Small talk

I am always curious about a foreigner’s perception of India. Where did they go, what did they eat? Did they see the colours and sights? Did they see the chaos and dirt? One or the other or both? Do they know how different it is from my city? I worry they may not look back fondly on their holiday, and I am angry if they exoticize the country of my birth – the one which suffocates and sets me free in turns.

The tall white man and I are both waiting for our pizzas, and when he agrees to answer my question, I do not expect the response I received. “The most interesting thing I did,” he starts, in the singsong way that is at once a question and statement, “is going to India for my friend’s wedding.” And suddenly, I am more invested in his story than I should be. I offer him one more question. “Where in India?”

Pathankot. “It is a small town in the northern part of the country,” he tells me. “Close to the Himalayas. We went on a trek too.”

“I haven’t been there.”

“The wedding was so colourful!” he says now. “And long. Three days, can you believe it? One ceremony went on for ten hours.”

Oh..

“The groom arrived on a horse!” he continues after a moment’s pause, collecting more interesting details to give me. “I tried eating goat curry – that’s something I’ve never had before.”

He slows down. “People came and went however they wished. The entire village I think. It looked like only the couple stayed for the entire wedding.”

I want to tell him for all the differences among her people this country may bear witness to, this wedding is almost generic. All the food, the people nobody seems to know, the congratulating and the smiling that go on for hours. I can sense myself getting into one of my moods, ready to launch lectures on unsuspecting individuals – about our collective obsession with the wedding as the focal point of one’s life, about inequalities, and our pan-Indian preoccupation with the white skin. Which is when he adds, “I don’t think they had seen a white person up close before.”

Our pizzas are ready. We say goodbye before I have a chance to overwhelm him. Did they treat him like a white demigod? Did they rush to pull out chairs for him and give him second helpings? Did they look at his blue eyes? Did he fall sick from the food? Did his trip change him?

But what I really want to know is, would he go back, even though it shouldn’t matter.


I was at a creative nonfiction writing workshop this past weekend, and one of our activities was to go up to a stranger during lunch break and ask them what was the most interesting thing they did in their life. This is what I wrote in twenty minutes after my conversation. While I can see all the ways in which this piece could be better, I think both talking to a stranger and writing about it helped me with my confidence.


Top three on the nonfiction grid this week!

AAA: Watching this is an act of daredevilry

Welcome to poor decision #2. The first one was the decision to sit through Anbanavan Asaradhavan Adangadhavan. And now, to write about it. You could say I was warned, I did watch the trailer. But I mistakenly believed I could have some amount of fun watching it. Terrible movies have long been a wonderful source of entertainment on many lazy afternoons, but this movie crosses that thin line and goes to a territory that is so perplexing, so awful, it might have just stunned me into silence. For a while.

I enjoyed the director’s first movie, Trisha Illana Nayanthara. It was unexpectedly funny, I learnt a new phrase, there were some kooky characters like the guy who goes around throwing bricks at people (Sengal Psycho), and the women were not reduced to pin-ups. The last point was a surprise, especially for a movie that was unapologetic about its target audience (hormonal boys and men). The women in TIN knew what they wanted, they weren’t coy about sex, and it seemed like the hero was the one holding on to archaic notions of virginity and women. With AAA though, director Adhik Ravichandran lets us know the male gaze isn’t going anywhere, and that he has been indoctrinated by Tamil cinema.

International Conspiracy

The movie starts off with Secret Agent Ruby (Kasthuri) barking at her minions. She is on a mission to track some dangerous criminals. One of them could be STR. She isn’t spotted again in the movie. One hopes the sequel will clear things up.

Prison Break

STR is Madurai Michael, the good bad guy, whom the people love for reasons unknown to us. They love him so much that in his introduction scene, they form a human pyramid against the walls of the prison so that he climb on them and escape. It does not strike them to escape along with him. Madurai/Michael (he goes by either name) then sings a song to us about his stardom and his fans (?) and Mass Activities that make him a Tamil Hero.

