallen before, it’s clear that he continues to believe in the importance and eventual resurgence of what he sees as a distinctly indigenous aesthetic.
“What an era it was! Just as an aspiring actor looks to Rajnikanth as an inspiration when he prepares to enter the field, we too looked to our legacies and the masters before us. It was an entire world, the industry – it was our world. Like in an institutionalised school of art, there was a parampara of teachers and disciples. We rose through the ranks step by step – you would learn how to do sketches first, and after some time, be allowed to apply single tints only, and after that get to paint the villain or a minor character, and only after years would you get to paint the hero and heroine.”
“I was a fine arts student in Tiruvannamalai. I came to Chennai because cinema art drew me here. It called me here. It was for this that I left, it was for this that I came here,” Aathidhatchnamoorthy says of his inspiration.
He rattles off a list of industry legends: Madhavan (who pioneered the aesthetic and who is his own personal inspiration), Sai Arts Vedachalam, Baba Arts Kandasamy (who did the hoardings for iconic film star-turned-chief minister MGR), his son Baba Arts Kumar, KS Arts Brahma (who did the hoardings for the films of Sivaji Ganesan, Tamil cinema’s other great lion), and his son Selvam.
He reveals that he recently changed his name from MP Dakshana to Aathidhatchnamoorthy not only to continue to honour the god of wisdom who he is named for, but in homage to the work of the fine arts painter KM Aadimoolam, who died in 2008. There is a custom, particularly in the literary arts, of taking the name of a mentor or influence as one would a father’s name.
It’s not just nostalgia that brings a fire to Aathidhatchnamoorthy’s eyes: he feels as intensely about the preservation and reclamation of the art form. “I live in the hope that we can get it back,” he says. “You can’t find this art form nowhere else in the world. Not even in the other states in India, where there is a real difference in quality, for instance the use of neon colours instead of photorealistic ones.
“It was the identity of Tamil Nadu. It is a great heartsickness to me that nobody sees this, except people abroad. There’s huge appreciation abroad. Even the pieces we throw away here, they take and appreciate and respect. Sometimes I worry that we will lose our aesthetic and identity to the rest of the world, to foreign artists who admire it and copy it.”
Aathidhatchnamoorthy laments the fact that there was little protest when the hoardings initially went down. “Maybe if we had banded together at the time and raised awareness, things might be different,” he muses. “But for now, we can’t approach the government because we lack a unified force. The numbers are simply not there anymore.”
But the artist has plans, big ones. He recognises his position as a major industry force, keenly aware that with appeal elsewhere and within the patronage community of India, he will be able to engender the revival that is his deep desire. “This is a tradition that needs to be protected,” he affirms. It is our cultural identity, as important as Bharatnatyam. And to put it baldly, the city looks naked now.”
A twist to the textbook case of the emperor’s new clothes, perhaps. Everybody sees it, but nobody seems to care. But not, it seems, if Aathidhatchnamoorthy gets his way.
As Aathidhatchnamoorthy pointed out, the outside eye sees the potential of the city’s dying aesthetic in a way that very few locals do. Shannon Spanhake grew up in New York City, which she describes as being “full of street phenomena”. Together with Pierre Conti, she co-founded Casa Blanca II, a makeshift gallery with no proper physical location, taking instead the entirety of the city as their space. They believe that public art has to respond to its surroundings, engaging with the local landscape and community.
Prior to her relocation to Chennai less than a year ago, Spanhake had put together a project in Tijuana, Mexico, in which she planted mini gardens into potholes in the street, calling the act, “a mechanism for acquaintance”. Here in Chennai, Casa Blanca II held its first exhibition in a crowded street off Anna Salai, taking as their inspiration the handpainted signs that clustered on its buildings. The exhibition, “Make Them Love You”, explored the negotiation between interior desires and exterior spaces, and featured the work of ten local and foreign participants, including a politician, an actress and inmates in a home for the mentally unwell. A professional sign painter, SAV Elanchezian, transferred their creations onto sign formats, which were then hung on a building in Narasingapuram Street.
