Categories
In Between

Cielo Drive, Didion, & Dawn

I have been obsessed with the Cielo drive murders. It began one ordinary morning three days ago, when I was minding my own business by not paying any attention to deadlines. I was watching Didion again with my breakfast and we got to the point where she describes sitting in the pool when news of The Manson murders reached her. 

The 60s ended for her with these murders, she says. And for the first time in the many times I’ve watched the documentary, I felt compelled to dig into the murders. The thing with culture, contrary to what I believed all this while is that it is sometimes as alien to the person in it, as it is to someone outside. That was the point of  ‘the center will not hold’

Why and how – what kind of dark instinct could cause someone to drive to a celebrity’s house and murder a pregnant woman and her friends? But it didn’t occur to me that everyone who heard it in 1969 found it just as confusing as I did in 2020 hearing about it in my Bgudi home.

When I first watched it, many things about the documentary didn’t make sense to me. And I assumed someone who was born and brought up in America might find it easier to understand. Three days ago, I realised that even Didion wasn’t clear about what the hell was going on. Of the many things that I found puzzling was why strangers lived with one another in big mansions at Hollywood. Firstly, I thought only film stars lived there. Secondly, wasn’t it weird for married people with a child to have loud musicians over at their house all the time? And just what in the world did Didion mean when she said they had no idea who was sleeping at their house of 28 bedrooms?

Turns out she was just as lost as I am about the whole thing. She was just moving with things and when they got unbearable (drugs on her child’s bedroom floor) – she wanted normalcy, silence, order.

I can’t believe there’s the slightest chance that I might have driven past the Cielo Drive last year at L.A. I am wildly mad at myself for not having been in the mind space to absorb the city as deep as I know I have the capacity to.

Like one waste body, I was thinking constantly of internal group politics. Gahhhhh. Why does it always happen that I don’t know how to make friends and if I do, I don’t know how to keep them, and if I can’t, I don’t know how to still have the time of my fucking life? I want too much. I still think it would have been perfect to have found my soul mate in LA with whom I could’ve walked its slopy streets, drank its orange sun with some tall drinks, and talked endlessly about women and writing and stories and love.

I spent the last two days watching one film after another on the Manson murders, watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which I found funny and very well-done. Everything from the loud, wet plop that I came to look forward to with delightful anticipation every time Brad Pitt emptied the can of dog food onto a plate — to the conversation DiCaprio has with the intimidating little girl who tells him ‘And if I can be a tiny bit better, I want to be’ which became my motto for the night — I loved.

I can never understand what the fuck people mean when they say things like ‘didn’t reach expectations’ or ‘overrated’ or ‘hyped’ – Why do you think it’s about you? And why the insistence to measure everything watched, heard, and read in a system of numbers and ratings? Doesn’t your body watch the film along with you? Even in the most dabba film in the history of the world, you can’t find a scene that reached out to you, and held your attention?

When you say something is ‘so overhyped, it scares you to watch/read it’ – you are saying that you value other people’s judgements over yours and your body’s so much – that you don’t think you can muster the capacity to allow room for art to stand on its own with you.

When did we become bigger than art? Who are these important people who can make room for the hype to reach them but not the films and books? Pah. Self-importance is yet another prized Savarna possession. The Avarna relationship to art on the other hand is far more reliable. It’s you – your body – your eyes- and whatever it is you are breathing in. That is all. In the arms of an Avarna romantic, hype dies, math dies, and so does the English-medium love for logic and neatness.

This doesn’t mean you force yourself to feel and love everything you watch and read (although I don’t see the problem with that). No no. It means you believe in the capacity of even the most badly done film or play or book to have its moments. Didion said it best – “Let me lay it on the line: I like movies, and approach them with a tolerance so fond that it will possibly strike you as simple-minded. To engage my glazed attention a movie need be no classic of its kind, need be neither L’Avventura or Red River, neither Casablanca nor Citizen Kane; I ask only that it have its moments.”

