Tag Archives: poetry

Poetry, Essays & Fiction (2018-2020)

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An essay, “Apportionments of Love”, appeared in the anthology Knot For Keeps: Writing The Modern Marriage (HarperCollins India 2018) and was republished in Scroll.

A poem, “Something Was Promised Me”, appeared in The Sunflower Collective.

A poem, “The Mothers”, appeared in Rattle.

A sonnet, “Sometimes, There Are Cyclones”, appeared in The Indian Express.

A short story, “The Walk”, appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring) issue.

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

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The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Kilaeua and Kahlo

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It’s said there’s “nothing special” about the tiny green stones that appear to be raining from the sky in Hawaii – fragments of the mineral olivine, spewed in the lava from the ferociously erupting Kilaeua volcano. Even peridot, the gemstone that can be found in the mineral, isn’t considered precious because it’s relatively common. But it looks like it’d be beautiful cascading from an ear, and be comforting to hold, like any quartz. Most of all, looking at pictures of olivine, I wonder how it might catch the light. Why is it not special?

Kilaeua is the goddess Pele, who created the Hawaiian archipelago, and I’d seen her picture too. This deity of fire makes her presence known on camera, and there are several images of a womanly form emerging from the point where lava spills into the ocean, or rising in the glow from a crater. Sometimes, a face in seen in plumes, or the lava takes the shape of other body parts.

I listened to the musician Kekuhi Kealiʻikanakaʻole speaking about Pele and her present activity on Hawaii Public Radio. She says that beyond all human imagery, Pele is quintessentially the magma itself.

Kekuhi describes a profound relationship with “the Tutu”, as Pele is respectfully known, deeply connected to her body. The word she uses is “enlivening”. Her body and mind are enlivened by volcanic activity. This is more than intuition – it is connection. She expects Pele to shake, rather than predicts this. Beautifully, she tells her listeners that happening before their eyes are the kinds of events that inspired the myths themselves. “Write it down!” she insists, for they will become new songs, new dances and new chants.

Some nights ago I woke with a melancholy that made me obsess over a quote widely attributed to Frida Kahlo. I searched through a book of her letters and couldn’t find it. Then, I discovered those words weren’t hers at all, but the Mexican poet Estefania Mitre’s. Here they are: “You deserve a love that wants you dishevelled, with everything and all the reasons that wake you up in haste, with everything and the demons that won’t let you sleep. You deserve a love that makes you feel secure, able to devour the world when it walks with you, that feels your embraces are perfect for its skin. You deserve a love that wants to dance with you, that goes to paradise every time it looks into your eyes and never gets tired of studying your expressions. You deserve a love that listens when you sing, that supports your ridiculousness, that respects your freedom; that accompanies you when you fly and isn’t afraid to fall. You deserve a love that takes away the lies and brings you illusion, coffee, and poetry.”

Were the words less powerful to me because Frida’s force of character was not behind them? For a moment, yes. But then would olivine, barely a gemstone, also be less pretty if it wasn’t a symbol of Pele’s grace? That night, I let those often-stolen words comfort me, for they too felt like a small crystal on the skin, they too caught the light.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 21st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

~ THE ALTAR OF THE ONLY WORLD ~

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Sita in a forest, loved and left behind, looks towards the night sky and sees Lucifer’s fall from grace. Inanna enters the underworld, holding her heart before her like a torch. It is not easy to bear the weight of light; wilderness takes time to turn into sanctuary. These are poems of exile, resurrection, impossible love, lasting redemption – and above all else, the many meanings of grace.

“Sharanya’s poems are, in her own phrase, a form of phosphorescence – glowing in darkness, simmering with wonder, mythic in resonance, boldly embodied, hence surprisingly spiritful, even spiritual in the finest sense of the word. They are also skeptical and reflective, tempering and enhancing the glowing flame. Riptides of Tamil hide beneath or within her honed English, for those who can hear and see.” – David Shulman.

Selected reviews, interviews & articles

“Sharanya Manivannan’s poems in The Altar of the Only World are resplendent, locking you up in their hallucinatory visions.” – Karthik Shankar, OPEN Magazine

“This is a collection that you would want to own, for its exquisite imagery, for the raw passion, and most of all for the deep emotions it will evoke in you.” – The Greedy Reader

“It doesn’t matter in the end who abandoned you – it only matters who you make of yourself in the afterlife of that love.” – Scroll (interview with Nikita Deshpande)

“You can see Venus in the sky with the naked eye some nights of the year, and she sometimes hovers by her lover, Mars, and our grandmother, the moon. There’s the traditional reading of the planet as the goddess of love, but you chase her a little more and you are unsurprised to find that she is also the goddess of war, as Inanna. And exiled from heaven, as Lucifer the morning star is. I love that complexity because it gave me so much for my poetry. I love that what has survived through the ages is a less austere kind of imagination, one that embraced the contradictory. We need more of that today.” New, Fractured Light (interview)

