Tag Archives: death

Tamil Mourning Performances: An Essay In Motherland

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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.

The Tragic And Talented

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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.

Mayda del Valle on Grandmothers, Spirituality, and Faith

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: For Fear, Or To Overcome It

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Matriarch of Mattekalleppu

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Not all grandmothers are grand, but mine was. She was magnificent. Nothing shocked me in the last days I saw her alive but how beautiful she was, her illness sculpting her face into the countenance of a warrior – the high cheekbones and strong jaw I never knew were hers before they were mine. In a glass coffin in the morgue, dressed in the red and green saree she asked to be laid out in, she seemed to me like the Virgin of Vailankanni: ethereal and tranquil. At her funeral, adorned in turmeric and garlands, she took on the radiance of a more indigenous goddess.

Not all grandmothers are grand, and neither are they mothers – but mine was both. She was the one who raised me, the first arms in which I lay because her daughter was too sick from the Caesarean to hold me. My grandparents’ presence shielded me from the incompetence of my real parents, saving me from suicide in the years when they would halt my education whimsically, split me from my sisters, speak things to me I cannot bear to remember, drive me into deep and chronic depressions. There is so much I never spoke of, from respect for her. There is nobody left for me to hurt now.

She died in a confluence of auspiciousness: in the holy week of Kantha Shasthi, on the pagan festival of Halloween. Her funeral was held not only on Dia de los Muertos but the day that in some years is both Diwali and Kali Puja. A macabre, ingenious, knowing death.

There are as many ways to die as there are to live, and my grandmother died exactly as she had lived: with immense dignity. Crippled from a hip fracture weeks before, at the mercy of nurses and diapers, losing consciousness in her last two days and attached to machines for her kidneys, liver and lungs – I believe she chose to die contentedly, rather than struggle any longer in such humiliating dependence. She knew her time had come. She saw ancestor spirits, and twinkling lights. She gave instructions.

She died as she had lived, and how. By my age, she had already experienced the ultimate duality: the birth of twins; the boy alive, the girl dead. Pregnant with her fourth child and waking to a snake coiled around her leg, she kicked it off as easily as she chased crabs on the beach. She had premonitory dreams (one of many things I inherited). She held a community together through assassination attempts on my grandfather, his imprisonment, black magic, innumerable tragedies and joys. Wife of a man who was revolutionary, mayor, minister and ambassador, she was a matriarch in the true sense, affecting change through love, not anger. A divided Sri Lanka was as unimaginable to her as it is to me.

Somehow, despite knowing only Tamil, she could engage anybody in conversation. She loved gossip – everything from the dictator’s wife who told her that “he” was a mama’s boy to the young couple sharing her ward whose hugging annoyed her. There is a photo of her somewhere standing in front of the Eiffel Tower in goofy glasses.

She left her thali to me. There is no material object more precious to a woman of her background and generation than the nuptial chain. This is a gesture so profound that I think I will always be uncovering meaning for it.

The day before she died, I knew she would not survive the night. All year long I knew she was dying, and carried this fear within me constantly, almost waiting for it. I am as happy now as I am sad. My grandmother’s death freed her from her pain – and it will free me from mine. In death, she has given me just as much as she did in life.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Mourning the Marina

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That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.

Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.

This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.

Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.

I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.

I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.

One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.

I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.

When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.

It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.

Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.

This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).

Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.

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.