Piano lessons from a car

Our first car was a red hatchback that my mother made her own with a single lily on the dashboard. The car played a tune whenever we reversed.

Years later, I learnt it was Für Elise, and spent many afternoons ruining her siesta, practising on our secondhand piano.


Top Three and Editor’s Pick this week for Microprose!

This is what Asha Rajan had to say:

It’s my last month (really this time) as solo micro editor and it was a pleasure to see some of the stories on this week’s grid, but none more than Anusha’s piece. Why? Well, like Rowan wrote in this month’s tech post, it kept the prompts front and center, made them integral to the story being told, and told a simple story thoroughly. This month, a lot of folks either tried to pack too much into their 48 words (I knew letting y’all get used to having more than 50 was dangerous) or edited the story right out of their microstory trying to save an image instead. It’s not a coincidence that all three of the top three stories had a setting, characters, and plot. By plot, I mean the characters were trying to do something; we had a sense of their motivation. But none of those stories were handled as well as Anusha’s, which took us through years and desires in a few short, image-packed sentences that depended on the prompts to move the story forward.

Thirst

There is a river that flows with blood, ferrying people to hell, it is said. It carries broken bones and animals hungry for human flesh, birds that feast on the dead and insects that carve out the eyes. Maybe they were trying to say hell is a journey, not a destination. In the old man’s imagination, the river frothed and bubbled, it was the colour of rust tinged with crimson. But he didn’t want to frighten the little ones who were his audience for the night, so he told them it was a river of blood and no more.

Nobody knew where he spent his days, or how. He only appeared at nights, bartering a story for a plate of food, if someone felt sympathetic. His body was always a dirty brown, his head shielded from the sun by wispy strands of white hair, and he carried in his hand a bottle of water. There is a drought coming, he would have said, if he was asked. He wasn’t.

There is an animal that lives in the cracks of the earth, it is said, its tongue so long and so powerful. It knows instantly when a bead of water appears, even miles away. Its tongue slithers out, throbbing with need, in search of that orb. Its succulent limbs covered in thorns, it protects itself from those encroaching on the oasis that is its body. But he didn’t want to frighten the little ones, so he told them about the tongue and no more.

He drank carefully, small furtive mouthfuls, while the others made fun of him. Their days melded into one, they couldn’t imagine how they lived before the sweat took residence on their necks and the itch became a permanent guest in their mouths. They bought water in tankers and bathed themselves everyday, even as their plants gasped. They detonated the earth until they struck a shallow pool, and rejoiced in mindless ways, splashing each other.

There is a plant that has never died, it is said. It bides its time, braving cyclones and aridity, closing upon itself when the winds howled. It is small, but hardy, its leaves a dull green as though anemic, its stem stout, its roots snaking in crevices and over rocks, building strength for when the time came. But he didn’t want them to step on this plant, so he told them a new leaf sprouts every twelve years.

One day, they could spot the river bed, hissing at them in anger. They stood at its banks, confused, the sand settling on their grimy bodies and their hair limp even as the air shook. The drought was here and the old man couldn’t be found.

There is a man who drank the sea, it is said. He took great gulps of that salty infusion, until he ballooned and floated away on a bed of weeds and debris.


This week’s prompt: “There is a drought coming.”

Crowd favourite this week for Fiction|Poetry! Thank you to everyone who voted for me.

Recap continued

Nobody has evinced interest in this series, but this has not deterred me. Forward march!

Ayiti by Roxane Gay

I am 138th on my library’s hold list for Roxane Gay’s Hunger. I think it is safe to say I am taken by this author, I seem to be working my way through her titles – in reverse order, but that should not matter I think.

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Ayiti is Roxane Gay’s first book – a collection of short stories in which she mines the Haitian experience, both in Haiti and the United States. While we know what the news tells us about Haiti – the instability, the natural disasters, the poverty – Gay’s characters help us get acquainted with conflicts in the inner world. The scorn a local reserves for someone who left the country, while simultaneously revealing a desperation to escape, the immigrant’s yearning for the country left behind, which grows more and more idyllic in repeated reminisces, the outsider trying to make sense of an American culture that is baffling – these people offer us such contrasting perspectives. The author acts as a literary anthropologist, by giving to us many Haitis and people. Each story is complete in itself, but together, the collection immerses us thoroughly in its world. The narratives are different each time too – sometimes written to shock, sometimes a curious mix of the mundane and magical, a poem or a letter, memoir or fantasy. These stories succeed by not reducing Haiti to a convenient adjective – exotic or dangerous. This Haiti is both real and imagined, tragic and beautiful, like every place whose secrets have been unearthed by those that belong.

*

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

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Fates and Furies picks apart a marriage, one that is seemingly successful. We are given both sides, with interjections in square brackets from an authorial voice that resembles a Greek chorus. [Yes]

Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite is the one we like to call a Greek God – tall, blond, with an ugly face that makes him oddly handsome, and rich – a golden boy with a shining future. Mathilde Yoder is nobody, an Ice Queen, tall and bony, all sharp angles and small smiles.

