Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Eleven: Absences

Last year's silence on this day is a gap through which a decade could be allowed to slip.

One year, in boarding school, we were on our way back from a week-long school trip. When we returned, the day after we were supposed to, all we wanted was to bathe and sleep.

Waiting for me in my room was a very fancy cake box with brownies, and a note from my father.

Maybe in the excitement of travel and the heedlessness of the teen years, I'd forgotten that he was to make a day visit. We demolished the brownies and did all the other things that were urgent on our list.

I didn't think then or later, that while we slept uncomfortably in a broken down bus, when someone started their period, when I brushed my teeth at a handpump in a field stinking of green but nasty things so the taste got in the mouth, that he would come, and wait, and write a note before leaving. 

All that indicated that he'd even been there was a bit of writing and a frilly paper doily half-transparent with butter. Those hours, these eleven years.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Me Today in Popula

It's unfair of me to announce the (month-old) arrival of Popula just when it's about to go behind a partial paywall, but there it is. They some excellent writing and if you can subscribe, you should.

I have two pieces on there, in a category they call Me Today. Just people around the world writing about the things that happen to them on any given day, the mundane, the fantastic, the sheer everyday-ness of living one's life.

The first one is about bees and the most recent one is about that eclipse in January.

I enjoyed writing these more than I have nearly anything else in the last year or so. I am grateful when the words come. 

Friday, April 20, 2018


Though you wouldn't guess it from visiting my blog, I feel a surfeit of everything: bad news, books, music, media, emotions, people. 

I've been stepping back everywhere; I don't know what's left to step away from. Yet it seems possible to withdraw just a little more.

A month from now, approximately, it will be another blog birthday. Then actual birthdays. Then departures. Tempus is fugiting away.

I mean, others work harder when they realise they don't have much time left. Me, I chew my nails with a little more dedication. 

It's not like I don't have things to do. They're just not very productive things. They keep the wheels of my life turning; that's all.

Looking at these lines, I feel like I've achieved a kind of Thirukural-like pithiness of line and length* so I'll stop right here.


* In drafts. On the blog it looks like someone chose to ignore Thiruvalluvar's line scheme. That's the line between intention and execution.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

All Fools Day

I looked forward to birthday month. It turned out differently. 

It turns out that there are more things I can't talk about than I can. 

What I fool I've been. What a relief that this month is over. What a long summer, long year ahead.

I don't know so many things, but I know I don't want to talk. 

So maybe until May or thereabouts. 


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Exit Man-Child

I watched Phantom Thread a few days ago. In the theatre! The last film I watched in the theatre was probably Nil Batte Sannata, but this was Daniel Day-Lewis' last, so I had to watch it on a big screen, etc etc is why I put myself through all that going to a mall to watch a film entails.

(That was a complicated sentence. I will keep it simple for the rest of this post).

In this interview with middle school girls, Anderson says that he wanted to work with Day-Lewis again, and so over the course of a few months, the two of them sat together and figured out the story they wanted to tell.

So here's the thing: this story of a grown man surrounded by women propping him up in all things great and small is the role Daniel Day-Lewis wanted to be his last, before he retires forever from cinema.

That is even more disappointing than the film itself.

I'm not going over the plot. It involves clothes, Day-Lewis looking quite hot, the women he dresses not so, and a weird twist in the tale in the last ten minutes that was - how shall I put it? - very difficult to stomach.

You'd think that a film where most of the speaking roles belong to women, where in fact, there are more named women characters than men, would be a good thing. Nope. Not if, in all their actions, the needs of this great big man-child are the only important thing.

He needs silence at the breakfast table. Scrape butter too loudly, crunch toast, pour tea from an unacceptable height, tell him he's expected to attend a wedding, and the man's a nervous wreck, his day ruined and his inspiration in shreds. He asks a woman out and talks about his dead mother the entire time. Worse: he removes her make up at a restaurant because that's how he likes to see her. 

And so creepy the way his sister grooms this woman he brings home to be his muse (someone said on twitter, men having muses is nothing more than a way to conceal an erection beneath an education): how softly she should eat, how she must not introduce the slightest variation in his routine, etc etc.

I think this is supposed to signify the man's fragile genius. 

Poor Daniel Day-Lewis. If he needs to remove every male character from the script (bar one doctor whom his character tells to fuck off), if he needs to play a man who has to have women mother him and protect him and stand like mannequins around him, and be jealous but not so jealous that they impinge on his life in any meaningful way, all in order to garner a final Oscar nomination, then that's just pathetic.

If he wins, I think I will be capable of one more level of disappointment. (Personally, I think Timothee Chalamet should win in this category).

(I had more to say but now I'm just bored with how silly this film is. Now that this is out my system, I hope I will stop saying, "Another thing about Phantom Thread' to myself at odd moments during the day.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dancing at the Edge of the World: RIP Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin died last night. She was 88, and she lived the kind of life many would wish they had it in them to lead. 

I first said I wouldn't say much and instead spend the day reading her. Which I will, of course, but I am also awash with a feeling I am finding it hard to describe. It's not sorrow and gratitude doesn't come close. It is what it is and maybe I need to say these things aloud in order to notice this feeling properly and give it its due.

