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.

L for Los Angeles

As young children having recently moved to Bangalore in 1999, my cousins & I were fascinated with the Bangalore sky. It seemed like it was full of possibilities in a way we hadn’t learned to look for in other cities that we’d lived in. It was here that we fully grasped the idea of an aeroplane. It was also the time when an uncle had moved to America for a job, the first one to go abroad in our family. And everytime we heard a plane going over, we’d run to the terrace to scream his name out loud & say byeeee, even months after his departure. We never got tired of believing that he could see us from up there.

Adichie observes in Americanah that the image of America as a country like any other, with states & borders never seems to solidify in our heads. If one is going to the US, they are going to America – not Boston or LA or New York. So when I was accepted for a one month internship program at Seattle University, I didn’t register the Seattle bit until I was physically there. What did I know – I’d only packed my suitcase to go to America. As part of the scholarship, we were taken to Los Angeles, San Francisco, & Washington D.C. It hits me only now as I am writing this, that it really was as great as it sounds.

In films, Los Angeles was where Jackie Chan & Chris Tucker drove each other mad in Rush Hour. They ate something called Camel’s Hump in China Town, fought about whose dad was a better policeman, & danced to Edwin Starr’s War. 

In The Holiday, Los Angeles became Iris’ escape. Before LA, she was weepy & unhappy. In LA, she finds what is called ‘gumption’ & falls beautifully out of love with an asshole. I wanted to find my gumption too. And even if Hollywood films had shown me Los Angeles as somehow less appealing than New York, I was most curious about why white women were always running away to Los Angeles when New York or wherever else became unbearable. I was convinced of this when Joan Didion did the same.

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None of this was playing in my mind when I landed in LA though. I was distracted by my inability to touch the city. It wasn’t simply a question of size – in how big LA was & how small I – or perhaps it was. Los Angeles was like a hippogriff that I was afraid of not being able to pet on my own & certainly not in any grand way. This left me feeling crippled in part by guilt because I wasn’t doing a good job of being by myself, & in part by a maddening desire for female friendship. After all, the light & sky in LA was perfect for a lifelong female friendship. I needed her badly – someone to go on long walks, drink wine, eat crabs, watch films, and laugh loudly with.

We were a team of 21 & had pretty much settled in. At lunch that day, stuffing my face with hot seafood egg rice & cold beer at Grand Central Market, I decided I’d make more of an effort to be less afraid of the city. It wasn’t going to be easy – we had come across stories of people being mugged, shot at, and worse.

Even so, our first night in LA, a few friends & I walked to Clifton’s Republic in downtown LA. The decor was bewildering. There were huge taxidermied animals staring at us from corners, sudden upsurges of trees & shrubs from floors & walls, a 3-storied redwood tree (which I later found out was fake) shot straight up from the ground floor, and oddly placed furniture which made it difficult to have conversation. The deafening music didn’t help.

My friend, Esra from Turkey ran up the stairs because she sensed a whole other kind of music coming from the floor above. We followed her to see the craziest ballroom dance floor where people were dancing wildly. It was like a scene from a Jazz film – although I don’t know what that is. A bunch of musicians led by a young singer were performing in one corner, & in another, a small bar was serving classic cocktails. My friend, Simão from Portugal & I had an old fashioned, & then another, & then another, until we lost count.

I’d never heard live music like this before. My body began humming & my legs wouldn’t stop moving. Esra & I walked slowly to the dance floor like cats, & looked around. We were surrounded by couples & the more I watched them dance in sync, the more conscious I became but Esra who always sings her own tune was saying fuck you to people so delightfully, I stopped caring too. I saw only one gay couple on the floor who moved boisterously. On the other side, a woman wearing a retro yellow dress danced with a man like in La La land.

When it was time to leave, we didn’t want to leave even if our bodies had shut down hours ago. The trouble was that none of us had any memory of how we’d gotten in. We couldn’t find the exit.The place had grown arms of floor after floor. It had swallowed us in & it looked like we were in 5 different shooting locations at the same time. 

