Friday, March 16, 2012

Frida Face

This is Frida in 1926, photographed by her father. Isn't she gorgeous? [via]

This is also Frida. 20 years later. Photo by Nickolas Muray.[also via]

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sex marks the spot

From Nisha Susan's story, 'The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook' in Out of Print:

What we need is a website, said Lavanya.

For what, I asked.

For the sex map. Imagine how useful this would be if it was online?

How would it work, I wanted to know.

We would all sign up.

Who is we?

Everyone, said Lavanya.

Why would they?

It would be useful. When you met someone new you could go look them up and find out if they were lying about being single. You could find previous girlfriends and see whether he had good taste or bad taste.

No one would sign up, I said. What a lot of work for nothing. What would all the liars or cheaters do? Have a red light against their name?

Yeah, maybe you're right, said Lavanya. Why would everyone sign up?


Monday, March 12, 2012

Wish me luck, admiral

Wish Me Luck
           Leonard Cohen from Book of Longing       

a fresh spiderweb
like a spinnaker
across the open window
and here he is
the little master
sailing by
on a thread of milk
wish me luck
I haven’t finished anything
in a long time

Haven't finished anything and worse - haven't begun anything - in a long time. Not sure what I need is luck; but who needs luck when there is longing?

Or so I tell myself. Glad to have Leonard by my bedside for now. The sketches are also lovely.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Because we must have colour today

and spring is best when the colour's on trees and not on people's faces.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

China Miéville's London Overthrow

Yes, I've read the NYT piece, but, you know - worth waiting for this version: London's Ovethrow.

I hope those guys at the Telegraph and other such rags have read this.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

In which Yoko Ono is silent with Manjula Padmanabhan

Given five minutes with Yoko Ono, Manjula Padmanabhan tries to think what she could possibly do with the time. 

"I’d have to try something unique, I thought. Something that would reflect the singularity of this diminutive Japanese woman, this maverick bohemienne with the chequered past who captured the heart of rock ’n’ roll’s god-king only to lose him to the toxicity of fame."

Manjula gets her question time. And a bonus. Lucky Manjula.

[via Nilanjana Roy]

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Review: Gogu Shyamala's Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But...

My review of Gogu Shyamala's book in today's Mint.


Here’s a provisional definition: A short story is a story you can tell in one sitting, perhaps in the time it takes to feed a circle of hungry children as they sit with hands held out for the next spoonful of food, and where food and story come to a simultaneous and satisfying end.

This oral quality, this sense that the story could change unexpectedly depending on the mood of the audience, could—and does—break into song or take diversions via social history, is the most striking thing about Gogu Shyamala’s first collection of short stories, Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But...

Shyamala is a senior fellow at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad and is a Dalit feminist working on creating biographies of Dalit women political leaders. These stories, translated from Telugu by several people, including her colleagues, have something of the autobiographical about them. Shyamala herself grew up in the Madiga quarter of the kind of Telangana village described in these stories. While the rest of her family worked, sometimes as bonded agricultural labourers, Shyamala was sent away to finish her higher education. The world these stories describe is not born of nostalgia; neither is it an imperfectly imagined idea of what village life must be like; this is Shyamala’s world and she knows it very well indeed, even if she no longer lives in the kind of village she describes.

Shyamala’s village is a site of many contradictions: the Mala, Madiga and Sabbanda communities have a close relationship with the land and its seasonal rhythms; their oral histories and identities are inseparable from the landscape and its stories. Yet it is impossible to escape the consequences of caste unless the village is left behind.

In Raw Wound, clearly the most autobiographical and powerful story in the collection, Syamamma is sent away to school in order to save her from becoming a “jogini” (a lower-caste woman who is declared the sexual property of the whole village). Her father leaves her at a school, and pleads with the warden of the hostel to keep his daughter safe. “This was the first time I had seen my father weep uncontrollably and I felt the village’s lake flooding with sorrow. I held fast to my father and could not help but cry myself,” Syamamma says.

Shyamala’s language is straightforward yet lyrical—the village lake flooding with sorrow elevates individual suffering into the entire community’s suffering. In another story, The Village Tank’s Lament, the tank itself speaks to a child. There are tonal shifts and changes in perspective that make each story a fresh experience: In one, a couple of visitors to the village watch some boys dive and swim in a village well; it’s an instance of straight reportage told as story.

Often, there is an overwhelming sense of suspense that is constantly confounded with an ending that, if not always happy, at least manages to avert the worst-case scenarios we expect; even though we know—with the 2006 Kherlanji massacre and other examples before us—how terrible the possibilities are. Many things can and do go wrong, but there are no burnings, killings, maimings and rape (though there are threats of, and attempts at, some of these things).

This is an interesting tactic because when stories end well—such as Braveheart Badeyya or Tataki Wins Again—the reader is forced to question her expectation of violence in fiction and ask what it means that the author refuses time and again to offer it. That Shyamala avoids a bleakness of tone while leaving alive the possibilities of violence is a tribute to her mastery over the short story form. Indeed, Shyamala’s greatest achievement is the note of humour and lightness that sounds through this collection.

If there is a striking absence in this book, it is that of the Communist movement in the Telangana region. The stories touch upon many of Shyamala’s own concerns, after all: land, agriculture, Dalit politics, feminism and oral history. It seems impossible that the Naxal movement, which has a long history in the region, should find absolutely no mention in these stories. After Shyamala’s own early involvement with the movement, and her subsequent departure from the political positions the Maoists hold, I read this absence as an act of power by a Madiga who, by such a deliberate erasure, reverses the classical Indian Communist’s blindness to caste.

