This is not me. None of this happened.
Yesterday I finally tried to break the no-writing spell and ventured into the woods (they may be small, even miniscule compared to what the Big Countries of the World are used to, but it’s as Hamlet says: you could be bound up in a nutshell and count yourself a man of infinite space….(were it not that you had bad dreams!)
I went with my notebook…no camera, phone camera, no gadgets. I just forgot them.
So I was taking notes, listening, walking and came across this sort of ochre coloured tree trunk. It looked hacked / serrated. I afterwards thought it might have been struck by lightning leaving behind the base of the trunk, rooted to the earth. There was something other-worldly about it.
Of course, I couldn’t photograph it.
All I had was my notebook and the Uni Jetstream 0.5 black pen I usually like to write with (flows well; thin bold black lines). So I had to sketch it. Did a rudimentary job of course, but having to stand / crouch in the middle of a muddy path, in the middle of the woods, being serenaded by the screaming orchestral belly-wing-rubbing of cicadas, alone, to look up at this half-tree, then my notebook, the half-tree, then my notebook…to draw something that resembled or approximated what I was looking at…it was such a great exercise.
I needed it for my notes / story ideas for later. So sketch it I did (attached).
It occurs to me that with the phone camera, the tablets, the arrival of Instagram (that instantly makes your photos change hue and tone so it feels nostalgic, of another era, like a still from the movie Amelie) has made it virtually impossible to actually spend any real time looking at anything. If you can capture it so quickly, you have the copy and you can stare at the copy anywhere, at any time. Why look at it where it is?
Thank god for drawing / sketching. For the notion of putting pen / pencil / charcoal to paper to make something other than words.
I had told you I'd write to you about this whole business regarding writing fiction, the autobiographical tendencies therein, and the particular complexity of writing about spirituality / sexuality or “India” (which in my mind, does not exist as a cohesive whole). It's particularly difficult and even perhaps problematic in the context of the recent violent rape in Delhi (what spirituality and sexuality can we speak of in the wake of violence of that kind, the details of which closely mirror testimonies we have heard or read from rape victims during conflict or the rule of genocidal regimes).
Parvathi Dreams About His Sex was always going to be a problematic exercise for me. I knew and still know that it serves a very particular sort of purpose. But the story sits inside a rather limited circumference it can be very easily tossed out of that 'legitimate' space and be read as merely as an indulgent, thinly veiled autobiographical account.
It had its genesis in a monologue performance I undertook in 2006. I had written the script and performed the piece back then at The Substation. What I got from the audience (largely only Singaporeans) was a sense of surprise, astonishment. The laughter when it came, was conspiratorial. It was as though they felt they were in on something, but they did not know what they were in on, because this was a cultural milieu or spiritual matrix they had not quite ventured into in this way before.
Why would they have? Our city manages to avoid inter-ethnic conflict successfully. But like so many other multicultural landscapes, it offers a kind of T.V. advertisement or a movie preview of other people's cultures. The neighbourly spirit is genuine (where it still exists). The acquisition of a taste for other cultural foods is endearing (we like to eat, say Singaporeans). But like food, we tend to pick the things we like for consumption, leaving the unsavoury things to the natives. That's their culture, we say, not ours. So there is some “us” and “them”, anywhere, all the time.
I hadn’t intended with the monologue to do anything particularly ‘revolutionary’ (again, what a bizarre idea in this age of repetition and mass production). But I did want to take those literary or filmic tropes – the rite-of-passage story; the spiritual quest story; the coming of age, the discovery of sexuality story (and if it’s an “ethnic” story or film, then the cross-cultural relationship, the life in the diaspora story) and shake it up a bit, lend some humour to it and at the least, deliver a rendition in my own voice.
Yes, it would be a copy of a copy. But it would be my copy. That is what the audience responded to; that took them by surprise.
I do not read Tamil (sadly). So from my limited vantage point, there simply weren’t very many (if any) stories about middle-class Tamil Brahmin English-educated women contemplating the spiritual matrix they’d been raised with, nor very many stories about that same woman grappling with sexuality and a relationship on the verge of becoming sexual [Is the only film we know Mr & Mrs. Iyer? Even there, they don't cross the boundary, they only contemplate it. And let's not get into the film rendition of the Kama Sutra].
