Tag Archives: poet

The Venus Flytrap: Vidya, Dark As A Blue Lotus Petal

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Who can tell what will survive the ages? Sometimes I think of all the beauty we have already lost to neglect, or worse, to elision. So when the scant biography of the 7th century Sanskrit poet Vidya, given to us by her English language translator Andrew Schelling, opens with this acclaim – “All agree that Vidya is the earliest and the finest of Sanskrit women poets” – we must not fail to read into the line that follows – “Or, if any woman wrote before her, the work hasn’t survived.”

There is a whole other corpus of literature that is forever lost to us, a shadow corpus of voices that did not even enter what we call the oral tradition, and which never had a chance of inscription.

When we are fortunate enough to still have the actual work of a historical artist, hagiography should be given only second place. In some ways, the fact that Vidya is little known except to scholars and readers of classical literature has allowed her poetry to be appreciated on its own standing, and not on the basis of what is said of her. This is a unique position: to neither have been co-opted nor forgotten. Schelling says that about 30 poems by Vidya survive; of these I’ve found half of them translated into English in his books.

Usually, the work will speak for its makers in ways that interlocutors cannot. The Vidya in these poems was scandalous: “As children we crave / little boys / pubescent we hunger for youths / old we take elderly men. / It is a family custom. / But you like a penitent / pursue a whole / life with one husband. / Never, my daughter / has chastity / so stained our clan.”

She was sly, funny and interested in extra-marital affairs: “Neighbour, please / keep an eye on my house / for a moment. / The baby’s father / finds our well-water / tasteless, and refuses / to drink it. I’d better / go, though alone, / down to the river, / though the thick / tamala trees and stands / of broken cane / are likely to / scratch my breasts.”

She lived long enough to experience bitterness: “Now that the days / are gone when I cut their / tendrils, and laid them / down for couches of love, / I wonder if they’ve grown brittle and if / their splendid blue flowers / have dried up.”

She was also South Indian. To quote: “But a gossip / by nature, / southern by birth, / I can’t hold my tongue.” And as though anticipating a later poet who would describe her as “Canarese Saraswati”, she wrote: “Not knowing me, / Vidya, / dark as a blue lotus petal, / the critic Dandin / declared our goddess of verse-craft / and learning entirely white.”

Before you seek Vidya out for yourself, here’s a small and beautiful stanza, echoing to you from a distant century: “I praise that silent / listener / her whole body bristling – / only a poet / linking words with ineluctable cadence / can touch / her entrails with fire.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 1st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions by Hoshang Merchant

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As one less famous homosexual complained about another recently, “He does no justice to the adjective gay!” If a grievance can be leveled against this memoir by India’s most famous homosexual (and that happens to be the preferred self-descriptive noun in this book), it is that it is rather lacking in gaiety indeed. Hoshang Merchant’s The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions is romantic, lyrical, vivid, but also, above all, sad.

In an almost stream-of-conscious style, Merchant chronicles some of the highlights of sixty years of his resolutely interesting life: beginning with his first memory of his mother (“I believe Mother-rule is the root of male homosexuality,” a small literary journal quoted him as saying last year) and ending with his current situation as a professor who “fathers” – as the author bio says – “his books, his students and a young friend”. The almost staccato impressionism with which he renders his childhood and adolescence does not belie their darknesses. His wealthy family is rife with dysfunction: his father’s infidelity, his parents’ eventual divorce, a sister who tries to shoot herself, and even an almost unspeakable incident in which the author shakes his mother, causing her to fall and break her hip, after which he attempts suicide. Merchant left India at the age of twenty, a year before his mother died, and it’s impossible not to sense the mourning in the two decades he spent abroad.

But those decades, in the USA and in particular in the Middle East, are the stuff of legend. “Sex is a way to sainthood,” he quotes his icon and penpal Anaïs Nin more than once – and Merchant certainly attempts canonization. In California, “a retired army man bent again and again to kiss a herpes sore on my inner thigh”. In Netanya, he enjoys a sexual encounter on a nude beach with a “Venus with a penis”, cheered on by onlookers. In a cemetery near the Dead Sea, which he notes as the site of the ancient Sodom, he watches as “people made love athwart graves”. Ironically, it’s in details like these that the pigeonholing of this book as the autobiography of a gay man is overshadowed by its importance as the autobiography of a poet.

Merchant is the author of twenty books of poems and the editor of a seminal anthology of gay Indian literature, and while the trajectory of his literary career finds surprisingly little mention in these pages, the celebrity accrued through it precedes this memoir. For those seeking arty scandals and name-dropping, however, this book contains quite little of either. “Gossip had become aesthetic,” he writes of a time in his life during which he is accused by a lover of using their affair for the poetry it inspires. Perhaps the experience chastised the author just a little too much.

Although the vast majority of other people who populate this book are barely sketches (with the exception of his vicious stepmother and perhaps some other relatives, it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking umbrage at what is revealed), what emerges is a well-rounded, often searingly honest image of Merchant himself as a person, rather than as a persona. Demanding diva? Homosexual paragon? His time in Palestine nuances both perceptions. At one point, he worked as a toilet cleaner and garbage picker. At another, he converted to Islam to marry his sweetheart, a woman named Yasmin.