Speaking to them in their apartment, it is interesting to watch how the duo works. Spanhake is a vivacious young woman of Korean descent, whose face lights up with enthusiasm about her work. Conti, who was previously based in Europe, is more reserved, dealing with details and basic information, like setting up and explaining a computer slideshow of their exhibit and giving me press material. I get the sense that Spanhake is the energy behind the gallery, and it is given focus by Conti’s commercial acumen.
Spanhake and Conti’s “mechanisms for acquaintance” are far more than friendly gestures of expat-local camaraderie. In working with the landscape, they knowingly alter it – and judging by the radicalness of simply doing such a thing in a city that seems to lack the imagination to sustain a thriving counterculture, this is probably for the better.
Spanhake and Conti see street signs as a form of street art – and by these terms, Chennai is truly vivacious. But the visual effect, the visual culture if you will, that results from this abundance is an unwitting one. The signs are hung up as advertisements or announcements, purely functional objects – the kitschy cacophony that results in multiple signs in the same venue is coincidental. They are art because, in unison, they thrill the eye. But the efforts of Casa Blanca II aside, they are not motivated by a sense of artistic agency.
The press release for Casa Blanca II’s “Make Them Love You” says that “place is lived as much internally as externally”. Perhaps expatriates, exiles and anyone who negotiates with a sense of dislocation understand this notion better than most – but when, I wonder, will the interior lives of native, homespun Chennaiites too manifest upon the cityscape? There is surely more to the city’s denizens than this apathy. True, you can’t make them (whoever they are) love you, but you surely can make them look at you – and if Chennai intends to ever be accepted as a true city of the modern world, it will need to try a lot harder to catch hold of that look.
I have a long essay on the aesthetics of the city of Chennai in the current issue of Caravan magazine. Caravan is a journal of politics and culture and is available nationwide at good bookshops, and can also be read digitally here.
To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to bear witness to one’s own insanity. Nothing between midnight and morning but the agitated flutter of the mind, or the pacing of the reprieve-deprived body from window to window, watching how the light changes in each one. The one from which you watch planes taking off, indulging in yourself the envy of the exiled. The one from which sad, ghostless palms flap their leaves in a wind that teases of but never delivers thunder. Even the spirits don’t stay up with you here. And you yourself, sapped and belligerent, are hardly any company.
I stopped being able to sleep properly six weeks ago, upon returning from my most recent hegira. I call them hegiras because that is what they are. I need to escape this city for the sake of my soul. The further behind I leave it, the closer I return to something resembling myself.
What can I tell you about a month and a half of chronic insomnia? I can tell you there is a point you hit where you begin to enjoy it. How nothing stirs but that which stirs within you. The silence. The sadness. The solitude. All the things you must stave off during the day, but can unwrap quietly and feast on at night. I can tell you how you begin to take pleasure in becoming a creature of nocturnal habits. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is not to live a shadow life, but to shine light on the cry of a heart in eclipse.
The night drifts on fitfully, always too fast. You like the faraway first call of the muezzin; maybe it reminds you of a city you loved once, which, for all its faults, didn’t kill half its time in slumber. You like the sounds of the train that cannot be heard in hours of traffic. But with these comes the sunrise, and how it comes – hijacking the night sky with an impatience you recognise in nothing else here but your own wretched longings. You will come to hate it – all it brings is one more day you will lose to this city.
On an average night I wake five or six times. I dream almost every night – in snatches, intensely symbolic dreams that please me more than anything the day brings. I lie awake for hours, sometimes too tired to move. I am in grief. I am in the labyrinth. I never have nightmares, and I suspect my waking life compensates enough for this. I am alive here only when all else sleeps and I, alone, am awake.