The First Heroine

Throughout the first half, we see him pursue Selvi (Shriya Saran), who is a village girl with a new dubbing voice and lip sync errors that refuse to die. Watch out for her speaking in village slang such as Indhaaru1, and plaiting her hair with flowers – but those perfect brown streaks can’t be hidden. It looks like Selvi is unable to tolerate him, much like us, but after the screenplay moves along a little bit, she ends up marrying him at the registrar’s office. By this I mean he marries her while she is reduced to observer at her own sudden wedding. Later we understand that she loves him more than we know, because she doesn’t need more than a second to forgive him when he stabs her father. “It was dark, you did it unknowingly, he is still alive, don’t worry.” As they make plans to run away to Dubai, he is caught and jailed. [Refer to previous paragraph for notes on his escape.] Once outside, he discovers Selvi is about to be married off to Random Dude. Madurai/Michael is distraught, but imparts some wisdom: True love is not about attaining the girl, but about making her happy. He will soon contradict this philosophy, I shall elaborate.

The Second Heroine

The second half sees Madurai/Michael in Dubai. He is much older now, so he calls himself Ashwin Thatha2. One look at Ramya (Tamannaah), he is filled with love and/or lust – truly hard to say which. He sings a song that translates to:

Grandpa loves you/ Do you love me/ But I won’t ask you

Ramya is a Type A Bubbly Girl with maniacal smiles and a wardrobe that hugs her curves. She wears miniskirts and tight t-shirts as she prances around being cute. (One t-shirt reads Eye Contact.) She gets to show off her dancing skills in one song, but we are too distracted by the lyrics to pay attention to her: “It’s enough if you love me tonight.” The movie takes great efforts to convince us that Ramya is in love with Ashwin Thatha – she paints a picture of him, she goes on dates with him, she tells people that he is her boyfriend along with defiant statements such as Age doesn’t matter/Yeah this Grandpa is my boyfriend so what. This would be an interesting point to think about, if only the movie didn’t make Ashwin Thatha a lecherous old man, the kind of pervert young women try to avoid. This love story is not Cheeni Kum.

However, because of STR’s bad luck with women and love in real life, he learns Ramya has been tricking him all along. She is in love with a man named Siva, who happens to be two years younger than her (again, age doesn’t matter). Grandpa is shocked, but quickly recovers. His experience informs him that Women are like this only. He sings a sad song to emphasize this point – an interlude from Loosu Penne, which was everywhere about ten years ago. Grandpa then vows to extract revenge, his wise dialogue about keeping the girl happy has apparently evaporated in Dubai’s heat. He kidnaps Siva and we are left with the information that a sequel will soon be upon us: Ashwin Thatha vs. Thikku Siva [Stammerer Siva].

Self-referencing

Leading men in Tamil cinema must incorporate references to their past movies and personal lives. STR takes this mandate seriously. After all, he was Little Super Star once, and now he is a star without the a. His ideology has rubbed off on the director too, who does not mind references to his earlier (and only other) movie. Sengal Psycho is in prison though, sadly.

Kovai Sarala is in there too, as someone in love with Ashwin Thatha. She is the Nayanthara to Ashwin Thatha’s STR.

Sex

On one of Ramya’s dates with Grandpa, a young man threatens to jump off the terrace following a conversation with his girlfriend.

Boy: Why won’t you have sex with me before we get married? You did it with your Ex!

Girl: I felt like doing it with him, I don’t feel like doing it with you.

[Don’t jump to conclusions yet.]

Boy: Okay I’m going to kill myself.

Ashwin Thatha/STR to Boy (on terrace): If you tell women what to do, they will do the exact opposite. Tell them not to drink, they will drink. Tell them not to dress this way, they will dress that way. Tell them not to go out with boys, they will go out with boys.

Ashwin Thatha/STR then gives Boy tips on how to get women to do what men want them to do, while allowing them to think this is what they want to do all along. Beginner lessons on obedience for the ideal relationship, because STR is practically a Love Guru now, after his failed romances.

Notes

1Indhaaru: Inga paaru, Look here
2Ashwin Thatha: Ashwin Grandpa

For summer

I want to bottle this green smell of summer. Fresh and ripe, with possibilities maybe. Pollen and tiny yellow flowers that we trample, sweat and the moist air, the harsh light that sometimes makes way for unexpected rain, and the darkness that makes everything clean. I smelt it again, after many years away. It took me back to when we had the yellow of the street lights for company, when we were unaware we didn’t have much else. A drop fell, on our palms and thighs, on the leaves beside us, into the soil beneath us. The dust settled as more drops fell. We willed the rain to stop. We thought the night-time world belonged to us, as we wandered from street to street. We weren’t lost, we were finding each other.

There was a dream that hovered. Behind my shoulder, above my head, in my heart, always a little out of reach. One day, I held it in my hand. It was lighter than I imagined, it fluttered, it was alive. It made my chest ache and it set me free.

