Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hybridity: A Card Game

Pick a card. Any card.

Ok, maybe not that one.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

'That's journalism: Tomorrow's news yesterday'

If you spend any time at all on the net, and read about the media in India, you will be aware of the Radia tapes story that Open magazine broke, that Outlook ran with and - barring a few honourable exceptions - other MSM blacked out.

It's all of a piece with everything that's been happening recently, including the spiking of Mitali Saran's piece of Arun Poorie's plagiarism. But I don't have anything to say about the Radia tapes that others haven't already said. Instead, let me point you to Kai Friese's very enjoyable piece in Outlook that Mitali (who has been linking to nearly everything worth reading on the issue on FB) pointed to:

Back in ’03, the leading newspaper in this land threw many worthy journalists into a spin with a shining line called Medianet. Today it’s prosaically called ‘paid content’ and ‘edvertorials’. Their reasoning was silky: “The role we envision for Medianet is that of a conscience-keeper, auditor and watchdog, regulating the media’s burgeoning interaction with the PR sector.” It sounds like the devil himself. But they were onto something. And they knew you’d object: “Those who are apoplectic about the perceived invasion of the ‘message’ into the domain of ‘content’ may want to consider that the two have long since ceased to be strangers, and are sharing an increasingly symbiotic relationship. Marshall McLuhan famously declared that the medium was the message. In all humility, we’d like to say, Medianet is the messenger—heralding a brave new world of innovation.”
Isn’t that brilliant? Especially the bit where they gloss McLuhan, Huxley’s dystopia and ‘innovation’—a term of art for advertising in editorial places. The old lady of Boribunder is an oracle too. That’s journalism: Tomorrow’s news, yesterday. So when some has-been journalists whine that the leading newspapers and TV channels have been silent on the Radia tapes, just tell them. Of course they’re silent. Have you offered to pay them? I didn’t think so!
Unfortunately, there are alternatives to the dignified, business-like silence of real journalism. There are greedy magazines like this one, and hungry ones like Open. Worst of all there’s the internet, which as you know hasn’t even been properly monetised yet. That’s not journalism!

Mm hmm. And special points for Friese's slipping in the terms 'Twitterlicking' and 'Facebukkake'.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sound, John Cage loves you just the way you are


(this sat in drafts for a few days. not sure why.)

Two Minutes Older: Medical Illiteracy

For the last few weeks, I’ve been having several tangential and direct conversations about illness and treatment. It must be the result of belonging to a generation whose parents are growing old and ailing, or just coming through its own experiences with bearing and raising children. These illnesses range from the seasonal to the severe but what all my conversations had in common was the strange carelessness and ignorance that people displayed about anything remotely medical.

One person had been suffering from severe backaches for some time. She thought the origin was gynaecological. After several tests and consultations, no clear reasons were discovered but her doctor prescribed some medicine that she took without question. I asked her, “Is it a painkiller or a hormonal treatment kind of thing?” She didn’t know and astonishingly, didn’t think to ask her doctor. She also took those medicines only when she happened to remember and often skipped doses through having forgotten.

An older relation, in his eighties, treated his phlegmy cough with bottles of cough syrup without visiting a doctor. Though he was finally taken to one and given antibiotics, after two days of fever, and severe breathlessness, he had to be put on a ventilator. In this particular case, it was not just his own diffidence about asking for medical attention, it was also a case of being in a place where the people around him didn’t know or have access to his medical history.

One friend recounted how a torn ligament in his knee went undiagnosed by the doctors at a boarding school a couple of decades ago; another person suggested I take (without a prescription) some dietary supplement for my migraines. I have spent a fair amount of my time being appalled by both doctors and patients.

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathise deeply with the ostriches of the world – those who avoid all thought of illness in the hope that if they do, it will not afflict them. I understand why people would choose to ignore the complaints of their body, or pop a painkiller or paracetemol without bothering to find out if that’s the right line of treatment. Anything to avoid being told it could be something serious.