“Heartbreak is also a palimpsest. Each time afterwards, one retraces that journey. It’s a shadow under the fresh pain. It doesn’t always sting or throb, but it’s there.” The Wire (interview with Shreya Ila Anasuya)

“The book was born in the chthonic, and in the search for light in all its meanings — as illumination, as blitheness, as clarity. Lucifer, whose name means light-bearer, brought the light, as did Inanna, who went to the underworld to confront her shadow. What I discovered was that these were not contradictions. Stars fill this book. The sun is among them, and the one Sita thinks of often, having married into, and been banished from its dynasty. Fire, too, is a repeated motif. We have walked through fire, and the myths help us live with trauma, to accept the knowledge of how we became salamandrine.” The Hindu Business Line (interview with Urvashi Bahuguna)

 

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The Venus Flytrap: Incarcerated Poets

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Sometimes, copying American observances isn’t a bad thing (this is never going to be true for Thanksgiving, though). As National Poetry Month comes to a close in the USA – and everywhere online, especially thanks to the popular daily writing practice of NaPoWriMo – news of a young Somaliland poet who has been imprisoned is on my mind. Those defending Naima Abwaan Qorane, whose poetry is said to reference Somaliland’s former unity with Somalia, say that she has been suffering rape and murder threats in custody.

This isn’t the time to go reading Qorane’s poetry – frankly, it is the poet and not the poetry we should be concerned about. Hers is not a unique case. As PEN International, Amnesty International and other organisations track and try to make known to a wider audience, writers around the world have always been targeted by draconian measures when their work does not suit the agenda of those in power.

From a single PEN International press release alone, I know of Aron Atabek in Kazahstan, Amanuel Asrat in Eritrea (detained incommunicado for 16 years), Dareen Tatour in occupied Palestine and Liu Xia in China, whose Nobel prize-winner husband Liu Xiaobo died in police custody last year. Closer to home, Kovan finds himself arrested with alarming frequency for his protest songs. Does he get released? That’s not the point. The point is that we don’t even know the names of most languishing behind bars. Please note that I have only named poets here, and that too just a few. A comprehensive list of authors, journalists and other kinds of writers who are facing or have recently faced persecution for subversive or seditious work would be very long.

I remember someone naively, and with great entitlement, telling me not very long ago: “I totally love doing activism, but I just don’t think poetry should be political”. That person then went on to cite Subramania Bharati as a favourite (preceded by, “Oh cool, you have heard of him” – oh you young ‘uns, have a little grace!). The irony that Bharati had been a great dissident, also incarcerated, was perfectly lost on them.

There is nothing romantic about being a poet, or anyone, with radical ideas. There is nothing sexy about exile, arrest, imprisonment, ostracism, punishment, murder or any of the consequences that come with having radical ideas. But I see a false correlation between these things, and this is dangerous: it means we celebrate people after they have suffered, instead of raising the level of safety for everyone.

As readers, we owe it to our love of literature – whether in the form of pamphlets with a cause, hashtagged posts, printed books or protest songs – to keep ourselves informed about what is happening to those who produce it. And all readers are writers, even if only in their hearts. So as writers, our responsibility to stand up for one another – even for those names never heard of, writing in languages never translated – is even greater. A sense of community isn’t about liking one another’s posts on social media. It’s about this – holding a larger vision of interconnectedness that goes far beyond what words can do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 26th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Take Them At Their Word

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Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Sitas, Many Ramas

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The lines flow like waves along their skin, or radiating circles. The same word over and over again in faded-tattoo green in the Gondi language, in Devanagari script. Ram Ram Ram. I came across the Ramnami people of Chhattisgarh in a stunning feature written and photographed by Joydip Mitra for the People’s Archive of Rural India. Ramnamis are descended from Dalits who rejected the caste system, and calligraphed the sacred onto their skin. Only the elderly write their devotion onto their bodies now. In the photographs, only their eyes and lips carry no ink, and around their shoulders they wear fabrics that repeat the name they hold holy. Ram Ram Ram.

“Ram is written all over us,” says Pitambar Ram of Raigarh to the journalist. “So, you see, we are the Ramayana.”

There are so many, you know. My newest book of poetry, The Altar of the Only World, began with someone who held this name holy too. It was always Sita, only Sita, for me, and this too is a long tradition – found in folksongs and variations, the way a story becomes a new one each time it is told. It began with her weeping in the forest – there is a Sanskrit word for that, “aranyarodhan”, even though the Sita I got to know was not a Sanskrit version at all. Instead, she is mothered by Mandodari, who drinks a grail of sacrificial blood and sets her miraculous, curse-born child to drift away on the water like Moses or Karna. Instead of being the daughter of the earth, she is the earth itself. As well as a Persian angel, exiled from heaven because of too much devotion, and a goddess of love and war who enters the underworld to confront her shadow, who in the ancient Sumerian texts that describe her looks strikingly like the lion-headed Pratyangira Devi.

