Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Always half-asleep

Niggling feeling that I was given messages of doom while I lay half-asleep and I failed to pay them any heed and now it's too late. What remedial action can there be when it's doom anyway?

It must have to do with reading a book with an escalating body count. I should have read impenetrable science or economics for the right amount of torpor as a prelude to deep sleep.

Instead, I lay half-asleep until I became half-awake when the trucks arrived. From the sound of it,  they had brought metal in preparation for what is going to be a whole day's roof-laying today. At 5am, two men were sleepily hammering at something on the not-yet-laid roof.

(When I say the roof will be 'laid', where on the spectrum from egg to person does a roof - well - 'lie'?)

Somewhere, over all the sounds that continue to overwhelm sleep, is the more-insistent scent of Peltophorum. The roads are carpeted a sulphurous yellow and when I lay awake at night, trying desperately to sleep, to keep the noises off but welcome the scents in, I look for that colour behind my eyelids.

Friday, April 18, 2014

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez

After two false alarms, Marquez has died. I'm certain that I'd only have to skim any work of his to find a quote that would be an appropriate comment on this. Instead, I'll ramble about the man and about the announcement of his death.

Social media, though. I woke up with the intention of doing quite different things online before I went to attend to the day's chores. Instead, I fell into a dense jungle (what's the point of saying 'rabbit hole'?) of links and expressions of sorrow.

I have no doubt all all that all these were genuine. But as with all social media, there's a faintest whiff of avidity in the act of making announcements in order to appear up-to-date with the news. I say this as one who retweeted the first tweet I read announcing his death - not the most appropriate one, not that one that quoted what seemed like the most pithy line, not even the links to his Nobel speech or A Life in Photos or anything that might be actually interesting. Just the first one I saw, trigger-happy, and then the inevitable feeling of being foolish when I saw how many hours old the news was and I was announcing it as if I'd just put down the phone after being called by his family.


I read Marquez precocicously early. By which I mean, I read him before I understood even half of what I was reading; I read because the writing astonished me even as I dimly grasped that I would need to grow into it, become ready for it.

In really odd ways, Marquez's books have punctuated different, important moments of my life. He was the currency by which I once judged the worthiness of people to be my friends, the way kids otherwise use music to sort peers out into categories.

(I've just pulled out some books to see what I remember as a consequence of holding them).

The way I got The Collected Novellas, as a gift from someone I'd allegedly met once, the confusion and generosity of the person's partner when it was explained to me how it was that I was getting this extravagant gift for no particular reason, the little game of calibrating significance - who else got what book at the same time - and the poring over the few words in the inscription.

The triumph of finding Marquez on that pavement or this obscure corner of an indie bookstore - everyone had One Hundred Years but who even thought of stocking Innocent Erendira?

How a friend's diploma film at the FTII was based on a Marquez story and how, at that time we made these distant writers our fellow-travellers - Marquez, Kundera, Cohen - and it didn't seem at all strange to us, though we were told off by Iztvan Gaal for not choosing our inspirations from closer home. 'Closer'? What did that mean? Marquez was as close to home as it was possible to get, if we even agreed on a  definition of home. What was home if not the world of the imagination*? To be fair, my school library was probably better than my college library if only because how dense with riches it was even though it was tiny. There were plenty of Marquez to read through my senior years there.

This is why I have looked at the reading list my son brought home this month, from the same school, with some disbelief: how is it so full of writers from the US and UK and why does it have nothing from elsewhere in the world? Fine, it has Adichie and Ondaatje and Tolstoy; but how can it not have Marquez?

It is time to make another, parallel reading list for my son. Every time a writer like Marquez dies, leaving behind a treasury of books, it reminds us that these treasures can become unopened and then eventually lost to the next generation unless we hand them maps and mark the spot with an unmistakeable 'X'.

RIP, old man.


* Well, of course it's more complicated than that.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Divination: 467

After a long, long time, I returned to Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet to...I don't know what to call it. Divination? To quiet my disquieted mind? Tell me what I'm thinking?

The books that had replaced Disquiet just wouldn't do. So I sat with this book and strummed it until I ordered my thumb to stop. It opened at 467 (well - technically, I could also have read 466 or 468 but my eyes fell on 467, so there I was) and this is what Pessoa said to me:
He listened to me read my verses – which I read well that day, for I was relaxed – and said to me with the simplicity of a natural law: ‘If you could always be like that but with a different face, you’d be a charmer.’ The word ‘face’ – more than what it referred to – yanked me out of myself by the collar of my self-ignorance. I looked at the mirror in my room and saw the poor, pathetic face of an unpoor beggar; and then the mirror turned away, and the spectre of the Rua dos Douradores opened up before me like a postman’s nirvana.
The acuity of my sensations is like a disease that’s foreign to me. It afflicts someone else, of whom I’m just the sick part, for I’m convinced that I must depend on some greater capacity for feeling. I’m like a special tissue, or a mere cell, that bears the brunt of responsibility for an entire organism.
When I think, it’s because I’m drifting; when I dream, it’s because I’m awake. Everything I am is tangled up in myself, such that no part of me knows how to be.
'No part of me knows how to be' sounds about right for the moment.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Straight lines & perfect circles

There was a film called Perfect Circle I saw a long time ago. I remember very little of it except for the bit where these two people - one of them I'm fairly sure, a kid - are trying to draw perfect circles and find it a thing not so simple.

