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!
“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.
Have you ever tried to fit into another skin? It’s not easy. First, you have to choose a new one; there are usually a few on offer, standard issue, one-size-fits-all, like dresses at Forever New. You can alter them up to a point, but there are limits here and here, tailoring can only go so far, and anyway, you’re supposed to shrink, not expand.
Then, you have to squeeze. I remember my first dress. It wasn’t the lovely one-shoulder black gown that hangs in my closet; it was a cute black and white Globus number that I bought when I was thirteen. Knee-length, about three tiers of skirt, I think. I loved it so much. Never mind the squeezing. You kinda have to go with it- everyone does it. Suck in your stomach and shimmy into that clingy bodice, arrange your skirt- pull your bum in, stomach in doesn’t mean bum out– tie back that hair, there’s nothing you can really do about it, and now smiiiiile. Oh, don’t you look cute!
You also sound like a dying horse, but what to do.
And when one skin splits, you try another. Your own is dry and chafed, grey from lack of sunlight, but what does that matter when there are all these shiny and healthy ones lined up, and somewhere you know there’s one that fits you?
There has to be.
You do the same with what’s under your skin. It’s like Photoshop- you realign your smile, it has to be perfect and show just the right amount of teeth. You line up all your emotions and humanness, like cans on a wall, to knock off what they won’t buy. There’s a certain demand, and you have to supply, even if the curves intersect so high that you’ve lost sight of the price.
I have tried skin after skin after skin, pulled my stomach in and pushed my bones out of alignment to fit into them, only to have it all come apart at the seams again and again.
I’m tired. I’m so tired.
“Sometimes I feel like my life is someone else’s dream”~ ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’, Kate Tempest.
Last time, I told you about Nabokov, the man who squeezed the bottom of my lungs and forced a gasp out of my throat. This time, let me tell you about hypnotism.
It’s not of the slow you are getting sleeeeepy pendulum kind. I wasn’t sleepy. I was awake, alive, and frozen.
When Kate Tempest said Imagine, I did; when she said Jemma and Ester and Pete and Zoe, I saw them come closer and closer and melt into my limbs. I’ve no doubt that if she’d said we stand here and grow roots, I’d have stood up, grown roots, and become an amaltash tree.
Kate, do you realise that you gave us no choice?
I sat there, breathing only when I heard her breathe into the mike. That was the only chance I had to catch my breath, as she piloted us, brakeless, weightless, into a journey from which we all came back more than a little ragged. A little broken in the best possible way.
I come away from this year’s Jaipur Lit Fest with books, few photos, and other things more important- Lila Zanganeh’s happiness, Kate Tempest’s chaotic brilliance, Sholeh Wolpé’s sweetness, Rosalyn D’Mello’s courage, among others. I leave with more goals, a desire to build and grow, to engage in passion more. I leave with the idea of working at writing, of getting better by working harder and every day. A lesson at once simple and confusing.
I leave with a knowledge of living with people I don’t know, in an unfamiliar family scene. I came expecting a hotel, and when I found a family home, I was shaken and a little afraid. But somewhere in between my first makki ki roti and preparing the child for an upcoming test, I found comfort, and a space that I could, for five wonderful days, call my own.
I leave hoping to come back some day. Hopefully, soon.
(…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
Jaipur has a strange complacency: I won’t call it deadness. Ambivalence, maybe. Benignly uninterested in my return. I feel almost anonymous here.
I wonder what it would be like to live here, to move here with no previous roots or affiliations, from my Delhi of curves and edges to the sand and harsh(er) sun and the hardened belligerence of old Jaipur.What it might be like to live, every day, in a place consistently alien, to see myself reflected back as ‘different’, as a bit ‘other’; to walk on sands that shift under my strange feet.
Would I feel what Sholeh Wolpé felt, flying a thousand feet over her country (that once was hers)? “The word ‘belonging’ has ‘longing’ in it”, she said, and I sighed. She found her Iran in her own heart; years of yearning and searching and writing, she said, has led her back to her own soul. I think it must have been a beautiful journey. It must have hurt a great deal, to sound so beautiful in her words.
Imagine a girl growing up and becoming the ‘other’ in the only place she’s ever seen; she’s the ‘other’ before she’s fourteen, she’s the ‘other’ among people she’s always known. Iran was poured into Lila Zanganeh from her parents and aunts; growing up in Paris, she brimmed with memories of a place she’d never seen. She’s French, but not; she’s not Iranian, but she is; she speaks English that Nabokov taught her, she reads Nabokov that her mother read to her. He speaks to her like no one else, that strange man who thought in Russian and spoke in French and wrote in English and Lila thinks he lied about speaking German badly, but I don’t know about that.
I have questions, more questions- about how to own languages when I have only two, and neither was mine before I was born. I want to know if English can be mine the way Iranian is Sholeh’s. I want to know if there is a space for me, not in life, but in literature.