Categories
Travel

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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Categories
In Between

What 2019 taught me

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At a Gender Bender panel last year, Paromita Vohra said that paying attention to something was a way of loving it. It was a truth that I could hold in my hands for hours — and be struck with its simple marvels for a long time after.

2019 was great, funny, curious, strange, and sad. But I wasn’t always paying attention to it when it was happening. After months of feeling divorced from my many versions, I am here today to pay attention to the year that was and to all the versions of me that were. If this is too self-indulgent for you: get over yourself, it’s my website, I paid for it, I’m not going to write about your thatha here.

*I spent the morning of the first day in 2019, sitting at home, and applying for an internship program in Seattle. It was a long shot and I was sure my CV was nowhere close to meriting any notice. It was a one-month program and it felt surreal to be applying but I had fun putting together my CV and taking measure of how much work had been done and how much more remained. Co-wrote a piece for News 18 here.

*Later that month, I wrote about what it’s like to be Dalit and a teacher in a classroom full of Savarna students – here. The piece had been writing itself for a while before it came out, as was the follow-up piece written in a state of serious giggles.

*I haven’t had a stable February memory since 2013, thanks to Meta. I wrote about Meta 2019 here and here.

*In March, I wrote about filmmaker Jyoti Nisha here and paid attention to a song like I never have, and wrote about it here.

*In the mad rush of lab exam season one March morning, I got a call from the US Embassy with a bit of good news. I was standing at my table at work, shuffling through papers, waiting to start the exam, when the woman I was talking to said that I had been selected for the internship. I smiled, went to the bathroom and hugged myself. I couldn’t believe it, and as it happened, I wouldn’t believe it even until 3 months later, when I was boarding the plane to Seattle. I was happy but more worried. That’s the thing with dreams – when you reach there, you are so worried about things that could go wrong that you don’t pause to congratulate yourself for things that did go right.

*April was a good writing month, but a slow reading month. I am still very worried about how long it takes me to finish reading books. Reviewed Kancha Ilaiah’s and Yashica Dutt’s memoirs. Went to Goa alone and made a dog friend named bleach.

*May was spent lying in bed with the fan on full speed, reading Love in the Time of Cholera, eating avocados, and waiting for Seattle to happen.

*In June I was swallowed whole by Deborah Levy about whom I wrote here. After June 28 my time wasn’t mine until I returned from Seattle on Aug 12. I still haven’t figured out a way to write about it. A short-story seemed liberating so I am working on one now. I read a bit, didn’t write at all but spent long hours in the library reading and dreaming about writing.

*August and September were slow. If it weren’t for Kate Hepburn, I would have perhaps never recovered from Seattle.

*October 10 is World Mental Health Day and I wrote “I can’t be depressed, I am Dalit.” The thrill to write it arrived one morning when I was watching Trevor Noah’s interview of Oprah and the phrase ‘I can’t be depressed, I am Black’ struck me like an answer I had been looking for.  Sometime in September Parodevi mailed (took deep breaths but still died!) to ask if I’d like to curate a Sexy Saturday Song list for Agents of Ishq. I had fullto fun writing it even though I was confused between Silk Smitha and Dhanush. Although now that I look back, I wish I’d watched more Dhanush songs. Silk Smitha I am saving for myself. I am afraid my affair with her is longer, and much more passionate.

*Later that week I went to Tubingen, Germany to talk to students and faculty at the University of Tubingen. This was at the Department of Anthropology which was in a castle on top of some hill. I walked a lot, ate some interesting potato-meat things, drank a lot of wine and made friends. Loved being here although I couldn’t get much alone time. Even so, I stole an hour one evening to follow the sound of the hang drum. A bunch of people were playing it, sitting out in the open and I sat outside a cafe, drinking wine and listening to it. The memory of it still stings.

*Spent the next week back home writing a short story for the commonwealth prize. It was my first time living with a short story in my head like that. The earlier ones were all written innocently when I believed that I was writing important things, no matter how bad they were. I wish I had the courage that my past self did to write shittily and not be afraid of how shitty it was. The commonwealth story was shitty to say the least and I was supremely embarrassed to send it. But I want to get better and will not stop trying. Met an editor interested in a book. But more on this when I work on it properly.

*In November, I went to Maldives with the fam. It was a huge party with my two new-born nephews also. Absolutely no reading- writing happened. I stuffed my face with food, drank a lot, and was finally brought to admitting that I love kids, even more when they are not mine, maybe perhaps especially because they are not mine. I love being an aunt – I get all the good stuff – the laughs, the fun, the cute little edible fingers and toes and cheeks. Hanging out with them makes me happy. I love them a lot because I really like them and because I am convinced I never want to be a mother. Came back for a birthday that was on a Sunday. Went to Monkey Bar, ate pork curry and rice – said tearful byes.

