Saturday, January 30, 2010

weekend intentions

1. Finish an essay I'm working on.

2. Put away books on floor, bed, by the window and work table.

3. Watch Caravaggio.

More updates on 1 & 3. The thought of actually managing 2 is already exhausting me.

Friday, January 29, 2010

'a new and abusive school of criticism'

Rebecca West in The New Republic.

So it is the duty of writers to deliberate in this hour of enforced silence how they can make art a more effective and obviously unnecessary thing than it has been of late years. A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism. There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger. We reviewers combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism; we reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods. So great is our amiability that it might proceed from the weakness of malnutrition, were it not that it is almost impossible not to make a living as a journalist. Nor is it due to compulsion from above, for it is not worth an editor's while to veil the bright rage of an entertaining writer for the sake of publishers' advertisements. No economic force compels this vice of amiability. It springs from a faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.

[Via] First published in The New Republic, November 7, 1914 (thanks Rahul!)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spaniard is a Glutton for Punishment

Not really. Spaniard merely didn't know that the birthday party she dropped her son off at wouldn't get over when they said it would. Spaniard is trusting and naive like that and never learns.

This party was at a gaming mall. That sounds like a den of iniquity, but it isn't, really. There's a food court as you enter and up a couple of floors are a bunch of noisy video games that I didn't stay to listen to.

So when I came to pick the kid up,Ii expected the cake to have been cut and only the matter of a return gift pending.

What I found was a game in progress - did I mention the place was done up in blue and while balloons? And you could hear the music two traffic lights away? - two kids were surrounded by a gang of children (of their own respective genders), who were attempting to smother them in toilet paper. Apparently this is how mummies are made. The event organiser was shrieking encouragement into the mike, the music was...let's just say, when I drank the thimbleful of coke I was offered, my ears popped. The girls won. The event organiser managed to sound both hurt and surprised.

Next up was dancing. With the EO acting as choreographer, chief mime, lip synch artist and lead dancer. The kids hopped around and yelled like a bunch of bloodthirsty extras from The Lord of the Flies.

After dinner and the most nauseating cake in the history of birthday parties, the return gifts made me feel even more ill: a huge bag, with three wrapped gifts and a bunch of assorted candy. At least one gift broke before bedtime; another was a vehicle for more candy; the last had a sticker on it to remind you that this was so-and-so's birthday. Last year these folks took the kids to a bookstore and told them they could spend 300 bucks on their own return gifts. I was appalled but I can't decide which is worse.

I think this party was much more fun.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


A milestone needs to be at least 20 years ago to become clearly recognisable as one.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Puri, January 2010. Hard afternoon light. Behind me, food stalls. Even farther behind, clothes drying on guest house balconies. From somewhere, temple bells.

No, I didn't see the temple.

(can you see the ship way off in the distance? either the light is drowning it or it's a good marriageable distance out in the waters.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Two Minutes Older: At Tinkonia Bagicha

When I first began to write poetry, I had no idea where to submit my work. So I wrote and watched other peoples’ acknowledgements carefully. One journal whose name cropped up often was Chandrabhāgā. Accordingly, I sent a few poems off to the editor, Jayanta Mahapatra, and was thrilled when he replied saying he’d like to use all of them. The few words of praise in his lovely hand-written letter were exactly what I needed to tip me over into taking my own writing seriously.

I replied and thanked Jayantada – as he requested that I call him – and in the months that followed we kept up a correspondence. At that time, Jayantada had just revived Chandrabhāgā which he edited without a break from 1979 to 1985, when the journal had to close for lack of funds. In its first run, Chandrabhāgā had contributions from poets such as Meena Alexander and Arun Kolatkar and poet-critics such as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, whose now famous essay, ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ was published in Issues 3 and 7 respectively of Chandrabhāgā, in response to a letter from the poet R. Parthasarathy who took exception to an essay published in the very first issue of the journal. In its new avatar, Chandrabhāgā hoped to revive the conversation (and skirmishing) between poets.