I remembered this because my son wants to take Art at school next year and is not great at drawing, though he's amazing at craft and generally a genius with his hands. He used to be a champion artist when he was a kid, but you know how we're all Matisses until we're five.

So he's been trying to work at getting better but given that he started with this new resolution an hour ago, I think he should give himself a little more time before he decides to opt out of Art altogether in favour of Economics.

He began with wanting to draw an SLR; gave it up for a bottle of Parachute coconut oil and gave that up when he couldn't get the indent in the bottle to look like one; chose a lava lamp and baulked at the glass and the odd, frozen shapes inside.

Finally, I told him, 'Forget all these strange materials and stick with 2D for the moment, yes?' So we picked a Madhubani design he could copy. So all those freehand straight lines he has to draw as borders? BIG challenge. 'Economics,' he muttered under his breath.

Someone please tell my son drawing straight lines freehand is not as simple as he wants it to be.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Gecko glue is a thing

KM, look away now. (Or don't; it's not like I'm posting pictures, but watch where you're going).

I don't know which part of this is #1 for awesome. I vote ALL of it.

A team of scientists at the University of Massachusetts has developed a new, reusable adhesive based on the feet of the gecko – the lizard that licks its own eyeballs and climbs up walls. Around 60% of gecko species have adhesive toe pads and these pads were the inspiration for Geckskin – a device that can attach and detach from materials and surfaces repeatedly.

Led by professor of polymer science and engineering Al Crosby and professor of biology Duncan Irschick, the team designed Geckskin for performance – you can suspend up to 700lbs in weight with it and it can be made from everyday items such as nylon, bathroom caulking, carbon fibre or cotton. Most things adhere to it and it adheres to most things – it's like flypaper for elephants.

Crosby and Irschick say it's not about making a new material but making old materials perform in new ways. Geckskin is detachable and attachable.

Did you know geckos lick their eyeballs?! (Oh my God - are they Japanese souls trapped in reptilian bodies? Is it racist of me to say so? Cancel! Cancel!) 

I don't know which idea I like more: 'flypaper for elephants' or 'geckskin'. Actually, no contest - if there must be an elephant in the room, I'd rather it was suspended from the ceiling and rotating gently and somehow invisibly. ('Geckglue' trumps 'geckskin' though I'd like suggestions for an even better name.)

Later, the article says: "A key property of certain types of gecko is the ability to attach to any surface, release at will and be able to hold a significant amount of weight." And it made me wonder what weights a gecko carries. Seriously. It's not as if they club a prey over the head, fling them over a shoulder and head off into the nearest cave. So what weights do they have to carry? Apart from their own body weight which, I imagine, the design takes care of to not count as 'significant'.

Anyone know?

Monday, March 24, 2014


I was at a conference and it was the last night. I'd said my goodbyes and was more tired than I'd expect. Some time before midnight, I woke up to go to the loo and I imagine I thought I was in a different room, because nothing else would explain how I walked massively off-course to bump into a table.

I fractured my toe. I knew the minute it happened that this wasn't just a bad bump. The mini fridge in the room didn't have ice, but it had a bottle of coke that I applied to my rapidly swelling toes. From a previous fracture I knew I had to do ice and elevation asap. I was glad for the couple of hours' deep sleep I'd had because clearly there was going to be no more of it for the rest of the night.

One of the other writers is a surgeon. We were to travel together the next morning. She bandaged up my toes and said it didn't matter if it was a sprain or a hairline fracture, there was nothing more to be done - adhesive plaster and rest was the sum total of the treatment.

That was the first time I was using a wheelchair. Air travel becomes a different experience altogether when you're in a wheelchair. It was kind of fun, because of course my fracture was not such a big deal. But I can see how someone with rheumatoid arthritis would find it difficult to negotiate even the few steps they must take to their seats.

And leg space is never more precious than when you need to elevate your foot, I can tell you. I could feel my feet swelling up and there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it.

But what was fun was getting to go in that hydraulic lift thingie that comes up to the other door of the aircraft. It was also instructive to experience life from a different level. I wouldn't want to make a habit of it, but once is interesting.

Of course, now that I'm home, I'm thinking of all the things I can't do: drive, do yoga, skip down the steps - heck, even stretch up on my toes to get something from a higher shelf. Steps are a challenge. As is grocery shopping.

