Saturday, 6 February 2016

How to: Not feel. Part 1

If I were one for easy ways,
I'd tell you 
Mundane things, real things
That are of this world. 
I'd urge you to watch dervishes of your blood
Whirl in slomo
Till there was nothing to whirl in
Till your eyes close and couldn't 

But I fancy myself a poet. 
So I'll tell you stories
Of trembling taupe tails 
Writhing without context, 
Of rabbit-foot returns. 
I'd recommend grand things, 
Dramatic things that happen
Contained in the burst of a moment.

I'd tell you
Let go of a hand you want to hold,
Watch its perfection die
I'd say 
Plunder a little, tear something: 
A painting, a mouth, a silent wish. 
I could teach you
To write in a book with no lines

Word after word after word;
Black ink sculpting paper to life.
If I were kind, I'd warn you
There's nowhere to run after that:
Can you not hear mocking laughter
Of pages you've birthed?
Can you not hear the pangs
Of those you haven't?

Once you're done writing,
Pick up a carnation,
A jasmine, if you wish
Or a sunflower 
If you are particular about colour
(You're done for already, if you are.)
Destroy it gently 
In a poem, a story, a painting, a book.

There you've done two things:
1. Worn time like a pearl necklace
Unmoving, near-perfect, disorienting
2. Crucified a flower
In eternity, on a page, between words
Or brushstrokes
I dare you to feel after this. 
I dare you to not. 


Sunday, 17 January 2016

Let me string flowers and other poems.

Let me string flowers,
a wreath of regret and light
for your foolish head,
and make a crown of thorns
that hold promises on their points.
let me place them upon your head.
The flowers of trying again,
and again and again,
the thorns to remind you
of the things you left behind.
Let me lay you down
on a pasture of faith,
let me water you 
with shining understanding,
let me dig around you 
a moat of assumptions
and let me drown you
in the thing we call

Will you survive, then,
as you watch the endless blue,
as the sun burns your irises,
and you lie still
being watered, 
cared for
made sacrifices for, 
sacrifices you never
asked for
to begin with? 
Will you, after the moat is filled,
after the watering is done,
become a single, dying rose
of joy?

In a dream last night, 
awash with watercolour purple
a fading blue and the firm hand of gold spots, 
a face I love, a name I do not know
Asked me if I would make him my muse. 
Long hair the colour of a tinted evening, 
Straight as the lies he was made of, 
Hands that found a thousand ways to smoke me, 
To show me a mirror.
He asked again. 
Can I be your muse?

What good is a muse, I ask.
And I tell him a story from long ago where
I was singed by a muse,
a shimmering muse
with wings of eternity, a firefly spirit, 
and a sailing ship for a totem,
that he left on my shoulder. 
A shoulder he claimed as his.

Then, my silver-fingered one, I ask,
As poetry fills me tonight, 
how shall I carry the burden of you
on the one shoulder I have left?

Dawns don't stay.

Dawns go away
Dawns play
As a mere interlude 
Before unleashing the harsh light of day, 
Where the sun leaps over everything 
Where daylight is harsh, real, flat
Because dawns don't stay.

Dawns don't stay
How can they? 
The day brings with it
Light and movement, predator and prey
Where music drowns, and art fades. 
Because eyes don't don't have time to watch the sky be perfect.
Dawns don't stay.

Monday, 11 January 2016

For David Bowie. I write because...

David Bowie has died. And with that, it feels like a star system with a fair amount of presence in the universe has collapsed. I rarely mourn the loss of an artiste. But to me, this feels like a personal loss. Apart from the incredibly cool persona, and I suppose personality, he had -- and I hate to use the word cool here but how else do you describe a man who explored extremes of the gender borders we set for ourselves, who travelled to the stars and beyond and wrote about them in a language that would proceed to move your spirit -- his music and lyricism spoke to me. Hell, even his name stood out for me. But, more than anything else, his acceptance of weird not being weird, of strange only being an idea in the head of those who lived outside of him, those who weren't on his side, is what spoke to me from the start. And, for me, the most splendid thing was that his entire life reflected the quality of his music. Or maybe his music reflected his life. And that kind of oneness, that kind lack of dissonance in his creative and public life is, for me, the mark of a true artiste. Don't you think? When how you are creative is how you live, when your choices and loves show in the depth of your art, when your limits and your lack of them reflect in the work you do -- and all of it happens unconsciously. 