Anyone who has been to hospital with any degree of regularity knows that danger lurks everywhere: once you go to consult a doctor, you more or less unquestioningly acquiesce in her line of diagnosis and treatment, even if it includes a battery of obscure (and expensive) tests and medicines. Disease is as much about fear as recovery is about trust.

The writer and surgeon Kavery Nambisan recently said, while talking about a non-fiction book she is writing on healthcare, that she wasn’t against doctors prescribing tests, because sometimes they were necessary and useful but what was really scary was the disappearance of the local General Practitioner who knew one’s family, medical history and knew how to diagnose many things by observation and conversation. A GP ought to be the first line of defence against disease.

For the non-medical person, however, a successful career as an ostrich involves, oddly enough, a near-constant state of awareness. You’d think this would happen almost by osmosis, given how much the media goes on about health and that unbearable new-age word, ‘wellness’; but you’d be wrong.

I’ve discovered that apart from a small circle of confirmed hypochondriacs, most people tend to pay more attention to the beneficial effects of fruit facials than they do to tips on ways to avoid getting malaria. The hypochondriacs, on the other hand, set themselves up as resident doctors, prescribe themselves anything from antibiotics to painkillers with airy confidence and wonder why they suffer when they suffer the inevitable consequences.

There must be a happy middle ground we can occupy between total medical illiteracy and half-baked knowledge. There are community health drives that inform people about basic health issues. Some places still have their friendly neighbourhood GP – may their tribe increase - who have the time and patience to answer questions. But all this information amounts to nothing in the face of determined resistance to knowledge. Without that barricade, what else can ostriches expect but to be bitten in the fleshier parts of their anatomy?


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'as I am told I remember'

Rules of the House, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Apogee Press, 2002.


This is not a review.


Tibetan writers who have lived all their lives in India or Nepal, and whose idea of a homeland becomes more tenuous and dream-like every year, write in ways that readers of diasporic literature have become familiar with: the sense of loss and in-betweenness, the strong sense of place and nostalgia, the vein of anger that accompanies exile and a permanent hankering for 'home'.

None of this is apparent in Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's first collection of poems, Rules of the House (2002), which was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Awards in 2003. There is the uneasy implication of regulation in the title - whose rules are these? who is to abide by them? what happens if they don't? - that is reinforced by the seven poems scattered through the collection that are 'lessons' someone gives. But whatever conclusions one might be tempted to draw from the title or the poems have to be provisional ones, because once you begin reading you are untethered from your preconceptions about poets writing about exile, loss, country and identity.


TWD refuses to name her main characters. They make frequent appearances as M, F and S and could correspond to Mother, Father and Son but though their relationship with each other is often clear, even this much is never named. Other characters are named - Pema, Doma, Thupten, Tashi, Jetsun, Samten - but not these three. It is a resistance that seems futile, until one considers the powerful charge that familial ties can conjure in a community living circumscribed lives in a country not their own.

This resistance is everywhere, but frequently unrecognisable because it is disguised as elusiveness and difficulty. In her opening poem that is, in some sense, a Preface, or even a manifesto for the poems that will follow Dhompa says:

When I am with them, I cannot say I remember. I say, as I am told I remember.

In itself, it's not an easy to read construction. Does memory function differently in the absence of community? How? Should there be a comma after told? Or can someone be instructed, not only in the art of remembering but also in what it is they remember? Is forgetting so constant that one's memory must be refreshed by others, from other stores of common remembering?

Dutiful memorising must be a part of every person in exile. The exhortation to never forget! as if all that is perishable can be held at bay through the agency of memory and the passing on of it through story.


Rules is a story. It is a coherent collection, sectioned and carefully constructed but it tells not one story but many; or many versions of many stories. The tension between the strong frame and the elusiveness of the individual poems is, in a word, exhilirating.