I think I'm supposed to cultivate gratitude for it not having been worse, and for all the things good health allows me to do and which I take for granted.

Right now, though, I feel incapable of the necessary amounts of gratitude that is required of me.

How've you lot been?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Poems up at Poetry at Sangam

Yesterday there was hail. Huge, fist-sized chunks being chucked rather than bowled. It was fun to watch, but at the back of our minds we knew the electricity would go.

We were right, but only partially. It hailed yesterday at 5pm. It's now 9am the following day, but there's still no electricty in two phases. All the other other monsoon-like troubles we have year after year have manifested themselves as unseasonably as the rain: overflowing sewage, flooded roads, backed up traffic, a vertain hydrophobia, of water, whether of the drinking or of the falling kind.

Luckily, we didn't need to brave the traffic. They're finally laying the road in this corner, after years and years of badgering them (the suspicion that our complaints had nothing to do with this sudden interest in our welfare). They're laying a cement road, instead of a tar one. At 3am one night, having failed to inform us when they were planning to begin, they put steel girders across our gate. Since then, we can move around if we walk to where we need to go. Public transport, needless to say, is a distant dream in this part of town.

So I walked to post letters and get some medicines. It would have been heartening to see that other corners of this city suffer from overflowing sewage, if I didn't have to wade through it instead of being allowed to gloat in peace.

Anyway. Those are some of the reasons why this blog is suffering from frequent neglect.

That's also why I forgot to say that I had some poems up at Poetry at Sangam. Some new, a couple old ones. Oh, link.

It has begun to drizzle again and I can feel the tension take the back of my neck. I just want that time back when rain was nothing but unalloyed pleasure.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Idris Keeper of the Light

I wanted to like Anita Nair's Idris: Keeper of the Light but I didn't.


Though the category of genre fiction in India continues to grow apace, there are few authors whose names are synonymous with historical fiction in the way Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott or Rafael Sabatini are. This is surprising, because nothing gives a nation a sense of the rightness of its own nationhood than an exploration of its past via fiction. In India we have traditionally chosen the mythological over the historical. There are notable exceptions: Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy (the first two books of it), Kunal Basu’s The Opium Clerk or The Miniaturist; Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold; even Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is an account of the near-historical, all bring their chosen periods alive for the reader. 

It was with a sense of anticipation, therefore, that I began to read Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light. The story is set in the years 1659-61, and begins in Thirunavaya on the Malabar coast. Idris is a Somali traveller who discovers that a chance-met boy is his son. He finds out that his son Kandavar wants to join the Chaver, a band of warriors who have sworn to assassinate the Zamorin. To save him from certain death, Idris promises Kandavar’s uncle first to keep an eye on the boy, then later to take him on a long journey to broaden his horizons and distract him from his suicidal ambitions. They travel along the coast of southern India, via Ceylon, Thoothukudi and Paliacatta, finally to end in the diamond mines of the Golconda kingdom.

Sadly, the book fails to deliver on its promise of “adventure and passion and...fascinating insights into life in the seventeenth century.” Early on, when Idris and Kandavar visit the head of a kalari (martial arts school), the Muslim Baapa Gurukkal, we get a flashback where Baapa Gurukkal’s grandfather loses caste by learning new techniques of fighting from an untouchable and converts to Islam. The episode is curiously mythic—even derivatively cinematic in the manner of a Hong Kong martial arts film—in its descriptions. ”Who knows which year it happened?” asks Baapa Gurukkal, rhetorically. 

There are other details that are carefully timeless, that could even be current: descriptions of the setting up of a kalari, or of food, clothes and the weather. When the travels begin and Idris and his entourage go to places under the control of the Dutch East India Company, we are given only the sketchiest details of what the encounter must have been like. The slave trade is mentioned in passing. We are told that Idris draws the line at trading in humans and then we never hear anything of this again. Instead, we have a ship’s doctor dreaming of returning home to Delft to his wife and home—of which we are given a short memory-tour.

Early on, Idris says, “I travel because I don’t know what else to do.” It’s something writers often say about themselves and why they write. It might help if writers—and travellers—were a little clearer not only about why they do what they do, but why they have chosen a particular journey. It’s especially hard to figure out, reading this book, what precisely attracted Nair to the period in the first place, since we know very little more than we did at the end of the book.

Idris’ travels skim the surface of 17th century southern India that we are eager to hear more about. In this, he’s like the host of a Fox Traveller show touching down upon a new place, picking one or two locations of colour to consume and then heading off somewhere else. So we get pearl fishing in Thoothukudi and diamond mining in the Krishna Basin but painted in the broadest possible strokes. 

