Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I'm using this post as a think-through, and not to arrive at any conclusions, so it's going to be problematic to think of this as anything but a sort of purging or catharsis.

Sometimes I feel very close to an anthropologist--the emic kind, not the etic kind. The emic kind is the person who is so involved within or implicated in the culture they are studying that their observations stem from close knowledge, involvement and even experience of the culture as a subject themselves. (If I'm reducing the definition, dear Sarah, you must forgive me). The same applies for me as a person. I am an emic person. I don't merely observe people as spectacles or as objects of study; I try becoming them. This becoming is not a literal thing--I have no desire to be in anyone else's place, but I wish to be part of an experience larger than the confines of my closed physical and mental space. So when I meet someone interesting-- a potential friend, a mere acquaintance, a friendly child, an interesting old man--I am drawn to their own interiorities. I implicate myself in their being by becoming more than a spectator. And clearly, this is a very rigorous and very exhausting process because I can only involve myself in so many people at once. The most invested and yet the most complicated of all these subjects, is of course, the person who borders on more than a friend, and more than a mere acquaintance. What do I do with this person? How much do I moor myself in an emic attachment? How much is the problem of falling in love a problem because I am just so completely lost in someone else's mental processes? Or worse yet, more. What really gets me is when I become the subject so fully in the process of this emic excavation that this other person has really taken over my role. How, then, do I stop being the observed?

What is worse is that I have begun to write love poems. After what seems like forever. And I really find that detestable. To write for him is to desperately use those words to grasp his face, some kind of futile attempt to circumscribe his presence in these letters, and that is totally frustrating. At some level, this truly is me, but at some other level, this is very unlike me. I detest attachment at this kind of primordial level. It makes me uncomfortable, and it makes me feel as though there is something beyond myself that keeps me grounded. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Just to be clear, I don't feel this way about every person I meet. It's just this one particular person who has had me revise my my-ness.

On another note, also, Mami thaathi passed away while I was in the US and the same thing happened as when thaatha died. I pulled out that book about what happens to the soul after death and couldn't just wrap my head around this absence. Surely it is a filling absence, one that has its presence flourishing elsewhere, but I am just never epistemologically satisfied with these pulls and pushes that emerge from the physical self. And often, I just want to not be me, this enclosure of boundaries, this head full of thoughts and this body that controls everything I do, or at least does so because I have no way of reining it in. Sometimes, and this will sound strange, I spend a lot of time just looking at my hands, and they feel alien. They feel as though they belong to someone else--like they've made from earth from someone else's backyard and as much as amma keeps commenting on how I stare at myself in the mirror, I can't help but feel completely alien in this thing. Sometimes, I think, when I buy a dress or something, how strange it feels to say that I am a size eight or something. I took this Bodylore course in my first semester at Mason and my professor spent a lot of time talking about what makes us us and how we use the body as a way of identifying with us-ness. But is that all I really want to do? Really? Sometimes when the slip disc comes back and the nerves pinch really hard, and I am lying down or something, I try feeling the line between my back and the bed, and to be really truthful, I can't feel it. It's not physical numbness; it's just that in those moments, I have to consciously bring myself to spell out that this is just a symptom, just a thing of physics and anatomy. That is indeed comforting. It is comforting to know that the vehicle is indeed what I am in control of and not vice versa.

Coming back, therefore, to the whole love problem, feeling this strangely comfortable otherness also makes me more aware of how much my own body controls me in those moments. I mean, have they found out where this love thing originates? Random people have theories about it and I remember watching this program on podhigai once where this shastrigal was trying to explain how the tying of the thaali was symbolic of some kind of mooring the self in another and vice versa. (Or maybe my understanding of it is totally messed up). But I found the whole thing amusingly and scarily too close to the truth. What is more confusing than some kind of ritualistically (or better yet, a spiritually sanctioned) otherness?