In pieces we think, goes the first line of the poem 'Cutting Cloth'. This is the whole of it:

In pieces we think. Wording eyes.
How we see when sun splinters enter.
Her laugh. When the river ran full,
we lapped it up. Her laugh; when she did
that gurgling of tea on coal.
How should I explain. We lived
by a water tank. It was easy to speak.
Restless in light-scorched air
(her words for heat).
Restless ears we pressed against cold
steel, and bartered tales.

Dhompa's poetry is in the widening of the gap between conrete, whole sentences; the recognition that consciousness and even identity is a collection of discerete and often unrelated thoughts. This must owe much to a Buddhist view of the world, as the ideas of impermanence that seed the collection indicate. And yet, her writing is nothing like, say, Thich Nhat Hanh's. There is no deceptive simplicity here. There are no apologies made for the work she demands the reader do.


In a poem titled 'The Third Lesson', Dhompa uses the words 'Later he remembered' in an incantatory manner. 'He' is Samten, who was dancing to Nepali rap when 'the elder died in her sleep'. The dead demand remembrance: what they did, how they spoke, ate, behaved. Samten remembers, not just to reverence the one who died, but to confirm his own continuing presence ('Later he remembered the largest pieces of meat were given to him').

But in between [S]amten's narrative is the doctor who answers laconically, 'Impermanence', when asked for the fourth time, what caused the elder's death; and the lama:

Now she is dead, the lama said. Do not speak her name out loud. She is now your mother who is no more.

What is one to make of that sentence? Is it: only now, after her death, does this person become a mother; or, are there invisible hyphens between 'mother who is no more', making of it a title, a new identity.


This is not a connection I should make, but I will. When I read the poetry of those writing from India in English (please don't groan. I won't make this long, and I hope I won't make it familar), I expect some things because I have grown used to seeing them all the time.

I expect to see a heavy reliance on images; on an equation - I think specious - with a description of quiet violence on one side and the implication of truth on the other; a narrative uncomplicated by anything that disrupts its clear path down the page; and imitation and homage.

None of that is visible in the poetry of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. Instead, there is a vital awareness of 'this alley of slippery language.' Under the long lines and paragraphs of prose that form the recognisable style of Dhompa's poetry, are the echoes of other tongues.

The loss of a language can be as harrowing as the loss of a cuisine; it is more personal and disenfranchising than even the loss of a place one calls one's country; but Dhompa, thankfully, never wallows. Instead, there's a subtle humour to her words. Perhaps what her language has is not loss but residue.

In ‘Carried from here’, the speaker says, ‘Raindrops, I say in English. They want to learn functional words: immediately, enlightenment, conversion. 

'Fourth lesson' begins thus:

Entrusted in your care, the equivalent of speech. The harbour in sea mist if ships come that way.

The oddness of the word "pomade" in a room overlooking a church steeple.

Speech measured by what is within definition.


I love the mystery of it. I love having to read something, and know I want to read it again immediately.  I love that I cannot paraphrase Dhompa's poetry, explain what it's 'about', (as if poems were a form of introduction to a blogger). More than anything, I love reading it and not saying in my head, 'I've heard this somewhere before.'

(Whether this is a function of it being a poet from the subcontinent, and therefore an unexpected departure, I don't yet know. Of late, I confess to a paralysing boredom with most poetry I read, no matter where it's from.)


Tsering was in college with me. A year ahead, in the same department, and the same hostel. Yet, I don't think I bumped into her too often. I knew her as a member of the Tibetan community; in a year when the Dalai Lama visited our college, I remember she was invited to read her poetry to him; I remember her best for a poem (perhaps the same one she read out the the Dalai Lama?) that appeared in the college magazine, called 'The Lost World - A Broken Dream'.

A little hunting later, I've unearthed the poem (which I won't reproduce here). It's a beautiful, heartfelt poem but unexceptional. Until this second, I didn't quite realise the leaps that Tsering has taken in her writing, the years of effort and polish that makes the poems in this book - already eight years old, and followed by another book, two chapbooks and a forthcoming, new collection - the diamonds they are.