But Jayanta Mahapatra is not just an editor of an important little magazine but also one of the best poets of his generation. He was 42 when his first book, Swayamvara and Other Poems was published in 1971 (take heart, all you who started writing late!) making his work contemporaneous with younger poets such as Dilip Chitre and Keki Daruwalla. His poetry is dark and makes no concessions to the reader’s desire for hope (‘Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in,’ he writes, in his best-known poem ‘Hunger’). In 2009 he was awarded the Padma Shri.

It could have been an award given too late: in 2006, Jayantada was critically ill. The news made my heart lodge itself in my throat and refuse to budge. I could not say why it was important to me that Jayantada survive and recover – maybe because of the letters he wrote me, maybe because the poems in his then-recently-published book, Random Descent affected me deeply – I wrote him letters often and sent him poems by other people that I thought would bring comfort. The amazing thing is that he replied to every one of my letters though his hand was shakier and more crabbed with each reply.

I was determined to meet this poet who wrote to an unknown writer with affection and encouragement, through bad health and a painful recovery.

It took me nearly four years to move from wish to fulfilment: earlier this month, I called Jayantada and asked him if I could come and visit him. He was ill once again, but he welcomed my visit.

The three days I spent in Cuttack were like a gift: we talked, though not always about poetry. I explored the Chandrabhāgā office, read old and new issues of the journal, browsed through poetry books and was given valuable copies of his books, A Rain of Rites and False Start (with a cover by Arun Kolatkar) and his latest, The Lie of Dawns: Poems 1974-2008.

Reading through the books chronologically, I find a poem from The Lie of Dawns:

If he turns the night darker

and the silence deeper

it’s because the wind

doesn’t like him touching it

and because the earth is afraid

at the power of his feeling

From ‘At Times a Man Growing Old’

For the first time, I find myself on the brink of an opportunity to understand a writer’s work as a whole. Jayanta Mahapatra’s autobiography is now being serialised in the Oriya magazine, Bijoya. I hope it will be translated into English soon and wonder how like his poetry it will be.

My one regret is that I could not get Jayantada to record a few poems – he was too unwell to speak for long, let alone recite poetry. I hope some day I can return to Tinkonia Bagicha and persuade Jayantada to lend me his voice.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)

Friday, January 22, 2010


Don't have much time to do an extended or rounded out post, so quickly, just a few thoughts: just returned from the reading this evening and have to say I am disappointed. For one thing, Meena had a lot of mannerisms which were distracting and, I thought, took away from the impact of the poems. She read mainly from Quickly Changing River and Raw Silk. The latter has a poem sequence called (not sure I have the exact title right, since I wasn't making notes) 'Letters to Gandhi', which were written post-Godhra. Only during these poems did her voice become more conversational and her rhythms more varied.

The rest of the time, I noticed, her speaking voice was markedly different from her reading voice - which is fine; many poets have that distinction, a shift from a more informal register to a formal reciting voice. But: her reading voice came not from deep down; not even a high, back-of-the-throat kind of voice music teachers try their damndest to discourage; her voice appeared to be produced from somewhere between her teeth and her lips, a method of reading that distorted the words strangely. It didn't help that her reading style is a drawl, a way of elongating some syllables in a way that reminded me most embarrassingly of my own AIR reading from last year (or was it the year before?)

At the end of the reading, I asked her how she prepared for a performance, if she ever heard herself read. I wanted to know, because until I heard my own recording, I had no idea how much I drawled and ruined the poems by stretching them out like that. I don't do it anymore. I also try to read each poem aloud in a number of different way, with different emphases, to see what works better or what about the poem changes with different reading styles.

I'm not sure she understood my question, really - she said she used to read her poems aloud to herself, but now she reads them out in her head. It would account for the sameness of the reading.

So I have to say I prefer her poems on the page than listening to them read aloud. But it was interesting all the same.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Meena Alexander reads at ASCI Friday, Jan 22

Osmania University Centre for International Programmes

in collaboration with

The Public Affairs Section, U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad


Department of English, University of Hyderabad

cordially invite you to a poetry reading by

Meena Alexander

Time: 6.30 pm Day & Date: Fri 22 Jan 2010

Venue: Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI), Bella Vista

Raj Bhavan Road, Khairatabad, Hyderabad.


