Thursday, January 27, 2011

Redacted poetry is a message in a bottle

Imagine you have one book with you, a reasonably large one, with lots of words in it. It is your lifeline, because you are now in a place where all other means of getting in touch with people has been taken away from you. There is only this one book, and it speaks to you and your one chance of speaking to the world is through the words that make up the book.

So you compose your message in your head, and you mark words in the book, and you carefully cut them out one by one, knowing all the while that for every word you use up that will speak, there's another that will be lost on the reverse. This is the opportunity cost of 'writing' your message out.

But you do it anyway, because you must. At first your dispatches are voluble and profligate. Soon, you ration your words. As the pages become cut-outs the books speaks to you differently. It must be a classic because every time you read it, it has something new. And you get different things out of it.

The end of the book does not come, as one assumes, when the last page is turned. It comes when what remains are the unusable words. Everyone has a different list of these, but because this is the book you have and this is your list, the words that remain include 'anneal' and 'recombinant' and 'brise'. This is not to say that you do not love these words, or are not happy that somebody - the author of the book, for instance - found a use for them; just that you can't imagine what you could have to say that would include these and other such words.

But you learn these words because - after you have said all you have to say, after you have used up all the other words - these are all that are left you. Until other words come from the outside, until they can be recycled, the words you don't want or need are your companions through what you hope is only a temporary silence.


Speaking of redactions, Ron Palmer and Stephanie Young in Shampoo 38.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

JLF and sponsorship

Vaiju Naravane in today's Hindu:
Should companies like Shell or Rio Tinto, with a bad reputation for environmental pollution, the violation of workers' rights and collusion with brutal dictatorships such as that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile or Sani Abacha in Nigeria, be considered acceptable as sponsors by those who run the Jaipur Literature Festival?

The question takes on great poignancy since the conclusion of the festival coincides, almost to the day, with hearings in the Dutch parliament on the alleged involvement of the Royal Dutch Shell company in the execution of Nigerian playwright, human rights activist and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was put to death with eight others after a hurried military trial in November 1995.
Sanjoy Roy, the head of TeamWork, the company that is in charge of the logistical and financial side of operations said: “We are not here as the guardians or gatekeepers of morality and we have not looked at the colour of money. Yes, we shall take this into consideration for the future, but at the end of the day whose money are we looking at and whose money is untainted? If organisations are prepared to support festivals such as these where issues such as these can be openly discussed then why not accept their help?”
'Not looked at the colour of money'. Right. 

But why ask only if the JLF organisers have asked themselves this question? What about the writers? If writers are expected to not accept awards given by organisations/institutions in order to make a political statement, can we also demand that they consider festivals as more than celebrations of the writing life?
Oh, and the JLF's list of sponsors here, on their website.

Monday, January 24, 2011

RIP Bhimsen Joshi

Bhimsen Joshi died this morning
Joshi, who would have turned a year older Feb 4, was rushed to the Sahyadri Hospital Dec 31. He was suffering from old age related ailments, including kidney problems, and had been admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit.

The 88-year old Hindustani classical exponent was on ventilator and underwent periodic dialysis during the past 25 days.

"However, since Saturday evening, his condition deteriorated and he started sinking despite all our efforts. He breathed his last at 8.05 a.m.," Atul Joshi told. 

Listen to him here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In which H.M.Naqvi takes home $50,000 and Junot Diaz is the "winner in the ‘audience darling’ sweepstakes"

Supriya Nair is reporting from the Jaipur Literary Festival, and she's just posted to say that H.M.Naqvi's Homeboy has won the inaugural DSC South Asian Literary Prize.
The inaugural DSC South Asian Literature Prize, announced this evening at the Jaipur Literature Festival, was awarded to Pakistani-American author HM Naqvi for his 2010 novel, Homeboy.
DSC Prize jury chairperson Nilanjana Roy, who presented the award to Naqvi, said that the novel deserved commendation for “the raw energy of its prose and its evocation of a generation who can’t go home again.”
The prize, an award of $50,000, will be awarded annually by a jury to the best work of fiction pertaining to the South Asian region. The lack of a criterion for national eligibility differentiates the DSC Prize significantly from other major literary awards, such as the UK’s Man-Booker Prize, which is awarded only to writers from the Commonwealth, or the USA-specific National Book Awards.
Roy remarked that the literary establishment had only recently begun to debate and define Asian fiction, in a global conversation long dominated by the northern hemisphere. “Latin America has the Cervantes Prize, and Africa in recent years has the Caine Prize,” she said. “With the DSC Prize we’ve helped to fill something of a blank space in the literary world.”