His difficult time in Iraq, where he faced an especially rough amount of discrimination, is covered in the memoir through a series of letters; it is as though the experience was too painful to revisit in new writings. But it is where the book ends, in the author’s present-day life in Hyderabad, which is most depressing. Merchant eschewed his inheritance, gave away numerous personal items, and chose to live in an attic costing only Rs700 in monthly rent, with few belongings. Are these the choices of someone in the pursuit of austerity, or of attention? There’s a vulnerability in these pages that is deeply convincing of the former, yet also results in the latter. Either which way, the image of a celebrated artist living in relative penury in his old age is discomfiting.

But then, The Man Who Would Be Queen is the memoir of a true bohème, and perhaps a poet must be indulged his melancholies. In the end, as much as one wishes for more delicious wickedness in the recounting of the past, or a less sombre depiction of the present, the author is brave enough to feign neither. Merchant writes that (Tennessee) “Williams’ autobiography catalogues the decay of an aging queen. It is a sad spectacle”. Merchant’s own is sad, but at least it is no spectacle.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Witchcraft Is A Pick Of The Year!

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The Straits Times, Singapore, asked several people what their favourite book from 2008 was. Ng Yi-Sheng, whom I hugely admire as a poet and performer, picked Witchcraft. Here’s what he said…

(The italics are mine — that’s a line that will sit under my tongue all day as I savour it slowly, grateful  for once that I had not thought of it myself, for then it could not be said about my book)

Ng Yi-Sheng, 28, writer and winner of this year’s Singapore Literature Prize for his debut poetry collection, Last Boy

“I hardly ever read books as soon as they come out, but my favourite among the few I did read was Sharanya Manivannan’s poetry collection, Witchcraft.
Manivannan is a poet and performer, born and living in India but raised in Malaysia, where she was involved in a lot of activism against the government’s destruction of Hindu temples.
Witchcraft is her first poetry collection. She and I bonded at the last Singapore Writers Festival, so she left me a copy at indie bookstore BooksActually where it’s also currently available ($25 without GST).
The book is sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife. Manivannan manages to be deeply grounded in her Tamil heritage while also subtly digesting global iconography from the Chinese, Balinese and Mexicans.
Her voice sounds modern and ancient at the same time, supremely confident as it speaks of desire, the body and language.”

The Venus Flytrap: Honouring Our Destinies

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A few weeks ago, I watched the Italian film Il Postino, inspired by the legendary Pablo Neruda, and found myself weeping in its closing moments. I shut my laptop and held myself as sobs racked my body. I was weeping not for the quaint charms of the film, but for Mario Ruoppolo, the guileless postman who worships Neruda to tragic consequences. I was weeping because I knew by then that I was not him, and could not fathom why I was this lucky.

Two days before this, I’d sat across from my publisher and watched a cheque for what I still find an enormous figure being cut. It was a surreal moment. The year before, I had a jar of coins from which I would count out enough change in order to eat. I was unemployed, on a precarious visa, everything in absolute ruins. Things happened. I moved back to India believing it was the end of my life.

It was. It was the end of a life in a horrible place in many senses of the word. But just a year later, my publisher was saying as the cheque was signed, “I don’t pity you. You are too talented to be pitied.” I wasn’t allowed to say thank you or cry.

And so I cried for Mario.

There is still a part of me that is a friendless 12-year old, the bus always dropping me at school forty minutes early. My classroom that year was a converted chapel, a detail I find appropriate in retrospect. Every single morning, I would write a song. Those forty minutes were my sanctuary. I wrote then because I had nothing else to do. Without writing, in the eyes of many including myself, I didn’t exist.

It’s astonishing to realise that only five years later, I was appearing in magazines and getting fan mail. It’s even more astonishing to write this to you today, having just seen the final proofs for my first book, knowing that in a matter of days, it will be complete.

The journey has been long, and is not over. It’s a journey that has shaken the agnosticism out of me. It’s been startling to see how people seem to have fallen out of the sky with their admiration and generosity, their dedication sometimes outshining mine.

An investor who refuses a cut from the profits; a photographer who wants only a good deed as payment; designers, pre-production and publicity people who work for free – at what point in the last decade did I go from being the girl in the chapel to this? I am humbled by the knowledge that these gifts are not for me; they are for the work that is bigger than anything I am or will be.

Instead of being reassured, I encountered my own resistance. Not believing myself deserving, I became self-sabotaging. I was so frazzled I literally had to sit on my hands during editorial meetings. But the book was a juggernaut out of my control, and I had to give in. I had to let go of my dream in order to allow it to happen.

A friend told me, addressing my anxieties, “Well, if it’s like good pasta, it better be a little al dente“. The little bit of rawness is what makes it perfect.

I am no Mario Ruoppolo, and neither am I Neruda. But I am the girl in the chapel who grew up to be the woman who wrote Witchcraft and whatever – little or much – it accounts to. I don’t believe fortunes are arbitrary. I see now that I am obligated to honour mine with every instrument I am gifted.

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.

In Today’s The New Indian Express

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I don’t have a scanner, and I apologise for the clunky thing above. Please click on the image to take you to the file’s page, then click on the image again. Then, zoom in to read. Sorry!

For a change, am pleased with this print article that appeared in today’s The New Indian Express, in the City Express (Chennai) supplement. There’s a write-up on Poetry on the Pier, an interview focused on my feminism, and one of my poems.

Poetry On The Pier

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Pier-flyer
For more on the location, please see here. We’ll coordinate a meet-up point in the city from which to head out to the beach. Please get in touch so we have some idea of how many people to expect. And feel free to forward!
This is a small, indie event, open-mic style (but without a mic). This is not a workshop or a slam. Bring poems, and an open mind and open heart.
Update: Please click on the flyer for date and time details! Thought this was obvious, but I guess it wasn’t. :)