So that is what the monologue was. But a play is a play. The text on paper as a short story had to do other things.
Yes, it deals with spirituality and sexuality and India. It deals with all of those ‘tropes’. One goes to India; one goes in search of ‘something’; one has (inevitably) a ‘spiritual’ experience of some kind. One is transformed. This is a trajectory
At the 1980s era lounge area of the guesthouse, formerly a home for the elderly, the man in his 70s speaks to two women (one young, one old). He is flabbergasted by the possibility that homosexual men may be permitted to legitimise their relationship in a church. What next, he wonders out loud? He also dislikes the accents of the Scots, the Welsh and, in fact, the northerners (who on earth can understand what they’re saying? I can’t, he tells the two women, who concur). People from Newcastle ought to come to London with a translator. “Nothing less than the Queen’s English
, as far as I’m concerned,” he says. He is mourning the death of the Empire. But it isn’t dead apparently, because these reforms, this phenomenon overtaking London, is “bad for the Empire”, he goes on to say. What is bad for the Empire? The dilutio and the pollution caused by the tidal wave of diversity. He has probably read the edition of the Evening Standard from a few days ago that says “white Britons” are officially a minority in the city of London, making it the most diverse place in all of the UK. Tea and scones at Saatchi will never quite taste the same again.
Two separate occasions, the same installation. William Kentridge’s “I am not me. The horse is not mine.” Described aptly here. The title a statement from a saying, a denial of guilt. But transformed, it creates the space for speech, for the writing of fiction.
8 screens of animated films (all except one, that is, which is only white typed text on black) with musical accompaniement that is a melange of a rousing classical score, the brisk syncopation of a marching band and sudden crashes of symbols or comic trumpeting that segues into a South African choir’s lilting song.
Kentridge’s installation is still an immersive, compelling experience. Absurdity to your left and right.
One screen projecting a wildly dancing Soviet-era colonel and the other, a nose that abandons the man it belongs to, refusing to be joined back as it is of a higher rank than the man. This is how Kentridge describes his animated rendition of a work of fiction by Gogol called ‘The Nose’: “A man wakes up one morning and finds his nose gone. He attempts to track it down through the streets of his city, going to the police, placing newspaper advertisements for its return, seeking medical advice. When he does meet his nose (in a cathedral) he realises t
o his dismay that his nose is of a higher rank than he is. His own nose will not speak to him. When his nose is arrested (trying to leave the city in disguise), it still will not rejoin his face. But, one morning, he wakes and the nose is back in place.” – (Kentridge, p. 7.)
But pointedly at the centre, a projection that shows the text of a trial, an inquisition really, of Nikolai Bukharin (a staunch Party man) undertaken by the Soviet Union’s Central Committee in 1937. Bukharin, accused of treason by Stalin, was executed. But his last words (and the note on which the installation ends before it loops to begin again) is that he simply cannot die. Testimony as immortality?
In a New Yorker summary of a feature story about William Kentridge, he said that “the cultural boycott of South Africa made it easier for him to find his way as an artist. He could work quietly on his own without trying to keep abreast of current developments elsewhere.”
We who would have influence, who would relentlessly connect, perpetually share, post, view, comment, see, see, see restlessly see things without perceiving or perceiving in excess, would balk at the notion. But perhaps there is something to be said for the absence of such interaction?
And then, just as you take waking for granted, and the sound of your sputtering coffee machine, as it chugs, steams, even guffaws and burps, drips and extracts and sends the redolence of a hot pot of coffee in wafts through your kitchen and your home, along comes an extraordinary force.
And you play these lines again and again in your head, words by Kahlil Gibran, “for what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? When good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.”
You contemplate if this is what it is. Can a person, at some critical juncture in his/her life, make a conscious decision that their desire to satiate their hunger surpasses the value of another person’s existence? And as some seers, shamans, sages, philosophers have said, is this also what diversity, pluralism, difference and contrast presents us with – a world in which anything is possible (and always already exists, yes, even that) and where one might decree, state, claim, demand and insist on what is ‘right’, what is ‘good’, but merely stating it, doesn’t make it so?