The days pass without consequence, but at least the nights are complicated. This is the only way I can live in a city of no rain or redemption. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to be its only sentinel, and to see from that vantage point that there is nothing here to save.
Real cities never sleep, just like the people who don’t belong to the ones that do. The trouble with this city and all cities like it is how pleased it is to remain comatose. How pleased it is to shut it eyes and never dream of more.
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.
I’ve heard of people planting the umbilical cords of their children in their backyards. I think this is a beautiful, poetic idea, with just the right amount of the macabre to make it a well-rounded celebration of life. An umbilical cord in sacred soil – the soil of home, so the body never forgets. I wish my umbilical cord was planted somewhere – the only thing is, I have no clue where that place might have been.
I was born in Madras pretty much by accident, because my parents lived in Colombo at the time. The first home of my life belonged to the Sri Lankan government, as did the next few, because of my grandfather’s political career, which would lead to our eventual, regrettable move to a country I have very hostile feelings toward. We ate on crockery embossed with the lion emblem for years, and to this day when I see that emblem I think of childhood meals.
If my family had chosen to bury my birth matter, it would have been in a place they did not call home, a place they no longer call home, or a place that in spite of many years of residing there was never, not once, home.
I’ve been back in India for almost a year now, and I am happy. But I am in love with my passport-identified home with the same ferocity with which some atheists hate god. For a person to whom no home exists, I am vociferous in my loyalties.
There are, of course, many benefits to the nomad’s life. The ability to make friends, and sever attachments, quickly. Travel. Multilingualism. The chance to constantly reinvent oneself. The double-edged gift and curse of being able to see one’s “native” places with renewed, awestruck eyes on every always too long, and always too brief, holiday.
But to grow up belonging nowhere at all is not a fate I would wish on anyone.
The great Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo wrote of Caracas, “Its space is real, fearless, solid concrete./Only my history is false”. And this is what I feel of Chennai.
I write this sitting in the café in which I have co-curated a photo exhibit and reading series for Madras Week. I am surrounded by images of a city to which both my past and my destiny are irrevocably interlinked, but it has lived within me in a way that makes sense to no one else at all.
I have written this before, but if there is a better description for how I feel, I cannot come up with it myself: Chennai is my photo negative heart. It is my life flipped inside out. At times I feel as though there was one me living elsewhere, and one that grew up between Chennai and Colombo. My two hearts. My homes to which I am bound by invisible umbilical cords.
In company, I am the former. I don’t understand pop culture references, school cliques, certain slang, certain frustrations. I can’t tell you how much I resent this. I am constantly filled with envy at those who have lived in this city, and not had the city live in them, lingering, looming and all-consuming in its distance.
Only when I am alone can I forget this sobering fact: I did not grow up here. There is nothing I can do to reverse it, nothing that will give me back the childhood I should have had, but watch me try.
My umbilical cord was probably destroyed. I make up for it by putting all that’s left of me, body and soul, into the praise of this city.
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.
A full page in today’s Expresso! Knock aside the food listing and the film ad, and you have an article apiece about “The Sea Story” and the readings on the first night, the theme for which was Cities+Pride.
Five more nights to go! Yesterday’s was Cities+Envy, which went splendidly in spite of the rain and the delay caused by the rain, and tonight’s is Cities+Wrath.
You can check out our full page spread at the e-paper here (available only for today — hopefully I can scan it up by tomorrow). Expresso section, page 6 (Madras Week feature).
Celebrate Madras/Chennai city’s 369th birthday with seven evenings of photography, folksongs and poetry! Seven nights of still life, song and sinful spoken word, saluting our city by the sea.
August 18 2008 – August 24 2008
MADRAS WEEK EVENTS AT VANILLA PLACE, MYLAPORE
CURATED BY CHANDRACHOODAN GOPALAKRISHNAN
AND SHARANYA MANIVANNAN,
WITH THE PARTICIPATION OF THE WORLD STORYTELLING INSTITUTE.
