Tag Archives: writing

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: If Money Isn’t Found In Books…

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When I took a workplace sabbatical to become a consultant, one of the first things I researched was whether going many days at a time without wearing a bra causes sagging. I am happy to tell you that Google told me the opposite is true, but the reason I can enjoy this at all is because of another, far greater, luxury: to work largely out of home, at least for long as I can manage it. Lest you think I’m sitting in some posh veranda, blowing bubbles, bra-lessly contemplating Deep Thoughts and quilling Poems with a peacock feather – when I say working out of home, I still mean working for other people, writing or editing a variety of things for them so that they, in turn, can write me cheques. “Other work”, you see, is what all artists who don’t have inheritances, spouses with sizable incomes or a steady stream of foreign commissions or royalties must do. And that is the vast majority of us.

But don’t we make pots of money from our books, you ask? There are outliers in commercial fiction and selected non-fiction (like celebrity memoirs), but literary work sells very poorly in India. The agent Kanishka Gupta has written extensively about these nitty-gritties, but to break it down for you: the average author makes about 10% on the cover price of each sold book. I remember buying a box of sweets for my former office, a mid-sized advertising agency, when I signed a publishing contract and thinking – only if every single colleague bought a copy of my book would I make enough in royalties to cover the cost of that treat.

Like me, many authors work in allied fields like communications, journalism, media, academia and publishing. Then there are those who can’t or choose not to monetize their literary skills, whose breadwinning careers are unrelated. To give you just a few examples: Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer. Tanuj Solanki works in life insurance. Kaushik Barua works for the UN. Mainik Dhar manages a global food company. Amrita Narayanan is a psychologist. N.D. Rajkumar, by his own description, is a “coolie” on the Indian Railways. Poovalur Jayaraman, who is in his 80s, sells vadas and bondas from a pushcart. Kavery Nambisan is a doctor, as is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar – who was suspended from his job as a civil surgeon last week because of a controversy about his writing.

As you can see, each person’s resources and financial security thus vary. At best, any literary income usually only supplements a base revenue from another profession. At worst, as in Dr. Shekhar’s case, even that is risked by the fact that there is very little respect for the arts and their makers in India.

Office?” people have exclaimed to me. “But I thought you were a poet!” It’s unfashionable to admit to having a “day job”, but I want to demystify the idea that we don’t need one. Unless one is extremely fortunate or already privileged, the pragmatic reality is that we do. Readers, this is what goes on behind the curtain. Aspiring authors, this is only some of what you’re in for…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 17th 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.

Writer’s Room: Sharanya Manivannan

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For “Writer’s Room”, a feature in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror LIFE (Architecture), December 2017

I like to have plants within my sight, and so I work with my desk pushed up against the doors of my balcony. I currently grow bougainvillea, roses, jasmine and hibiscus – all of them miss the Chennai summer, which inspires immodestly beautiful blossoms in them. I had grown tulasi, too, but it did not survive the fortnight in October I spent away – incidentally, in Colombo and Batticaloa, where my roots are. Pun unintended. Other plants, like the karpuravalli, have not survived the gluttony or envy of pigeons that claim this as their habitat too. Not long ago, I was delighted to learn that the mysterious half-circles I found on the leaves belonged to the leaf-cutter bee. The leaf-cutter bee is shy and autonomous, which might tell you why I love her. This balcony that for now is mine is in Chennai, a pleasantly green city of India, and I am doubly fortunate to have many trees thrive within my sight too.

I work on my computer, and this one is an old lady who’s been with me for nearly seven years. In notebooks, I make to-do lists and brainstorm and doodle and scribble in atrocious handwriting when I’m trying to record quickly what another is saying. My real handwriting is quite pretty, but it is not what fills their pages. Speaking of which – this desk is not ever nearly as clean as this picture suggests. Take it from me: most of the writers you’ll meet in this column will spin a little lie about that! As they say: a clean desk suggests a messy drawer, and I really think the only place that needs to be pure is the heart.

Book Review: Centrepiece: New Writing And Art From Northeast India

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There’s a beautiful, almost cheeky, red herring in the very positioning of Centrepiece: New Writing And Art From Northeast India, a comprehensive anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, photography and visual art edited by graphic novelist Parismita Singh. Nowhere on the front or back covers does the word “women” appear, but in contributor bio after contributor bio, the pronouns “she” and “her” repeat. (A little earnest fact-checking reveals that one of a duo does not identify as female, but the coup is nearly complete). In this manner, the “centre” of the title is apparent: imagine a world so woman-centric that it need not be announced.

Centrepiece is primarily concerned with women’s work, not work that is gendered but labour of all kinds that is limited, encouraged or affected in some way by gender. “I reject the idea that work is related only to money or food,” writes Aungmakhai Chak in “The Objects Of Everyday Work: A Photo Essay”, which explores a non-capitalist understanding of beauty through the crafting of tobacco pipes, baskets, earthen jars and woven clothing. Rini Barman’s wonderful piece, “Hands That Brew”, is on rice liquor and the gendered politics behind it, while “Daksare Sketches: Through The Needle and the Loom” by Bumbum Studio’s Shreya Debi and Bilseng R. Marak (the duo mentioned above) is about their own work with fabrics, inspired by the daily movements of women and girls.

These are but some examples; the anthology features over 30 outstanding contributions. Singh’s curation of poetry and artwork is to be praised. Never does either feel like filler material amongst prose and photo-essays. Each genre – from nearly academic papers to hashtag poetry – is given its due, with impressive selections. There is an even contrast between the explicit, such as Dolly Kirkon’s paper, “Women At Work: The Gender, Culture, And Customary Law Debate in Nagaland”, and the unspoken, such as Zubeni Lotha’s untitled photograph of women in military gear, wearing gigantic hornbill headgear.

Among the poetry, Soibam Haripriya’s “Curfew” is particularly evocative, finely blending both gender and governmental limitations. It begins, “curfew and rains,/ and you are home/ thinking slowly/ of how life evades you” then reveals its preoccupation – there is a baby bawling, and the narrator longs for the time before she “became/ a pair of milch breasts”, for now she knows, “Biology is your arch enemy.”

Visual art suffuses the collection. “Mayel Lyang” by Alyen Leeachum Foning is a lovely tale of travel and homecoming, using the handiwork of several artists. The book ends on a spectacular painting: in Kundo Yumnam’s “Self Portrait, 17th May 2017”, a woman draws milk-like threads from her heavy nipples, and knits them together. She is headless; the threads swirl around her torso as though in orbit.

The fiction here often plays with the meta-narrative. Jacqueline Zote recounts Mizo lore in “The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Retelling of Mizo Folktales”, in which a woman tells stories by candlelight to children bored during a power cut. In “Women’s Literature” by Sanatombi Ningombam, a woman attempts to write through a day full of half-rinsed laundry, pots spilling over on the stove and other domestic demands. There’s no chance of success, and only as she crumples up her work in frustration does her husband raise his head from his food to notice it. “What is it that you are so angrily tearing up?” he asks. “It’s women’s literature, women’s literature,” she says.

Centrepiece is a gorgeous collection, with page after page of beauty and surprise. What emerges is a heterogeneous series of portraits and worldviews. There is a clear, and admirable, refusal to pander to the non-Northeastern gaze, and so an outsider reader does not suffer from a niggling sense of voyeurism either. Both female experiences and the distinct cultures of the Northeast are given primacy in a rare, and very rewarding, way. There is so much here to enjoy, and to be educated by.

An edited version appeared in OPEN.