Meena Alexander <> is Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Centre, City University of New York. Her poems and prose works have been widely anthologized and translated. Her new collection of poetry is Quickly Changing River. Her book of essays Poetics of Dislocation was recently published under the University of Michigan Poets on Poetry series. Her works of poetry include Stone Roots; House of a Thousand Doors; River and Bridge; Illiterate Heart (winner of the PEN Open Book Award); Raw Silk; and two chapbooks, each a single long poem: The Storm: A Poem in Five Parts, and Night-Scene, The Garden.

She is the editor of Indian Love Poems and the author of the memoir Fault Lines (chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year 1993) She has also published two scholarly works, one of which is Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley; and two novels, one of which is Nampally Road.

Your browser may not support display of this image. She is the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, Rockefeller, Arts Council of England, and other fellowships.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Arun Kolatkar: 'Fire'


Arun Kolatkar

This fire This one laughing This is yet another

What shall I do with it Where shall I keep it

Shall I set it to the house to the door to the world

What will it cook Where will it spread

This torch where shall I throw it

This fire must be obeyed

This fire wear it on your head

Become a torch dance

Come, let’s play

Light my cigarette

Fire my engine

Leaven my bread

Cook my stew

Condense my soul

Boil my blood

Bend my steel

Melt my gold

Bake my brick

Crackle my mustard

Burn my corpse

Fling my arrows

Helter skelter

This fire This one laughing This is yet another

I am the toppling Ravana I am charcoal I am charcoal

This is Dussera

This fire Flames flames This bonfire

Broken window I’m a smashed door This bonfire

This bonfire This bonfire

Limping chair I’m a table on crutches This bonfire

This bonfire This bonfire

Running fence I’m a beam escaping This bonfire

This bonfire This bonfire

Flying cupboard I’m a warehouse being looted This

bonfire This bonfire This bonfire

this world without tunnels This house of wax

Helpless Helpless Fire engines Sandbuckets Water tanks

You are fire I’m ash

You are today I’m cash

You are yesterday You are fire You are tomorrow

You are fire You are now You are before You are after

You are flower I’m stalk

You are matchhead I’m matchstick

You are sacred fire I’m holy man

You are fire Ask Take

I’m smoke I’m smoke I’m smoke

I am myself sacrificial fire I am the host I am the altar

I am the priest I am the fire I am the sacrifice

The fire itself is ignorant

I sacrifice I sacrifice I sacrifice

Your mane will catch fire Be careful

Your tail will burn Take care

Come my lion Make a compromise

Jump through this burning hoop

From here to there and again from there to here

This fire shaped like a zero This freedom to burn is daily

This whole circus is you alone

Rajabai Tower The Gateway The Taj

The Majestic Hotel

These buildings beasts foxes tigers wild boars

This jungle molded this clear darkness

These vultures

You are hearth neighbouring fire

Scatter the city make them wait

Rajabai Tower The Gateway The Taj

The Majestic Hotel Churchgate Station

The Town Hall The Victoria Terminus The Regal

The Eros

Detached Immobile

Keep burning please for my sake

Keep me warm

Terrify this city

Otherwise these buildings will tear me and devour me

This city stays as is because of you or else or else

Terrorize the city the museum

Be a neighbour.

[Translated from Marathi by Dilip Chitre and Mick Fedullo]

Chandrabhaga 13

Thanks, Rahul!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Preview: Net

In the days to come, a few tidbits and then (I hope), more filled out posts.

Until then,


Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Or at least that is what I expect later this afternoon.*

Stay tuned.

Update: I really liked the film! What's more, I don't think going into it with low expectations had anything to do with it.

RDJr. was awesome and for the first time ever, I liked Jude Law (he should totally frown more and nag hot men more).

That Kashkari lookalike villain was a huge let down though.

The film: it had the Lock Stock stamp all over it, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The reconstructive flashbacks, for instance, worked pretty well, because they simultaneously expanded the narrative to show what wasn't shown before, while also being a clearly separate point of view (such as Irene Adler's walking to climb into the carriage waiting for her and Holmes' follwoing her shortly after).

For me the most interesting thing was (and I'm not really going to elaborate very much) the shift from a rational/mystical perspective that is set up early on in the film and its overturning in the end, and how it can be read as the use of power in a time of Empire.

