Catalogue of secrets

My heart and I, we are tired of a great many things.

Sometimes, we are tired of the ignorance we see around us. We set aside our superiority and indignation, and we naively think we can talk this ignorance away. Soon, though, we are confronted with indifference, and we are forced to accept defeat.

Sometimes, we are tired of the pain. A pain that hides itself in silences and in crevices of bones, and another pain that visits us as the body that shelters us empties itself out every month.

Sometimes, we are tired of love. The platitudes have turned it murky, we say. It is frequently dishonest, often confused with duty and need for a captive audience. It leaves a void, or scars the size of countries. Its aftermath shatters us and makes us wary.

Sometimes, we are tired of the beauty around us, because we know it will be lost before we realise: sunsets the colour of navel oranges, trees that rise up slender and strong, moon the colour of milk that boils over.

Sometimes, we are tired of death, how final and cold it is, and decide ours will be different. It will be one of fanfare, loud in its celebration.

We have seen many things, my heart and I, and I think we shall be companions who do not betray, for the years that remain. But then one day, my heart tells me, Do not make me your confidante, your secrets grow over me like a second skin.


The first step

I finally read Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a seminal work that must be read more widely. He wrote the text for a speech that was scheduled but never delivered; the organizers thought its content too incendiary, even if they were against caste themselves. I have always hesitated to read scholarly works, I imagine I will not be able to understand what is being said. I am now trying to rectify this somewhat erroneous belief.

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The first two hundred pages are an essay by Arundhati Roy, titled The Doctor and the Saint. It runs longer than AoC itself, and concerns itself with contrasting the ideologies of Gandhi and Ambedkar. This ‘introduction’ has come under much criticism since its publication, for repackaging one man’s political legacy, and reducing him to a counterpoint for Gandhi. Take a look at this article on Hatred In The Belly, shared with me by someone on Twitter. HITB is a collection of writing that emerged on the topic of appropriation of Ambedkar by upper caste voices.

The only thing I was taught about Ambedkar in school is that he was the Father of the Indian Constitution, when in reality, he was disappointed by it. We were not taught that his life’s work was caste – its analysis and eradication. But this should not be surprising, because we are never taught what caste is. We do not need education on this front, we live along its codes by example, we learn by instinct who to be with, what to eat, what is allowed and what is not, what is pure and by association, superior.

I cannot say I read AoC now because Arundhati Roy wrote about it. Maybe it has taken me a while to arrive here, after a journey that made me realise the numerous ways in which I was privileged, and also the ways in which I was silenced.

Midsummer in the Midwest

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That summer afternoon, I persuade The Lucky One to take a walk with me, after ignoring his protests that centered on trivial concerns such as the temperature and relative humidity. Immune to the heat and the thing I see in his eyes, which looked like suspicious sharp objects he wanted to fling at me, I find I am in a chatty mood. I decide to tell him the story of my near death from many summers ago.

It was a legendary Chicago snowstorm, I begin. A white world with no vehicle and no human being in sight. After a bit of foolishness that involved wanting to go see an apartment, and tuning out the weather forecast, I found myself to be the only one left in a sea of snow. The resourcefulness was soon replaced by a helplessness and I started to cry.

“And then?”

I give a dramatic pause here, to sustain the interest of my audience. Continuing:

When I tried to cry, the tears froze on my eyelashes. I tried again, and my eyes froze shut.

He knows to make sympathetic noises. He also knows not to warn me about being careful, about staying warm, about Windy City dangers.

The finish was anticlimactic, I tell him. My friend picked me up about thirty minutes later.

The Lucky One takes my hand in his. There isn’t much to say, so we walk on in silence, past dilapidated buildings and unloved furniture on sidewalks. The moment seems precious, and as though we want to preserve it for later, we go quiet. We record in our minds the smells, the sounds, the particular bent of evening light as it is refracted by the river we walk along. The water carries our secrets. It sees who we are, and who we pretend to be to each other. It allows us our petty indiscretions, and doesn’t mock us as we engage ourselves in a frantic search for true meaning in everything we undertake.

We return home, since the sweat threatens to trickle from his neck all the way down his back, and start cooking. In the midst of chopping carrots into cubes of the same size, because I like them that way, and trying not to get annoyed by how I keep cleaning the counter, he tells me: That isn’t dying, that is what we call living.

