Tishani Doshi’s session, her dance, her poetry, her thoughts- they changed something in me, added something, weakened something, healed a few more things. Made me think. In conversation with Janice Pariat.
“They… they’re saying you’re such a slut…”
I was thirteen, and the above line was murmured to me by my then-best friend, whom I’ve rather lost touch with and I hope is doing well. At thirteen, I wasn’t very shocked; not because I’d heard worse, but because I didn’t know what it meant.
“Papa, what’s a slut?”
“It’s a sexually promiscuous woman.”
Well, I didn’t know what ‘promiscuous’ meant either, but rather than talk more during a tense CSK match, I sought out the next best source- a dictionary.
In the columns of the gigantic, moth-eaten Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary Of The English Language, I found that I’d been termed someone who has sex with any man who asked. Please don’t run for the dictionary; that’s not how it’s phrased, but my copy’s halfway around the world.
Which, I reasoned, was rather ridiculous, because we were thirteen; who wanted to have sex anyway? It sounded like an uncomfortable business.
(It had been the late Khushwant Singh who had contributed greatly to my sexual education. I don’t recommend it)
That’s not to say it didn’t sting, of course; which teenager doesn’t dread being gossiped about? On the other hand, a whole new world of insults now opened up before my slightly-shocked eyes, although it took three years for me to actually use any. When I did, though, it was to a boy: with the air of someone delivering her coup de grace, I informed one of my classmates that he was, in fact, a man-whore.
“You should say gigolo.” He replied. I was late to the party, it seemed, and not fashionably.
You might wonder why I’m writing this now. And yes, while there’s a part of me that’s gleefully typing up words like sex, whore, gigolo, for all and sundry, I still feel something like a bee-sting when I type the word slut.
There it is again.
That’s one word I try not to use. It may have slipped out at some point over the years, but I try. There’s something particularly filthy about it- and even, I feel, something maliciously female. I can now easily call a man a whore without tacking the ‘man’ to it, but slut always seems so pointedly female.
Slut-shaming. I hate the term. I hate the practice. I hate the casualness of it, how easy it is when the target is a ‘she’.
A sexually promiscuous woman. But a man is just a playboy. A Man.
This isn’t a rant against slut-shaming; honestly, I don’t quite know what this is, even. I don’t often dislike words in and of themselves- even stuff I’ve made my peace with. But slut is one thing I’ve never been able to find middle-ground with. Maybe it’s personal. Maybe society’s ease with it. I don’t really know.
At any rate, it’s a good word to dislike.
(…in other words, of netting the light particles tingling around us. ~ ‘The Enchanter’, Lila Azam Zanganeh)
You don’t need to have read Nabakov to read Zanganeh on Nabokov. All you need is to listen to the way she talks about him- the passion in her words, the gesticulating hands, the laugh with which she tells us never to trust a writer completely- and to the little she reads out of her book, to fall in love with either this strange man she loves, or with Zanganeh herself. Both.
I remember liking Lolita, but I never got the chance to finish it- meh, college. I picked it up because I’d heard of it- scandalous, disgusting, I’d read, thinking that these epithets had been applied to Wuthering Heights too. I love Wuthering Heights, so I took Lolita to find out if I could love it too.
The first words of a book matter so much- it’s one of the many reasons that Pride and Prejudice remains my favourite book after all these years. (It’s heartening to know that Ms Austen was perhaps the only female writer Nabokov approved of, but I suspect that if he’d dismissed her, I’d be writing this post on something totally different) Beginnings are important. And when Humbert Humbert said Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta, my heart stuttered. With one line, Nabokov had grasped the tail-end of my lungs and squeezed, so that the top expanded and then with a whoosh deflated, sending all the air rocketing up my throat and out of my mouth in a gasp.
This, I thought, is a beginning.
I never talked about Lolita because I never finished it. It seemed futile to talk about a book when I never had the time (or card space) to take it out of the library, or indeed off the shelf ever again. Still, sometimes I silently tapped out the syllables Lo-lee-ta in my mouth, my tongue working light and precise. Lo-Lee-Ta. And then I’d cease, embarrassed at what I’d caught myself doing.
I have a copy of Lila Azam Zanganeh’s The Enchanter (a signed copy, thank you), and I look forward to reading it. I wonder whether I’ll find shades of Lila in her Nabokov or, when I return to it after reading him, traces of Nabokov in Lila. Not in her writing- in her. When I finish Lolita or Speak, Memory, or Ada, and revisit Lila in my head and her book, will I find Nabokov? Does she mean him to be found?
Even in darkness or demise, Nabokov tells us, things quiver with lambent beauty. Light is to be found everywhere~ ‘The Enchanter’, Lila Azam Zanganeh.
(Title shamelessly stolen from Bee Rowlatt’s unnamed friend)
At what point is my story worth writing? As children, we’re told it’s wrong to take pride in our accomplishments, to talk about ourselves as though we’ve achieved something, however small. So how do I come to the thought that, hey, I’ve got a good story, look, it’s about me ?
But that’s not completely accurate. Emma Sky’s story in Iraq is as much the story of Iraqi people (not the Iraqi people, as though all of them experienced horror in the same way) as it is about the US soldiers she worked with, as it is her own. She wrote it. They claim it. In different ways- in the US, it’s in the political section, in the UK, it’s among the biographies, but I might be wrong there. In Iraq- where would it be in Iraq? But they claimed it.
I talk about what inspires me at Jaipur, about what sticks. This next person sticks, but there’s very little that I can say about her, because to write about her journey and her trauma and the scars that her courage left her with is her privilege. I don’t get to tell that story. Read The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, let her tell you, in her own words.
Rosalyn D’Mello peeled off layer after layer of protection, and her book- a different kind of courage, a terrifying vulnerability, and words that mingle into my bloodstream like warm wine- is on my Kindle shelf. A Handbook for My Lover is the sort of book I would justly be terrified of writing, not because of the sex, but because of the intimacy. It would be like putting cameras in my bedroom, bathroom, in my closet and in my underwear; an artful sort of bleeding out, time and again, the knife steady between my fingers. I wasn’t sure if I could ever have enough courage- to start, and if I did, to ever stop.
I asked how- how do you choose when to stop– and she smiled and said, the end sort of looms over the whole book. She laughed, sometimes I’d storm out and then I’d go,’ oh no, my book’. She smiled and told me, I think you’ll like it.
I think I will. She answered my other question too- that deciding that one has a story worth telling, even if no one else thinks so, is a brave thing to do, and that’s the kind of bravery I hope to have one day, when I do have a story worth telling. I think I will.
Is there room for me in Tamil literature?
A part of me thinks often of no. 8, Arundale Beach Road, and the sound of my family speaking Tamil around me, to me. I speak my mother’s language, the Tamil of a non-Tamil; I’m a Tamil outside of my language, who has made a home of the white man’s tongue.
But say sambar in English- a vegetable broth with a tamarind base, thickened with pre-cooked lentils, flavoured with asfoetida, fenugreek, red chillies, and coconut, and topped with fried mustard seeds, curry leaves, and un-ground red chillies
Say Jallikattu- a popular sport involving the taming of the Bos indicus, common in parts of Tamil Nadu during the festive season
Say kanmani- jewel of my eye-
Tell me the story of Ponniyin Selvan all in English, without using a single Tamil word, without the cadences that only a Tamil speaker could have, even in your language, the lilt that we use to make your language ours while your tongue and fingers slip and slide on the surface of mine.
Are there stories that can only be told in their own language?
It doesn’t sound the same, ya!
Is there room for me in Tamil literature if I write about Tamil people in a language to which they do not belong?
where will my stories rest if you say no