I am just glad that my subject is being highly recalcitrant and is honestly not interested in taking over the role of observer. Perhaps it is not the time for these kinds of attachments.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Moving, moving

Prefatory Note

I promised myself that the next piece of nonfiction I wrote would be a "serious" piece that I could add to my memoir-in-progress. (Is it really even in progress?) Oh, well, at least I tried. But the white space on the blog, or perhaps just the possibility of the fictional white space remaining unwritten presses down quite heavily on the mind. So I decided I would write. Also, many thanks to my lovely co-poet Moriah Purdy for her brilliant epigraph idea--looking up definitions before/ as one writes. Needless to say, this one is still in the smithy.


move., v.

a. Of a person or thing: to go, advance, proceed, pass from one place to another

b. spec. Of a celestial object: to travel in a regular path or orbit, or to appear to do so because of the earth's own motion; to exhibit real or apparent motion.

e. colloq. To go quickly.

3. a. intr. Of a person, a part of the body, etc.: to change position or posture; to exhibit motion or physical activity. In negative constructions (freq. in imper.): to remain still, not to stir.

d. intr. To bow in acknowledgement or salutation. Obs.

b. Of something mechanical: to revolve, to work. Of something on hinges, as a door: to turn.

c. to move to mind: to come to mind. Also to move of (also out of) mind: to be forgotten

9. intr. To incline, tend (to something, or to do something); to be favourable (toward a proposal). Obs.

10. intr. To proceed, emanate, or originate from. Obs.

--Oxford English Dictionary Online; accessed thanks to GMU's brilliant library

When he came into my life, I think I was most impressed by his ability to not consume caffeine and operate normally. Not even juice, actually. No. Just milk or hot chocolate, and that too, only on occasion. He was reticent and wasn't just someone who grew to enjoy my relatively bland Tambrahm booking, pepper rasams and whatnot; he actually grew to find something in common with me. Of course, we had no idea that this was nothing except a sort of elemental holding together, a sort of containment within a unit that did not draw out our individual desolations. Basically we were both outcasts, or more significantly, fancied ourselves to be. We had our individual insecurities. Perhaps his was the insistence of his family on his lack of academic and overall "achievement." My problems seemed to be quite the opposite-- I was tired of trying to be good. I wouldn't necessarily qualify as an overachiever, but I think I was sort of suspended between my desire to do what needed to be done (get on with life, choose a career and all that delightful growing-up) and what could not be done but lay somewhere just at the horizon, between those gaps, those boundaries, those self-contained vividities.

This Ramzan I felt our differences really consolidate. And I really look at that process as a constructive uncovering of what lay simmering underneath, a legendary, almost cliched clash-of-faiths/ civilizations scenario. One of those days, he came home and we decided to watch a movie. He sat next to me and I switched on the video, but the whole time, we were both thinking of how I was some kind of distraction, an infiltration of this sacred space, this silence that one needed to think about God (not Gods-- "us" Hindus and our postmodern comfort with multiplicity and simultaneity of divine existence confounds others). I withdrew, which I am sure is more frustrating than reassuring for the other people around me, since that only makes me more blatantly aggressive, more prone to clatter dinner plates, open the fridge loudly, spend whole evenings grading three student essays and guilt-tripping people on the phone with allegations that I have been "abandoned." As intensely aware I may be aware of these realities, I am no less inclined to act differently, even though I (in)sincerely try. From the first day we started talking, I spent an average of an hour or more talking to him, giving him updates on purchases, beverages consumed, general people-watching results, poems, etc, occasionally cajoling him into defining the nature of long-term commitment.

That was precisely the problem. In his rubric of existence, there is no place for "long-term" outside of the sacred precincts of the five pillars. This is not meant to be a demeaning statement, as perversely opinionated as it may sound. I empathized with his desire to understand what lay ahead of the lived experience, but I believe I was always the quintessential Balachander side-role character-- occasionally emerging from her preoccupations to essentially steal the proverbial cake from under the lead actors' noses. If you remember the role of Kalki's landlady in the film by the same name, you may recall her transition from being the wallflower, to the abused, the confident and then almost passionately invested mother character. Of course, the main character, Kalki, remains the focus of the film, but this other woman, a mixed bag of happinesses and betrayals comes off as having the richer life. There is an immediacy in attempting to be nonchalant or matter-of-factly while constantly struggling and failing miserably at doing so. There seems more satisfaction inherent in that struggle.