We will fold away this moment and place it in a box of our memories, we will unpack it when we want to remember how we used to be. Years later, I will recall this day, and I will talk about it to others, the details morphing every time. I will speak of a time when we were young and free, swimming in narcissism and ideology, captivated by the idea of what we thought to be romantic love, fuelled by an optimism that was lost later.


The prompt was: “I’m not really helpless.” I have only used the word helpless. Fortunately, this grid allows one the freedom of using the prompt in any way.

Top three on the fiction|poetry grid this week. Thank you for the votes!

P.S. There used to be a time when a Top Three finish would have been the high point of my week. Now, I am disappointed I didn’t get an Editor’s Pick. I think this is a good sign though, I kept this blog going so my writing improves. Hopefully, I don’t sound too immodest while I’m at it.

Another recap

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets

Translated and edited by Lakshmi Holmström

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This is a powerful collection of poems by four Tamil women, all of them ostracized not too long ago for writing what was called vulgar poetry. Upholders of ancient Tamil tradition demanded these books be burnt, and these women be stopped from writing pornographic content. The women had tried to take back the discourse around body and sexuality, and rewrite the existing scene with their observations on gender and caste. They spoke of desires and the female anatomy in their poems, of sex both consensual and forced, of the society that derived perverse satisfaction from robbing them of their voices. They were labelled obscene, lacking the propriety and modesty that makes a good Tamil woman.

The poets featured in this translation are Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. Each poet is distinct with respect to the themes she takes up, and the imagery she conjures. I discovered I was partial to Salma’s and Sukirtharani’s poems, the former for descriptions of how she wrests for herself space both physical and mental in a patriarchal Muslim world, and the latter for her outspokenness as a Parai woman. Of the four, I was somewhat familiar with Salma’s work previously, having read her essay in the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories.

Take a look at the poem Paths by Salma:

Upon the almirah
against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades
a bat clashes,
falls, scatters.

But birds, thousands of miles away
flying across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains
and have never, so far,
lost their way.

And here is one by Sukirtharani, titled A faint smell of meat:

In their minds
I, who smell faintly of meat,
my house where bones hang
and my street
where young men wander without restraint
making loud music
from coconut shells strung with skin
are all at the furthest point of our town.
But I, I keep assuring them
we stand at the forefront.

I wish the original Tamil text had been printed alongside, because I spent too much time compulsively translating the poems back to Tamil in my head. I am not sure why I did that.

I also enjoyed the translator’s note at the end. It helps establish a context for both poem and poet, giving us fresh insight into how their circumstances have shaped their unique voices. There is nothing I can say about Lakshmi Holmström that hasn’t been said before. She is responsible for bringing many Tamil literary works to a wider audience, she is the one who led me to Ambai, it is through her I started to realize how a good translator inhabits the voice and character of the author being translated. While reading this book, I learnt that she passed away last year. I carried with me a twinge of sadness and regret. Only for a while though, until life carried me in its currents and asked me to pay attention to more mundane events.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla

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I often think about how to explain caste to an outsider, and I always fall back on “It’s like racism, except it is not based on the colour of your skin.” This is the line of reasoning the author takes as well. Systemic oppression assumes different forms in different places, but what remains constant is its ugly nature. This issue is one of my big obsessions, having experienced both the privilege of the system, and its suffocating grip.

Ants Among Elephants is the narrative of one family’s story, as seen through the lens of a changing India, from before Independence to now. Born into a caste of untouchable landless labourers in Andhra Pradesh, the author moves to the United States as an adult; and realizes what she thought of as a normal way of life is in fact a fantastical story of survival. In tracing her family’s roots, she goes all the way back to the nineteenth century when her ancestors lived as nomads, worshipping their personal deities, unaware of caste; and how they stumbled onto caste Hindu land where they were robbed of their dignity. She talks about her grandfather who became a school teacher owing to the work of Canadian missionaries, her charismatic uncle who was a revolutionary and an important member of the Naxal movement. She writes about her mother, who in spite of working as a lecturer in college, was oppressed by her husband, brothers, employers and society at large.