And so I feel Bowie's death isn't just a loss to music, or lovers of music, but a huge loss to all those who sought creative authenticity and integrity. It is a massive hole in the universe where those who don't fit in our given moulds seek to express ourselves in the way we know. It is the death of that place in the sun that' s made of brave, nonchalant loners who allowed the rest of us -- who were weird in our quiet way -- to explore and understand and wear our uniqueness. There's a Bowie-size hole in that place, now. And it's a huge fucking hole. It is funny that the death of a man and an artiste I love so much that I write to you about him is making me reflect on not death and life but on what creativity means. What creative integrity means, what it means to be authentic in your art and what it means to allow your life to reflect in your work. Those roads that this is taking me down are beautiful and perilous. I can see why insanity would ensue in the pursuit of creative integrity. But what's one more step further down the insanity path, I say. :)

What happens to these places that these giants among us -- in this case, this god among us -- leave behind? Are there enough eulogies, enough YouTube plays, enough quoting, enough tweets and enough newspaper obit space to fill the exact shape of David Bowie? How does one fill the crook of his finger, what do you put in the space of his imperturbable face? How do you fill his eyes that saw, and his throat that went around the world and came back? How do you fill spaces that dead giants leave? And if you don't fit them, what happens to those spaces? Do we walk around them, gingerly sidestepping their blazing, iridescent, too-fucking-bright-that-i-need-shades outlines? Do we walk in fear of being burnt by that iridescence if we walk too close and claim to even be inspired by these giants? What is being truly inspired, then? That something you're good at follows in the style, tone and timbre of these giants? Or is it to completely become one with your giant and have nothing of you left, but then, when you make your art, you're producing something that is entirely new, like alchemy? Are we willing to be that swallowed up by this brilliant, star-bright space that our giants leave us in order to produce true art? Or are we willing to sit far away from their glow and be a moon? 

I am sorry for rambling. But I write from grief. In as much one can feel for someone one has loved from far away. But also from the closeness of sleep where you fall asleep to Starman, Rebel Rebel and Oh! You Pretty Thing taking you across to a dream where you are much more than you are. 

I will stop now or I'll never be done. I feel better now. I would never have had the courage to say this to the world in general,  but for you. Because, hey, in the face of all those experts on Bowie's music, I am just going to sound stupid, because I say nothing about his music. 

(For Surekha Pillai)

Friday, 8 January 2016

On Sleep

A dear friend recently mentioned she had been blogging 10 years. I checked my own blog and there it was: 2006, two posts. Ten years of writing whatever it is that I wanted to and find kind people to read it. This year, then, I feel should be the year I revive my blog. What better way to battle this sleepless night I am having, currently.

Speaking of, sleep and I have had a very contentious relationship for years. I've considered a sleep complete waste of time (as opposed to spending time on Twitter or whatsapp) and sleep has considered me unworthy of bestowing the restorative blessing that she seems to grant many others with. I have struggled with sleep since I can remember, which is about nine years old. Gloomy, terrifying sunny afternoons where the household would be asleep and I would dread being the only one in the house who couldn't claim a break in time like that.

As I grew older, nights became a complete waste of time because there was so much to be done, so much time spent reading, writing, thinking of boyfriends; just so much to be done and night had a way of putting an end to those plans. Most my 20s were sleepless, unless I was so exhausted that nothing could keep me away. Phone conversations till late in the night, books I couldn't put down, friends who stayed over. I rejected sleep.

It's payback time. I barely get four hours of sleep every night. Which is better than one hour of sleep that I used to get about three years ago. I wake up in four hours, do something I like doing and in an hour I am back in bed. It truly isn't ideal because the next day I am scarcely rested. Upside though, I get to do all the things I wouldn't have gotten to do if I had normal sleeping patterns. So, if I want to make an entry in my art journal, I can do that. Or write a letter for my #100letters. Or read the books I keep buying endlessly. Or write this blog post, even. So much to do when you can't sleep.

And yet, that's exactly the problem. When a bipolar person is in the manic phase, sleep is the first thing to take a hit. (Depressive phase in me induces excessive sleeping but that can differ from person to person.) I've been trying to sleep since 10 p.m. tonight. It's 1.45 a,m now. I've had a big day. And it tired me out. And yet, my mind is alive and my body, awake. I thought it was just tonight but I looked back the last four nights and I realised all those nights, I had slept little or very badly.