When I began reading, I was struck by the title’s resemblance to Yasujiro Ozu’s film, I Was Born But... It occurs to me that this book shares other qualities with that particular film: a respect for the perspective of children as they negotiate the adult world, the ability to create their unique world without descending into nostalgia for one’s own childhood, and the hard-won lightness of an adult who has known bitterness and loss.

Adil Jussawalla

Muse India has a Hyd Lit Fest Special up on their site; so check it out. Being in conversation with Adil Jussawalla was, for me, the most special thing about the HLF. Here is something I wrote about the experience.

And below, the review that appeared in last week's Sunday Guardian. There was more I wanted to say, but that was last month and for the most part, I've forgotten what it was.


Three-and-a-half decades after Missing Person was published by the new-defunct Clearing House collective, Adil Jussawalla's book of poetry, Trying to Say Goodbye, is out. It's important to get this fact out of the way in order to reach the poems in this collection; our poets are not prolific, but when they fall silent (in print) for so long, it is remarkable.

It is not to Missing Person that one should look for continuities, however. In the way that one's early memories grow sharper with age, and the middle years more clouded, Jussawalla's poems in Trying to Say Goodbye hark back to his first book, Land's End, published in 1962 when he was 22 years old.

The book begins with an epigraph to the first section, in the form of a diary entry from November 1957. What follows has, to me, the distinct sound of a voiceover for an opening montage. 'I Recognise the Graphos after More than Fifty Years' is the only poem in the collection that is entirely in italics; an indication that the technique is deliberate. The poem ends abruptly, the speaking voice is interrupted by another, as the next poem begins. The poems that follow speak of Jussawalla's time in London and Europe. There are several diary entries and the extracts from these, though fragmentary, are precise in their imagery ('Milk flaps over the neck of the pot.') reminding us that often the only thing worth keeping out of poems that never happened are individual lines and phrases.

Why the reclamation, the enterprise of salvage? Many of these poems are the recovered journals and half-finished poems of five decades. They are the accumulated 'unfinished business' that has 'bothered [the poet] for some time.' (Jussawalla, in his Author's Note). It speaks not of a lack of inspiration or parsimony, but of a person who is now conscious of the crumbling architecture of the body, and the words he is likely to leave behind him; to make sure that these are the words he wants to leave: fashioned – if not finished – into something worth reading.

The interrupting voice at the beginning, that of a house about to be demolished, says: 'You have memory/ The room into which everything you see once goes./ Where do the things we see go?' ('House'). That which is, as Eliot said, only living can only die. Jussawalla transmutes the perishable nature of the material – of houses, swimming pools, radios, people – into poetry: poetry which can be both a personal and a collective storehouse of memory; fragments shored against ruin.

Yet the poems in this collection avoid sounding like elegies. They are often humorous, always self-aware and never sound the one-toned note of irony that so often in Indian poetry is a prophylactic against real feeling. What Jussawalla has is immense control; he lays small charges in the poem that detonate into huge responses in the reader. One of my favourite poems in the collection is 'Artist', dedicated to Mehlli Gobhai:

When the city claps its covers shut,
when the sun's sealed like a coin
in an envelope of stone,
I loiter.

Sometimes a man comes up and tells me
he's changed the face of the neighbourhood,
kicked in a few more doors.

I say he's a man of destiny.
He says he knows it.

Sometimes I go to a garden.
It has a wall covered with creepers.
Their leaves have no fixed schedule,
start when the wind's up,
stop when it drops.

Sometimes I sit for hours,
watch their nibs scratch
unintelligible scripts.

A brief aside here about the design of the book: Itu Chaudhuri's design for first-time publishers Almost Island Books (Almost Island exists as a formidably literary and erudite online journal; this is their first foray into publishing books) is clean, with an unusually slim book that fits well in the hand and is a pleasure to hold. The poems themselves, when they are long, are symmetrically spaced over two pages (rather than filling up one side of the page and leaving the other with little text). This care over design deserves mention if only because it is so rare to find publishers who pay attention to the way poetry looks on the page. These publishers do and Adil Jussawalla's book benefits from their close attention to not just the words but their design.

If the first section clearly harks back to London and to the time of Land's End, the poems in the second section have a deft range of ideas and styles, but the prevailing mode is what Edward Said called 'late style'. Jussawalla's signature late style seems to have a strong, controlled line, sly rhymes that are both witty and wry. Until the poem 'Eight First Lines with their Earthly Echoes', which takes lines from now-dead Indian poets, the pace seems more leisurely; the last verse uses lines from Agha Shahid's Ali's 'Barcelona Airport', to which Jussawalla's response is the last line:

Oh just my heart first terrorist
Is it this? Is it this? Is it this?

Reading it – and acknowledging a mild, temporary dyslexia – I couldn't help seeing the last line as a thrice-repeated 'Is this it?' Thereafter, the remaining six poems in the book took on for me a special urgency, the lines moving with a compactness and precision, leading to the end, when the poet says:

Maybe another's skin,
remembered and shed,
finally makes the note come right,
a note as uncannily light
as a lady's shoe.

The poems don't finish in haste, but there is a sense that the poet has found his second wind and the poetry has recovered itself. This is a feat not just of salvage but of renewal. If indeed poetry readers in India knew to wait for Adil Jussawalla's next collection of poems, Trying to Say Goodbye is a book worth waiting for.