I found her work again last year, through a link on Silliman's blog and I'm most grateful for that. If there's one book I'm very happy I read this year, it is this one.


From an interview with Tsering:

14 Hills: What is success for you as a poet?

TWD: I haven’t thought of my writing in terms of success. I’m just grateful I can write. I’m very pleased when a book comes out. I feel happy. I don’t necessarily feel happy about the poems, very often I look back and think, Oh that line could have gone, or I could have read this more carefully. But at the same time I’m also okay. I don’t trouble myself with it too much. Just having the poems out makes me happy. I don’t think I’m going to sell a million copies, I mean, I don’t even desire it really. I don’t know what that would mean. I don’t know. [laughs] I’m used to people not reading! Last time I went home and my cousin says to me—because I don’t even bother to tell them that I write; half the people don’t know I write; even the Tibetan community here, most of them don’t know I write. So when I went this year [to Nepal] I gave a copy to one of my cousin brothers. I gave him Rules of the House because I thought maybe it would be easier for him to read because they are more like stories. I met him a few days later and he says to me, “Tsering, you know, sorry, I read your book, I tried really hard, I just don’t understand it.” So I said, “Well, did you like any lines or did any lines sort of make sense?” And he said, “No no no, just in general I don’t get it,” he says, “Anyway, I think your English is incorrect. [laughs] I think you had some grammatical mistakes around, you know; your use of English is a little bit wrong. Did you do that deliberately?” [laughs again] I was laughing, I said, “Oh I don’t think my English is incorrect, but you know, maybe I should go back and read it.” 


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

this is just to say

nothing. this is to say, i saw the moon at five, a bright star in the east that i don't have a name for, felt the dew on my skin and watched the sky change. this is just to say that though my mother may have said i wish you would write happy poems, and at the time it was inconceivable that i could, it is possible that the world may have realigned while i was looking.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

the sub-prime method of quotation

Via Ruchir Joshi on Facebook, this apparent 'controversy' over Godard's alleged anti-semitism and giving him an honorary Oscar (which of course, he didn't go to collect).

Following links from that piece, I found Bill Krohn's review of a recent biography of JLG written by Richard Brody*, in which he picks apart Brody's charges of anti-semitism (and other things).

The main threads of Brody’s approach are laid out in his discussion of Godard’s first two critical pieces. Citing an article about Joseph Mankiewicz that appeared in La Gazette du cinema for June 1950, he skips over Godard’s relatively in-depth discussions of two films, A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and House of Strangers (1949), to cherry-pick the idea that the article on Letter “is devoted less to his films than to Mankiewicz himself,” as shown by a single sentence: “This letter to three married women is also three letters to the same woman, one whom the director probably loved.” That way lies biographical reductivism.

The second selection of quotes comes from a more difficult piece, “Towards a Political Cinema,” which takes as its starting point newsreel images of young German Communists marching in a May Day celebration: “By the sole force of propaganda that was animating them, these young people were beautiful.” Brody again skips over the gist of this densely argued article to get to what interests him: “We could not forget Hitler Youth Quex, certain passages of films by Leni Riefenstahl, several shocking newsreels from the Occupation, the maleficent ugliness of The Eternal Jew. It is not the first time art is born of constraint.” And he concludes that Godard “took all fanaticisms to be alike and to be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, Godard equated them aesthetically.”

Sliced and diced like a package of subprime mortgages, Godard’s questing thought becomes what Brody needs it to be, and in the process we may not even notice that the person who’s equating communism and fascism politically, by calling them both “fanaticisms,” is Brody. That’s ideological simplification with a vengeance. Cultural journalism is now in the driver’s seat.
 But hey - don't sit around watching me quote selectively. Go read!.


*All this is, like, last year. Not so recent, but whatever.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Hyderabad Literary Festival December 10-12

Muse India, in association with the Sahitya Akademi, the Goethe Zentrum, the Alliance Française, theU.S. Consulate General, Hyderabadand others, is organising the Hyderabad Literary Festival.