You'd think I'd be used to this now and would be catching signs of mania early. But I still haven't. I still think my body will behave, so will my mind. It's well into mania that I realise I'm there and then the irritability, the immense confidence, the rash driving, the snapping and losing of temper and the general invincibility I feel starts to make sense. And so does the sleep. Waking up every two hours, or not sleeping at all some nights.

Why sleep is important: This might seem like a stupid thing to bring into focus but it's as necessary for me in terms of reiteration as it is for those who might be seeking personal experience with lack of sleep and bipolar disorder. Lack of sleep makes me moody: You might think it does that to everyone but it's a challenge to me because I am then governed by my moods for the next few days. I make decisions based on how I feel and not by calm, rational thought.

Lack of sleep  makes me continuously irritable. This is tragic because everyone from a complete nincompoop on the road to my little kids bear the brunt of it. I snap regularly and I snap at complete non-issues.

Lack of sleep also perpetuates a no-sleep cycle where I cannot sleep for a few more days. It starts with one and suddenly, I've found so much extra time that the excitement of doing the things I love is so great that I forget to sleep. Suddenly, my mind is abuzz with ideas of all the things I can do if I don't sleep. This adds to the frenzied activity already in my mind and then I head to a complete collapse, at the end of which I am tired, mildly disoriented, irritable, unable to work or have a fair, pleasant day, and most of all, unable to make decisions: this goes for instant decisions when I drive, more deliberate ones when I am at work and even more important ones when I have to decide for the children.

This really crisp and informative article tells you more about sleep and bipolar. It also tells you why you need to sleep, how to get adequate sleep and how you need to address the problem of bad sleeping. I found it very helpful.

What I do when I am manic and don't sleep:
I wake up early even if I don't want to. 
I try and eat little for dinner. 
I listen to music on headphones.
I read Anna Karenina. Or Crime and Punishment. (Sorry Tolstoy, Dostoyevski) 
Some nights, I take evil glee in the extra time and do the things I love doing. 

The last one is a bad idea because while sleep is important to everyone's well being, it is particularly crucial to those who are bipolar. They are triggers for a very bad manic (or even depressive) episode and if you've been there, or know anyone who has, you know you don't want to go there.

It's far too late now and I have made one sketch, written two poems and one more blog post from a prompt that I will post tomorrow. For now, sheer exhaustion and sleep are claiming me for themselves, finally. And I go with the disappearing stars of dawn.

Be well. 

Monday, 26 October 2015


There is no breeze tonight
And the moonlight, diffused by a heaving, rhinestone city
Brings me taut remnants of your skin.
I flip open a book, its hard cover rapping me on the knee,
A new level of distraction.
I toss three words in the air, to hear their sounds
Because in this silence, even my own voice will do.
"Apple", "simultaneity", "ruse."
I wait.
Nothing stirs; not the words, not the evening
Not even my fluidly disintegrating heart.
A lizard loses its tail,
My dog looks up at me adoringly,
Brown eyes full of questions of love
No one has ever asked me.
I stare back, wanting to smack her snout
So hard that I break her jaw.
I want to tell her her love is misplaced,
That her adoration is fees.
I want to tell her to become me
And see
That sometimes, I am her. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

A story for your grandchildren

It starts easily enough
A chat on the balcony
An exchange of numbers
One of you asks the other out for a meal.

But it's lunch break at work
And it's hardly food you're hungry for.
You bag it, you hurry to one of your homes
Chinese take-out cools in the flat summer afternoon.

Things are crazy from there.
You are hard-pressed to find a place
Where you haven't pulled over by the road
To steal a kiss, a fumble, an entire blowjob.

Then you misunderstand.
A conjuring's at hand; and you,
Forever sick from love, hungry
For curlicues of an ordinary life, miss the trick.

Your careless arrangement grows ugly things now.
Beautiful, ugly things. Lies like muslin
Anger like a rain, a building up like a journey
A tearing down like a broken garden

There're oceans now, and people.
And a splash of a cold, a shock of heat
As you forget the exact degree
Of the warmth of each other's breath.

Your desire builds futile bridges over choppy seas.
And your yearning plumbs tunnels in blue depths
You label stars and find a way to use them
To be markers on your way.

Morning comes.
Stars disappear, your pathway a joke of light
A tree sways and the breeze brings sadness
And an email. "How are you?"