Also, apparently Junot Diaz has stolen the show. If you're following tweets, there's precious little about yesterday's other lit star, Pamuk. Everyone was going on and on about Diaz, who'se still got the tweets buzzing.

Here's Supriya Nair again, about today's session that had a number of other people on the panel, but hey - it's all Diaz in the write-up!
Earlier, I was at a panel called ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ where Chandrahas Choudhury engaged a whole raft of writers – Marina Lewycka, Manjushree Thapa, Ian Jack, Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie – in a conversation about displacement, immigration, and its effects on literature. There’s often an inverse correlation between a panel’s quality and the number of speakers populating it, but this one was beautifully managed and presented. It occasioned the best thing I’ve heard anyone say over the last two days. “I don’t want to be part of a deracinated class of ‘universal’ writers who don’t really exist,” said Junot Diaz, in response to Choudhury’s question about being identified as a writer of place – in this case, a ‘Dominican writer’ – instead of the broader, more catholic identity of ‘writer.’ “Because let’s face it, no matter what language you’re writing in, the majority of the people on this planet can’t read it. I can be a Dominican writer if I can also be five billion other things at the same time. Otherwise, I’m not down with that shit.”
I’m down with Mr Diaz, as are several other people in the crowd, judging from whose reaction we have a clear winner in the ‘audience darling’ sweepstakes. Three more days to go: we’ll try and keep a running count of other crowd-pleasing moments here, at least from the panels that I’ll attend, which will be far fewer than I would like. I know, what a hard life. Off to catch Kiran Desai again, this time with Orhan Pamuk, Leila Aboulela, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Mohsin Hamid, talking with Rana Dasgupta. They may just be the only people with seats in the whole house.
 And did I say that Tehelka's live-streaming some sessions? Here.

Two Minutes Older: Packing It All In

There’s an Iznogoud story where Iznogoud gets a gift from someone and each time he opens the box, there’s another one inside that’s bigger than the box it came in. While this may challenge the laws of physics, I have often wondered when someone will invent such a useful object. You see, I have trouble deciding what to pack.

This is how it goes: one month before I need to travel, I begin to make lists of things to pack, under the general headings of Must Take, Can’t Do Without and Just In Case.

The first two categories are the easiest and most obvious. For instance, Must Take would include clothes, the house keys for when you return and suchlike. Can’t Do Without would be items like necessary, basic medication or camera/laptop/phone. It’s the third category that constantly challenges me and makes me out-Girl Guide myself each time I travel.

Just in case, I carry extra clothes. My logic – what if there’s no way I can wash my clothes? What if it rains? What if someone steals my clothes off the line? But most times I don’t have a reason for why I pack what I do, unless you count the category itself as not just self-explanatory but also logical.

Just in case, I (always) carry several zip pouches containing rings, toe rings, payals, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, even if it’s a two-day trip. Just in case I decide not to chew my nails, there are scissors, nail cutter and nail file (but, thankfully, no nail polish or remover). Just in case, also: torch, extra batteries, universal adapter, extra footwear, spare soap, hand sanitiser, hand mirror, extra handbags …you get the picture. Like Harold Wilson, I am an optimist, but an optimist who takes her raincoat. (I should say here, that of all the things it’s occurred to me to pack, a raincoat has never made the list. Not even when I travel to Bombay in the monsoon.)

And then I worry that I will run out of reading material. I assume that my mere presence in a city will repel bookstores or cause them to hide themselves from general view. And so I pack the book I happen to be reading, two more that I definitely will have the time to read, and a couple extra – you got it – just in case.