Spent the day reading and dreaming about Dawn Powell. Her diary entries are just thrilling as her short stories. And I am feeling delicious feelings in my stomach about stalking yet another writer and eating her words inside out.

Read a few bits from Didion’s The White Album and am in awe of how her mind is what I am actually reading when I am reading her – every jump, map, note, flutter is readily available. How it would be to own her mind! Reminds me of a Borges short story called ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ in which various people come to own Shakespeare’s memory in the hope of being able to write like him, they can’t and keep looking for ways to get rid of it. Lol.

Jamaica Kincaid is yet another writer giving me butterflies. This story called Figures in the distance blew me away. A young girl is obsessed with death and tells the story of each dead body she hears and dreams about. Her mother’s hands catch dying people all the time and the girl grows more and more curious.

Storytelling becomes so much more intimate when a woman reads out another woman’s story, and a woman watering plants, and adjusting the phone tucked into her waist, listens to it and believes that it’s all she wants to do for the rest of her life.

Categories
Fiction

For the love of Keret

short short nothings II

After the zoom meeting, we sat in the board room to go over it. Insi, who had missed the meeting was next to me and Sharan, next to her. We were filling her in on what she had missed and how everyone had looked (Simba’s hair, Fiona’s children who kept peeking in and giggling, Nat’s wedding)

Mia was sitting at the back and I felt ecstatic that for once, her plans hadn’t worked. She was quick to strategise seating arrangements for herself so she wouldn’t not be the centre of conversation but I couldn’t tell why she’d missed this one. How was it possible that Sharan was sitting here, and Mia wasn’t?

Sharan told Insi that Simba was not doing so well in the pandemic. His university was unstable and he had been looking at other options. I went a step further and confirmed that he had told us that he had been fired. Sharan looked disturbed. Without betraying any kindness in his eyes, he shook his head and told me “I’m sorry, but I don’t think this bit of news is yours to tell. It’s Simba’s”

I felt my head reeling. I looked around to see if Mia had heard and watched me being shoved into my place. She was engaged in a lively chat with others, and no one seemed to be paying any attention to what had just happened. Insi herself was a blur between Sharan and me. It didn’t matter what she thought.  But I loudly agreed with Sharan. “Yes yes, you are absolutely right. It’s not my news to share. I’m so sorry”

Sharan continued talking to Insi and I couldn’t hear anything he said. I was distracted by how easily he had made his discomfort known and how despite being told off, I wasn’t feeling resentful towards him. I felt a mad urge to undo what I had done, to impress him somehow before the day was over so he wouldn’t have to carry his bad opinion of me into the next day and forever after that. 

I wished I had kept quiet. It’s so charming to watch women not as desperate as I am, those who firmly seem to know what to say when. I wished I had that fierce cross-legged independence. Next time, I told myself.

Mia was laughing.

Categories
In Between

For tonight, Mary Oliver

Needed to read this today to be grateful for words, and a tomorrow where these words will still be here, sitting like always, and I can give them a stir and make them do things for me.

Forty Years by Mary Oliver

for forty years
the sheets of white paper have
passed under my hands and I have tried
    to improve their peaceful

emptiness putting down
little curls little shafts
of letters words
    little flames leaping

not one page
was less to me than fascinating
discursive full of cadence
    its pale nerves hiding

in the curves of the Qs
behind the soldierly Hs
in the webbed feet of the Ws
    forty years

and again this morning as always
I am stopped as the world comes back
wet and beautiful I am thinking
    that language

is not even a river
is not a tree is not a green field
is not even a black ant traveling
    briskly modestly

from day to day from one
golden page to another.

Categories
Fiction

For the love of Keret

Short short nothings.

I told Amita that at the training programme last week, they made us stand in a circle, remove our shoes (and socks) and step into the shoes of those standing next to us. This was to teach us what it’s like to literally stand in someone else’s shoes. Amita slapped her forehead. When the session was over, I told her, I felt bad for the organisers. They had even the most empathetic person in the room now permanently repulsed to the idea of placing oneself in someone else’s shoes, even metaphorically.  

