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!
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.
“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.
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.
Now even the farewell is done, and it really is just a matter of time before it ends. I didn’t speak much yesterday; only a little bit of garbled nonsense, which was perhaps the only sensible thing to say. But there are things that seem sensible and important to say now, so this is where I’ll say them.
There are no absolutes in life. You know this. You’ve read about it. At the end of your three years, you’ll realise it.
You may think you’re going to remain friends with someone for the rest of your life. But hell, you may not even know when you stopped talking, stopped texting, and it’s barely been six months. Now you’re shaking your head and saying we used to be so close, and you’re shrugging and turning back to someone with whom you wouldn’t have dreamt of sharing any kind of friendship. That is what happens.
Don’t shy away from talking to anyone, no matter what; the biggest inspiration I ever received in college is now also the source of my biggest regret. I wish I had spoken to her, the girl who will be the first female graduate in her family- hell, the first female college student. She has inspired me, and I may never know her. That is what happens.
You may come to realise that this is not where your heart lies, in these books and names and monuments, with these people, in this college. One morning or late one night, you may wake up crying, or too tired to cry, from a dream of how things could have been. You may find yourself forcing your eyes and mind forward into the book on the desk, with your heart galloping somewhere quite different. This is what happens.
But we are young. You can set yourself on fire and build yourself back from the ashes. You will stand tall and then suddenly break, get back to your feet and immediately shatter, and the best, most painful part is picking up the pieces again and deciding just how you want to build yourself again. How high, how broad, how deep- and stronger, always stronger. We are young, and this, what you build, will be the foundation of the tower of your life. Choose your stones wisely.
Remember to laugh. Laugh often, laugh loud and clear, feel your laugh in your lungs and your belly. Don’t forget to cry. Cry when you’re sad. Cry when something moves you. Cry during sad movies, cry with laughter too. Tears are as human as laughter, and both should flow strong like rivers out of you.
Above all, remember that you need to ask. Question everything. Read so that you can ask more questions. Be kind to people. Be kind to yourself. Fall in love. Have a hobby. Learn a language. Sing loud and off-key. Listen to good music, watch good plays. Watch the news. Don’t mess with Vandana ma’am or Ruchika ma’am.
Find what makes your heart beat faster and your mind move like quicksilver, and go do it. Make no apologies for any of it- loving, laughing, and being human. Least of all that. Look people in the eye, and talk to them, not at them. Dance even if you don’t know how. Get on the wrong bus and get off at the wrong stop, and ask people where to go. Travel alone. Travel in a group. Take photographs. Throw away your camera and make memories.
Hold your friends close, give your heart and mind and time freely, and love yourself with all your heart.
I sound so old, but I feel marvellously young. This thing doesn’t feel anything like an ending. Of course, it’s not a beginning either. I don’t feel tentative or nostalgic, though maybe that will change in the next month (Unlikely. Exams leave very little time for quiet nostalgia, the only kind that works for me because it lends itself quite easily to poetry. History exams have nothing to do with quiet, nostalgia, or poetry).
But, back to the point- this is a fresh ending, one I haven’t read before. College usually ends, in the books I’ve read, with a cocktail of euphoria, heartbreak, regret, and achievement, salt-laced with tears. Promises to remain in touch, to remain in memories and in hearts, and to meet as often as possible. How many of those will be kept, I wonder, and how many will flutter to the ground like glinting gust?
Does it matter? At that moment, I loved you. I cared about you enough to say I wanted to stay in touch. Is the fleeting moment less valuable than the broad expanse of time? Stupid, philosophical questions that matter even less than the promises that- let’s face it- we’re none of us going to keep.
It’s a new ending, a different end to a unique story that all of us have written, in solitude and together. It has been a terribly good one. I hope the next one is too.
Keep Calm and Make History.
You’re a boy with stars
In the palms of your hands,
A man with a storm in your eyes
That the lids can barely close over-
When you sleep, I imagine
That it must be like trying to tie down a tornado
With a lock of hair.
You leave dust-storms behind you
With every step,
Raise a whirlwind
With every breath;
I understand better
Why planets move the way they do,
Why stars sometimes, just sometimes
Come down to the ground,
Kiss the earth, and dart away again;
Why flowers bloom and die, it’s not something
To cry about; why time flows and stops
(It does, I swear it does) and runs on again
Too slow and far too fast;
Why things happen the way they do;
All in that little universe that you’ve got
Spinning away in your soul.
On my last night in school, I went down to the basketball court and lay on my back at the very centre. The stars were very clear. It was summer, a warm night, and with the heat in the air, the chill of the concrete, and the clear so clear stars, it was a curious ten minutes. Ten minutes of heavy breathing, and the idea of a self that rises from the core into forever.
I saw a half-naked man lying at the centre of a golchakkar (roundabout) near the Ministry of External Affairs. It was a makeshift golchakkar, just orange traffic cones placed in a circle at the crossing. It was around a quarter to six in the evening.
He was just lying there, playing with a water bottle. I don’t remember if there was water in the bottle or not; he was just moving it up and down right above his face. I wondered what he could see in the bottle that we couldn’t have, the people who sped by him ensconced in cars, sparing him glances. Some are amused, some are flummoxed, some are innocently disgusted, but they are glances only, thrown like spare change that we don’t want to be caught giving.
I bleed into becoming that man. I remember. My clothes disappear, as do my breasts, and I gaze up into a rapidly dimming winter sky. I’m still me, whoever that may be. I remember. Flat on my back, no water bottle in sight. I’m looking for stars and clear black sky; I can hear cars, and although I’m aware of the people, speeding by and throwing me glances, they don’t really seem human, and their thrown alms of attention float to the road like the down feathers pigeons shed.
There’s a water bottle now though, so I suppose I must seem like that man to the faceless me that speeds by in one of the cars. Half-naked, and here’s a water bottle. I move it to and fro in my hands, peering in.
It’s clear, and it sparkles. It moves around, sloshes around, and it looks like starlight that’s been forced into a canister, except that I can tell what it is. Stars made liquid, the sun and moon melted, a universe that’s folded in on itself and chosen this particular water bottle to drip into. A condensed swirl of perhaps a million galaxies and light-years of space, all sloshing around in here, pooled at the bottom of a madman’s water bottle. For who else would have eyes to see a universe, but the utterly mad?
I bleed back into mind, I see my breasts rising again like newborn mountains; once more, I’m girl and woman, with the remnants of sanity lying around my mind like so much construction waste dotting the landscape of school. Under my back is a mattress- no concrete or tar- and a ceiling stares blindly back rather than take my rising self like stars would.
I’m sane, you see, just a little closer to it than I’ve been all night, and it’s almost morning now.