Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Breaking News!*

Man Writes Poem.

*If you can describe a poem that's at least two years old as 'Breaking News'.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


I'm bored.

I'm bored of my books, I'm bored with this blog, with all blogs, with writing, with reading.

There was a terrible play last night that is just waiting to be ripped into. There was that wasted day at the mall while we waited to watch Horton, and when we went in the theatre smelled of pee (did someone take their ickle precious to a horror film, then?).

And when all's done, there's always the rich seam of newspaper hilarity to be mined.

But none of it moves me.

I guess I'll see ya'll when I see y'all.

(One of these days I will learn to leave unannounced.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I've been very busy doing what summers always make me do: re-read. I've fished out the Chronicles of Narnia for my son and for myself The Dark Is Rising series (I don't have Silver On The Tree; Aishwarya, you listening?)

But this post by Rahul reminded me of something that was given me as a gift a long time ago.

At the Institute, for a few months, at least, the crustimony proseedcake after dinner was to gather under the Wisdom Tree (I know, right?) and confab. One editor, I discovered, had a taste in books that chimed with my own. So we hung out a fair amount, and a month or so later, when my birthday rolled around, I was delighted to get, as a gift, a xeroxed copy of Leonard Cohen's Poems 1956-1968.

And to think I'd forgotten about it for the last 14 years!*

Here's the last poem in the edition I have:

You Live Like A God

You live like a god
somewhere behind the names
I have for you,
your body made of nets
my shadow's tangled in,
your voice perfect and imperfect
like oracle petals
in a herd of daisies.
You honour your own god
with mist and avalanche
but all I have
is your religion of no promises
and monuments falling
like stars on a field
where you said you never slept.
Shaping your fingernails
with a razorblade
and reading the work
like a Book of Proverbs
no man will ever write for you,
a discarded membrane
of the voice you use
to wrap your silence in
drifts down the gravity between us,
and some machinery
of our daily life
prints an ordinary question in it
like the Lord's Prayer raised
on a rollered penny.
Even before I begin to answer you
I know you won't be listening.
We're together in a room,
it's an evening in October,
no one is writing our history.
Whoever holds us here in the midst of a Law,
I hear him now
I hear him breathing
as he embroiders gorgeously our simple chains.

Now I'm going to have to fish out one of my precious finds from the pavement, a copy of the naked i: fictions for the seventies, which has a piece by Cohen in it. Summer has its compensations.

*Come to think of it, our year at the Institute was a very Leonard Cohen year. At least two song picturisations were Cohen; many evenings were spent listening to Cohen and Bach. No, Kuntal?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sounds familiar?

The dance of absurdity became a dance of death. Government agents shot at marchers, while allies of the opposition went about ethnic cleansing with impunity. Others destroyed property in an orgy of nihilistic fury. The image of a child hurled into the flames of a burning church while attempting to run away is indicative of Kenya’s plague of poor-on-poor violence, stoked by a hard-hearted middle class that advocates regional ethnic cleansing while enjoying a cosmopolitan lifestyle in gated city residences, purified of the poor except those who come to serve.

That's Ngugi Wa Thiong'o in the latest issue of Granta, writing about the recent churning in Kenya.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

More about Kenya in the Kwani? Commentary section (you'll want to be looking for the January posts.)


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The One That Got Away

Is the biggest might-have-been, the most desirable, the most impossibly perfect.


And that's my mysterious (and rather wordy) epigram of the day.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Smells of a Summer Night

Because Veena asked about 'redolent mornings' but because I no longer know what mornings look like. I thought I'd do evenings instead.

Raat ki Rani.




Slightly melted tar.

Diesel from generators.

Dead (and decomposing) rat.

Hands, after they're done putting away a couple of rusty and green metal foldable chairs.


I thought basic science taught us that when the air gets hot it gets light and rises. Why do smells sit so heavily in the summer?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Flavour of a New Year

Also on OS.