Her eyes glowed with terror when I told her how when I had put my feet into the very big shoes of the man next to me, there was a squelching sound and the wet horror of what I assumed was sweat which swallowed all of my five toes. She pulled the slap down to her eyes and then wiped the karma all over her face.

I didn’t tell her about Suman from Chemistry who had straight up refused to stand in my shoes. (‘Uh uh – no, not happening’)

Amita didn’t have to sit through the training because her migraine had arrived that morning and had shown no sign of retreat. Pregnant with relief, she sighed inaudibly but I caught it when her exhaling back became suddenly aware and straightened itself audibly.

We were in the canteen. My green tea was cold and her badam milk was covered with cream. She pinched it with her index and thumb finger and put it in her mouth. 

Categories
In Between

Stupid

Oh how stupid I’ve been. Life itself is a distraction. It distracts me from living. So much of what I do is a response. To be better, to be good, to make it count. What kind of a soulless way to live is that? So far I’ve felt most alive when I don’t respond to anything, especially time. I’ve felt alive when I am learning, when I’m watering plants and listening to short stories, when I am discovering someone’s reading life, when I feel the itch to write & succumb to it wholeheartedly, full-bodily, beautifully – when I am hardly aware of time.

This beautiful blog reminded me that I am not really living. Why do I even bother doing anything that is not living? For now, this means giving myself permission to be swallowed by books and being unwilling to part with time to do anything else. Gahhh

Categories
Caste Writing

Not going to stop

The distress about Dalits being able to access reservation and social capital is somewhat similar in that it upholds the argument that Dalits have unfairly and insincerely used something in their favour to promote themselves. You are saying that their achievements (however little or nonexistent) are always the result of somebody else’s hard work, friendship, and favour; that they have had to do no work to access the privileges they appear to be enjoying; that their work had nothing to do with their “capital” – social or otherwise. The erasure of work and merit from a Dalit person’s journey is violent.

***

Detour: While I still haven’t learnt how to take a moment to pause when my work is attacked, I am only now coming to the idea that I need to recognize it for what it truly is – a distraction. Meaning, it doesn’t merit more than one nod, two sighs, three teas and then – back to work.

But I feel compelled to protect my work because I don’t know who else is going to do it for me. I don’t see why people should take the effort to slip out of their day into mine only to vent bitterness. What instinct can cause people to lose themselves so uncontrollably to hate? And why am I expected to rise above and not make it about myself when my work is being questioned? I’m sure people will stop saying ‘You are not your work’ if they had any idea about how caste functions.

I spent the last three days responding to hate with anger. I was distracted. I couldn’t read or write without looking back, without feeling that someone was attacking something valuable and that I had to be there to protect it, not here – reading. I longed to go back to the week before where I’d settled into a routine of reading, listening to podcasts, and watering plants. Thankfully, after days of restlessness and the inability to read, I arrived at Toni Morrison’s words and now feel purged.

Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

I’m partly charmed by how easily this is also about caste. An attack on your work is a summon. It keeps you from working. That is its purpose – to stop you from doing what you really want to do. That is also the function of caste. It demands your full attention. It’s a trap. The more distracted you are, the longer they can keep you from working. Reading these words was like rubbing salt into the wounds of time wasted.

In an interview about writing Beloved, Toni Morrison was asked if she became as angry writing it as the reader was when they were reading it. “Is it possible for you to have written Beloved dispassionately?”