Blackwood's justification for the ritualistic sacrifices could just as easily have been an argument advanced by a colonial type; there's evidence everywhere of nation and empire building, and the technology that aids such enterprise and yet superstition and fear abound and can be used. It takes a Holmes to see smoke and mirrors for the tricks they are.

Did I say how much I love RDJr? As Watson recognised (and said as much) he's gorgeous!


*Tho I still have an inexplicable crush on R.D.Jr.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Eating for Shiva*

The year began, not with festivities, but with a festival. Every year my mother announces Thiruvathirai, and every year I stop myself from asking, ‘What’s that?” This time, to remind myself what the festival was about, I said to my mother, “Why don’t you tell the kid the story?”

So she told my son the story of Nandanar: how the 8th century outcaste farmer wanted to see Shiva at the Chidambaram temple in the month of Margazhi (Dec-Jan); how he was told he couldn’t go until all the work in the field was done; how he managed to go despite all the work and as he stood outside the temple – being a dalit – he could see nothing because of the Nandi blocking his view of the lord.

The story goes that Nandanar was in tears at being unable to see Shiva. In Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charitra Kirtthanai, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, Nandanar says,

Are you not the ever compassionate Lord?

Untouchable as I am, may I not serve you?

To be there to witness your dance of supreme bliss

may I not come to you?

Shiva, touched by the man’s bhakti, asks Nandi to move so that he is visible to his devotee.

The high-born folk are abashed and awed in equal measure, and Nandanar’s fame precedes him everywhere. (I don’t know if this meant that he thereafter had help tilling the field or if those things remained status quo – because stories like these end with the arrival of the god, who invariably remains strong and silent on such matters)**.

To celebrate this, we eat kali and kootu.

I have to say that this story annoys me. Setting aside the politics of turning a story of injustice into one of spirituality, I resent having to eat a dish that is half sweet, half savoury and wholly an ordeal on the palate. For one thing, there’s the taste of gud and coconut in the kali. It isn’t as sweet as sakkaraipongal but it isn’t like regular pongal either. In the kootu, the taste of sweet potatoes battles with the beans and the peas with the pumpkins. Brought together, they make the tongue shiver and produce in me as many conflicting emotions as the story of Nandanar and the Arudra Darsanam at Chidambaram.

Everyone knows that festivals are an excuse to eat things that are seasonal, hard to make and digest and that keep women in the kitchen for most of the day. Usually the things we eat on these occasions are passed off as the favourite food of this or that god: butter, sheedai, kozhakattai and such. Someone please tell me whose favourite food this is: Shiva’s? Nandanar’s? Or Nandi’s?

I have a theory that Thiruvathirai kali and kootu are meant to reflect the complexity of the story. After all, it is not a simple story of faith and reward. Mixed up in it is the question of boundaries, of who is kept out and who does the keeping out; and of who ‘deserves’ the favour of god. Show me a dalit who celebrates Thiruvathirai as a triumph against established order. Depending on where you’re coming from, Nandanar has either circumvented an unjust convention to directly commune with his god or he has been tricked into thinking that the barriers have been removed, when really he’s still standing where he’s been ordered to.

The dish is equally complex and disturbing to the taste. What it produces is not comfort or pleasure. There are too many different tastes and textures, too many conflicting sensations, too many ingredients that don’t get along with each other. It requires a sophistication that I don’t yet have to transform this discomfort into something that I see as not just palatable but enjoyable. It is an uneasy dish that celebrates a disturbing story.

Every year, I try my best to like it and every year I fail better at it. For now, I have decided to live with the taste. In fact, I think I might even experiment with it: I wonder what would happen if, next year, we added karela to the kootu? I think it might add the one taste that was missing.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


* I will retain my own titles to these pieces; I'm not too sure about the ones they think up for the paper.

** In Sekizhar's version, the Nandi doesn't move at all. What happens is, Nandanar comes into Chidambaram hesitantly, doubting his own worthiness to see Shiva. Shiva arranges for Nandanar to be 'purified' by a fire and becomes resplendently Brahmin before he gets to be one with his god. See.

Monday, January 04, 2010

assortments for the week: 1

Pratilipi Jan 2010 has, among other things, and excerpt from The Road to Gondwana (which I haven't yet read but plan to), Berger on Hikmet, two poems by Dilip Chitre, who passed awat last month (all the above three are in translation); a new series called Padaus I and finally, Aseem Kaul on Saphho.