They marry young, and start their life with ambition and in poverty. Soon it becomes apparent that Lotto is destined to be a failed actor, and it is left to Mathilde to look after the practicalities of living together. She holds the house together. One night, in a drunken haze, Lotto writes a play that shows a spark of brilliance. Mathilde corrects it, edits it and ensures its success, while Lotto, unaware, continues to play the part of Genius.

Both versions follow roughly the same years of the marriage, but in Mathilde’s version, the marriage is transformed into something far less ideal. We come to see how Lotto sees her not as her own person, but rather, as an extension of himself – the person who is fulfilled by making his life run smoothly. She is the more interesting one in this partnership, the one with secrets and malice. We are always left questioning if she is good or evil. She is both at different times, grey at the best of times.

Some revelations are cliched – like the man whom Mathilde meets, Ariel. He agrees to pay for four years of college if she consents to being abused by him. The things he does to her are details I could have lived without. Lotto’s side of the story is interspersed with excerpts from his plays, which were tedious to read. I was also a bit taken aback by the level of manipulation and dishonesty, which might even put some people off marriage, probably not too difficult to achieve in a post Gone Girl world.

But this is the most terrifying novel I have read in recent times.

*

So this is it for today. If you like the pictures that accompany these not-reviews, please let me know. No, I do not own a camera. I use an android phone that has seen better days. Until we meet again!

 

Recap

I thought I would write about few of the books I read in the past month or so, because I am going through a phase of what I like to call Lead Brain. My brain feels clunky and no ideas seem to be able to make their way to the top through the heavy metal.

*

Eve Out Of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi; Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman

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When I saw this book in the World Fiction shelf at the library, I was a bit intrigued. The author’s name sounds Indian, and yet the book was originally written in French. I learnt she is from Mauritius. I enjoy these little discoveries. This is a novel set in the other Mauritius, the one you wouldn’t find in a tourist brochure. It is the seedy underbelly, the dirty streets with the gangs and abuse, the sewage that flows freely, the poverty that is hidden behind the glossy villas.

The story is narrated from the points of view of four teenagers. Eve, a girl who understands the power her body contains. It is her weapon and currency. She trades it for her needs and wants. Savita, the one person Eve truly cares for. Saadiq, who is hopelessly in love with Eve. Clelio, whose anger threatens to destroy him and everything around him. There is another nameless and italicized narrator, a perpetrator of cruel delights.

When Savita is witness to an act that shouldn’t have happened, she is murdered. This sets in motion a series of terrible events, hurtling everyone towards what appears to be their end. The future is hypothetical for all of them, but we want them to escape and carve for themselves a better life, even if violence is the only way to get out.

This novel brings to us the lives of those who are rarely seen, the outcasts and the desperate. The prose is beautiful and stark, shifting with ease from one voice to another. There are some tender moments, but these are drowned or disfigured by the chaos of everyday life. Eve is both fragile and brave, she isn’t afraid to move forward even if life has only shown her disappointments and trauma until then.

*

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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I am often nervous to read wildly famous books. I fear I have to spend a lot of time explaining myself, if I find I did not enjoy the book. This is based on the assumption that everyone I meet is eager to hear me talk at length about books I like or dislike. Please note the assumption is faulty at best.

Swing Time is a story about two girls that is also an exploration of race and gender, the personal, the political, and the line that distinguishes or connects the two, colour and class, the vicious and generous nature of friendships.

The unnamed narrator and Tracey, two brown girls growing up in an undesirable part of town, are friends at first sight. There is an unspoken understanding, and the author captures this precisely. This is something I came across many times in the novel – the sharp portrayal of a character trait or a thought process that left me wondering how the writer managed it. The teenage years, the sexuality, the volatile relationships that we cannot escape from, the search for an identity – written in such glorious detail.

Later, the narrator starts working for an international pop icon Aimee, who is a sensation even though she does not possess much singing talent. Aimee is modelled after pop stars of our times – performing all over the world, dating younger men, having children outside marriage, adopting African babies on a whim. When Aimee takes over an African village with the intention of developing it, the narrator feels conflicted. She is not certain if this sudden dumping of wealth on a village will be beneficial, especially because Aimee is mostly clueless about how the world works and isn’t interested in understanding context.

For all its brilliant observation, I found the novel too long and meandering. The characters aren’t particularly likeable either. Maybe I should read another novel by Zadie Smith to understand her work better.

*

Hateship, Frienship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

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It turns out Alice Munro is widely read and loved by many, so I started reading this collection of stories with some expectation. That is never a good thing.

The stories follow the gentle rhythms of life – the misfortune and grief, the fleeting happiness, the pleasures, worries and monotony. The title story is one I liked best, in which two children play a prank writing love letters to their housekeeper, leading her to think a man is in love with her and waiting for her. But the prank takes an unexpected turn when the housekeeper ends up finding love and companionship with him.

Most stories are variations on the same themes – death or the search for partnership. I felt frustrated after a while, and tried reading faster than usual so I could finish the book.

*

There are a few more books, but I might write about them some other time.

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.


This short prose was published in the Summer 2017 issue of Panoply, a literary zine. You read it here first! Do take a look at all the other prose and poems that have been published.