When I started to write The Altar of the Only World, nine years ago, it felt like it was a safer world to tell stories in. And a safer world to tell the truth in, too. Not so anymore. This casts an edge over all the usual trepidation before a book release. And then there’s the ambivalence of letting go of something that has been incomplete in you for so long that you can hardly imagine it fulfilled.

A year and a half ago, I was on a flight that made a missed approach. Like other frightening things, I had never known such a thing existed until it happened. In a terrible storm, the plane almost touched the tarmac and then suddenly swooped upwards again into the roiling thunderclouds. We circled the airport for many long minutes, not a word from the captain or crew for a while. The cabin remained quiet, and there was applause when we finally landed. I remember feeling aware, not afraid. This is how letting a piece of long labour into the world feels like: you cannot tell if it will make it or not, but you must suspend absolutely the idea that you can control what happens. And given the vagaries of the journey, be grateful for touchdown at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: No Wider Than The Heart Is Wide

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Once, when I was much younger, someone laughed because I said I loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”. He did not know that I could see the future. I did not know until I was in that future that Millay had only been 28 when it was published in November 1920. Perhaps she too could see the future, or perhaps for her too, the future had come too soon. So young, and already, to quote the sonnet’s last lines: “I cannot say/ what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.”

Millay characterised herself as a lonely tree in winter, when to many she must have seemed to still be in the prime of her life. I thought of this when my friend, a wonderful middle-aged woman I’ve known for years, asked me what my age is now, then took my hand and huffed as if to say “Don’t be ridiculous” when I told her. This was after I had spent several minutes nostalgising the liberation I had felt in my mid-20s. Past, present and permanent had come together that morning. I had met this visiting friend in a part of a city I rarely go to anymore, but in which I had spent many meaningful nights and days at one time in my life. Being there, I was reminded of what once was, but which I doubt is likely to ever be again. The boughs of the tree of my life were so laden with flower and fruit that they broke.

Earlier, I had also asked my friend whether she will always live in her 3rd floor Paris walk-up, because of the stairs. It was an impudent question, as I realised only upon asking it, and it said more about my preoccupations than her abilities. Having just turned 60, my friend has already outlived Millay by a couple of years. Is it normal to be this morbid, to seek such calculations and measure against them? I count other years: I am as old as my mother was when she had me, I am as young as Christ was when he was crucified. I have either stopped lying to myself that I haven’t been keeping count, or else I started to without quite knowing why, the way a season can leave your landscape before you’ve even sensed the next one. Some things have wintered in me too. And I don’t wonder what made the young Millay so cold in her foreknowledge when she wrote that poem.

But I am older inside than most people will ever be able to relate to,” I had told my friend, in explanation. But clearly, others can or did. Rereading “What lips…” today, I discovered another poem of Millay’s. “Renascence” was published even earlier, and is about a frightening mystical experience which left her all-knowing. In it was one answer to the question of bitterness, an almost inevitable corollary of wintering: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

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Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

Book Review: He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar by Kala Krishnan Ramesh

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In these troubled times, those of us with god-love in our veins but sense in our brains modulate devotion with analyses and apologies. How does one evade playing into a larger project that has nothing to do with the personal? How does one have faith when faith itself is weaponised? Bangalore-based Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s debut collection of poetry, He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar, staunchly refuses these quandaries altogether. The poet-protagonist of this book is situated in a time where kings govern and manuscripts are written with styluses on palm leaves, bound together by a peacock-blue thread obtained from hyacinth dye. She is mad enough that her neighbours watch her as she stands on cliff edges, gesturing at the sun in what appears to be a one-sided conversation. She is sound enough that classrooms are entrusted to her, and still she comes close to blurting out to her students the verses whispered in her ears, but finds herself “struck/ dumb as you / squat in my mouth / your feet / pressing / my tongue / down so you / can reach into / my heart.” This is how he comes to her, her god: as language.

Murugan, the god of Pazhani hill, near which the poet-protagonist lives and longs in plain sight of a half-bemused, half-understanding populace, is the subject and – as Ramesh iterates throughout the text – the progenitor of these verses. Among his many epithets, Guha – literally ‘cave’, abstracted poetically here as “heart-cave” – is the one she most often calls him by.

“This is He: He who longs for the sound of alphabets set to work praising him, his many hills, his two women, his love of battle, his dark-robed aloneing. This is He who crafts out signs for the tracker, doles out fervor for the oracles; the one who scatters questions, riddles and road blocks on the paths to Him. This is Guha, the One Who Hides in the Heart’s Cave.”