A winding missive of memory.
A reiteration of remembrance
You'll always be the one, it says
I'll never be the same without you

I will never be happy.
The email promises; it continues: we had it perfect
And I'll always treasure it
It'll be the story I tell my grandchildren.

27 Aug 2015. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Get that reading habit back.

About a year or more ago, my son, newly turned 5 then, and I were talking about reading. Now, for a while I had limited my reading to online or on device. So as I tried to avoid preaching while extolling the virtues of reading, he said to me, "But Amma, I never see you reading a book." He was right, in a sense. My reading had reduced drastically; from reading a book a week, I was down to one book in three months. His comment woke me up and told me I was letting my reduced attention span become worse by reading with the internet on all the time, or choosing to read shorter stuff, some days only headlines, without wanting to get to the details.

This had become a dangerous habit and it took me some time to get to a point where I could stick with a book. Thankfully, I've read a few this year, although far from the target I set for myself.

On an average, I meet at least one person in a week who tells me they just don't have the time to read. A lot of them don't use the time-to-read excuse anymore because it is really easy to counter. What is more tough to argue with is reduced attention spans. Everyone casually refers to their social ADD (though I wish they wouldn't use that term. ADD is pretty darned debilitating.) and says they can't stick to a book. No focus and reduced attention spans? That I totally get.

So from my own experience of getting back to reading, I wondered why we stop reading and what it takes us to get back. To answer both those questions, I knew I had to ask myself why we started reading. I began to read because I was thirsty to explore the knowledge I had been given in school. I became a reader because the first book I was presented with my name inscribed on it was Oliver Twist, a Ladybird Kids Classic, Abridged Version. The book was utterly and truly beautiful. The typeface, the illustration, the colours, the way the book felt (glossy and hardbacked), the ridge on either side of the spine. And my mother's beautiful penmanship inscribing the first few pages. Just beautiful. I am pretty sure I had books before that but none that felt so distinctly mine. Before that, all books were shared and were mostly books from which my parents would read to us. It was with this book at 8 years or so, that I obsessively started reading and hoarding. The world of Oliver Twist offered words for emotions I couldn't identify. I met people I would never meet in this lifetime. I saw clothes, streets and names that I hadn't seen till then. After that, school was an obstacle bang in the way of my reading life. Soon, I was done with pulp fiction by the time I was 15; I started reading literary fiction, rarely going back to paperbacks or what are now called "bestsellers".

Reading left me with a high like a good, hard swim; like the morning after a night of great sex, like the high of nice little joint -- these are all transformative experiences for me. There's a physical difference, not just a change, in my environment within and without. You see, the joys of reading are insidious, subtle. There's no instant gratification; there is no place for you to sound smart and seek validation as you comment publicly on anything, and no joy that comes with being thought of as wry and clever. The joys of reading are slow and stealthy. They don't quite appear till you're half way through the book and by then it would be a shame to abandon reading. And then it flowers, the joy of reading a good book. It starts from your eyes and enters all the way to your overtired brain, spreads to your forehead like a happy allergy, all the way down your neck and then rapidly, like a fever, dripping till the ends of your extremeties. And then, suddenly, like a wave in a glass aquarium, all of the gushing is contained. Reading doesn't make you jump for joy or dance with madness (it does but you don't do it because you are too busy reading). When this joy is suddenly contained at the tips of your fingers and the points of your toes, it lashes back; joy and rapture come back in waves all over you, right back to your head and eyes, even as you read more that's giving you joy. This back and forth of waves causes you to fall in love with characters without whom you're legitimately lonely for a day or two after you've finished the book. It causes a covetousness for words that leave you richer, and yet, bereft. It causes a greed and inquisitiveness for the writer; who is she? does he wear pyjamas to bed or sleep in the nude? does she always look perfect or does she have bad eyesight? All kinds of relationships are built with a book when you're in its throes. Watch and you'll see.

It's easy to give up reading because it is what you do when you have spare time. Once formal education is done with, very few people set aside especial time to read. Of course, then, reading suffers. It's also an easy habit to get out of, and the highs, like I said earlier, are slow. None of the instant gratification of being online.

If you've given up reading, or have never read, and are trying to get back on track, start with a book of short stories. They help you get your attention's impetuous flights back under control and keep you focused on reading for short periods of time; much like focusing on small tasks in order to achieve the bigger task of a work day.