This year, I am told, the Tamil New Year is on the 13th of April. On Sunday, for the first time in nearly a decade, I will be consulting my recipe book because I need to know how to make the New Year pachidi that I have never made before. My recipe book is no ordinary one; it is a Mahabharata diary. That is to say, every page of the 1991 diary has a small story at the bottom with a line drawing or two. My mother used this diary – a few pages of it – at a rather fraught time in her own life, but abandoned her entries some time in April – around New Year, in fact.
Ingredients: 1 raw mango, peeled.
1 cup jaggery
2 sprigs of neem flowers
Mustard seeds, red chilly, haldi and salt for seasoning.
When I got married, my mother, worried that I would never learn to cook South Indian food, wrote out some simple recipes for me, starting with a few different kinds of payasam, some everyday stuff and other more complex recipes that involved elaborate preparations. In the last year or so, she has started to write out recipes for special occasions – Pongal, Rama Navami, New Year, Janmashtami, Adi Padhinettu, Deepavali. When I was married, she tactfully refrained from asking me if I ever made any of the things in the book, but when I returned home a few years ago, she was somewhat reassured by my ability to at least make sambar and rasam.
Women of my mother’s generation never had recipes written down for them. They learned in the company of their mothers, assisting them, helping out with small tasks and eventually graduating to the big stuff. Cooking was always a communal activity – especially during festivals when, for days, the most elaborate meals were prepared.
But my mother moved away when she married. Even a move to a neighbouring state can be a kind of exile: a different language, different films, different ways of dressing, different customs. And most especially, different food. Things that were everyday items on the plate became exotic and rarely found: banana stem, certain kinds of greens, shallots, even white pumpkin, which, in this other place, people only used to ward off the evil eye.
Peel and cut the mango into thin slivers. Boil in a little water with salt and a pinch of manjapodi. After the mango is cooked, add powdered jaggery. Let it boil for five minutes. Add rice flour mixed in water to thicken.
In time, my mother’s connections to her homeland withered. She hadn’t seen a Tamil film in decades; she could barely understand the Tamil in the magazines – she, who had studied in a school where the medium of education was Tamil. She hardly ever watched the Tamil channels on television because everything was becoming more unfamiliar with each passing year. Our own language was restricted by the limited use we made of it in our day to day functioning. If there was a reason any more to describe ourselves in a way that would be familiar to others in another state that seemed immeasurably far away, it was because of our food, its seasonal variations and celebrations.
Season the pachidi with mustard seeds, one red chilly and fresh neem flowers. The pachidi denotes that life is a mixure of flavours, so use the ingredients carefully. (Sometimes it turns out downright bitter, but may yet be medicinal and therapeutic!)
But this is all I have known. My life has always been circumscribed by this limited vocabulary, these few words of Tamil that I can read in my recipe book, the Murugan calendar that one tears off one page at a time and which gives my parents all kinds of arcane information, these forms of ritual that have no greater significance for me. It has always been enough. I’ve never known anything else so I’ve never felt the deep sense of dislocation that my parents sometimes feel.
It used to be that when my mother wanted my help with some elaborate preparation, I used to have a regulation fight that was as formal in its structure as any festival. Now, I watch her as she takes out the Mahabharata book after every festival and writes out recipes. And I realise how important this is for her. This is her instinct for preservation, this need to record what has surely already passed in her own lifetime. It is only through the blueprint contained in this book that I can lay claim in a small way to the picnics she must have had on Surplus, along the Mettur Dam. It is through the code of the recipes that I can infer the stories that stand like shadows at the margins of the page.
The book already contains so many stories: my mother’s own account of events nearly fifteen years ago and the stories from the Mahabharata. The page which holds the recipe for the New Year pachidi tells a story of the Pandavas in their exile, when Bhima kills Hidimbo and marries his sister. It seems like a curiously apt story to accompany the recipe, indicating as it does endings and beginnings, and auspicious occasions in the midst of travails.
On Sunday, because my mother is away, I will make the pachidi and payasam though I will leave out the vadai as being outside the limits of the effort I am willing to make. As I am making all of it, I will spend a little time considering whether I take these rituals of food for granted and what, if anything, its loss will mean to me.