Details here.

I am told Keki Daruwalla will deliver the keynote address and participants include Shiv K. Kumar, K Satchidanandan, Mamang Dai, Udaya Narayana Singh, Shanta Acharya, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Dileep Jhaveri, Hemant Divate and TP Rajeevan.

Registration is required for delegates. Details on Rumjhum's blog linked to above, or on the Muse India site.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pattanaika Uvaca

Jaya, Devdutt Pattanaik, Penguin India: 2010, pp 350, Rs. 499.

A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express this morning.


The Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, Wendy Doniger, called the Mahabharata a sort of ‘ancient Wikipedia, to which anyone … could add a bit here, a bit there’.* Though no single text exists that can be called definitive, the epic is generally believed to be about seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey put together; in fact, it also contains the Ramayana, as told by the sage Markandeya. The Mahabharata itself narrates the origins of the epic: how it was thought of by Vyasa, to whom he told it, under what circumstances and how they in turn narrated it to someone else, thus confirming the multiple validities of the recitation and their individual contingencies.

In this sense, Devdutt Pattanaik’s retelling is another tributary joining the river – though by calling it Jaya – the name given to the earliest version of the Mahabharata – he appears to be attempting to touch the source.

Pattanaik begins with a prefatory chapter that outlines the circumstances under which Vyasa began to compose the epic. The story of the Kuru clan and its decimation is bracketed by the story of Parikshit’s death; Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice; its interruption by Astika; and Janamejaya coming to his senses, stopping the sacrifice and pronouncing peace upon the world. The Mahabharata is a tale told to offer succour to dying kings or to teach their offspring their duty. Its function is moral and corrective.

Though six of the eighteen Parvas, or books, of the Mahabharata are about the Kurukshetra war, here it occupies only two ‘books’. The first two Parvas – Adi and Sabha – make up the first half of Jaya. The game of dice that ends Sabha Parva is at the centre of this text.

This is a curious but revealing choice: in making it, Pattanaik makes clear his preference for origins and back-stories. Like a psychoanalyst who attempts to delve into the subconscious by unravelling the past, Pattanaik goes as far back as he can – beyond even the story of Ganga and Santanu, where most popular versions such as Rajaji’s, begin. Pattanaik goes back to the conception and birth of Budh. From here, in easy chapters, he narrates the story of every character that might conceivably have a role to play in the epic. By the time the story of the Pandavas occupies centre-stage, the reader can take on any digression without becoming confused.

Pattanaik’s version is lucid without sacrificing complexity. He pulls off this difficult task by separating commentary from narrative. Each chapter has a box at the end, somewhat in the manner of management books that provide a précis of what has gone before. Here, however, Pattanaik uses this space to talk about versions of the same story, provides facts and asides that are illuminating, useful and sometimes just funny.

More than 250 illustrations, drawn by Pattanaik himself, accompany the text. The drawings are lovely and remind one of the illustrations to be found in popular Tamil magazines.

Inevitably, much has to be sacrificed to achieve a fast-flowing story. The Mahabharata contains poetry, philosophical argument, treatises on statecraft, description of places, ritual and so on. Above all, it talks at length about the elusive concept of Dharma. While Jaya attempts to retain the complexity of the word, it sometimes falters because of excessive compression.

One such episode where something is lost is the Yaksha Prashna, where Yudishtira answers several questions posed to him by a Yaksha (who is really his father, Dharma, in disguise) before he is allowed to drink water from a lake. A series of rapid-fire questions and answers explicate the concept of dharma and its place in the lives of kings and other men, but in this version the episode ends up sounding rather trite.