Set aside time to read. Don't think you'll read on the bus, or when you're in the loo, or when you wait for someone. Those times are easy to demolish by other distraction. Set aside 15 minutes to half an hour, to begin with, to read. It really helps if you can do it at the same time every day. I try to read before bed, and for about an hour after I send my kids to school.

Always carry a book. Always. And no time to do it like now because ebooks.

Keep a book list, preferably in one place. And if you like to see proof of your achievement, tick them off every time you finish reading the ones on your list. I email myself new book recommendations or the ones that I wish to read.

Needless to say, turn notifications off and be mindful. Because even if you turn them off, you tend to check your phone because you get all fidgety and jittery without it. So, mindfulness will help you come back to reading before you go down the twitter rabbit hole till 2 a.m.

Everything becomes better about you, by the way, when you go back to reading. Your mind is stiller, and you might ask why is the mind being still a good thing. I assure you, a still mind is a creative mind. The things you think about become better and bigger. No longer are you worried too much about the small things that you occupy yourself with, and you know they're small things. You ponder larger questions, superimpose them on your life, or the lives of others, discover the sameness of humanity and soon, you start to actually think harder, in a more real way. You will eventually end up being and sounding smarter but that's hardly a priority in the scheme of things. I mean who wants to sound smarter when you could be mooning over Psmith?

Sumana Mukherjee tweeted this link on how reading is the only transcendental experience left in the world that we inhabit today. And I couldn't agree more with this splendid piece. 

This is a list that helped me ease back into my reading. I have added a few that I didn't read during this time but ones I think will totally do the trick. The trick, then, is to get back into the habit, because that's what it is. Once your brain is rewired to making this a habit, then the sailing is usually smooth.

1. Bhima: Lone Warrior by M T Vasudevan Nair. 
This book is a translation of the Malayalam Randamoozham . I recommend it heartily for various reasons but mostly because it is the familiar. You know most of the references and stories, you know all the characters, you know the eventual fate of the characters. What you don't know is what the alternative perspectives give you. Other reasons to read this book are: Terribly easy read and yet with the gravitas of a complex novel; a story that's engaging emotionally and intellectually; story telling that is a masterclass in the craft.

2. Any of the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling.
I went back to think of why it was so difficult to get back to reading and what it is that will keep someone engaged. I realised it was pure, sparkling, gripping joy that kept me reading. And trying to start with a difficult book that you've heard so much about is the wrong way to derive that joy. Start with firing the emotions that you felt as a kid when you read books that grip you. Harry Potter does that wonderfully. Once you can sit down and read for an extended period of time, read tougher, nicer, meatier, more meaningful books.

3. My Name is Radha by Saadat Hasan Ali Manto.
In actuality, you can pick up any book by Manto and find yourself back to reading. Manto writes with a sort of insight that defies the simplicity he presents his work with. This anthology is essential Manto; between its pages are many women, Bollywood, Bombay, Ambala, Delhi, Peshawar, pimps, prayers and poignancy. None of them decipherable, none of them so different from you and me.

4. Roots by Alex Haley
This is a book that finds its place in almost any book list for which you ask me a response. Non-fiction, terrifically written and deeply, intensely moving, Roots changed my world view forever. It changed the way I looked at human beings, our politics and our innate natures. It reads really, really easy for a non-fiction book.

5. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
This book gave rise to one of the most iconic fictional figures of our time. A monster so insidious and lethal that it kind of terrifies you how much you resemble him. Martin Amis's prose is, for the lack of a better word, just plain stunning. His writing unafraid and while some might think this book is ambitious, I assure you it isn't. It's worth every 15 minutes that you spend in the first week of your return to reading.

Here on, I am just going to give name and type without commentary. These are all easy books to read and yet meaningful, rich and gripping. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

6. Fascinations by William Boyd (Short story)
7. Blue Beard's Egg by Margaret Atwood (SS)
8. Girls at War by Chinua Achibe (SS)
9. Kiss, Kiss by Roald Dahl (SS)
10. Burning your Boats by Angela Carter (SS)
11. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates (SS)
12. Open by Andre Agassi 
13. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
14. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
15. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov
16. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
17. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
18. The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
19. The Fig Tree by Aubrey Menen
20. Malgudi Days by RK Narayan (yes, there are people who haven't read it!)
21. The Boy Who Talked to Trees by Yashwant Chittal
22. A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (SS)
23. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
24. Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
25. The Psmith Omnibus by PG Wodehouse. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

On not being the "right" size.