Worse, we rarely come to care for any other character because once they have played their part in the narrative, they vanish from it. Everybody thinks the same few things about Idris: how distinguished and tall he is, how reserved and how compassionate; how well he assumes any role that is required of him to fill at any given time—healer, storyteller, leader in a crisis, or shrewd businessman. Any character with a grudge is dealt with swiftly, mostly by writing them out of the narrative.

The women, Kuttimalu—Kandavar’s mother—and Thilothamma are strong and independent; but these qualities mean little when, like other characters, they exist to explicate something about Idris or Kandavar and then fade into the background once they have finished being strong women for that particular moment.
The book ends with a comfortable opening for a sequel. Historical fiction needs proper world-building, with enough fact to buttress the imagination. I can only hope that Nair delves more deeply into the period to bring it truly alive. Until then, it’s back to Ghosh.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Long Wait

I have a piece up on an image from Amruta Patil's Parva here.

That image, that story, they've all been a part of my life for some time now. So I can't write about it; I can only confess.

Go read. And while you're there, check out the other pieces in the Illustration Series - there are some fantastic writers and some lovely choices there.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Brigit Peegan Kelly: 'Pipistrelles'

I bought Brigit Peegan Kelly's Song at The Haunted Bookstore in Iowa City. I'd read the title poem and one other by her and wanted to read more. Naturally, having returned home, I put all the books away and had nothing but good intentions while doing so.

On the flight to Bombay, this was the one book I took with me. I read and stuck a finger between the pages while wanting to weep or make some extravagant gesture of appreciation even while being strapped in to my seat and trapped by the food cart.

I read 'Pipistrelles' and wrote frantically in my notebook. Then, as we prepared to land, I put the book away and didn't read another word from it until I - once again - returned home. In the interval, Ranjit Hoskote read a poem (At Hope St. Poets on the 5th) about skin. It felt like a word read and constantly making its presence felt soon after, because there was 'Pipistrelles'.

But you need to read the whole poem. Here it is.



In the damp dusk
The bats playing spies and counterspies by the river’s
Bankrupt water station

Look like the flung hands of deaf boys, restlessly
Signing the dark. Deaf boys
Who all night and into the half-lit hours

When the trees step from their shadows
And the shadows go to grass
Whistle those high-pitched tunes that, though unheard, hurt

Our thoughts. Pipistrelles, little pipes, little
Night pipes, the peculiar
Lost fluting of the outcast heart. Poor heart.

The river’s slate waters slide
Silt and grief, the whole destroyed mountain of winter
Over the weir. Never stopping,

Sometimes slowing, but never stopping. And
Along the banks the skinflint trees
Clasp their weak heat. Well, they are a touchy choir,

A confused congregation, breathing
The thin air of our unteneted world. The sun pales
The leafy dogma goes, and we are left

To our freedom. But do we see now
The world as it actually is? Or merely another world?
A world within a world? Perhaps

In spring when the dogwood
Slowly discloses its hoard of pale mothlike blossoms
It is the mind that mulls

The sap – perhaps it is the mind
That makes its worlds
And the miracles therein.


the bats resemble the deaf.
But they are not deaf. They live by echoes as we do.
Negotiate by echoes. Send signals out

And field the reflections on the wing. And only
Great fear will hang them
On the piano wires we string to test them,

Dead certain of our right to know
At any cost the mechanism of another’s flight.
Even blindfolded, even painted

All over with nail polish, the bats will manage
Those wires pulled free
From their instrument, from their sound, will play

Around them a makeshift music
So lovely the pianist’s fingers will falter with envy,
And only great fear will hang them.

But it is different with us. Fear in us
Is central. Of the bone. It is our inheritance.
Our error. What flies back at us

From rocks and trees from the emptiness
We cannot resist casting into,
Is coloured by the distortions of our hearts,

And what we hear almost always blinds us.
We stumble against phantoms, throw
Ourselves from imaginary cliffs, and at dusk, like children, we

Run the long shadows down. Because the heart, friend,
Is a shadow, a domed dark
Hung with remembered doings. A night feeder – moths,

Fur over the tongue and the wet jewel of blood,
The cracked shells of insects
Split on the wing. And elsewhere, by connection,

Blood draining from the perfect cut
That brings the rabbit down, a slow singing out,
As in a dream, the blood sliding,

As the water of the overflowing creek does, sideways
In its brief bid for freedom,
While above, something wings away.


we are not birds. Despite our walls covered
with winged men, we are not birds.
And all that is birdlike in the bats

Is also deception. They have
No feathers, no beak, no high-pitched heart.
Their wings are skin. Skin! Stretched

From shoulder to foot like the cloth
We nailed to wood to build
Our doomed medieval contraptions for flight,

Or like our taut sheets, the high-strung skin,
The great single wing of sex we lean on
But we are not birds. All that is birdlike

In us, in the bats, is illusion.
There is nothing at all of the bird in us....
Except for flight. Except for flight.