*Started reading Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men published by Navayana. Felt like I was getting closer to understanding the artist that is Babasaheb. The book reminded me of the times in which he’d have had to do research and write, surrounded by Savarna people who thought they knew better. No one else makes me want to work my ass off more than this man. The book review was published here. It’s my first for print and I am happy. Speaking of work, November 20 was my seven-year anniversary with the department. I am extremely grateful to all the people who love this place like I do, and also to all the people who hate it. Savarna hate deserves sympathy.  Paapa what else can they do? Cow dung is getting over, arms and all must also be hurting by now no? Do you like our sarees at least? Everyday we are wearing two-two only for you.

*December made me squeeze out this piece in two days. I was terrified of not making it, of not being good enough but pulled it off and it’s now my second byline for print. Has a caricature of my moothi also 🙂 Went to Dilli to conduct a writing workshop for my babes at AIDMAM. Spent long hours talking to my sisters, watching films, drinking wine, and eating chocolates. We wrote about love this time, about crazy aunts, and about wicked bananas. No one writes like Dalit women do because no one laughs like Dalit women do. Bookended this fab year at Goa. Read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, swam in the ocean, ate at Bhatti village, read Miranda July and felt like I only want to read short stories all my life without ever worrying about wanting to write one, wept and drank a lot. Invented a word – epipoofy. Wishing all single ladies loads of epipoofies in 2020.

I became more of a person last year, and yet I find myself thinking about the girl from 2015 who I am always working and writing for. She took forever to recognise humiliation and when she did, stopped writing – fearing what they would say, fearing what they had already said. She would certainly not approve of using third-person to talk about herself. But somehow in that ordinary moment of helplessness, putting up a picture of Babasaheb next to her made her feel extraordinarily powerful.

When having survived feels powerful, little else can equal that.

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Categories
Teaching

We is

As part of the Study of US Institutes (SUSI), teachers from 17 countries were invited to Seattle University to learn more about contemporary American literature. This happened over six weeks, two of which were spent on study tours in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. In DC, we were introduced to a poet and a musician and here’s a little something about the evening spent with them.

Samuel Miranda and Pepe Gonzalez are full of love. One Friday evening in DC, we walked with them into American Poetry Museum. It was a small, bright room with books, and art work all around. On a table by the entrance there was an old typewriter sitting quietly.

I didn’t know much about Sam and Pepe except that they both had the kindest smiles. Earlier that evening when they had introduced themselves to us so happily, you could tell they were the kind of people around whom it’d be difficult to remain unhappy, bored or tired. Exactly the kind of people the world needs more and more, especially today.

Sam read out poems from his book ‘We is’ while Pepe played the double bass. It was my first time seeing–listening to poetry being accompanied by music or was it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. Because on stage his poem held hands with his music and I couldn’t tell what was feeding what but it grew together.

Sam asked, ‘How many of you have known and lost students to bullets?’ and some of us raised our hands. I felt a chill. I didn’t have to look around to know that enough of us had lost students to guns. He read out a poem called Traffic Light Shoot-Out.

“The bicycle’s hooded rider
was a stranger. A body. A corpse.
A corpse I knew
when it still had breath”

Sam read his poems with an intensity and calm that closed old wounds and opened new ones. Pepe smiled with his eyes. I have never seen a musician make so much eye contact with his smile. There was something oddly calm and powerful happening in the room. Most of us couldn’t hold back our tears, some wept openly, some swallowed painfully, some watched Prof C crying and broke down. I withdrew deeper into the folds of my dress and felt smaller than I ever have.

“We is not the singular
dotted i, black figure against
white background.

… We is the traffic
rushing past the living
and the dead
forgetting to write our songs down
breathe into Chinese medicine bottles
so we can heal the wounds
of our entrances and exits…”

When the stage was open for us, I didn’t move. I have never been one to volunteer to do anything. But something in me had moved enough to want to share with them all my grandmother’s mad stories, and the stories of the women I have known and loved. And so I did. I told them about Mouma’s magic blouse, about the woman who challenged power by refusing to cut her hair, about how she hired people to stand on top of stools to pour water down her long, long, hair. And about the woman who rubbed wild flowers on her body early in the morning so she could hide the smell that disgusted those who refused to give her tea.

When we reached the end, evening had become night and we had been vulnerable with each other in the way only citizens whose countries are vicious can be. We had exchanged fears, stories, and histories and as we hugged each other — I wondered if the power-mongers lurking on the outside of poetry in their country, and mine would continue to be so hateful if they knew how much love there was inside. But maybe I was being too ambitious.

I let myself be dissolved in the moment and hugged them all openly.

This morning, I thought of that moment and was suddenly reminded of love – once again – of how much love we are capable of and how often we forget to remind ourselves of this.