Bedtimes are quiet vulnerable moments, more so if you're little. The secrets, no longer able to roil in tiny tummies, make themselves heard. Two nights ago, after lullabies and stories were done, Shyama mentions that exercise causes weight loss; I agree, groaning inwardly at the thought of her asking me to lose weight. I ask her what made her think of it. She says she wants to start exercising and lose weight. I ask her again why she’d like to do that. Because the kids in class call me fat, she says.
Now, I never know if I am parenting correctly. There’s almost never a counterpoint to my method and behavior as a parent and I almost always wing it, erasing doubts on the run nice and gentle, quite like an avalanche demolishing pines on a slope. Because there’s no time to consider when you’re parenting little kids, and especially if you’re the only one who parents regularly. They demand and you better show up, or miss the moment and scar them for life. But at this moment, all my anxieties came rushing back and collided pretty hard with my parenting.

Growing up, I was an average-sized kid, not fat, but definitely not skinny.  And much like Shyama, I was surrounded by kids who were the latter. Teenage brought with it some weight, sure. So while I don’t remember being teased by kids around me about being fat (although, in class nine, a teacher burnt me for life by calling me “fatty”. You’d think an adult would know better) I do know that not being the size everyone else was made me feel infinitely less. It didn’t help that people close to me started pointing out that I was fat, even though I think back now and I know I wasn’t.  I grew up thinking I was fat. I think about the girl I was and I think of all the things I stopped myself from doing because I wasn’t the right size, and I wish I had known better. I was excruciatingly shy and felt foolish every time I uttered a word. And I blamed it all on the size I was. Nothing has been more shackling to me than feeling fat.

At 35, I am a lot more comfortable with my body but my anxieties haven’t left me. Sure, I wear whatever I want and am comfortable enough to look at my unclothed body in the mirror without hating it, sometimes I even like it. But I also cover up a lot. When I meet new people, when I want to make a certain kind of joke, when the situation is more intimate and demands a certain physical vulnerability, I freeze up. I am so little of myself. I wonder if I look ugly to the other person and I hope my flaws will be taken care of by my dazzling company. I kid, of course. But, jokes apart, this is one of the two things from my childhood that I haven’t been able to overcome. And to hear Shyama might begin on that hellish, corrosive journey paralyses me. Especially since she isn’t a fat kid. Just like I wasn’t. But I didn’t believe that of myself. And I am hoping she will be different and believe it when I tell her she isn’t fat.

At that moment, with anxiety rioting inside me, distress at the future of this lovely child suffering at the hands of the insanity of an ideal size, I didn’t have any solutions. Anger was foremost. I told her she was just right and shouldn’t listen to teasing. Next I asked her who it was in particular that teased her. “Everyone except K,” she says, mentioning the one girl as tall as her. Shyama and this girl are the tallest kids in class at 4’4”. I am glad she said that because I used that to tell her that maybe the rest just wanted to be tall like her and because K was already tall enough, she didn’t feel the need to tease Shyama. That seemed to satisfy her a bit. I tried not to preach but I did tell her that she was getting *plenty* exercise in school and that she was healthy, happy and running around, and had a bright bright soul; that’s all that mattered. I then told her to go to sleep and that we would talk about this in more detail tomorrow.

As soon as she was asleep, I reached out to two friends, both parents. I had no idea how to deal with this. While it wasn’t bullying and Shyama is no shrinking violet, my concern was negative body image issues. One friend instantly put me at ease by telling me of her own experience. She said something so wonderfully, sweetly vulnerable and true.  All the time, I was cool inside but didn’t feel it outside because I wasn’t the right size, she said. And it rung true. Another friend suggested I tone down the import of it by not giving it too much attention so Shyama gets the message that size isn’t important.

But tomorrow morning came bright and early and before she had brushed her teeth, Shyama said, Amma, you said we’d talk about something in the morning. I hadn’t forgotten, I told her. We bathed, breakfasted and buzzed off to the bus stop. Only this time, I had Shyama sit in the front next to me. I know she felt special; she stuck her tongue out her brother in the back. I asked her again, this time calmer, what her concerns were. She said I feel bad when I am called fat. We went over the ‘you’re not fat, you’re healthy’ routine, once more. Then I asked her if she believed she was fat. “Sometimes. But mostly I have great muscles,” she said. I then told her if she feels the need for a comeback, in a situation that she can’t handle,  she can always be kind and yet be teasing of her friends. “Go give them a shoulder hug and say ‘Hi Shorty!’” She giggled and said, “I’d never do that! It’d make them feel bad, amma.” The next best thing I could come up with took a while because I was too busy clearing the painful lump in my throat. If she wouldn’t turn it on them, I decided to let her risk being a bit haughty and say, “I am not fat, I am perfect.” Nothing gets people’s goat than someone thinking well of themselves. She gives me a big, heart-shatteringly innocent grin and says, “YES! I am perfect.”