She says – “I couldn’t write it in anger. It is a paralyzing emotion. You can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, igniting feeling. I don’t think it’s any of that. It’s helpless. It is absence of control. And I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers, and clarity in order to write. Anger doesn’t provide any of that. I have no use for it whatsoever. I could be melancholy and I could be full of regret. But anger is useful to the people who watch it. It’s not useful to me”

When the interviewer misinterprets it to mean aloofness, she is quick yet patient to correct him – “Not aloofness. I am not aloof and unfeeling. I am an artist. It’s about putting those things in a different cauldron. My compassion could be just as harmful, my love, my fervor too. But to write a book, I must be penetrating and roving. After all, art is but the restoration of order”

I feel saved by these words today and I wish I remember to be saved by them every other day.

In memory of those who stood for a long time holding cow dung in their hands, and those who earnestly and diligently continue to do so – I am celebrating my blog. It is my version of the ‘extra saree’. This is my capital. I learnt how to write here. Keep throwing. I’ll keep writing. Not going to stop even if you stop throwing ❤️

It might also do me some good to remember that summer of 2018 when I was reading whatever I could find by Elif Batuman, and bothering those around me with questions on freedom, work, & love. Something about how women manage to find & keep joy in life.

A writer I really admire had told me this:

“I never ever feel the whole world is attacking me. I have no engagement with the whole world. I am very very interested in the opinions and judgements of a small group of people and even there much much much less than I did in my 20s. I don’t believe the whole world is interested in me either”

I was reminded of this today and want to print it out and keep it on me at all times. It makes me zoom out of myself for a bit and look at everything from a distance, always a relief since it’s so difficult to zoom out when anger takes over.

You can listen to Morrison’s interview here.

Categories
Caste

Is it THAT hard to leave us alone?

Journalism is no one’s father’s property.

I’ve seen a gate keeping mentality practiced by some journalists in upholding a Brahmanical distinction between what is pure journalism & what isn’t, what is serious hard-core journalism & what is chotabheem journalism.

One of them says ‘writing opinion pieces doesn’t make anybody a journalist.’ This was said in response to a tweet where I’d listed out the Dalit & Bahujan writers, journalists, & activists I’d invited to talk to students (since he was asking for percentages, I gave him names)

Dalit women activists talking about their experiences with upper caste men who threatened them when they were trying to put together a fact finding report about the rape and murders of Dalit women in Haryana and Jharkhand is not journalism?

A Dalit writer talking about Savarna gatekeeping in film writing/criticism is not journalism? A Dalit Transwoman, talking about her struggles with identity & writing her autobiography is not journalism?

A 92-year-old Dalit man talking about his experiences with caste is not journalism? There were Dalit students & teachers who were listening to him that day, hanging on to every word he was saying. He talked fiercely about caste & his school days on a panel with two Dalit students who had read his book, who had never before talked in front of an audience but inspired by the 92 year old man who called himself 29, they talked just as fiercely. This is not journalism?

A Bahujan writer talking about how he began writing, & how he now deals with criticism of his writing is not journalism? It may mean very little to you but having such writers come & talk about their experiences to Dalit students unlocks things that aren’t easy to understand. To begin with, it gives us hope to write & keep writing, even amidst Savarna gate keeping.

As a teacher, I’ve also come across Dalit & Bahujan students who deny caste, become aware of it later & figure out their own ways of negotiating with it. And it is their freedom to do that, as much as it is their freedom to not want anything from me or my work.

Now coming to the actual keeda of the matter, if your question is why wasn’t ‘I’ – self appointed god of journalism- invited – I can perhaps address that differently. But don’t mansplain Dalit women about what journalism is. Some of us have survived without your mentorship all these years, & will perhaps continue to survive. The goal of most writing courses is not as ambitious as producing Pulitzer Prize winners or even hard core journalists.

My goal is to keep students interested in life, in writing, and in wanting to become independent. And again this is subject to what they want to do. If that doesn’t allow me to be a godmother, I am ok with that.

I teach a paper on resisting caste. Students come to the classroom with set ideas about what to expect & find it hard to deal with a paper that isn’t taught like how other Indian literatures are. It has taken time to get to a position where I have the liberty to set a syllabus where I can only put Dalit, Bahujan & Adivasi writers but teaching it hasn’t been easy either. I can only teach that paper emotionally. And students aren’t used to that.