Friday, April 11, 2008


My computer has had a major crash so I won't be online for a few days - only off and on and only for urgent stuff. As is usual with this blog, rumours of my prolonged disappearance have been wildly exaggerated. Turns out there was a problem, but a problem easily fixed.

Sorry! Will be back asap. Will respond to comments on the poetry post soon!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

authorship and agency: found and organised poems

For the last month or so I've been working almost exclusively on found poetry as a kind of exercise for myself. Which is why, when Vivek sent a mail asking for lines, it seemed like an amazing coincidence. So many of the concerns appear to overlap: what a google search throws up is not very different, after all, from a random hunt for obscure lines; even lines that have been contributed by people who have written them specifically for an exercise must be randomised and rearranged.

Given that someone else wrote each phrase picked up for a found poem or contributed to a performance poem, who is the author? The person who arranges the lines? The one who shapes the outcome by providing a frame? Can authorship be collective or truly collaborative?

Vivek says,

"...what I didn’t realize myself at the time, is that, at the rate of a single line, the self can only express itself as a flicker, at best. Things get equalized..."

This is a very interesting observation to me. Combined with Vivek's request early on, for contributors to read the poems and let him know if 'their' line has been left out, it raises some very important question of authorship which is intricately connected to the issue of selfhood.

Every contributor will recognise her line in the poem. No one listening to the poem, however, will know just by listening to it once (or even reading it several times), who the author of any given line was. This raises some fundamental questions with regard to that loaded word, 'style', which is a unique expression of selfhood. What is the smallest unit of style?

With found poems, where lines are picked up from the oddest sources - grocery lists, advertisements, warning labels, a phrase from a book that falls open at a random page - authorship is even more distant because it is either already obscured or so diluted that it is impossible to separate the 'self' that created a certain order of words from the one that rearranges them. It is and yet is not, like the act of stringing any sentence out of a common pool of words that belong to nobody and everybody.

One question that this throws up for me is, what is the purpose of rearrangement? Is it a quest for 'meaning', whatever that is? If the arranger of lines is finding out things as she goes along, is it apparent in small parcels of revelation, each incomplete and provisional until the next line is placed? Is it an intuitive process where you have no reason in the present moment for arranging lines in a certain way, but retrospectively reasons - or possibilities- suggest themselves?

A question that Falstaff raised was one that I see as a question of sentience. If a machine were to do the randomising, would the audience know? Would they be able to tell the difference between what the machine did and what a human mind - each one individual with its own history of lived experiences; a self, in other words - produced? (Do machines have a sense of self? Is it different from the selfhood of the programmer?)

If agency is a function of selfhood, how does a contributor see her work when it is a small part of a whole which she had no hand in ordering? When I pick up phrases for a found poem, sometimes I cannot even trace it back to the creator. Even if I could, it is unlikely that I would seek permission to use a phrase any more than I would write to the executors of John Lennon's estate to ask permission to name my blog in this particular way. This tendency to quotation and sly reference is so much a part of our consciousness that ownership becomes a very rocky terrain to negotiate.

Approaching this from another direction altogether, it is possible to view this as an exercise in taking poetry back to its incantatory source. If one imagines the contributions as the items to be used in a ritual, each item contributed by a person who will 'give up' their offering and stand back to be a witness to some mysterious alchemy, then the arranger is mage and prophet, seer and wielder of great power. Power that is willingly invested in him or her. In such a scenario, the act of arrangement relies not only on repetition but also on drama, on the liturgical on a notion that agency lies elsewhere, outside the community but invoked by its presence.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. But it occurs to me that poetry emerged out of such situations too often for it to have lost all meaning as process even now. I'm thinking here of the construction of epics, religious texts, and long narratives composed by no one author.

