Skip to content

Craft of Writing: If Wallace Stevens could talk to Toll Brothers

 

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

by Wallace Stevens

The houses are haunted

By white night-gowns.

None are green,

Or purple with green rings,

Or green with yellow rings,

Or yellow with blue rings.

None of them are strange,

With socks of lace

And beaded ceintures.

People are not going

To dream of baboons and periwinkles.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,

Drunk and asleep in his boots,

Catches tigers

In red weather.

 When I landed in the United States, my aunt drove me home from the airport to her house, where I would stay for a few weeks before going on to graduate school. I remember the deafening silence during the drive. My aunt and I had plenty to say to each other, but throughout the drive I was aware of a silence that began outside the raised windows of her car and extended to the moving scrim of houses and buildings in the neighborhoods we passed as we drove to her home in an expensive Cincinnati suburb. To me, the silence was tremulous. It hung like a cobweb, threatening to shatter into the noise and chaos I was used to on the city streets of India, which were filled with honking and the sound of engines sputtering, the discrete sounds of transport vehicles fashioned out of the cabins of small trucks, extended to contain seats for anywhere between 3 to 10 passengers, of scooters, of motorbike riders revving and roaring, all against the irrepressible tinkle and chime of bicycle bells, clanking obstinately between their fuel-driven counterparts. Only, it didn’t. The silence remained unbroken. When we pulled into her curving cobble-stone driveway and I stepped out of the car, the silence grew louder, broken only by occasional bird-call. The quietness made me so uncomfortable, I could not sleep for nights. Is it this silence that dresses the American suburb, and haunts its houses, bathed in the bright light of bulbs, in the white night-gowns of Steven’s poem? Not comforting like the silence of the woods, or a quiet garden scene, but a silence borne from the lack of necessary disorder, a silence that is artificial and curated by the very laws and regulations that make American suburbia the haven of safety and predictability that is its unique selling point?

Stevens’ poem is a commentary against the anodyne life of the American suburb. The sameness of the homes, the white-lit unity of their little blocks and fences and lawns, the trundling mail-truck. None of them are strange, he says, but why would we be, the houses might say in reply. The people who live here are not going to dream of baboons and periwinkles. There is no place here for the artistic and the frenzied, or for the outlier. It is only the poet who wants to  experience life in its many colors. The poet is alone in craving the sight of purple houses with green rings. For company, he has the drunken sailor, who, having rejected social mores and himself been rejected by society, dreams of catching tigers in red weather. Modern, civilized society is blind to its own delirium. Everything that is colorful and human and alive is lost in this ghost-country of perfect homes and perfect order. “Give me chaos, give me truth, give me danger,” is the implicit cry of the poet, but he will not be granted it; to have access to it, he too has to live on the fringes of society, like the sailor asleep in a drunken stupor, still wearing his boots. The cost of freedom is too high to pay for those who buy into the humming dullness of ordinary living. The American suburb is part of this American mythology — it is a product of the nearly mythical reach of urban and suburban sprawl, and the industries that run behind these systems to make them look and work the way they do. The poet pleads for the mythical qualities of color and wildness, of animals and exotic accoutrements, as absurd as lace and beaded belts, to somehow make their appearance and redeem modern American living of its curse of uniformity and conformity.

By using whimsical and absurd imagery that is the complete opposite of everything that the poet actually sees, Stevens evokes the vigor that is absent from modern living with its trappings of comfort and respectability. How wonderful that we can never know what exactly a tiger in red weather is. But we can dream of it. Yet even that dream, of a tiger bounding and leaping, borne from some deep and unexplored desire, is the luxury of a homeless sailor. The people who live in the neatly painted homes set in rows upon a street, have lost even the ability to dream of what they might truly want and need.

– Mary Ann Koruth

 

 

Drunk on Ink Q & A with Jamie Sumner ‘Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood.’

Drunk on Ink is a fun blast interview with writers, artists, filmmakers and more conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor.