They demand intellectual rigour where I can only offer my own vulnerability. But a paper like this helps Dalit students find themselves & embrace their identities. And this is a big deal for me, even if it means that they don’t go to ACJ after & change the world. Not all uplifted people go to ACJ. Read this piece for some insight – http://www.opendosa.in/shoes-to-fill-a-journey-of-discovery-and-acceptance/

As for the claims that the Dalits who have social capital aren’t doing anything to uplift those who don’t. Best to begin practice at home. And even better if we stop imposing our ideas of upliftment on others. Even Ambedkar didn’t impose. Who are you?

Someday I want to see Dalit writers writing fiction for The New Yorker, I want to see them writing food essays for Gourmet, I want to see them screen their films at every international film festival. Is that wrong? Is it wrong to want those things for myself?

If there weren’t such persistent & dramatic Savarna gatekeeping here, we wouldn’t have to dream internationally. Sometimes our survival doesn’t seek other people’s permission or mentorship. I’ve learnt that the more visible you are, the more irritated they get.

It pisses them off to see that we are writing, teaching, surviving. But Ambedkar taught me to keep working despite who says what & it’s what I’m going to do. If that screws with your plans, Jai Bhim to you.

Some of us are not interested in being champions of revolution nor do we need your awards or rewards. We just want to work. Is it that hard to leave us alone?

Categories
Writing

It’s all I got: Keret & Janet

First of all, Etgar Keret’s voice is fun. His ‘eys’ are a delight. Second of all, I want to punch myself for not having read Janet Frame earlier. On a films on writing spree many years ago, I downloaded An Angel at my table but never got around to watching it. Somehow New Zealand seemed distant.

Last year, I found, grabbed, and bought a second hand copy of An Angel at my table at Moe’s books. And that was it. A few days ago, I listened to this New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and felt rescued by Janet Frame.

I am forever grateful to the NYFP series which has given me a range of writers and their worlds to swallow from my Basavanagudi terrace where I water plants & wonder why the color green on my curry leaves is unconvincing.

In this podcast, Keret reads ‘You are now entering the human heart‘ a short story by Janet Frame. It is about a woman watching a museum attendant demonstrating ‘snake handling’ to a class of young children, and their teacher. He invites the reluctant teacher to hold the snake, telling her that the children wouldn’t want to hold the snake if she looked afraid so she must smile and pet the snake. Nothing happens and many things happen.

I read it with Keret’s voice narrating it slowly. In conversation with Deborah Treisman, Keret says that Frame writes to survive. He rarely feels that with other writers. Competence is one thing. “With competence, you can be a con man too. But writing to survive, to finalise something for yourself is something else entirely”

He is open to her writing in a way very few men are to women’s writing.

“I love her short fiction. I think there is something freeing about the way she writes. She doesn’t write for a goal. She just kind of floats or levitates. There is this feeling of zero-gravity I feel when I read her. The reader wants to forget everything and just be. Even though she was less well known than other award winning writers, writing like her wins you peace of mind. When she writes, she wants to figure out what the world and she are all about. She writes to feel less stranger to herself. And that’s something that I feel when I write”

When Treisman asks if that “works” for him, Keret says “Take a leaking roof. If you put a tissue paper and someone asks ‘does it work’? all you can say is ‘it’s all I got”.

When I began reading Keret, I remembered one strange evening in 2014 when I went to Alliance Française to attend the Israeli Film Festival. Some Savarna colleague and her husband were very offended. ‘Don’t you know what’s happening in the world? Why are you not political, blah blah.’

AM had a sharp response. Something about how politically correct Savarnas who are quick to feel offended by what others do, should perhaps also feel offended about living in a country led by a fascist. I noted that when I had said something similar but cruder – said Savarna woman protested, refusing to hear me out. Hearing it from AM, she shut up.