These are fairly unordered thoughts, too long to have left as a comment on Vivek's blog but the nice thing about these discussions is that though they happen piecemeal they contribute to a larger conversation wherever it happens to take place.

Update: It occurs to me that it might help to set out clearly the different posts that this discussion refers to.

1. The Invitation that started the experiment.

2. The lines as they were received.

3. Google Gong, where Vivek sees what happens when uses the search string 'I heard'.

4. And the one really ought to be discussing, I Heard It Is One Of May Possibilities.

5. Also, his Further Thoughts on the arranged poem.

6. Falstaff's post.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Pulitzer for Bob

It's true!

Of course, they're calling it a 'Special Citation':

Special Citation to Bob Dylan for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.


Just received my copy of Indian Literature which has three of my poems.

And I am livid.

My name has been misspelled and other breaches of privacy have been committed. I am very very annoyed and apologise to anyone I may have encouraged to submit to this issue of IL which was supposed to be an IWE special.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Edwin Morgan: Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words

Equivocal's experiment reminded me, for some reason of Edwin Morgan's sonnet.

Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words

"I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry." — John Cage

I have to say poetry and is that nothing and am I saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it

Edwin Morgan, The Second Life
Edinburgh University Press, 1968

Sunday, April 06, 2008

so many Ramayanas

Via Ludwig, the Ramanujan essay that has saffron knickers in a twist in Delhi University.

A propos of which, Krish Ashok's excellent post some time ago, titled the Ramayanapedia.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Lines up

Remember the live lines some of you may have contributed to Khoj? (I pulled the post down as I promised Equivocal I would).

Well, they're up now so go see, read and comment.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Going Against My Grain

I've decided to enjoy my migraines. This one began two days ago and in that time, at no extra expense, I've experienced flashing green and white lights, as if some deep yoga had awoken the kundalini or as if I'd seen Lucy herself all decked out in diamonds.

I also drift though the day, aware that people are saying things to me and that I'm responding, I think with perfect sense. I smile inwardly with the crafty glee of the tipsy, knowing I've managed to pull a fast one on everyone and have got away with it.

My fingers tingle, my head feels as if it's on fire and I feel grateful for the dark curtains and the thought that today I have to go nowhere and meet no one. I'm going to lie in bed and watch the fireworks.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Whining and Whingeing

I have a massive headache. To be fair, I already had one before I went had to emcee the evening's book launch, about which not another word - except to say I can't deal with 'sufi' poetry unless it's by Rumi or Hafiz. Okay? Okay.

And how dare projectionists just skip an entire song in Across The Universe? Went to watch the first day first (heck, only) show on Friday, and had the misfortune to have a projectionist who could not wait until the reel was over before inserting the slide that announced the interval. So there were these nine folks lying in a field, singing Because and half a minute before the end of the reel, way before the markers flash, the dude turns the projector off. When the interval is over, he resumes from where he left off but now changes reels before the song is over.

He also skipped Something. What's the law on this?

And the end titles. Nothing annoys me more that theatres that cut short the end titles. At the end of LotR 1, I've fought with projectionists to show the last reel again, but I was really not in the mood to do a crusading act on Friday. But I've been spending nights composing bitter letters of complaint to Ramesh Prasad. I also dream that he will be so worried that this will come to the ears of Columbia Pictures, whose contract with the theatre owners states that every inch of the film has to be shown (except those portions that have not been allowed by the censors of the land) and who will sue Prasadz till they have no choice but to give up their theatre to the govt. to convert into a science museum, so that he will personally call me up and offer me a couple of tickets free for whichever film I might want to watch, which I shall nobly refuse, saying I didn't do any of it for free tickets; I'm capable of buying my own tickets thank you very much, it's the principle of the thing.

Finally, why do people say 'at the end of the day' in a profound undertone as if they're uttering one of life's mysteries when all they're doing is saying stupid things like 'at the end of the day, we have to stand by each other'? Life as roll call. I knew it.