If you thought that all this advance planning would intimidate me right at the list stage and that better sense would prevail when I looked at my tiny, empty suitcase, you’d be wrong. All that advance planning achieves is it give you ample time in which to expand your list to unwieldy proportions. If you’re like me, you’re more likely to mentally list the number of suitcases and backpacks you have and wonder if you need to buy more. Just in case.

This time, when we travelled to Pondicherry, we packed one suitcase each and a couple of other bags that we thought we’d leave half-empty so that it could contain any shopping we might do or gifts we might buy.

What happened was, every time we closed our eyes, our bags reproduced. Before we knew it, five bags became seven and – by the time we settled ourselves in the train back home – eleven.

The night before we left, I had a panic attack and my son asked me – half anxious and half tickled at the amount of stuff lying on the floor waiting to be accommodated in our eleven bags, “What will happen if all this doesn’t fit?”

“Then you just wear whatever’s left,” I said.

I assure you, I wasn’t entirely joking, though my son giggled with delight at the thought.

It’s at times like this that I wish that Mary Poppins’ bag was an already achieved invention – one that could make the immaterial material, make object out of thought and horse out of wish. (Though, of course, for that to work properly we’d have to live in a benign Disneyworld uniformly coloured by niceness, decency and self-deprecating humour. Such a bag would be totally out of place in, for instance, Chennai Central).

The other way to avoid the horrors of packing is to stay at home and read travel blogs.

This column appeared in today's New Indian Express.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The view from here

After the Bal-Dalrymple stand-off, with a brief digression via anonymous solutions to the problem of IWE, here's Mridula Koshy's essay from earlier this month:
Too many Indian writers are immured in the broad brushstroke approach to Indian-ness. A generation and more have expended energy on a sort of anthropological writing, handling as curiosities what would otherwise be mundane – bindis, bangles and arranged marriage. Deciding how much of an India unfamiliar to the west may enter a work if it is to find success abroad is a constantly negotiated question for the Indian writer in English. Like Hosseini, some of these writers are immigrants to the US, while others live for extended periods of time in the west. The migrant writer is in this case like other migrant workers, someone forced by the economics of a global marketplace to travel where the work is. But the writer is unlike any other worker in that his work is determined by its accountability to audience. If there is any substance to the notion of authenticity, it rests here in the question of accountability. Nadine Gordimer said of African writing, ‘One must look at the world from Africa, to be an African writer, not look upon Africa from the world.’ 

Read the whole thing. 

I always want to know how people define authentic and how they know it when they see it. Koshy's definition is certainly an interesting one; for another approach to the question of accountability see Rahul's post today on music, the arts, and funding. 

More on this as and when. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

[for Veena]

...but also for other Ponniyin Selvan obssessed readers:
After making several films with contemporary themes but with elements of history or mythology, director Mani Ratnam is now set to embark on an ambitious venture of converting Kalki's epic novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan' into a film.
Sources involved in the project said it would be a big-budget film requiring over Rs. 200 crore and Kalanidhi Maran's Sun Pictures is likely to be the producer although the agreement is yet to be finalised.
Mr. Mani Ratnam is planning a full-fledged adaptation of the novel, instead of culling out a few episodes from the narrative. Industry sources say the director has roped in noted Tamil writer Jayamohan to pen the dialogues for the film.
More here. (A news item I seem to have missed but found because of the ever-informative Spy Maami*)
*Ok, so I still read some blogs and some people's tweets.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

An anonymous solution to the problem of IWE

This is an awesome solution, of the kind that only a post like Kuzhali Manickavel's can inspire.

Here is the comment in all its splendour:

ஐ தினக் போர் கிரேட்டர் ஆதேண்டிசிடி வீ ஷுட் ஜஸ்ட் ஸ்டார்ட் ரைடிங் இங்கிலீஷ் இன் தமிழ் லெட்டர்ஸ்.

தென் தீஸ் ஜெர்க் கிரிடிக்ஸ் வில் நாட் பாதர் அஸ்.

ஹாப்பி போரிஜ் டே.