On a personal note: I started writing so very late in life that I feel some residual envy for those who are so accomplished so early in their writing lives. I feel also, as a sort of balance to that envy, a certain kinship with writers like Jayanta Mahapatra, who also started their true lives late.

Taking my first steps in poetry as much as into the world that the internet opened up, I found her website and spent a lot of time there. Then I found a post box number and instructions for fan mail (enclose a SASE; writers find it hard enough to make money, and Ursula walks to the postbox herself because her friend who acts as secretary comes in only once a week. Also, there were default dragons).

Naturally I wrote to her, as I have done to other people from time to time, with my heart beating loudly as I wrote. I  enclosed a SASE, stamped the envelope and went to post the letter. Naturally I expected no reply.

I had written to her about my beginning to write, and how her work had inspired me. I sent her a poem I had written that I thought she might like. It was short, just a few lines long. It would fit on twitter even in the 140 days.

Some weeks later, I got mail from Portland, Oregon and I knew instantly that it was from Ursula le Guin. Today, I looked for that letter, and I see that I had opened it so carefully that all the glue is preserved and the letter has stuck itself back as if it were still unopened.

I opened it carefully. Then and now. It's a typed letter, two paragraphs long, and is filled with warmth. But the words that I have held in my heart all these years are these: 

I love your poem. I'm going to put it up over my desk. And here is a poem from ancient China that a friend sent to me:
[poem from ancient China, with one correction and the name of the poet and translator, in her hand]
Looking for this letter, I realise that there were more. I can't imagine why I kept bothering her and why she was generous enough to reply, even if briefly. But I am grateful for her generosity and encouragement and for showing me a way to be with other writers when my time comes, if it comes.

Outside of the personal, there are so many things to link to, read, discover (even now. One word: podcasts). Most of all, there are the books. 

I found out recently that there is a box set of her entire Ecumen series. I added it to my wishlist on Amazon, and then I remembered her speech at the NBA

A week or so ago, I ordered her last book, No Time To Spare. Via Amazon, though (I am sorry), at a time when my mother was travelling and wouldn't realise that things were being bought for her birthday. 

My mother still doesn't know about the book. I still haven't read it, because she should get to read it first. Me, I am going to re-read The Word for World Is Forest starting today. 

The amazing thing is, how much there is to read and re-read. Her work will last a long time.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Placeholder for the new year

The new year will begin with a full moon, a migraine, a stomach infection. It will begin with a hive desiccating a little every day. It will begin with a hungry cat.

The new year will be smaller, with fewer things to do that will, all the same, appear to be undoable.

No. The new year will contain within it all the predictions that will fail, no better than they did before.

In a few hours, I will not magically begin to write, write better, more, more efficiently.

In a few hours from this beautiful morning, there will be another one that I might sleep through, but more likely that I will watch from out my window, as I usually do.

Happy 2018!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Home Fire

Finished Kamila Shamsie's reworking of Antigone, Home Fire, last night. Because I didn't sleep well, I am still confounded by dreams and am only partially present inside my own body. What follows will reflect this state of mind and body.

(Note: this is not a review. It might not even be coherent).

I read this book more slowly than I normally would. These days, when I can barely hold a thought from the time I begin any action to when I finish it, many details remained vivid, not all of them visual (which is why it would be hard to recount them here; they often depend on how they were said). Shamsie has become very very good at this.

Shamsie has such a light touch with her storytelling - and this is a thing to be celebrated - but I've often felt disappointed, sometimes about specific things and sometimes that the writing fell short of her ambitions. I've wondered why that should be. Here, though, the foundation text by Sophocles, with the resonances accumulated by all the other versions (Shamsie acknowledges Anne Carson and Seamus Heaney but I read this, inevitably, also through Jean Anouilh) makes for an unshakeable foundation that holds Shamsie steady as she recontextualises the fundamental opposition of [any kind of] individual and the State, the State and its declared enemies,  of law and justice, of morality and pragmatism.

She gives Isma/Ismene, Eamonn/Haemon and Parvaiz/Polynices (who is only ever an already-dead body in other versions) entire sections of they own and these first three sections are the very heart of the book.

I did not realise this. I reached the end of the section titled Parvaiz and though I wanted to keep reading, I told myself that the best bits, the crucial encounter between Aneeka and Karamat (Antigone and Creon) needed my complete attention and a good chunk of time.

I'll just state very briefly that my first and continuous reaction to the Aneeka section was, 'Oh dear. Oh no. Why?' 

I should also say immediately that my disappointment was not a deal breaker, because what had gone before was so impressive and immersive that for the first time in the book, I was able to hold myself back and ask questions even as I was reading.

I don't have definitive answers, of course. Only Shamsie - and maybe not even she - knows why this section plays out as it does. My hunch is that all this time, Aneeka is seen through the eyes of all the people who love her most. And yet, through each person's eyes, though something new is revealed, much more remains mysterious. The moment that Shamsie entered Aneeka's mind is the moment we could reasonably expect to know this character at last. There would be no Antigone, whatever the versions are called, without the speaking, thinking, vocalised presence of this character.