All of the key explications of Dharma – asked by Dharma/Yama himself of his son; both personifications of the central concept of the epic – are made trivial or are at times just inaccurate. When the Yaksha asks, ‘What is the true path’, Pattanaik has Yudhishtira say, ‘Not through arguments – they never reach a conclusion; not from teachers – they can only give their opinions; to know the true path, one must, in silence and solitude, reflect on one’s own life.[emphasis mine]’ I checked this against the Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translation, and found the relevant lines thus: ‘Argument leads to no certain conclusion, the Srutis are different from one another; there is not even one Rishi whose opinion can be accepted by all; the truth about religion and duty is hid in caves: therefore, that alone is the path along which the great have trod [emphasis mine]’.

Pattanaik has said, in a prefatory note, that he has placed his retelling squarely in the Puranic world, but this is, strictly speaking, not true. Though he has elided over much of the discourse to be found in the Mahabharata – the most notable compressions being in the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas – he compensates in his commentary-boxes by critiquing the troublesome concept of dharma that purports to be universal but was born of a very specific – though fluid – historical and social context.

Pattanaik does this by indicating the existence of Dalit, feminist and other marginalised perspectives. Thus, the Draupadi Amman festivals of Tamil Nadu, the Aravanis, the story of Barbareek and other such get more than a passing mention in this book. Jaya also incorporates stories from the Jaimini version, and the lesser-known Oriya Sarala Das version.

For a book that is only 350 pages long, what Pattanaik aims for, rightly, is rasa – the flavour of the variety and depth of the narrative; sometimes epic similes occupy half a page or more, sometimes – such as with the Gita – there is discourse and, sometimes the story-within-story structure of the epic. All things considered, it’s a miracle that Pattanaik has managed so much with clarity and brevity.

*My thanks to Feanor for providing me with the whole text of that article.

I loved doing this review: I got to read all kinds of fantastic, interesting essays on the Mahabharata, not excluding The Book of Yudhistir by Buddhadev Bose and Reflections and Variations on The Mahabharata ed. TRS Sharma.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Two Minutes Older: A Hair-Raising Tale

My face in the mirror was a flashback to a more shudder-inducing time – a time of padded shoulders and acid-washed, pegged jeans. My eyes ought to have been decorated with glittery, bright eye-shadow, because god knows, everything else about my face screamed ‘Eighties!’

And I was even grateful. I had thought that nothing would induce me to revisit the eighties with the gusto that everyone around me these days has the bad taste to display, but I was wrong. It was either this look or a buzz-cut.

Blame it on my cellphone. I was brushing my hair with a curling brush when my phone rang. At first I continued to brush my hair and talk. Then I tucked the phone under my chin and got on with the other stuff. This is when disaster struck: the phone slipped from under my chin, and to save it, I let go the brush, which also slipped, tangled in my hair and stuck faster than fevicol ka jod.

I don’t really know why people say it’s the happy times that whizz by before you know they happened. It must be disasters they were thinking of because all this happened before I could get a blink in. For the next half an hour, I did what I’m told some hairdressers do with hair (I with less success than they) – I teased, cajoled and finally issued threats. I tried water (bad idea) and conditioner (even worse). I asked my mother for help, shed a few futile tears and then called my local beauty parlour.

They were champions. They asked me to come immediately, and promised to sort it out.

Picture me driving through the streets of Hyderabad with a brush dangling from my hair. If people laughed, though, I didn’t notice. It’s more likely that they were stunned, as if they’d been gifted a lifetime supply of happiness and didn’t know what to do with it.

At any rate, the people in the parlour were very polite. They greeted me with their usual delight and ushered me upstairs, where a very calm young man waited to deliver me from the clutches of my brush. It took an hour and a half, two strong people, a lot of commiseration, gratuitous advice for the future and many, many questions. And I went through it with no anaesthesia. I assure you, not even childbirth was so traumatic.

At the end of that time, I was like putty in the hands of my saviours. The young man suggested an oil massage to soothe my scalp and I agreed. He said he’d give me a haircut that would mask the sad depletion of hair at the top and I was speechless with gratitude.