I still have no solutions; I hope we will find our way together, she and I. I hope she won't let this nonsense that kids come up with affect her as searingly as it did me. Speaking of, how are these kids at *seven*  years of age picking this shit up? What kind of conversations happen at home for fat to be an issue when all you should be worried about this spending all your time at play? I will admit to cartoons ALL ganging up on fat people and making them figures of ridicule. But I would think steadying influences at home would teach kids that's not done. 

There are three things that guide me when I deal with this.
1. I want her to genuinely know size, not just hers, anyone's doesn't matter.
2. That there are loads of other things apart from body and size that she can and needs to spend time wondering about.
3. That she is healthy is the most important thing. After my initial confusion cleared, I decided to write her a story that will subtly talk about size without talking down to her. I have no idea what the story is going to be but it is what she loves more than anything else in the world, so maybe it will speak to her. Two friends suggested I show her achievers, just sort of slip it in, who are different in size so that she knows it doesn't need to hold her back, in case she ever comes to a point where she starts to believe her size needs to stop her. But the best advice came in the form of this:

Shyama came back from school yesterday and told me not many people teased her. And that she thought about it and didn’t want to tell them she was perfect. She wanted to tell them, “I am perfect the way I am and you are also perfect.”

Maybe I don’t have to worry after all.


Friday, 12 June 2015

Hadal, A review: Stunning lines, meditations on what it means to be a person, and the sameness of people.

(A shorter version of this first published here)

To read a work of fiction that is drenched with splendid lines, intense examination of human complexity and a scathing criticism of a country’s systemic failures isn’t easy. CP Surendran’s latest novel, Hadal, is all of this, including being a compelling, difficult read.
Hadal, a word referring to oceanic depths greater than 6000mts, is a befitting title for a book that is, constantly, wave after wave of tight story-telling, and imagery that has lent itself deftly to the author’s will.
Honey Kumar, a police officer who is transferred to Thiruvananthapuram after being accused of graft, might be called the protagonist of the book, but only just. A deeply complex man constantly in denial of everything within and without him -- a fact that repeats itself in his addiction to cough syrup, his compulsive grip and dwelling on a painful past, and an affinity for masks – Honey Kumar makes life miserable for Miriam Zacharias, a Maldivian national and an aspiring writer, who has come to Kerala in order to finish her book.
In a classic plot development, Honey Kumar propositions Miriam when he realizes she needs her visa extended; when the attractive Maldivian woman says no, Honey Kumar is unable to take rejection and goes down a destructive, vengeful path. Slighting him further is obvious proof that Miriam is having an affair with Paul Roy, a suave, charmer of a scientist who is also the director of an ISRO centre.
Honey Kumar, in pure rage and evil pain, puts two and two together and comes up with 35, thereby throwing Miriam and Paul into a spy-scandal whirlpool entirely of the police officer’s making.
If your memory goes back to the news from the 90s, the above synopsis will tell you that the book is based on the infamous ISRO espionage case where a scientist was kept in custody and tortured after being accused of passing on secrets to a Maldivian woman. It took nearly six years for the case to be dropped and considered baseless. The risk one runs with rooting a book in a true life incident is that readers tend to expect a spiced-up version of the sequence of events. If that’s what you are looking for in Hadal, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. Make no mistake, the ISRO espionage case only serves as a starting point for the meditative but rakish ride this book is.
Replete with detailed boxing references, Hadal carries an almost ghost-narrative of pain; masterfully sculpted meditations of the various kinds of pain a human being can experience. From Honey Kumar’s never-ending trauma at his mother’s near-comical death, his being caned as a child by Father Almeida (and his cruel, cruel taunt when the former visits the priest later in life) to the physical agony that the author puts Miriam, Paul, Honey Kumar’s left foot, an American anti-nuclear activist Haws and even a dog through, pain is a recurrent and startling theme. Sweat, rain, and even a drink become painful as does the book’s reading, but only because of the keen, uncomfortable truths it holds.
Marriage is the other idea that the book criticises. All the marriages in the book are crumbling relics: oppressive, unnecessary and soulless. Miriam, herself somewhat cold, is married to an alcoholic college professor who has been unemployed since the recent change of regime in her country.  Paul Roy is married to the irascible Grace, and is himself a bit of a philanderer. Honey Kumar’s parents’ inter-caste, inter-community marriage is passingly referred to as a mistake. Ram Mohan, Honey Kumar’s erudite, deeply sensitive and thinking boss, lives in a marriage that he is sure will kill him. His wife Anita is said to be heartless and, in a shocking moment of realization on Ram Mohan’s part, completely wrong for the role of spouse and parent. Just like him. In detailing Ram Mohan’s marital trajectory, the language is often martial and you sense a parody, a role reversal, of the popular woman-stuck-in-a-bad-marriage stereotype. If Hadal’s characters are all heavy, burdened individuals careening to their inexorable fates along with the soul-searing rain that is constant in the narrative, the passingly-mentioned Anita is possibly the only one who seems empowered as she removes herself more and more from Ram Mohan’s life. Anita, and Vasu, an almost silent presence in the book.