For those who can't read (or figure) this out, Kuzhali has transliterated it in her comment below this one.

I lovelove. I want every day to be Happy Porridge Day!


It is always evening even though what we celebrate is the sun's journey northward. On the first evening, the air-carrying fire under the waxing moon. No other light is necessary.

Last night, green beams of light carrying kites. Bits of silvered paper or plastic roaring in the sky and some lanterns that escape their flames.

Carnival on Road 12: streetfood, cops in riot gear, marauding kite-hunters - boys with tin knives and scooters. Above, the terraces where the parties are, from where the green beams are born. We're invited up from the street where we were standing and craning our necks like enthusiastic amateur astronomers. And why not? The kites look like constellations in the sky, in a mad filmmaker's speeded-up version of the birth of the universe.

We have *no* idea whose terrace this is or who the host is, but if he's cool, we're cool. Inevitably, Sheila and Munni are the anthems of the night. There's chaat, booze, kids trampling the disco lights on the floor and calling it dance. A kite seller and his assistant are frantically prepping the kites that guests fly and fight with. Manja is freely available and kites are cut as fast they are sent up into the sky. One kite is stuck on a cellphone tower, with enough string to keep it flying safely. There are crackers adding their salute to the skies.

This morning it is still, with the threat of summer. There's a pole of sugarcane to consume and kites to coax into the air.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Racism, Raj, Fake Palindromes

Ha. Hartosh Singh Bal's stirring up stuff again. Here's how:

1. Hartosh Singh Bal writes a piece titled 'The Literary Raj' about the Jaipur Lit Fest.

2. William Dalrymple (who HSB says is not the main point of the article but just look at that caricature, will you?) responds with a charge of racism.

3. Bal replies, asking if Dalrymple knows what racism means. He also responds obliquely to some of the comments in his original piece.

Me - I'm being [Opening the] Cage-y*about this.

Then, this review of Swar Thounaojam's new play, Fake Palindromes. (I've read the play and it's excellent. Looking forward to getting it here some time. Watch this space.)

But the review! C.K. Meena begins thus:
A midst the fresh crop of English-language playwrights in Bangalore, where are the female faces? Do all the young women stay at home raising poems while the young men go out hunting scripts? If you've asked yourself these questions, you would have found an answer last week at Ranga Shankara where Swar Thounaojam's “Fake Palindromes” was staged. 
Morgan (reprise): I have nothing to say and I'm saying it. 

What? I'm stayin' at home raising mah pomes. You want me to have opinions as well? 

*Probably the most searched-for post on this site, esp. since Morgan died.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011



This is cheating, yes, backdating a post for the date, but just look at it - doesn't it look like a prisoner counting off the days and throwing convention out of the high grills of her cell and, instead of crossing out the days in packets of five (why five? why not a week at a time?) - one, two, three four and a diagonal slash for five - confuses herself with the slippy lines, all exactly alike. Or a slowly-building army, close-pressed and impenetrable, a forest of days before the year's done. Or the shadow tomorrow throws on today, darkening it before it arrives.

Let me tell you about the first decad of the new decade. I write every morning, revise in the afternoon and read. Evenings are for the kid and for friends, many of whom are visiting. It's colder than it's been for years, like Delhi used to be in the winters: all bright colours and the tang of oranges. Even burning leaves smell good. There are concerts, plays, book releases; dinners to attend and statehood to discuss.

Vidyaranya High School turned 50 and they had a two-day carnival. We listened to Prahlad Tippaniya. I met Amitav Ghosh and carefully avoided bringing up the Dan David Prize. I listened to economists talk until my ears threatened to bleed. I got mildly drunk on wine and the cold. My car's tyres were cut to ribbons (of steel) and had to be changed. We shopped, ate gajar and mooli, blew into our hands in the early morning. I piled my newly-acquired books beside me on the bed, grateful that I had it all to myself. I walked for two days, did yoga for two and then gave up on all forms of exercise.

We eat less, eat raw food, talk more, sleep more and worry less.

It's a good start. I refuse to bite my tongue.