And so this is what you experience: a sense of being thrust very suddenly into another person’s realm, one in which they are governed by a very different set of rules, rules which seek to hurt, to calculatedly manipulate, cause distress to and extract from another individual, that individual being you and the people you love.
And no amount of talking, advocating, writing and proclaiming the inherent ‘wrong’ of these actions seems to have an effect because there is fear associated with ‘containing’ this individual and the immorality of their deeds, confusion, frustration and then anger. Your anger makes you think in dichotomies, in binaries, everything simplifying.
And in the anger, you begin to get some inkling of how it is possible to want to deny someone the right to exist. This is not anger of the kind felt when bureaucrats stall the paperwork that dominates our lives; the countless delays and unanticipated occurrences that seem to hinder us; not the anger felt in general, when systems fail. This anger is directed, focused, personal. It comes from a place that goes deeper than where we dream, deeper than the cliffs inside your subconscious ocean over which you tip to a place where few things live because it is too cold for anything to survive that far down.
But this is not a cliché about a mirror being held up to you, so that you see you have become the person who is seeking to destroy you because these two things are not the same. Because if this life is about contrast and endless variations on a theme and endless themes being created and re-created, re-imagined and re-configured so much that it becomes like something new, then no, your rage is not a mirror of that person’s rage. You have not become him, or her. He is nothing like you. The contrast only serves to show emotions multiplying, feelings being felt, actions being undertaken, reaction following.
This is a dance. It’s an uncanny, disturbing dance, but it is a dance and it is life lived, life loved, life lost.
And it occurs to you that this is how the notes in a song meet. Somewhere in this life it becomes possible that someone’s life and yours will momentarily intersect, momentarily collide and you will momentarily be governed by a piece of music that is unlike anything you have heard. And you will find yourself becoming the part of a score, a piece, that you never intended to write, you never intended to embody.
And just as suddenly as this hateful thing enters your life, it leaves you. It takes its pain elsewhere, a hungry ghost with a hole in its stomach, forever unsatiated. And in the wake of this person’s hatred, there is not the detritus of intentional violence, but instead, the surge of life longing to burn, to live intensely, so filled with this desire that it is kinetic.
And that is when everything (at least momentarily) changes. You wake up, and everything becomes elemental.
There is this house. You live in it. To wake is exceptional. The water rushing from the faucet is a small miracle. You touch the person sleeping next to you and their rib-cage rises, falls, rises, falls and it keeps going. You know that it will not, not for any stretch resembling eternity. And this too is revelatory – how permanent this transience feels and how absolutely incredible that there is a person lying beside you, with whom you can sleep, with whom you can dream, who you trust so deeply that you will climb into the depths of your subconscious and dare to get lost because if you do and you mumble, mutter, even shout from those depths, that person beside you will, from their own deep realm, reach over and embrace you, the bodies soft, the limbs limp and yet, able to grasp, able to know, even from that drunken dream state, what it is to love, to comfort, to embrace, to quell.
In the grocery store, a loaf of bread and milk is abundance, an affirmation of a life being lived, of sustenance. You thank the teller, you thank the grocer, you thank the security guard, you thank the forest ranger, you thank the bus-driver, you thank you thank you thank you thank. Again and again, thank you.
And in this life that so quickly returns to something like a routine, a collation of habits, you see the ten million forces that underpin it, so that you might move from here to there, just so. So that you might taste the wine, and eat the food, so that you might desire these lips and that book, so that you might feel the rain and hear this melody and each time, it will move you, make you cry, make you remember.
And all your life comes rushing back to you and you shout to yourself to remember it vividly, to be in it unequivocally, to surround it and explore it, embrace it and question it, to always be awake to it because someone or something can collide with you and in that collision, bring you into a realm in which all that you think is real, will cease to be.
And you now move towards learning how to love and live without needing the threat of the thing to drive you. Not needing the contrast to throw into sharp relief that which you desire, not running away from anything, but sinking deeply into this life and being so filled with possibility that contrast is merely that, and its presence, even its re-appearance in your realm, will not shake you because you are strong and your roots run too deep to be wedged and cut by any force.