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.
Source: Initiations: Writing Race
It just occurred to me that I hadn’t shared my articles from my time as a volunteer blogger at the Jaipur Literature Festival @ The British Library, London. Two of the best days of my entire stay in the UK.
This is one of my favourites, because it’s about race and identity, two things I keep coming back to. Another one coming soon!
How does one wait for death? What do you look for, what signs do you wait for when you watch for it?
we are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying,
and nothing will stop the death-flood rising within us
How do you greet death when it’s not coming for you, but for one you love? With tears and pleas? With a wobbling smile? With brickbats and burning chillies and ash thrown in that inevitable face?
I ask and ask; it’s at times like this that you realise that adulthood doesn’t mean having the answers to everything. Most adults, it seems, put a wise expression on guesswork and shots in the dark embroidered with a little perceived truth and optimism or pessimism, depending on who you’re talking to.
She gave me her name, her face, a nose-pin. I used to sniff the powder from the soft folds of her neck like a baby-faced crack addict; she would sit on the floor as I inched my way through meals, tell me stories, put me to sleep.
‘She’ is my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.
When death comes for an immortal, hope goes first. Grief is going, draining at a jerky rate. Tears become texturised, gritty with salt because the human body is only 70% water, after all. It runs out fast when death comes for your immortal.
I want her to slip away in peace, to a place beyond pain. I want to cover her wasted body with mine and scream until Death shields his ears and runs for cover. I want her to sit up and order her kidneys to do their duty.
I want my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.
I love her beyond reason. I hate her for dying, for being un-immortal, for forcing me to say goodbye to her without a kiss, without a wave, without a balcony in sight. I hate myself for not coming back sooner, for not having magic under my skin or in my voice, for not making her well. I hate having been born because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have lived through losing her.
I love my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.
What do I watch for, what do I listen for? A whisper of cloth against a wall, a shadow slanting wrong? How will I know when to sit up and hold her hand, when to say goodbye for the last time so that it matters? Adulthood is a shot in the dark; a perpetual game of Bluff and old music. I have no answers. I can only hum the sounds of my Paati’s time (or a section of), and hope I get the timing right.
We are all, all of us, dying. She’s just going first.
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy said that homosexuals should conduct their business in private and not flaunt it.
Well, fuck that. (Please don’t pardon my French; I couldn’t care less)
The thing is, Mr Swamy, we are people. We are humans, we are people, and we will be treated as such. We are not second-class and we won’t be treated like we are.
Heterosexuals- people like yourself, Mr Swamy- can ‘flaunt’ their relationship in public (whether they can do so safely is a whole other conversation). They fit into your neat little boxes and therefore they have a place in your idea of India. People like me, and others I know and love, don’t.
I do not fit into any box, not even the one marked ‘homosexual’. My poetry handle describes me as Not interested in being polite or heterosexual. I’m not like you, Mr Swamy, and that’s one thing I will always be grateful for.
No, I’m not talking about your sexuality, because it’s not worth talking about. Although you seem to think that it (or the difference from it) is. I’m talking about your personality.
Mr Swamy, you have a great deal of personality. I wouldn’t dream of denying that. You have forceful views, which I’ve found I almost always disagree with; you are annoyingly articulate, which forces me to confront the fact that fundamentalists are not always uneducated people who don’t know any better. You are cantankerous, which would be deeply amusing if you were less of a bigot and more like the crotchety old grandfather that everyone loves. You know how to use social media, a rare feat in a man of your age, and I can respect that you’re (somewhat) willing to move with the times.
Now, read that again.
Your sexuality means nothing to me, Mr Swamy. It doesn’t factor into my views of you- were you gay, aromantic and/or genderqueer , I would still find your politics divisive, still disagree with you, and still admit your personality. Although, admittedly, I would have thought you traitorous as well, or perhaps pitied you.