Not sure why I haven't linked to the wonderful Mumbai Paused sooner. I especially love Gopal's Work Space Mumbai Series.


Finally, Slavoj Žižek, who is travelling in India.

His full schedule can be found on the Navayana site. This evening - in about an hour - he will speak at Sarai-CSDS.

Hyderabad, Jan 9 at EFLU. Damn it, no. It's on the 7th and I'm missing it.

7 Jan 2010. 11 a.m. Lecture
“Capitalism and Particular Life-Worlds: In Defense of Universalism”
Interlocutor: Madhava Prasad
ICSSR Auditorium, English & Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

Aditya Nigam at Kafila on Žižek.


year end lists

(this is not a post; just a sort-of observation with no links attached)

All these best of the decade posts - notice how most of what's called 'the best' tends to fall within the last year or so? Either we have short memories (that they're unreliable goes without saying) or every day, in every way, the world is getting better and better.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Bread upon the Waters

As the last year drew to an end, I was taught a lesson by my son and his friends. I am, in general, averse to being edified in this manner and was more astonished than pleased. But I have now decided that this is the proper way to begin the new year: with a shiny new can-do spirit back-lit with a halo of faith in human kindness.

This is how it happened: I had taken my son to visit his friends, two girls whom he has known almost from the hour of their – and his – birth. It hardly needs to be said that they spend a lot of time together. Usually their mother or I visit each other and chat, while the children go off somewhere to play by themselves. On this occasion, about two weeks ago, they decided to give us front row seats to a game of Hide and Seek.

It’s a game I hate, especially in its local variation called ‘Dhappa’, where the ‘den’ can practically pass on the title to her next of kin, with the way the rules are arranged. I loathe the game because I spent my childhood being the den. Under the circumstances, I was disposed to sympathise with my son, who drew the short straw.

He counted to fifty then started to hunt. Soon, he found the other two and I felt a glow of pride. Then they started to quarrel gently: it was the turn of the older of the two girls to be the den. She groaned (as who wouldn’t) and said she hated being ‘It’. The youngest quickly said that she would be the den instead, since she was the youngest. My son claimed the youngest had actually reached the wall before he did and so he should once again be the den.

I don’t know where they got this selfless gene from. Not from me, I can assure you. (Also, I was slightly shocked at all this lying for a good cause.)

While the children spent the rest of the afternoon inventing new ways in which to lose in order to benefit their friends, I chewed my nails down to the quick trying to figure this one out. The moral of the story – if you could call it either a moral or a story – seemed to be that people surrounding you should be made happy no matter what and that your happiness was closely tied to theirs.

With this very provisional conclusion in hand, I further realised that, applied to my life, this amounts to casting my bread upon the waters in the most profligate way, in the hope that it what I send out will be returned to me tenfold.

It seemed like a good resolution to make for the new year and one, moreover, that I could, with a little effort, actually keep. Of course, it depends on what I send out into the world: even the mildest and most well-meaning bread could return toxic and slightly soggy, given the quality of the water these days. This means that I will have to be full of whimsy or good humour or some other quality I will find very difficult to sustain, just so these things can be multiplied. I will do it because I don’t know how to do it and that always works best for me.

What this means for you is, in exchange for two minutes of your life every fortnight, you get a little bit of unpredictability which, as everyone knows, is Fun. And as that learned sage, Dr. Seuss, said long ago, ‘it’s fun to have fun but you have to know how’.

This column might talk about poetry or films; it might rant or talk about education. There might be trees in it or reptiles. Right now, it is hard to say. As I have said elsewhere in introduction, I am deeply committed to doing nothing and hope to persuade you to join me in my commitment (after all, when world leaders at Copenhagen can do it, why can’t I?)

So here’s the first consignment of bread. I shall wait for the cake. And you should know that I like chocolate best.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)

resolutions for the blog

Have you noticed how I've begun to tag my posts? Have you noticed the halo? I feel very pleased with myself, though I have no idea how you guys are going to feel with all the mess on the sidebar.

Will wield the broom with great effect soon.