Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.
Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.
It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.
So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.
To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.
Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.
The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.
None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.
An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.
My essay, “The Aftermath, The Afterlife”, is in Killing The Buddha. You can read it here.
A new sequence of poems – though not, I think, a poem in parts – has been published in the new issue of Danse Macabre. You can read “Rituals For Closure” here.
Some of you know that I lost my grandmother last October. Fewer of you, I think, know what kind of rocky ride the almost-year since has been. What you’ve probably noticed either way is that I no longer blog unless it’s to archive my journalism work, link to press about me or to poems published, or to publicize my (very few) events. I’m not going to go into my disengagement with the online life any further right now, except to say that today I came across that most rare thing: something that makes me want to blog, that I simply must share.
I’d never heard of Mayda del Valle before, but I won’t forget her name now. Here she is at the White House with a searingly powerful performance of a poem that made me cry both times I watched it, for reasons too private and too sacred to discuss now.
If you’d like to read the poem, it’s here.
On the fringe of Auroville is a village named Edayanchavadi, and 3 km of unlit forest roads from there is a property owned and inhabited by a small, acclaimed repertory theatre company.
At night and at dawn, the sounds of prayers from temples in the vicinity can be heard, blared from microphones. By day, if the actors aren’t touring, drumming and voices emerge from their theatre. This is supposed to be a quiet place, and it both is and isn’t. Sometimes it’s eerie, and sometimes it’s all about the earphones. I’ve been thinking about these and other co-existences since the middle of December, when I arrived here.
There are cows, and owls – the former provide for the dairy needs of residents and guests. At any given time, I’m scratching an insect bite and worrying about bigger ones from the erratic resident dogs. Still, I stay within a Laurie Baker-style guesthouse with an inner courtyard and an inspiring rooftop. In the wilderness, I’m in more comfort than at home, where I neither have my own bathroom nor someone to clean it.
I’ll live here for a month. As the recipient of Sangam House’s Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship for 2008-2009, I’ll, ostensibly, write. But coming at the end of a very significant year for me, this residency feels much more like a time for inventory-ing than for story-ing. I dislike that my emotional excavation coincides with all the stock-taking and list-making that this season brings, because I’ve never bought into the optimism many enjoy at the ends of years.
There are other co-existences here, some of them more resentful ones. The community of Auroville, already noted as a kind of fancy ghetto, is one. There’s a sense of entitlement here that is strikingly distasteful, given the fact that it’s supposed to be a utopia of enlightened humanity. One resident I met said that having grown up in India, her children no longer like “normal food”. “You mean French food,” I pointed out, but I don’t think she got it. She went on to protest that Aurovilleans are given “only” one or five year visas, and that someone had been denied a renewal because he’d built planes, which obviously wasn’t a security threat. (I waited for her to finish before telling her I’d once done monthly border runs in another country, and found our government fairly generous in comparison).
As the only Tamil-speaker associated with the residency at the moment, I play translator, mediator and general diplomat between the housekeepers and the non-speakers. They co-exist somehow. Chatting with the workers, I’m aware of an irony: I’ve had to decline a film offer to play a character not unlike them because I cannot shift gears into a new project so quickly. More co-existence: between my ambition and the acknowledgement that things happen in their own time. It’s like opportunity knocked, but I have to talk to it from behind the door because I’m not dressed to meet it yet.
But I am waiting for what is for me the most important co-existence for now: the confluence of space and stimulus. Some of the writers have set targets for what they intend to produce here. I have come with the simplest, most painful, of goals: to mourn. I must find a way to have my life co-exist with my grandmother’s death. In a little while, there will be a little writing. In the meantime, I’ll simply watch. There’s more here than meets the eye, as I’ll tell you soon…
This is what I wish for you, from somewhere near Edayanchavadi, for the coming year: may your lights and darknesses co-exist in the perfect chiaroscuro. It’s also my wish for myself.
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 have been thinking of my grandmother’s death for most of my life. In the beginning, it was her fault. When we were children, she would laugh about coming back to haunt us when she died, a loose-haired, lolled-tongued cliché. Perhaps this was meant as admonishment, but the heart warms to remember. This was a woman who would sit at windows with a cup of tea and casually remark on the ghost inhabiting the nearby tree. For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe.
Years later, living elsewhere, I became possessed by a sort of paranoia about her mortality. I would dream of getting phone calls telling me she had died, and wake weeping, believing them real. There were other sorts of dreams: like one I cherish, in which she told me, “I am you.”
She lived for a year after I came home again. And one day I woke up and she really was dead, but I already knew, and so I followed the sound of crying, spent an hour consoling others, and went to work.
When the first of my sisters was born, my grandmother’s youngest sibling and only brother died suddenly. She went to the funeral, took the next flight back, washed her hair and returned to the maternity ward with a packed dinner, all in the same day. I wonder now if she had known. If she too had watched her brother in the months before, the death in his bones rattling like a pair of dice no one else could hear. Perhaps, as it was for me, foreshadowing was not frightening, but only preparation for a seamless transition.
The dreaming has already begun for my grandfather and I. She told him to stop crying because she is happy. She told me, when I tried to follow them both down a coast, that I had to stay. That she would be back, but I had to stay. This was my dream on the worst day of my grief, when I hoped to die with my grandfather so I would not be left orphaned.
In her heartbreaking memoir, Paula, Isabel Allende wrote of dreaming of her comatose daughter the night before she died. When Allende awoke, Paula’s rabbit fur slippers lay next to her bed.
All her life, my grandmother lost her smile the minute a camera came near her. Yet for some reason, on an evening four years ago that I barely recall, she let me apply makeup on her and take a picture. She is not just smiling in it – she is effervescent.
This is the picture that my grandfather found the morning that she died. This is the picture garlanded in the living room. I do not feel her gone. Every time I step out, there she is, just as she always was.
I was told once that white feathers are the markers of angels. There was one under my desk at work yesterday. I smiled but didn’t think about it – my life is full of synchronicities and surrealities; if I was an atheist, my “faith” would be tested daily.
An hour later, someone asked if the thing on my shoulder was real. It flew to the ceiling when flicked – a moth, like the one my sister had turned to find at the sound of rapped knuckles against a window in our grandparents’ room. Moths in many cultures are the spirits of the dead. It must been with me from when I came indoors. The white feather was gone when I went back to my desk.
For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe. And I do, Ammamma. I do.
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.