I am curious about happiness. Is it contentment, is it finding out that the hurt of the past suddenly feels far away? You remember its outlines, but the ache is dull. You allow yourself to pierce and pick at the scab. The resentment seems to be making a graceful exit, but you do not want to let go of it all, because you do not yet know who you are without it. But there is joy to be discovered, on other summer nights like these, when we realise that the sadness sometimes creeps away without us noticing. The night whispers to us ancient stories of love and longing, watching us as we write our own story, calling the fireflies to witness.

The night is infinite and wise, she said to me she knew I would be back to bottle the heady smell of summer.

The gifts of childhood

Today I will call my sister, and ask her if she remembers the soft giraffe toy we had. Neon green with yellow patches. Was it a key-chain?

Remember, it was our first sale. We went to an adult whom we didn’t think of as an adult, and we told her to please buy it. 5 Rupees only.

Whose is it, she asked us. We didn’t know.

It had been lying around. Maybe given to us by an aunt visiting from abroad, with cheap toys made in China and bought at 50% off elsewhere, reminders of people who liked us for three months in a year but not much for longer than that.

What will you do with the money, she wanted to know. We will donate all the money to kids who don’t have anything. There is this place where they stay. They go to school and pray and someone gives them clothes and maybe toys. I read about it in the paper.

She bought it and then we were off. We collected everything we didn’t like, had no use for, stopped playing with.

We took a plastic bag from the kitchen, and a pouch for our earnings. We went knocking on several doors. Just the building at first. The street next. Then two streets over. Until an old lady asked us if our parents knew where we were and offered to call home. We didn’t wait for her to buy anything from us, we ran back the way we came.

A week later, when the afternoon heat put everyone to sleep, I took out the pouch. Two hundred and fifty six rupees and some paise, all in coins. I walked to the post office and asked the man behind the counter how to send all this money to someone.

Do you know their address, he asked. Yes. I wrote it down. Yes. I know my address too. He counted the coins again. He wasn’t very quick and I stood on my toes the whole time, trying to peer in. Quick, before they wake up. Count faster.

After a month, I received a letter. Thank you, it said, in many big words most of which I did not know. They were happy. They told me they would buy school books and stationery. But I was upset. They called me Mrs.

I was eight and my sister was six. We hid that letter and we lost it too.


Editor’s Choice and Top Three this week!


This is what Rowan had to say:

I’ve often been accused of valuing construction over content. Fine. I value construction over content. I’d rather read a well-written essay about walking a dog than a poorly written one about saving that dog when it fell over a cliff and then later it went on to rescue five kids from a burning building. Of course, this essay has both solid construction and charming content, and they fit well together. You already know the content – right? you did read all three grids, right? – so I’m going to focus on the details of construction that made this a pick for me.

Three techniques really stand out in this essay: the hook, the dream-memory feel of the writing, and the way it all ties neatly back to both of those things at the end. I often say that your readers will remember the first and last paragraph of your writing the most, and this essay is a perfect example of that. Today I will call my sister, and ask her if she remembers the soft giraffe toy we had. (For you grammar mavens out there, the comma is optional in that sentence but I think it functions well to create a little breathing room, like the comma in the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House.) Throughout the essay there is dialogue, which is handled without resort to quotation. This is a careful and deliberate choice to make the dialogue as much part of the story-memory as it can possibly be. Another option would have been to italicise the dialogue as well, but here the parts of the story that someone is saying are clearly and precisely flagged with language, and there’s no need for it. The final lines wrap the story back to what you thought it was going to be when you read that hook: lost and found. That’s the nature of memories, and of little kindnesses that peek out between the lines.

The questionable charms of Disney World

One television show that kept me up at night was Westworld.

The show is about Westworld, an amusement park/insulated world for the rich, in which humanoid robots are manipulated and forced into story lines of the human creators’ liking. The robots exist to serve the guests, who can do anything they please. Killing or raping robots is standard practice – if you can get away with your violent instincts in a space that encourages you to do so, why not give in. The robots’ memories are erased frequently, so they continue to live out the loop written for them. There is much more to say about this show, which I might do later. It is a fantastic thought exercise about how we create sentient beings just so we can behave terribly to them with no consequence.