Either way, left to Savarna virtues, I never would have discovered the joy of reading someone like Etgar Keret. VN gave me her copy of The girl on the fridge for my birthday and I haven’t been the same.

Janet Frame had to write in severely threatening circumstances. Here is a bit of trivia:

“Following years of psychiatric hospitalisation, Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy that was cancelled when, just days before the procedure, her début publication of short stories was unexpectedly awarded a national literary prize” (Wikipedia)

Keret’s parents survived the holocaust. A question people continue to ask him is why he chooses to write fiction when he can write about ‘so much more’ – his parents’ survival, the holocaust, and what Israel is doing to the world. I believe these people have never read his work at all.

His fiction is a reminder of what’s possible when we continue to write in zero-gravity through the crushing weight of memories that hold us back. People with opinions will continue to tell others how they should write, live, behave but as long as you keep writing, you don’t even have to raise your middle fingers to them.

Categories
Books Writing

Chimmi & Zadie

In love with this stunning partnership, the grace to compliment one another on stage so willfully and mean it, the curiosity about each other’s writing that doesn’t seem scripted for stage and the readiness with which they embrace each other’s work.

And most of all, absolutely delighted that Adichie says this about Zadie:

“How happy I am to share the stage with Zadie. I have admired and followed Zadie’s work from the very beginning, from The White Teeth. And I’ve also really admired that she is this brilliant woman who is also a hot babe. I think it’s really important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes”

They discuss Americanah, race, racism, the importance of talking about hair, love, romance, writing, and sex. Adichie says that she based Americanah on the many Mills & Boon she read as a child. Such a slap on the faces of people who continue to propagate bullshit about high and low literature.

I like how happy they look. I like how they laugh and make the audience laugh. I like how they aren’t devoting any energy towards private and less private angers. Things white people, publishers, editors may have said but on this stage, they only have eyes and heart for writing.

Categories
Books Fiction Writing

Franny & Toni

Spent all of last week scrounging through everything Fran Lebowitz wrote and spoke. Read Beloved and came to discover Toni Morrison as a lot closer to me than I’d anticipated. My body is filled with her words and I’m letting them sleep inside as long as I can hold them there. But the better discovery was the close friendship between Fran and Toni. I am feeling an envy that is both happy and relieved. I’m excited to learn the things they said about each other.

Watching Fran is one kind of thrill. Reading Toni and realizing that my best writing years are yet to happen is another kind. Fran arrived in New York, much like Didion did. To write. To learn to write. Fran was barely 17. I want to go too. Discovering these women has made my resolve to see New York stronger. And so much that I don’t give a fuck about wanting to be special. I want to be as hopeful and as plain and as ordinary as those women were before they became famous. I want to see the city and feel the echo of their words in my eyes.

Stitcher is a gift. Here are some fab interviews that I loved by Etgar Keret, Claudia Rankine and Fran Lebowitz.

Keret narrates a funny incident involving his mother who, proud that her son had become a famous writer, made sure to ‘split’ her vegetable shopping just so she could return to the green grocer and say ‘you know my son’s story was published in the New Yorker’ while buying carrots – and then again — ‘you know he teaches in this great American University’ while buying cucumbers.

He says some really interesting things about fiction, something that I am getting more and more terrified of writing.

Claudia Rankine takes me back to my time at Seattle, and that evening we watched ‘Citizen’ performed powerfully on stage. So powerful that for the rest of the evening, I saw nothing but guilt and fear in the eyes of that one severely racist colleague.

I’m itching to write about it even as I gaze lovingly at the other three writing deadlines. Even so, I read this Paris Review Interview of Fran last night and went to bed happy and songful. She’s making me return to reading furiously. She says in an interview “If you want to learn how to write, and your parents are willing to pay obnoxious money to put you through a writing school, take that money, buy lots of books and read. It’s the only way to learn how to write”

In this interview, she says “But really, I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life”

Gahhhhh.