This is a book of metapoetry. From the first poem that invokes Ganesha as is tradition but casts him firmly in the role of publisher, the numerous allusions to Murugan as alphabet, syllable and potentate of the same (“god of words, word-tricks, word / debts”), and even a chastised (or is it chastisting?) piece on how a poet must not also be a critic – this is where poet and poet-protagonist blend knowingly. The self-consciousness is interesting, for emotively speaking the poems gush with pleasure and unabashed expression, seeking no audience but the deity.

With unadorned clarity, the author pledges permanent allegiance to the god: “Your name / companions my / journeys / your name / guards my life / your name / walks beside my words. / I write because you like / to inhabit the cities on my / page; / I sing because you like to / hear yourself being / praised in my voice. / I walk and stop and move / because you desire to / have me seek you.” She is often vexed, but rarely pained. A simple confidence runs through all her disputes and delights.

The poet-protagonist implores her lord for only one thing: a wellspring of words to please “Guha, who loves / a good poem more than / anything else in all the worlds”. She doesn’t seek protection or riches, she doesn’t supplicate for forgiveness for worldly deeds (only for the accusation that she has forgotten Him). Occasionally, we hear voices around her: the stylus maker from Madurai who speaks to her father, her mother who addresses their neighbours’ curiosity, Murugan’s wives Valli and Deivanai observing her in a fever delirium in which the deity comes to her and writes out poems she has promised for the following day’s assembly of scholars.

All of them indulge her, and this collection itself is one of deeply indulgent poems, but equally well-crafted. Some devotional writing lends itself to expansive interpretation; here, the subjectivity creates a capsule of experience. But the reader sometimes feels like an outsider, one of the many people who watch the poet-protagonist in her intoxication.

The book closes on a dream in which Murugan visits the poet on the night before she turns fifty – and so we know that she has crossed all manner of youthful exhilarations and societal imperatives happily, with the assurance of her lord: “Know this, my dear poet, when I / write you / I do not love you like a parent or / a patron, but like a poet loves his words, / and I do not carry you protected, safe / in pockets of my love, but send / you out into the world, / for I / write you fit to fight…”

This book is an anachronism in a gentle sense, stepping out of time and into an ageless emotional matrix. He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar is playful, perfectly devoid of cynicism, a welcome wandering away from the gravely mundane.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu BLink.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Colour Of Craving

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The first mango of the season isn’t what it used to be, a rite, sometimes devoured knifeless over the kitchen sink, pulp dripping to the elbows. No – that gives me away as one who eats alone, which I often am, but I know that a shared bowl of slices is how it usually goes. I am avoiding that sweetness this year, instinctively. I don’t need more heat. I don’t need more thirst. But I want that brilliant colour, the colour of the ambrosial flesh that bursts through as nails or blade break green skin. I call that colour, simply, “mango” – but for centuries it was recreated as a pigment known as “Indian yellow”, made from the urine of cattle that lived on nothing but mango leaves.

That too, a colour. Rain-dripped, in my imagination. The voice of a woman without a lover sears across millennia from the Kuruntokai, in a poem about the ardour of the body without an admirer. These specific words: “my beauty dark as a mango leaf.” She grieves its inevitable pallor from inattention; she grieves, in short, a lack of colour.

People went to great lengths to create pigments. They used the wrappings on mummies for a shade of brown, and went deep into Afghani mines for an ultramarine hue made from powdered lapis lazuli. I want to say the great artists of those times knew what riches and gore they held at the tips of their paintbrushes, but the truth is I doubt it. We do not think deeply about our consumption either: the dead trees of our libraries and furniture, the farmers’ tears in our food.

Today’s artists may not have pyramids and mines excavated for pigments, but they still feud over them. Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights over the laboratory-produced Vantablack, the blackest known substance on earth, which absorbs up to 99.965% of light. Stuart Semple then one-upped him with The World’s Pinkest Pink, made available for sale to all, with the exception of Kapoor and his associates.

There are more imaginative names for colours, so striking in themselves that they change the way a fabric drapes or the way the eye drinks in an object. Verdigris. Oxblood. Bastard-amber. Rose madder. Coquelicot. Areca. And there are medical conditions – synaesthesia – which affect the way in which the senses perceive. So one may see music, words and numbers as distinct colours. To some, this cognition is a gift. I wonder if it’s a disorder too, the pleasure I get from language, how singular words are charged for me with emotive dimensions. Sometimes my mouth waters because of a word.

And my heart is somehow soothed by the sight of indigo, made with that dye that cannot dissolve in water but bleeds and bleeds once on fabric, like someone with a lot of fortitude, who cries often. A plant dye that evokes another one, and more poems still: the protagonist of Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar binds her manuscripts with thread dyed with hyacinths, a signature.

And let me just say: Kapoor is wrong, anyway. The darkest material in the world isn’t a colour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.