When in Orlando, I spent two days in Disney World and came away feeling we are not very far from Westworld. Disney is a whole world by itself, shut off from the outside, a place you get to by their train or ferry. Disney pushes you to forget the outside world and exist in the vast spaces they maintain with great care. Rides aren’t just rides here, they are Experiences with effects that intend to immerse you – sounds, lights, animatronics, 3D projections, robots. They even built that castle we recognize, with fireworks going over it just like in the movies. Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, the princesses from Frozen – these are all people you can meet. Families with children stand in line for hours to make real the fantasy that movies peddle – the parades, characters, and songs help them in their quest. Employees are called Cast Members, and they can never frown. They aim to make guests happy. Disney World is not careless about wanting to create the Happiest Place on Earth, an island where childish dreams and curiosity about magic could come true.

If you have watched Westworld, you might think I am creepy for making this comparison. My brother called me weird and insisted I do not ruin the experience for others. But I came back home and performed a Google Search: Disney World is like Westworld. Look what I found here.

P.S. I suspect I might have gone over the edge after a ride modelled on Finding Nemo. I couldn’t decide if the dolphin in the aquarium was real or not. Alarming.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You reminded me of Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook For My Lover – poetic when describing the mundane, picking apart a relationship and offering it to the reader, the vulnerability and strength of the woman who narrates her own story. There are no similarities in the stories they choose to share with us though. Where Rosalyn D’Mello captures a love that nourishes and evolves, Meena Kandasamy paints for us the ugly underbelly of a marriage.

It starts out alright. The promise of a better life, the lure of building a better world with ideologies that the partners agree on. But this story devolves quickly into one of abuse and the quest for control. We read in horror as the narrator describes the destruction of her real and virtual personalities, the constant monitoring of what she wears, whom she talks to, and where she goes, the taunts, the punishment that makes use of weapons lying around the house. When he hits her, she realises it can only get worse. We continue to read in horror as she describes marital rape – a situation in which the rapist isn’t a stranger behind the bus stop, but a man who returns to the bed every night with the intent to own and destroy.

It is too easy to ask why. Why this woman, this self proclaimed feminist, wouldn’t walk out. I have asked this question too, when I didn’t know better. She methodically answers the questions that will be asked of her – for getting married and for leaving.

As women, we are constantly reminded of what it means to be a Good Girl, a Good Wife, or in this context, a Good Tamil Woman. None of these categories allow women to breathe, to forge their own identities. We are asked to be women who do not talk back, who obey, whose silence means acquiescence, whose clothes do not command attention. We are judged, talked down to, lectured at for not conforming. We are asked to adjust – for partner, for parents, for family and friends who are quick to blame and slow to support.

I was surprised to find myself being able to relate to the narrator, even if I have not been with a partner who treated me as less than human. But maybe I have been that woman who was stifled and let down by those she placed her trust in.

The unnamed narrator walks away one day, towards freedom and a justice that never seems to be available. I imagine her conversing with Nina Simone as she walks:

Fish in the sea you know how I feel

River running free you know how I feel

Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life

for me

And I’m feeling good

In that moment, the woman in the story, the woman recalling this story, she is every woman who found in her courage to protect herself, who refused to do what was expected of her. She is free.

This is also a story about words and what happens to a writer when her writing is discarded and her words are censored. She writes whole essays in her mind. She writes and erases so her transgression isn’t discovered. She observes her life with the hope that she can write about it. She then reclaims these events from the retellings of others. She teaches us what feminism looks like in the face of a patriarchy that is cruel, sadistic and repressive, a patriarchy that is enabled by men and women.

I am always conscious of how this kind of writing is perceived, partly because this is the only way I know to write. And even if I may declare I write for myself, I seek validation in the responses of others. First person narratives about women and their issues, as if men were merely bystanders and not perpetrators, do not get talked about enough. They are dismissed as the emotional hemorrhage of sensitive women. But Meena Kandasamy has no time for that kind of talk. She dazzles us with her craft. She tells us exactly what we are in for and yet manages to surprise us.

#BlogHer17

1080x1080 VOTY Awards_060817-short blog post3It turns out I am one of the Voices Of The Year at this year’s BlogHer conference. It wasn’t a miracle – I submitted a few of my blog posts and somebody liked what they read. I am almost embarrassed to admit how much I’m looking forward to attending the conference in Orlando later this week.

But the excitement brings with it a small helping of shame. I wrote about my grief, and this brought me recognition, which leaves me feeling uncomfortable. I mined my loss for attention.

Maybe if my grandmother were around, she would ask me to just enjoy myself.