(Oh, and this is what I'm listening to these days.)

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Two Minutes Older: Five Thousand Ways Into Pichavaram

Not far from the town of Chidambaram, with which I began my column a year ago, are the mangrove forests of Pichavaram. The disappointment of the temple at Chidambaram is a story for another time. For now, there is the narrow road through a village where we pay a toll, the path lined with fish drying in the sun and a small building through which the waters are visible and beyond that, the mangrove forests.

It is mid-day, perhaps not the best time to be out in the sun; but we’re grateful because rains would mean we could admire from afar but not venture near the forest. We pay for the boat and the fee for the camera and hang the florescent orange life jackets around our necks. A board warns people ‘consumed with liquor’ to avoid the water.

Our boatman, Elumalai, is at first not inclined to talk; but as the trees take over the water, his silence is first punctuated and then scattered by his speech. The first thing he asks is, do we want to go to the canal where the film Dasavataram was shot. We don’t particularly care about where the film was shot and say so.

‘Take us by whatever route you usually take,’ we say.

‘There are five thousand ways into Pichavaram,’ he answers. ‘Ten thousand acres of forest. Nobody has been all over it.’

At first the rowing is hard because the tide is in and we’re going against it. There are a few motor boats but those can only go on the wider channels, far away from the roots that sink their feet into the water. As we edge over to the thicker part of the forest, we see narrow channels we don’t take and a sudden flock of birds rising and dipping low over the water. Elumalai says they are visitors from Australia and I wonder if he counted that as one of the five thousand ways into Pichavaram.

From nearby we hear the whoops of people in high spirits and I shudder to think what it must have been like to have a film crew here for a few days. Somewhere I had caught sight of a pink plastic bag caught in the roots, somewhere else a glint of a quarter bottle of rum. In general, though, I am surprised by how little litter there is considering how many people there were on the water. And – except for the chattering boatload – how little noise.

Is there wildlife, we ask him. Just the fish, and the birds which leave in the morning, Elumalai says. No snakes, no crocs, and certainly no tigers. There are foxes, he concedes, but they’re to be heard in the evening, mostly. The place is benign, serene.

I think of the black and white mystery of Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, in mangroves far away and long ago. But the biggest predators in the bayous Flaherty shot were most likely the very oil company that funded his film. In Pichavaram, one way or the other, the talk has been about the ecosystem, though it comes in scattered pieces that I put together in the in-between times.

‘Chidambaram would have gone in the tsunami if it hadn’t been for the forests,’ Elumalai says, and we nod, as if we had long thoughts on the matter. Earlier, he had told us that he rows visitors for a commission that the tourism department gives him, and fishes in the night for a living. Now he asks if we would like to go deeper into the forest for a little extra that nobody but we need know about. Of course, we say.

Inside, it is dark and blessedly cool. The water is a deep, dappled green and there’s barely place to move the boat. Elumalai locks the oars and steers the boat using the overhanging roots that fall so low we have to duck and swerve to avoid being hit. It’s a gradual realisation that he’s as much a part of the ecosystem as the fish and the eighteen varieties of trees that grow here; and we, perhaps, silent and respectful as we hope we’ve been, like the visiting birds from elsewhere.


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

Friday, January 07, 2011


I deactivated my Facebook on an impulse. Like, right now.

Since I returned, I haven't checked blogs and tweets, but I found FB hard to resist. I could feel myself being sucked back into a day spent mostly online in futile pursuits. And I didn't want that.

So, hence and therefore. We'll see how that goes.

In other news, I've come back with - and to - masses of books, more than I have space for or time to read. More on that in another post.

This is to reassure those of you who're used to seeing me online. I'm still on mail, guys!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

...and we're back!

Tell me I was missed!

(And happy new year and all that).

So I returned to more than a thousand posts in my feedreader which I had the good sense to mark as read without even checking one. But there's still a lot of reading to be done, chiefly:

1. Tehelka's year-end special that's in it's third year. This year it's Pulp and Noir.

2. Himal's Faiz Ahmed Faiz special.

So much for resolutions, huh? What was your new year like, you guys?