PHOTO EXHIBITION AND SALE
Opening night: August 18 2008
From August 18 to August 24 , organised by Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and The Chennai Photowalk. Photos are of Chennai, as seen through the eyes of the photographers who participated in the first nine photowalks. All photos exhibited are available for purchase.
The Chennai Photowalk is a movement of the residents of Chennai to preserve the city’s heritage in the form of photos. Young and old, professional and the hobbyist, photographers of all description meet, walk and capture a view of the city mostly overlooked.
“THE SEA STORY”: A SPECIAL PERFORMANCE ON OPENING NIGHT
A special storytelling drama with folksongs by the Nochikuppam seafishing community, facilitated by the World Storytelling Institute and hosted by Eric Miller.
“The Sea Story” summary: One evening, a mother sings a lullaby to a child (Thalattu pattu). That night, some men go in a kattumaram to fish in the sea (Rowing pattu).
One man is lost in a storm, and some women on shore lament for the lost man (Oppari pattu). Finally, the lost man re-appears – he was rescued by a sea-turtle! – and the community members are filled with joy (Celebration pattu).
SPOKEN WORD READINGS AND OPEN MICS
From August 18 to August 24 at 8pm every night, hosted by Sharanya Manivannan.
August 18 – “Cities+Pride” (Opening Night)
August 19 – “Cities+Envy”
August 20 – “Cities+Wrath”
August 21 – “Cities+Sloth”
August 22 – “Cities+Greed”
August 23 – “Cities+Gluttony”
August 24 – “Cities+Lust”
Local poets both famous and soon-to-be-famous explore the idea of cities as hubs of sins from different angles. Debauchery or divine redemption? A bit of both is promised each night, along with poetry and prose both original and admired. Performers include Kuttirevathi, Vivek Narayanan, Deesh Mariwala and Sharanya Manivannan.
Open mic readings are open to all. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the organisers
Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan is a writer (of prose, poetry and carefully worded commercial fiction) and a photographer (of people, places and the occasional abstract) from Chennai. His great-grandfather was an epigraphist, translator and the first Tamil novelist. These genes, always unpredictable, waited three generations to surface in Chandrachoodan, causing him to take a great interest in his city and its heritage. Which in turn took form as a monthly photowalk.
As a spoken word artist, Sharanya Manivannan has performed to critical and popular acclaim at dozens of venues, including an abandoned pier, a cemetery and the 11th century Borobudur Temple, as well as more conventional locations. Her book of poems, Witchcraft, will be published this year, and carries a foreword from celebrated Sri Lankan-American poet Indran Amirthanayagam that describes it as “bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils… a glorious, chilling and sensual debut”. Sharanya is committed to the creation of a spoken word scene in Chennai, and regularly co-organises and hosts events that encourage the open mic format, in which anyone willing to share their work is welcome.
The World Storytelling Institute was founded by Eric Miller and Jeeva Raghunath in Chennai, in December 2007. Mr. Eric is the director of the WSI; Ms. Jeeva is the director of its section on storytelling for/by/with children. The WSI’s mission is to facilitate training in, performance of, and discussion about, forms of storytelling. In Tamil Nadu, three traditional styles of storytelling are 1) Kathaiyum Pattum (Story and Song); 2) Villupattu (Bow Song); and 3) Katha Kalak Chebam, also known as Harikatha (God Story). In cultures around the world, there are similar styles. We seek to help these styles be meaningful and useful in the modern world. Eric is Assistant Professor of Story and Storytelling at the Image College of Art, Animation, and Technology (Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad), which trains students in the design of 3D Animation, Cinema Visual Effects, and Computer-video-Internet games. He is near completion of a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia): his dissertation concerns the use of videoconferencing for educational and performance applications. Originally from New York City, Eric has settled in Chennai. He is married to Chennai native Magdalene Jeyarathnam, the founder-director of Chennai’s Center for Counseling, and they have a daughter.