One floor had a wilder party going on with rock music. Esra & I needed to use the loo & wandered into a Japanese Tea Room with zen music playing in the background, & people chit chatting calmly. We hurried out because we wanted to check if we were still in the same place. By the time we located the exit, we’d seen two more rooms with equally absurd things happening. 

It was 1 am. We stopped for some shawarma & trotted back to our hotel.

The next day, we went to see the Hollywood sign – perhaps the only touristy place we visited in LA, and I couldn’t stop smiling because the previous night, I’d stolen a lot from the city when it wasn’t looking. Big cities like LA can only be petted when it wasn’t looking directly at us.

That evening, we went to The Museum of Jurassic Technology – the strangest museum I’d ever been to. It curated memory & forgetting. And much like Clifton’s Republic – this was a cabinet of curiosities. One showcase featured a plate of Madeleines accompanied by Marcel Proust’s literature about the same. Another, a video explanation on the theory of forgetting, another – dead baby clothes, & diseased fingernails.

On the topmost floor, there was a tea room. A woman emerged from nowhere & asked if I wanted tea. I nodded furiously. She gave me black tea with lemon in a small vintage cup. I took it outside on the terrace, where there were doves, plants, & a small boy happily chasing the doves.

An old man sitting on the stone bench was playing the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish folk instrument) while a massive dog looked on. The water from the fountain continued rising & falling. Esra & I sat, listened, & wept silently. Something happens to people inside this museum. Something had happened to Esra & me. We promised each other that we’d never try to understand it. 

When we went back home, we told each other we’d try to recreate what we felt there. We called it The Museum Moment. During the last week of our stay in America, Esra & I returned to The Museum Moment over & over again – each time weeping our hearts out.

Later that night, they took us to a Karaoke bar & egged on by what had happened at the museum & how much of the city I had managed to pocket, I braved singing Rasputin- a song I’d first listened to back when our TV at home had a new music channel where people could phone them up to request songs.

That was the first & only time I’d actively listened to English songs and Rasputin was the only song my mother had recognized & I was surprised because she had never shown any interest in English songs before. She said it was a famous song in her college. I don’t know who requested Rasputin but it always came at the same time each day, & somehow that night in LA, in that dark room full of strangers who were quickly becoming more than that, I found the gumption to sing Rasputin badly & dance madly.

Next morning, when we discussed how crazy the night had been, someone made it a point to say that my song had been too long. I smiled. Normally, I’d have been bothered by how unnecessary the comment was but like Iris, I had recently acquired gumption so I didn’t have to care.

On the last day, I went to the LA Public Library where Octavia Butler wrote often. I had half a mind to go begging for directions from anyone I saw — ‘Kind person, please take me to the table where Octavia Butler wrote’

Walking aimlessly, I reached a long hall with bookshelves & writing tables. At the end of the hall to the left, where there was most light, I saw a bunch of small tables with lamps. I picked a random table, decided this must be where she wrote, plonked my ass in the chair, pulled out my journal & wrote in big, bold letters, ‘OCTAVIA BUTLER WAS HEREEE’

I’d just read Parable of the Sower so the whole thing was supremely real. It was a perfect day made even more perfect when at the library gift shop, I found a Joan Didion tote bag that was obviously made for me.

Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would one day walk the streets of Los Angeles in motherfucking America & tell myself ‘Joan Didion must have walked here’

I’d always dreamed of beginning a conversation with the line, ‘So when I was in LA five years ago…’ & had no idea how the rest of that sentence would go because I only cared about the first part. I am now thrilled beyond measure that I can finally say ‘So when I was in LA…’ & feel assured that the second half of that sentence will be as crazy as the first. I just have to wait for five years now.

When you give hunger food, it will swallow it whole with everything it has. It’s what my people do when we are given an opportunity. It’s what my father does with mutton chops – he chews & sucks it inside-out until it’s bone dry.

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