Recently, a friend, and perhaps it is most reasonable to admit that more than one friend, actually, suggested that I loved the drama, or rather, the dramatic itself. I may have tried smiling wryly, but I really doubt it turned out that way, because if anything, I am rather transparent about my insecurities, which is what makes me seem rather dramatic. And besides, the attempt at a wry smile is perhaps more dramatic than actually flashing one. So, what remains is this foiled attempt at being something and this something, I have grown to think, is the notion of the witness. Sometime midway through my writing program, even as I was teaching and learning how to guide my students towards this writing "ideal" that did not exist but had to still be discussed, I read poetry that was constantly called that of witness. The word interests me precisely because it is so closed--a gap, a line, a horizon pretending to be a boundary. For a writer, a poet especially, being a witness becomes an ethical obligation. (I think I've heard most poets in the US echo this sentiment, especially Srikanth Reddy and my guru Susan Tichy). This ethical consciousness becomes not a by-product of the poetry but a necessary consideration for the project of the poem. (The "project" of the poem, loosely put, is that which the poet thinks or aims for the poem to achieve, as broad as that sounds, and also how the poet intends to achieve this). So, in essence, my poems don't just land up being about my experience as a post-colonial female but emerge from a conscious realization of that process. (The Tamil word for realization is very important here-- uNarndhu, which indicates that the process is more dynamic and experiential than "realization" suggests).

However, as the term itself suggests, being a witness also implies that on is to some extent on the sidelines. As Susan Sontag says in her essays on photography, one must relegate oneself to observing primarily even as one experiences physical or less tangible things so that the process of recording begins even at that stage. There is some extent of reflection required, in inward-turning, I suppose. I think it's important, as digressive as it seems, to look back at a review of Rick Barot's book Want that I wrote for Eric Pankey's class called "21st Century American Poetry:"

Yet again, using these considerations of beauty, Barot brings us back to the question of the poetic self and what its “ethical” expression consists of. Do Barot and his poems’ speakers identify with the “old poet” of “Say Goodbye..” who is “so silent with grieving/ that he has to be given the word of his farewell,” or does Barot place himself as the young poet from “Psalm with a Phrase from Beckett” who is grappling between “narratives of desire” and presumably, the “Captivity Narrative” itself? Barot probably wants to reach out or atleast reshape the young poet, by suggesting new possibilities—“Let the offered living hand/ be an oar…/Because that is your singing too.” It thus seems as though Barot has reached a stage between his “old” and “new” poetic selves—a point where he acknowledges that it is acceptable to “drink the blue sludge/ of airplanes” as well as consider the more oblique “words exploding just under/ the ground.” In other words, he may be ready to exercise his poetic will simply for the sake of beauty, for the sake of drawing a picture, for rendering as if on canvas.

Barot also seems to find comfort in the “dark,” a word that he constantly repeats like a mantra and a space that he dwells in. The dark, especially in “Psalm…” is the space where the poet is considering where his ethics lie, and Barot masterfully provides the answer to this question in the title of his last poem—“Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It.” Even as a poem about history—about the beauty of rain and the sheer destructive energy it possesses during a flood—this last sequence of eighteen ten-line sections carries a certain reassurance, an affirmation that the poet is both witness and witnessed, a documenter of history, as well as the documented. Barot reaches this conclusion exactly halfway through the poem, in the ninth section, where he admits:

…There is never

an answer here. Only that you have to need

the justice of looking, even after everything else

you’ve seen.

One could possibly say that Barot’s poetics here acknowledges that the poet must, painful as it may be, see and color the world using the self, and must always be at odds with this “requirement.” After all, if the storyteller doubts himself, how does the listener know where the “truth” truly lies? Yet, that is the implicit level of trust that history places upon poets, and it is this trust that Barot wants to complicate. If this collection of poetry indeed is an answer to the question posed by Antonio Porchia in its epigraph—“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received,” the answer is startlingly clear and complicating at the same time—that the poet must continue to invent, reinvent and engage with the world, even if the act of rendering the world is complicated, and possibly even limiting. Poetry, after all, as Barot’s collection would say, may be “bleak with story,” but is one legitimate re-enactment of history by that poet, nonetheless.