Vanilla Place, No. 8/57, 1st Street Luz Avenue, near Nageswara Park, Mylapore.
All events are free and open to the public.
For further details, please contact Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan – 9884467463
I am not Carrie Bradshaw, and Lady help anyone who thinks so (for the record, the glorious Samantha, the most soulful maneater in the recent history of female iconography, is my favourite). But among the many moments of Sex and the City that struck a chord in me in spite of its protagonist was the occasion when she realized that perhaps, if we’re all destined for only one great love in this life, New York City was hers.
What does it mean, to have an affair with a city? To be lonely in a way so profound that one speaks to it, feels it under her skin?
I’ve known different types of loneliness in different cities, just as I’ve been different selves in them. But never, nowhere, have I had the kind of erratic, love-hate, impossible relationship to a place the way I do with Madras.
This is not the city in which the pivotal moments of my adolescence played out. Its highways, its bars, its boutiques have not been background sets to my life the way other surroundings have. This is the city that once put me on emergency antidepressants, devastated me in other ways at other times. But it is the city in which I am today, and will be tomorrow. It is the city I cannot run from, and I’ve long acknowledged my surrender.
Among other places I’ve called homes, there are two about which I still dream. One of them is lost to me in practical, bald ways: the tyranny of immigration. In those dreams, I am wistful for a life that I possessed fully, irreplaceably. The other still lies open, like a day I can simply walk into, if I so choose. For months I thought I wanted this second city. I knew myself in it so well.
But I am still here. Still here loving every single auto ride. Thinking of her, my naked city, bereft of hoardings now, as a girl stripped of her jewellery, suddenly bare of everything but her dimples. I’ve written elsewhere about this affair – how even my birth here was accidental, how my last long residence was equally fortuitous, how I wound up back here again against what felt like the wishes of every cell in my body. I have called her mistress and muse in different breaths.
I am alone in this city though there are people I live with and people I speak to. I am alone in this city in an absence of love – an absence into which the city decants herself perfectly. I am alone with this city, perhaps, like that Red Hot Chilli Peppers song.
A friend told me last year how in every hotel room he occupies, he leaves his footwear facing opposite directions. It’s a sign to the spirits, he said, that one is there only temporarily, and will not cause trouble. In the seven months that I’ve been in Chennai again, I’ve been following this advice, as though to invoke the energies of dislocation once more. I won’t be here long. I won’t cause trouble.
Today, for the first time, I placed left and right shoe facing the same direction. For whatever it is worth, for whatever this affair will amount to, I will ride it out. At the end of this, when we come to it, she will have beaten me to a pulp again. Surely. That is her nature. And it is mine to succumb to her.
For if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the way forward is truly, truly only possible with all the epic, luminous ache of a broken heart.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.
When Blogbharti approached me sometime back to commission a piece for their Spotlight Series, I really wasn’t sure what to write about. Then Kuffir, the website’s editor, mentioned that he missed “the fiery poet” who seemed absent from this new blog. For reasons that will be obvious to those who followed me here from the old blog, I’ve certainly tempered things down. So I got to thinking, what provokes me these days, to the point of writing? I wrote this on Valentine’s Day. It was published this morning here. The photos above were taken by me on the fourth Chennai Photowalk.
A VALENTINE TO THE CITY
Sometimes, I hate this city. I don’t deny that. There is so much to hate here. It is merciless. A crude, cruel, unforgiving bitch of a city. The meanness of its people. Sycophancy, moral (dis)order, parochialism pimped out to the tune of “heritage”. Sanctimony. There is the deliberate Anglophilia and its darker – in colour, too – twin, self-loathing. I abhor its hypocrisy, its incestuous orbits, the claustrophobia it induces. How it is its women who are the torchbearers of its patriarchies. The oddness of an illogical concept like caste running this whole machine. I cannot stand its Edenizing of the tremendously racist nation of Malaysia, its unexceptional immigrant dreams; nor can I stand the chest-thumping that trivializes the very real defects of our own. The weather. Hell on earth is Madras in May. Even the rains cannot soften this city.