“Luckily, you have naturally wavy hair. I’ll just give you a cut that’ll add volume,” he said. I felt flattered, as if my wavy hair was the result of natural talent and hard work.

The massage helped. It lulled me, if you really want to know. By the end of the shampoo and conditioning I was in a state of bliss that made nonsense of my recently concluded ordeal. When I was sat down in the chair, I didn’t so much as look at my face in the mirror. In fact, I forgot to notice anything until it was much too late. A few minutes later, I had bangs.

Bangs. You know? Like those women in Dallas or Dynasty. Or those photos from back in school, the ones you prefer to hide away so your children can never see them and thus have nothing to hold over you when the time comes to bargain with them.

At the time, it didn’t look bad. Not as bad, at least, as my shorn, battered and discarded hairbrush. I took a deep breath, thanked my hairdresser effusively and left. It wasn’t until after the first wash when I witnessed each particular hair stand on end like that fretful porcupine in Hamlet that I felt I should just pack my mirror away, put ‘Karma Chameleon’ on loop and wallow in my misery properly. If I can blink and miss this, I’ll know everything they say about happiness is true.


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Marmalade Sky

The multitudinous skies intangerine

Monday, November 08, 2010

poems in nether

nether is a new quarterly published out of Bombay. They put up stuff every fortnight on their blog and bring out a print journal every quarter, that may or may not include what in the fortnightly but certainly has other writing, such as interviews and artwork.

I have two poems up on their blog this fortnight. It also brings home the trouble of posting things up here that later turn into poems. Ah, never mind. Go read.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

weekend reading

Mid-week was for goofing off but now that the weekend is upon is - and a gorgeously crisp and sunny Saturday it is too - here's some reading I've been doing.

1. Aaron Bady on Granta's Pakistan issue: 'The Language of Developmental Literature'. The beginning of that essay provides links to the original essays that set this post off. Each of those links is worth checking out. Indian writers should be paying close attention to those posts.

2. Zadie Smith on The Social Network and You Are Not a Gadget.

3. J.H. Prynne on the difficulties in translating 'difficult' poetry. [pdf].


Friday, November 05, 2010


What do you dream of when you fall asleep reading poetry?

(this is a serious question).

not the King Doof Gang

Yesterday, as I was getting extra milk, I saw the road outside the All New! Cop Shop! in Jubilee Hills swarming with OB vans. Grocery stores are hotbeds of gossip, so of course I asked what the fuss was about. I expected nothing less than some breaking news Telangana development or the busting of some pre-Diwali terror plot (as a friend said on Twitter, how can anyone tell there's a blast when so many crackers are being burst?)

Turns out it was a bunch of kids with no driving license and plenty of time and eggs. "VIP children," is how the guy handing me the milk put it.

One neighbour is delighted. Someone threw a rock at his car the other night and the cops refused to register a compliant because he had parked his car on the road. But hey - the King Doofs are still on the loose. Expect more excitement in the days to come.

(Sigh. Yes, quiet festival time, this. Happy Deepavali to you guys too.)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Clearing House, Lal

First of all, RIP P.Lal. He died yesterday.

Whether you liked the kind of poetry he published or not, Indian Poetry in English would be a smaller world than it already is without the encouragement he gave poets in their early years.


Anjum Hasan has an essay in Caravan, on the years when Clearing House produced some of the best known books of poetry in English. There's been some discussion on Facebook, but I don't think I will reproduce that here (you had to be there).

Neither will I extract; I think the piece needs to be read in entirety. But some observations:

The idea of classifying poets by their location rather than their poetics is, I'm sure, not unique to IPE; if the poets published by independent, cooperative ventures - among them Clearing House - were 'The Bombay Poets', there were also the Kerala poets - Ayyappa Panikker and K. Satchidananda, who were writing poetry and criticism as well as translating not just Malayalam poetry into English, but other poetries into Malayalam. There has to be other collectives elsewhere, in other parts of the country, but none of them have got as much press as the 'Bombay Poets'.