 

Read  Jaggery Issue 11 Spring 2018

Jamie Sumner is a writer and mom living in Nashville. She is the author of the book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood. She has written for The Washington Post, Scary Mommy and Parenting Special Needs Magazine and has an essay forthcoming in The New York Times. She is also an editor at Literary Mama. She can often be found at the park with her three kids, the dog and a large cup of coffee. All the writing happens when everyone else is asleep.

Publishers Weekly says…

Feeling imperfect? There are mom-books for that – offering solace in faith and welcome infusions of humor as well. Jamie Sumner, in Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood (FaithWords, April 10) describes her journey through infertility and special needs parenting. Her trip has not been easy, but Sumner found in the Bible stories of women who show her hope, companionship and triumph in releasing herself in God’s hands.

UNBOUND gives hope and encouragement to all women whose picture of motherhood is strained by disillusionment, otherness and even despair. Women do not talk enough about the reality of motherhood: the struggle it takes to get there, the loneliness of it, the unmet expectations. We are often too ashamed to share our difficult stories. We quietly absorb the posts of sonograms and happily messy houses on Facebook as we inwardly wonder what’s the matter with is. We struggle to meet the everyday needs and special needs of our kids, caught by surprise that this is what motherhood looks like. With honestly and vulnerability, JAMIE SUMNER walks readers through each stage of her own journey to motherhood through infertility and special needs parenting.

 

Soniah Kamal:  First author/book you read/fell in love with?

Jamie Sumner: I have two books that wooed me at two very different times in my life. The first was C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was the first book to make me believe that magic could be hiding anywhere. The second was Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. I read it in the NICU after my son was born and felt for the first time that no, it’s not just me and this particular situation, all mothers feel this crazy.

 

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Coffee to start. Wine to end.

 

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

As a former English teacher, my list is long. But I will say, Lord of the Flies. It’s such a testament to the unraveling chaos of our human nature when all the rules disappear. It’s like every single episode of Survivor made real.

 

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

Ah yes. Grapes of Wrath. I just couldn’t get through it. Steinbeck is a genius, but it took East of Eden to lure me in and make me go back for this one.

 

A favorite quote from your book? 

I have two:

“Life is a continual etching and erasing. We form expectations and God forms reality. Sometimes they line up nicely, like tracings at right angles. And sometimes God plays Jackson Pollock and we’re all over the place.”

“Motherhood is often like this, a continually changing plan that has you kicking the tires and eating fried rice.”

 

Your favorite book to film?

The first Harry Potter. It is magic made perfect.

 

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

Parnassus here in Nashville.

 

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

I wish I had known that creation happens in secret, but promotion is one big loud shout through the megaphone. Being a professional writer in the modern world takes both the quiet and the noise.

 

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

Nope. You build your platform and hope that street cred will get you places. But ultimately, each work must stand on its own. Marketing gets easier with practice, but the writing and publishing reset with each book.

 

Dog, Cat, Or?

Dog! I have had my Zoe longer than I have had my husband. She might be my soulmate.

Favorite book cover?

I love Rupi Kaur’s the sun and her flowers with the hand-drawn sunflowers. It’s simple and genius, much like her work.

 

Favorite song?

“Heavenly Day” by Patty Griffin. It makes me want to take a nap in a field.

 

Favorite Small Press and Literary Journal?

As an editor for Literary Mama, I have to vote for us on this one. We hit such a unique market—mothers who write, and write well, and writers whose works hit on the mother-child relationship. We celebrate the famous and the up-and-coming and the great small press finds. We love it all.

 

Last impulse book buy and why?

I bought The Power by Naomi Alderman because I was 39th in the hold list at the library and needed in now. It was worth it.

 

Soniah Kamal’s novel ‘UnMarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is forthcoming from Penguin Random House USA. Her debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s TEDx talk, Redreaming Your Dreamis about regrets, second chances and redemption. Her story Jelly Beans was selected for The Best Asian Stories Series 2017 and her award winning and Pushcart Prize nominated work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Normal School.