Sometimes, I hate this city. I do.
And sometimes I take an auto through a road strewn with rose petals, a funeral wake having passed through minutes before. I breathe in that macabre glory. Sometimes I carry my little camera along with a group of mostly large men with large cameras, men who know this city, who can speak of its architecture and its history, who can point to a place one might have seen a thousand times and illuminate it, suddenly. I fall in love this way. Like Rushdie’s man who viewed his bride in pieces, through a perforated sheet, so too I fall for my city, mutilate it, make it mine.
“Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” wrote Orhan Pamuk in his definitive book on the city of his soul. “I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”
And in its distance, the irrevocability of never having grown up here, and then the inevitability of having had to return nonetheless, it wields the same influence over me.
And so this is my secret. I have been speaking to this city, in my head. I call it, typically perhaps, her. I make this city mine just as she unmakes and reassembles me. The dialogue between us is one of cause and consequence. Will you hurt me this time? I ask. What if I never told anyone when I hate you? What if I never let myself speak about leaving? What if I act like I never will, I say sometimes, and that is the most poignant of questions – because sometimes, I think I never will.
So here I am. And here I am. And here I may always be. And even if I leave, to here I will return and return and return, each time in a different sentiment. I will return with rancour. I will return with regret. I will return without routes in mind. Uprooted. Belligerently. In cavalier attitudes, have holidays I will barely remember later. Bouyant and broken and beyond description. I will return, and return, and return.
She has never known the smell of jasmines, doesn’t give a damn about henna on the hands or the hair. She is nothing like who she thinks she is. She stands at the bottoms of hoardings and stares up at misrepresentations of her face, her cleavage, the look in her eyes. And not one passerby recognizes her. She’s slutty: she belongs to millions, and like all of them, I like to think she comes home to me. Still, nothing makes her melt more than S.P. Balasubramaniam’s voice in a flick from the ’80s, nothing breaks her heart quite so sweetly like being called Kannamma. In arguments, and only then, she mixes her V’s and her W’s. She may suggest otherwise in certain company, but cannot speak a word of Hindi. Not a word.
Petulant as a child on a summer holiday trying to sleep in the backseat of a 1994 Maruti 800, neither her hands nor her eyelids able to shield her from the sunlight. Powerful as an MGR speech – Thaimakale! En rathathin rathame! Kitschy and tasteless as a political poster, and just as tactful as a man pissing against it. Coy. Cunning. Deceptively simple.
Living here has turned me from being spiritual to a blasé agnostic. Trees that inspire awe and humility are rare – but one of the better things I did the week before last was to walk the entire stretch of the rather long road on which I live and found, to my surprise, some decent ones. The Marina looms fifteen minutes from home, but too many paces from the call of the soul; even disappearing into the coast in this city by the sea is perhaps too obvious an escape to be worth it. I could stand on the terrace of my family’s apartment, toss pieces of coloured paper into the air, and have each one land on a church, a mosque, but mostly some small roadside shrine. It doesn’t matter. I find myself worshipping nothing but the City. My awful and wonderful god. Dictator of my future, arbitrator of my past.
You don’t inspire me anymore, I tell her. You’re just another city, like the hundreds out there. You’re just another place on the map. You don’t even smell like you used to.
Silence. The persistence of horns. The particular sound of the engines of autorickshaws. Someone whispering nasties to a girl who pretends not to hear as she walks by, someone else uncurdling phlegm from her throat and spitting.
So – what then? I demand. You think you own me?
And that’s when she gathers her skirts – yes, in the plural, she is mad and dramatic and imperious that way – and flees to a more considerate lover. Cruel mistress of mine.
And I am left still sitting here, penning paeans, shooting pictures. Smitten. Sodden. Gone.