There are some interesting themes explored in the book – how colonialism was beneficial in some ways, for instance. Fighting a common enemy helped people overlook the differences they saw among themselves. But this unity is short-lived, and one of the characters wonders who the independence is for. She examines the plight of a Dalit woman, the invisible among the oppressed. She looks at the cycle of poverty, the frustration and the helplessness of the people, the obeisance that is forced into them.

I found the book to be littered with explanations meant for a foreign audience, and this kind of thing tends to annoy me. I do not like reading meanings and factoids in brackets, describing what a panche is, or who a vadina is. I also do not like it when the author continues to set a foundation within the text for the reader to understand the work better, I believe it is the reader’s responsibility to understand the writer’s world by reading supplementary material.

I was reminded of My Father Baliah while reading this book – another Dalit family’s history told to us within the framework of a changing India.

A Tamil serial for the Youth

I watched all ten episodes of Balaji Mohan’s web-only serial As I Am Suffering From Kadhal on Hotstar, and it left me confused. I shall elaborate after a summary. The show follows the stories of three couples and one single parent:

Meera and Santhosh, who after having been in love for a few years, find themselves to be warring parties after incidents of infidelity.

Tanvi and Raghav, one of those irritating young couples whose saccharine sweetness and extreme happiness makes us throw up a bit when we stalk their social media feed.

Divya and Badri, who are living together; a well-adjusted couple that does not believe in marriage.

Balakumar, sharing custody of his daughter, after falling out of love with his wife and going through a divorce.

There used to be a time when I watched Tamil serials with my family, during the glory days of Marmadesam and Alaigal – Venu Aravind’s terrible treatment of women did not seem to deter us. I haven’t been able to watch Tamil serials for a while now, and the Hindi serials dubbed to Tamil only make the situation more bleak. Balaji Mohan’s characters, however, are urban(e) and young. We do not usually get to watch them in Tamil serials. They have interesting jobs (wedding planner, movie reviewer, stand-up comedian), and it is important to note that men and women engage in alcoholic and carnal pleasures without the camera judging them.

But there is a sameness that pervades the characters. They speak in English as though reading off dialogues from a script, secretly a bit smug that they could include as many lines in English as they wished. They exhibit a great fondness for swear words, in the manner of children who suddenly discover there is a hidden category of words out there for them to use on their friends without fear of rebuke from adults. As soon as a scene veers into a territory with meaningful drama, we are pulled right back with some inane comedy. There is a strong Friends hangover to the series, from the way the characters talk to the furniture in the apartments; it doesn’t feel rooted in a Tamil context in spite of the numerous references to popular culture and Fully Filmy paraphernalia on display. I also couldn’t shake off the feeling that the director considers himself to be a kind of Love Guru – there is much explaining that is done about love and its disappearance in relationships.

I am curious to see where this space in Tamil digital media goes from here. There are too many stories that need telling, and we cannot expect cinema to do all the heavy lifting.

Our neighbour, our enemy

My mother and the Syrian lady next door were enemies.

Theirs was a feud that excelled in the tactics of non-verbal intimidation. They practised their stares and their cold shoulders, and how best to turn one’s face away when they each saw the other approaching. We were amused and confused, we did not know what started their rivalry.

It was the food, said my mother, whose tolerance for anything not vegetarian went only so far as to ignore the eggs my father made me. All those smells driving the air out of our second floor corridor, she complained. Cooking meat any time of the day. Beef today, she declared, sniffing the air as we stepped out one evening. Crab, she snorted, one afternoon, when a pungent smell greeted us as we opened the door.

The Syrian lady wasn’t one to be intimidated either. She disturbed the kolam my mother drew outside our apartment every morning, she was worried those rice flour patterns on the floor might be voodoo. She blew out the lamps that my mother placed at the doorstep every evening in November, saying they were a fire hazard.

She was always by herself though, and this didn’t escape my mother’s notice. No husband, no siblings, no parents, no children, we counted on our fingers all the relationships she didn’t have. What was she doing here all alone, my mother couldn’t imagine. We watched her bring up the furniture, carry home carton boxes of mineral water, clean her car. We saw her arguing with the children who threw tennis balls into her balcony, thinking it would be fun to upset her mood for five minutes every so often. We continued to watch as she left for work every morning, cooked for her friends who visited her with clouds of perfume, we could hear their laughter past my bedtime.