Unfortunately for Shamsie, she steps into Aneeka's point of view at the moment when Aneeka is utterly disintegrated by grief at the death of her twin. She is confounded, the very manifestation of the phrase out of her mind and Shamsie attempts to chronicle this by a peculiar kind of fragmented narrative. Sometimes these are in the form of tweets or media reports; at other times, something that reads like a diary but cannot possibly be, because though it might be in Aneeka's voice, she is also present in these brief pieces of text in the third person. 

Because Shamsie takes away from Aneeka the power of speech, what direct speech there is is far from powerful. I don't have the book to hand as I am writing this, but when she speaks to Isma, she is petulant (Get off his shed, she says, I think); with Abdul, to helps her get out of the country and to Karachi, her conversation consists of telling him she knew before he did that he was gay. The point of this conversation is not what she says, but his confession and explanation for why he needs to make amends.

The only word of power uttered in this entire section - that I hoped would be the first part of the battle with Karamat (which was always the symbolic heart of the story) - is the word 'Justice' : her single word reply to a reporter asking her, as she leaves for her flight, what she hopes to achieve by going to Karachi.

Aneeka has lost her power of speech, upon which so much depends. But this is a novel and not a play, and in a visual world, we expect actions to speak louder: a gallery exhibition of images, each squeezing out a thousand words.

So that, when we reach the last fifth of the book and step into Karamat's point of view, we have plenty to see. Once again, we're watching Aneeka from a distance, through someone else's eyes, and this particular perspective is a shrewd, calculating one. What might have been simple acts of grief gain a certain political heft because it is Karamat who, representing the State, watches Aneeka enact an opposition that cannot be anything but hostile to everything he is.

Novel though it is, a clash of thhe kind between Antigone and Creon, Aneeka and Karamat, cannot be conducted through actions only. Ideas are central to this battle and they needs words. Shamsie's dialogue through the book is sharp, quick and supple in its ability to be wry and witty and to cut when necessary.

Sadly, Aneeka and Karamat never talk in person. Shamsie outsources to Eamonn and Isma what Aneeka might have said to Karamat. And their words, though they find their mark, are softened by the characters they are. We never do find out what Aneeka's idea of justice actually is - beyond that the law and justice are not the same thing and that the UK must allow her to bring Parvaiz's body back to he can be buried with his mother.

This, really, is what makes Home Fire merely a very good book when it could have been great, even brilliant. 

Not ending on that note, however. It also occurs to me that though Aneeka may not have been the one to articulate all of the arguments in opposition to Karamat's stateist position, there is nothing inaccurate in the way Shamsie shows a more diverse, multi-directional critique of power.


I cannot help mentioning that I look for and invariably find a particular thing - I hesitate to call it a tic -  that Shamsie has in all of her novels. Some years ago, it would cause me to roll my eyes a little bit, but now I found myself recognising it here with a kind of affectionate amusement.

No, I am not going to tell you what it is. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Eunice de Souza: 1940-2017

Eunice de Souza died on the 29th of July. She would have been 77 yesterday. 

It was early-ish morning when I got the news and soon, as happens, twitter and my mail box were busy with sharing memories, photographs and of course, poems.

There have been some lovely, sharp obituaries - sharp in the sense of having in common with Eunice, her cool self-possession and absence of humbug. I'm thinking, especially, of Rochelle Pinto's tribute in Scroll. It's striking how many writers Eunice has taught, and how unforgettable she has been to others who have only a slight relationship to poetry or literature.

I was not among her students, but when I was at Sophia SCM, nearly all of my Bombay friends had until very recently, been in her class. This next sentence will make no sense to nearly everyone reading this, but if there was, as we were discovering there was, a Jeroo type, there was, as surely a Eunice type. 


So there have been tributes. Though I didn't know her personally, I knew her through her poetry, anthologies, and academic writing. So I have contributed to this tide of thoughts on Eunice de Souza:

The Hindu's Mumbai edition has a full page tribute in the form of poems and brief notes by ten poets, and I am among those.

There's also a short essay on Raiot

I would like to read something by someone on her relationship which animals which, as many know was deep and lasting; but I feel there's more to know.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Nine: Man at Work

A couple of weeks ago, when my mother was looking through an ancient box of unsorted photographs, she put aside some she especially wanted me to see. Of these, I picked a few to scan. Rather rashly, I put them ALL up on twitter and then swiftly changed my mind and deleted them all.

This one, though, I want to put up. It's my dad at his desk at Geoffrey Manners. This was probably shortly before he got married; we're uncertain of timelines, and because there's no one left who can answer the questions we now have, we just have to speculate. I am not certain this is 1968, but my mother thinks it probably is.

If I cared enough about history, personal or general, this would matter. I care more for memory, though, and for that purpose, this works just fine as it is. There are clues, tantalising enough, in the posters at the back, his clothes, hair.

What I really want to know is, who took this photograph and why was my dad pretending the photographer was absent? Also, why was this photograph put away in a small envelope along with other photos we've never seen, among my dad's things?

Once again, there'll never be answers to these questions.