The key idea here is the poet's role as both witness and the witnessed. The act of transcribing, representing and presenting experience also makes one a witness of one's own selfhood, one's identity as a person and as a writer. And so, it seems to be that as my own conscious and focused investment in this process increases, my awareness of my own self increases. This is one of the most conscious and studied kinds of meditation one can indulge in, provided there is a near-obsessive need to understand what one wishes to achieve from a poem or why one chooses to place those words on the page in that very arrangement (which is what Jennifer Atkinson tells me very regularly. She is the wisest living poet I have met and is my other guru).

It becomes problematic for me, therefore, to write about my failed relationships in this context. Instead of worrying about what this says about me, the individual, I become more invested in how I choose to present these failures to my fictional reader. But let me address you directly--friend who has known me but have not really known what I have been writing about, friend who is hoping for more than friendship, occasional friend who resents me for this ostensible self-righteousness, friend who will never read this, mother, father-- I write this for you. I write this to tell you that I loved someone, just as you have loved me or loved your own at some point, listened for the occasional sound of footsteps on the porch, the scent of the fall breeze heavy with drying leaves and pine and a sunless clutching. I did not love to lose, or to slam the door in their face. I hoped for the same footsteps to return. I hoped to stand at the door with the same lightness always, the same understanding that bridges had been built, that your prayer mat would fit into my world full of elai vadams and arusi kolams and panchamis and navamis and chaturthis. This constant orbiting of the relationship became my goal. Did I necessarily lose sight of whom I loved? No. Especially not at the cost of the self. Now, I let go, not easier, not swifter, not more willingly, not only because I have to or because it comes naturally, but because there is no natural, there is only the gained, the experienced, the controlled. The choice to hold my breath underwater may seem natural given the construction of the body, but it is a choice nevertheless, and it is made in that instant one steps into the water and sinks lower, to that point where the water tickles the nose. It is a desperate flailing, a slipping between gaps, a pause, a slippage between meaning, between the pasts and the presents, regardless of whether emergence ensues or not.

What follows is not a holding on, not a letting go, not a constrictive word-space that I can use to contain that moment. It is a lived (moment). It is the being (not merely the act of, the process of, the experience of, etc). So, it is not gracefully, naturally or any such adverb-ially that I move on. I move on with misgivings, with a constant desire to understand the spaces within my self, to realize, to rise, to be liberated from all these muliplicities. And, in the process, love again, not only easily or naturally or with the ease of the archetypal perfectly-poised woman, nor with the awkwardness of the archetypal angst-er, but with the simultaneous awkwardness of that imagined horizon.

Welcome to this beauty. Poor Kevin Spacey died in vain at the end of American Beauty, indeed.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The prof. is back!

Ladies, gents and the odd spectactor: I have decided to put my entire past back on this blog, for your perusal, and perhaps also for my own. I have somehow reached a place where I can revisit the former selves I inhabited and actually enjoy the trajectory of the I.

From here on, I'll be starting afresh. I'm a professor now, aren't I?

Much good karma!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Mysore & Pondicherry, circa 2007

Lacquered and painted
you arrive, embalmed
Ready to be taken apart
by the sequential reels
Running rapidly in the back
Of the eye.

I bought a blue set
of round cakes
of myriad watercolours
To paint my face on your time
They dripped
And ran into the weave.

Our rhythms never matched
Yoked by arcane magnets
Proceeded to cut into raw flesh
Lights flashed when the plane took off
The soil left behind burnt red brown.
The night is often vivid with sensations
Of a warm body and breath lost

I woke up to coffee and newspaper and you one morning
And never slept again.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Temple after temple
Every grey stone fighting to tell its tale
Of a king long forgotten
Name etched in the English alphabet in some faraway town
On some nondescript road
Where the flies hover near dyed fried treats
While little boys in cotton shorts
And girls in red ribbons and yellow bangles
Strain their eyes to look at jars of aniseed coated in sugar
While a harried dishevelled mother in a patched saree
Or a father with oily hair and a wobbling potbelly
Drag them to schools where they are taught
To write letters of leave to erstwhile Irish headmasters
Ending in ' faithfully yours, signature'.