I must have missed the thawing that happened, because one day, my mother said to no one in a voice just above a whisper, “I am amazed by her courage.” Later that year, we wished her Eid Mubarak, and she gave us rice with beef on New Year’s day. My mother left it on the small table in the living room, I suspect my father ate a little of it when she wasn’t looking.


Written with the prompt: I am amazed at her mountainous courage. Crowd favourite this week on the fiction|poetry grid – thank you for the votes!

Women and (popular) culture

When Nicki Minaj forgot she was an empowered woman:

I feel conflicted when catchy songs have terrible lyrics. If they worked so hard to make sure their song stuck in your head, they could have spent a little more time on their project and written better verses.

Take a look at this song Hey Mama by David Guetta Ft. Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha and Afrojack:

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Yes I be your woman
Yes I be your baby
Yes I be whatever that you tell me when you ready
Yes I be your girl, forever your lady
You ain’t never gotta worry, I’m down for you baby

Best believe that when you need that
I’ll provide that you will always have it
I’ll be on deck keep it in check
When you need that I’mma let you have it

You beatin’ drum like dum di di dey
I love the dirty rhythm you play
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)
Banging the drum like dum di di dey
I know you want it in the worst way
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Yes I do the cooking
Yes I do the cleaning
Yes I keep the nana real sweet for your eating
Yes you be the boss yes I be respecting
Whatever that you tell me ’cause it’s game you be spitting

Best believe that when you need that
I’ll provide that you will always have it
I’ll be on deck keep it in check
When you need that I’mma let you have it

You beatin’ my drum like dum di di dey
I love the dirty rhythm you play
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)
Banging the drum like dum di di dey
I know you want it in the worst way
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Whole crew got the juice
Your dick game the truth
My screams is the proof
Them other dudes get the deuce
I might speed in the coupe
Leaving this interview
It ain’t nothin’ new, I been fuckin’ with you
None of them bitches ain’t taking you,
Just tell them to make a U (Make a U)
Huh, that how it be, I come first like debuts, huh
So baby when you need that, give me that word
I’m no good, I’ll be bad for my baby

So I make sure that he’s getting his share
So I make sure that his baby take care
So I make sure mama, toes on my knees
Keep him, please, rub him down, be a lady and a freak

You beatin’ my drum like dum di di dey
I love the dirty rhythm you play
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)
Banging the drum like dum di di dey
I know you want it in the worst way
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Lyrics taken from Google Play Music

I find it problematic that Nicki Minaj, who is an influential woman of colour, would participate in the creation of such a song, which is propaganda for the unequal power structures that women have been trying to get out of. I could say a lot more about how younger girls might take these distasteful lyrics to heart and apply it to their own relationships, wasting time being concerned with “keeping their vagina sweet” while they should be out conquering their world.

When a love story fizzled out on Bigg Boss Tamil:

I was embarrassed to admit I watched Bigg Boss Tamil regularly, but that was a month ago. I feel no shame now, and I don’t seem to find it necessary to justify my voyeuristic tendencies by pretending to be interested in behavioural sciences. There is much to observe though, mostly along the lines of how vile and repugnant people can be, but we knew that already. I would like to discuss here the “love story” that was shown to us.

Girl and Boy find each other attractive, flirt a little, share some intimate moments. One of them possibly gets more involved than the other. For reasons the Boy doesn’t wish to divulge, he wants to call off whatever has been happening between them. Girl refuses to acknowledge his rejection and pursues him with more vigour than before. She follows him around, announces her affections and demands his attention.

Initially, I found it funny. At one point, I even thought he must have led her on for her to aggressively declare her intentions now. “Serves him right,” I thought. Later, I started growing uncomfortable. Assuming he had given her reasons to believe what they shared was real, once he admitted he wasn’t interested in furthering the relationship, it seems prudent to put the issue to rest.

And then I looked at the memes, that praised Girl for her true love, for refusing to take No as an answer. In this age of women dumping men and calling their lovers Anna [Brother] within moments, here is a woman who understands the meaning of True Love, they claimed. This frightened me a little, because these are also the people who will support a man’s True Love when he harasses the woman who ignores his advances.

As a people, we get carried away with categorizing women as sluts and goddesses. They are either the kind of despicable creatures who indulge in a bit of sex for their pleasure, or they are the respectable human beings from whose nether regions we sprung forth. We often forget women are everything in between too.