What, then, of poet-publishers such as P.Lal and Jayanta Mahapatra? Mahapatra* was published by Clearing House, though of course he wasn't a 'Bombay Poet' (which leads me to think that - unlike the 'Kerala moderns', to use Hasan's phrase -  the appellation was an accident rather than by design). Mahapatra was published by University presses abroad and by the Chandrabhaga Trust and has always been on the edges of any 'collective' or group of poets.

P.Lal's contributions, on the other hand, have always been elided over as being not worthy enough of attention. The primary schism having occurred between Lal and Ezekiel way back in the dawn of post-Independence, modern IPE (I will write more about this soon), the charge of publishing poetry indiscriminately stuck. 

Hasan mentions Lal thus in her essay: "Saleem Peeradina’s anthology of Indian English poetry first appeared as a special edition of Quest in 1972 and was considered a critical response to P Lal’s massive and apparently less discerning Modern Indian Poetry in English which had been published three years previously."

If there is a difference between a bunch of poets publishing their own work and the work of their friends, and one man publishing any poet who had gone to the trouble of putting a manuscript together, surely it isn't one of superior discernment? Lal, after all, published many of the poets we consider major today: A.K.Ramanujam, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Gieve Patel, Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander and many, many others. On the other hand, other small presses have published poets who have disappeared without a trace, or are just plain unreadable.

Whatever the stated or unstated reasons are for sidelining P.Lal, I think a history of IPE would be incomplete if we did not examine his contribution to it. RIP.

*I thought it odd (and telling) how Hasan, throughout her essay, referred to poets by their first names. I might do it on my blog, while referring to poets who are, often, also friends; but I wouldn't do it in an essay being published in a less informal space. Thoughts about this? (After all, so many definitions about publications, criticism and accessibility are changing in this discussion, so - perhaps - why not this as well?)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Stet: The sound of ranks closing

It's been a few weeks since Aroon Purie's Rajinikanth plagiarism*. In that time, to my knowledge, no other mainstream media house - barring only Aditya Sinha in the New Indian Express - has touched the issue with a bargepole. Bloggers have, others have, but not another mainstream newspaper or news magazine, however principled and noise-making they claim to be.

Mitali Saran has been writing a column in the Business Standard called Stet for the last last several years. On 30 October, her column did not appear in the Business Standard, and no reason was given. Mitali put up the column on her blog and stated that she wasn't clear why the column was not carried (they printed an NYT article about wingtips instead).

In the last two days, the updates on her blog about why the column went missing, kept changing. Today, this is what it says:
Update November 2, 2010: Business Standard's view that the post below was too dated to run is utterly unpersuasive, and I'm afraid I don't believe it. They also say that since this post was put up on the blog, along with comments about BS, the question of carrying it in the paper does not arise. We shall have to agree to disagree on this whole thing, and I will write a post about that in a few days; but meanwhile, I have terminated my arrangement with them with immediate effect. As of this week, Stet will no longer appear in Business Standard.
This is immensely sad. Not just because Business Standard has demonstrated superior levels of short-sightedness, but also because their reasons for not printing the column in the coming week's paper is notable for its lack of imagination and brazenness.

Stet, I suspect, will be missed only in the Business Standard. I look forward to seeing it back in some other paper or magazine, or even just on Mitali's blog.


*Yes. Shorthand. Key words. I know Purie did not plagiarise Rajini (as if that would even be possible).

Monday, November 01, 2010

Quiz by Linh Dinh

From  Quiz by Linh Dinh

Pushed to the ground and kicked by a gang of soldiers, about to be shot, you can save your life by brandishing:

a) an uzi
b) a crucifix
c) the Constitution
d) a poem

A poem can:

a) start a war
b) stanch a wound
c) titillate the masses
d) shame a nation

Poets are:

a) clowns
b) parasites
c) legislators
d) terrorists

[The whole poem at Poetry Foundation]