But my point is, your heterosexuality doesn’t inform my opinion of you. And mine shouldn’t inform yours either. Because I’m more than my gender or sexuality. I’m a student. A history honours graduate from DU. Almost an English MA. A curly-haired woman. A poet, dancer, writer, dreamer, and many other interesting and uninteresting things. I’m a liberal, politically speaking. You can hate me for that. But what’s the point in hating me because of whom I might or might not sleep with? I wouldn’t dislike your sexual partner of choice because she chose to sleep with a man (also, I’m a #wokefeminist who doesn’t believe in judging a woman’s sexual choices, thankyouverymuch)
Frankly, Mr Swamy, you’re a disgusting old homophobe. Now, normally, I respect people’s phobias. But you’re not afraid; you’re just an asshole. Please, disapprove of me for saying that. However true, it’s very rude and I too would take offence.
One of the tools of poets is anaphora- repetition. I will employ it now:
I am human and I will be treated as such. I am an individual with rights, and I will be treated as such. I am an Indian citizen and I will be treated as such.
How dare you tell me to hide my love, my affection, because you think it’s wrong? How dare you, when the theatres are chock-full of of DDLJs and Humpty Sharmas and every sodding version of Romeo and Juliet that Bollywood has ever dreamt up? The state has no say in who its citizens love, Mr Swamy, and neither do you.
I don’t need your permission to love whom I choose, to hold his or her hand in public. Gay bars are safe spaces that we need because of people like you. And frankly, they’re just fun. AIDS can spread in ways that are not anal sex. Instead of policing people’s private lives, focus on funding the search for a cure. It’ll be a much better use of your time than flippantly reducing human beings to second-class citizens because they don’t happen to be straight OR male OR rabid religious fundamentalist dirtbags.
In sum, Mr Swamy, you want us to not flaunt our ‘business’?
Well, fuck that.
People who are not like you do not need your permission to live.
“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.
I’ve made many a new start in my life, with places, with people; every one was special.
There are, perhaps, times when I wish things were different, or perhaps more familiar. Who doesn’t look back and sigh for the way things used to be? Of course I wish that. But the thing is- and bear with my truism, because it’s a truism for a reason- we can’t go back.
As this beginning ends, then, I won’t look back too much. I’ll think, sometimes, of the days when my brain hinged on my nails piercing the palm of my hand; of the days when I dragged my laughs up from the drainpipe; of spiraling panic and fear and I’mnotgoodenoughfuckpleasehelp. But there were softer days, and there are brighter memories.
There were warm days, when the sky was blue and I did laugh easily and swing with my face up to the sun. There was a smile etched into the corners of my eyes as the Skype call came through. There were softer days. The memories are brighter.
The name means Jane Austen. Austen, love stories, laugh stories, stories, writing, teaching myself to write, Austen teaching me to write. Austen is my first and last goal.
Imagine, if you can, a young woman in a family of ten; educated parents, little money, large library; putting pen to paper and slowly, laboriously, creating out of the little she sees.
The little becomes a lot; the father is kind, the mother is clever.
And then, Bath. The city that fuels her imagination. The city that she writes about, more than ten years later, in tones both rational and achingly tender. A love story for the elderly.
My nails bite into my palm as a lump rises in my throat. Perhaps I’m seeing her city, perhaps I’m seeing another, perhaps I’m still seeing mine.
Tones both rational and tender, a love story. I could. I could.
The writer who fuels my imagination; who’s still teaching me to write, to be, more than ten years later.
Back home, it’s 2018. My best friend’s quiet laugh into the phone rings in the new year five and a half hours early.
How do you pick up the threads of self? I broke my heart to find my self, and in the lowest moments, I wonder just where to turn, and which map to follow.
I fell in love. I fell, I fell, I flew. Then I didn’t so much pull my chute as cut the strings. Goodbye, my bleeding darling, my weeping heart. I hope I find you some day, when I have a self to give and a hand to offer.
I can hear the rain pittering outside. It’s just me tonight: pasta, brownies, rum, and me.
And you, if you’re reading.
Happy New Year (It sounds like my best friend’s laugh. Nothing could be better). Happy New Year.