Forgotten sunsets

Carved upon your lined face
In fragile haphazard strokes
Is a folly now regretted.
Hot pride now flustered
Cold veins thwarted by feeling
There is nothing to do except bless.
Age is redemption, experience calloused
The time was different then
When the eye could see and stop
At the epidermis tanned despite your threats,
Steel and fire sprayed your myopia
Where it now warms arthritic limbs.
Years turned, days revolved in unfelt patterns
That drew you in
And left you unheard, untouched.
Where was your mind, your cognizance?
Your identity, your music?
Lost, or never heard by the laity
Who sat around you in silent envy
Of sparkling womanhood, embellished, preened
While a girl sat nearby.
Watching the ants on the floor,
Horses in the sunset

That gaped in between the blinds,
Purple eyed.


I must stop where your line begins.
Fermented snack after another,
Each golden ray breathing fine warmth
Upon rivers of murk lurking in the wayside
Upon supine forms lost in calculated daydreaming
There was no remorse, no looking back
At a gaudy wayside sign reading ' diffin redy'
Highlighting every road trip undertaken in high summer,
The pungent odour of sugary coffee in silver tumblers
Punctuating every stop.

Now there is waffles and syrup
And tranquillity that makes the breath sharp
In expectation of stamping the existence
Of silent footsteps on a polished sidewalk.
The rancour and sullenness of a forced togetherness
The brushing of unknown fingers, sweaty forearms
The acrid foreign breath of aniseed and garlic
Sped away as fast as the salty foam
That splashed our feet tracing formless shapes
Amidst wet, plastic littered sand.

Home came long after the sound
Of your pulse pounding on my face.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Autorickshawman that cried 'God!"

I am only human.

First, he spoke to me in what seemed to be ACJ-acceptable English. He said that sixty rupees was 'reasonable' in a tone that convinced me, I figure, and was more difficult to refuse by its implication of reasonability rather than some sort of arbit(rary) demand.

I got in.

Random thoughts. On singledom. Or the lack of it. Duality in singledom. Solitude in relationships. Loneliness in a relationship. Bhel Puri. Umrao Jaan. Wanted touch. Unwanted looks. Pilgrimages. Names. His names. Change as obstinate as the lack of it. Irreversible changes. Proselytization. Coimbatore.

Few observations. Dhaaba spelt as Dhabba.Giggle. Old man in extremely white cap and lady in pink burqa holding hands and crossing road. Unseen faces of children in an auto; little girl in blue uniform making herself comfortable on a little boy's lap, his hand protectively closing around her waist.

A phone call. Electronic concern. Better than mechanical, perhaps.

Another. An infectious laugh.

Signals. Big, small. Red, green. Long. Crowded. Smoky.

The flapping kurta stops.Rummage for a sixty.

He says something starting with 'Madam', involving the words ' I asked for too much', and ending with "Please give me forty-five".

I blink. Squint. I do not like this one bit, though I am surprised and happy on one hand. I shove a fifty in his hand and get out.


What now?

A pamphlet. Please give to your friends. Can you read Tamil?

I need to get to work soon. I nod. He doesn't need to know about my abysmal word per minute count while reading Tamil.

Vrooms off.

I am left with a picture of a conductor telling a boy coloured in pink, how we all 'must get a ticket' (front cover). To where? Heaven, apparently, as I found after more squinting. (Not by me, but by a colleague who was handed the task after my infinitely limited reading skills failed me.)

And who gets us the ticket? Kartar. Translation : Jesus Christ.

Great timing. There must be a convention of proselytic-minded people converging on my life.

Wonder why my family astrologer didn't send out a red alert involving abshishekams to every deity in town.

Or wearing topaz rings.

Identity change

Hello, and peace.

Several U-turns later, a new leaf has been turned.

There is a God. And I'm getting there.

Peace again.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Case of the Missing Murukkus

You can run but you can't hide,
Don't you know you're goin' straight to my backside?