The book’s greatest diatribe, however, is against the way systems in India work. Corruption, complete failure of humanity, a lack of basic facilities for its citizens and the scary things power and its illicit handling can do are all attacked in Hadal in biting, ironic, fluid passages that creep up on you, take hold and, sometimes, make you laugh in surprise.  Take, for example, an exchange between Ram Mohan and Honey Kumar at a point in the narrative where the former believes that all might not be as he thought.
“Honey Kumar, what do we think we are doing?”
“Getting to unearth an espionage racket?” …
“What’s the fundamental problems we face as a people?
Toilets? Sixty percent of India defecated in the open.  “Corruption?”

Dialogue between characters, in my opinion is incidental, in the book. There's no painstaking detailing of interaction between characters that furthers the story, no pauses and extensions. The more important dialogue, in fact, is an internal one. A constant making sense of the world they inhabit, a consistent attempt at understanding their own motivations, confusions, ruminating their fates, deciding their futures. There are no pauses in those dialogues; the relentless seeking of whatever resolution Miriam, Honey Kumar or Ram Mohan undertake is a constant gentle assault in the book, with no room to breathe. 

Speaking of relentless, the rain in Hadal is something else. A giant green monster breathing heaving and groaning at the universe and the machinations it holds within its belly. Read carefully enough, you can hear the rain long after you've finished the final pages of the book. Surendran's pen is perhaps most keen and strong here; the rain is a character in itself, almost influencing gently, like a reluctant, ancient puppeteer everything that happens in the book, in one way or another.

Silences in any book interest me and while this book is anything but silent (it is, in fact, worlds colliding), there are spaces and silences that I want to walk into and explore. Is there any truth to Ram Mohan feeling victimised in his marriage? Is Honey Kumar worthy of pity or should we revile him? What is Vasu's double life? Why does Miriam choose to go back on a safer path? What does Honey Kumar see in Ram Mohan that he offers kindess and deference to him that he extends to no one else? But silences are always telling and these form alternate stories that for me to personally explore, if I choose to.

Much like the author, the book is eminently quotable; but Hadal holds back in certain places: how it portrays its women, the forceful seeking of resolution and the inexplicable sadness of some of its characters. Surendran’s craft is impeccable, as you will discover, to your delight, in the many, many heart-stoppingly poetic lines in the book. Clever, unselfconscious word play peppers many chapters. (“Waxed legs, and veined too.”) Balancing poetic perfection, then, is humour that is subtle and wicked, coupled with a sense of irony that is reminiscent of M Mukundan, and dare one say, Marquez. The latter’s influence is also seen in the effortless weaving of absurd reality, and fantastical imaginings that the characters induce in their minds either through circumstance or substance. Or plain geriatric illness. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Traffic to Hadal

Bangalore is late
Oh! Bangalore is late
I wait, and two others,
They wait
For CPS, the eminently quotable,
Burning, hellish CPS

To launch the book they forgot
To bring the first time.

A broken door, and a friend waits
For a car in gentle Bangalore.
Oh! Bangalore is late
Bangalore is late
As we wait

For a word from Hades.