A close read: “Mozart’s Final Hour”, a poem from the New Yorker.(Feb 26, 2018 issue)

1.
My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata
Hidden under the rented baby grand
I press one pedal or another,
“damper,” “sustain”—

My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata,” begins this poem, Mozart’s Final Hour” by D.Nurkse, in a recent issue of the New Yorker. In this short, but redemptive poem about a child and his father, the narrator—ostensibly, the poet himself— takes on the great themes of filial love and mortality in the fraught, but primal bond between father and son. Without wasting any time, the scene is set. The child seated, “hidden under the rented baby grand” is not merely innocent, and trusting, but filled with awe of his father, the pianist. Why else does he hide? In the act of hiding, with its echoes of wonder and shyness, perhaps even fear, and in the father’s blindness to the child’s position under the piano, literally at his feet, the poet captures an age-old trope of the relationship between boys and their fathers: the child’s yearning to be seen and recognized, and the parent falling short. The awe-filled child, rendered so real, by the grown son, who looks back at that awe, and at that parent, with sadness.

The opening movement of Mozart’s B-Flat Sonata has a quietness and yearning to it; even when it launches into a glittering piece of virtuosity, a liminal melancholy hovers over it like a cloud. The poem reflects this floating, lingering quality. The child attempts to help his father realize the piece by pressing the pedals that extend the sounds, or muffle them, but in doing so, the emotive register of the music changes. The music becomes inaccessible — the father is unable to evoke the musical magic of Mozart’s work; it is as if the music is no more able to speak to him. He cannot capture its magic in his playing even though this is all he wants to do.

Mozart grows pompous, prissy,
or strangely tongue-tied.

Is the joke on Mozart, or on the father, trying to play the piece to his best ability? Note that the poet calls Mozart pompous and tongue-tied, as if the entire interaction between father and child whittles to a stale, unemotional performance. Rather than directly criticize the father, the poet addresses the quality of his playing. This is the child’s reading of his father, and his accusation: even the beauty of Mozart turns into something cold and distant in his father’s hands. If Mozart’s sonata is representative of beauty, including the beauty of love between father and child, then the pianist has failed in his rendition of both music and love.

There is also the sense of how the child manages to distort his father’s earnest efforts. The child is well-meaning, just as the father is dedicated. Yet the music they produce together —the child at the pedals, the father at the keys—falls short, too.

You can watch the shadows come—
the elm in the French window
impenetrable as a score.
Rain is a diminished chord.

The weather changes, day moves into night, as if mimicking the difficulty and unpredictability of the father’s efforts. It is no surprise that the shadows of evening, the inner darknesses of boy and man, appear in the windows. Even the elegant elm is an obstacle. It begins to rain. Nothing provides inspiration. 

I press those huge slippers
that smell of fart and wax,
gently, and my father
adjusts his timing delicately.

Now the child inches closer, ensconced in the dark womb created by his father’s presence and his piano-playing, so close and so real that the rest of the world, the intruding elm, the rain, all cease to exist. With tentative hands, he presses his father’s slippers. Larger than life as his father might seem, his slippers quickly remove any pretense of this. They smell of “fart and wax”, and yet, the child touches them. He does not touch his father though. It is enough just to touch the old, smelly slippers. The little concert continues at the piano, and momentarily, something of beauty is born.

Its late.

Perhaps it is, too late.

Mozart bloated with sepsis says:
Fetch me my quill. I have an idea
that will make me famous.

The pathos of the dying artist, wanting to create — even when there is no hope left. Bloated Mozart, whose intricate genius the father tries to grasp in his playing, died prematurely, his work on earth incomplete. The poet’s repeated references to Mozart as arrogant, as remote, and finally as a sick man on his deathbed, are at odds with how we are used to thinking about a man of incredible genius and fame. There is a shift in language, from the lyrical (rain is a diminished chord) to the brazen (fart and wax) and a shift in subject. A dying Mozart reappears.  And in this dying, we see the failure of the promise of fatherhood. The child is the audience, the father the performer who cannot impress—don’t talk about ideas and quills, says the poet.

Now the room is entirely dark.
My father is playing by heart.
That stupid grief—he memorized it.

This is where the poem comes to a head. All its force collects in this one line: “That stupid grief—he memorized it.”  The narrator, disgusted and disappointed, finally breaks out of the trance of childhood and identifies his father’s mistake. His voice is conversational and furious—he abandons formal language and bursts out. The father could not forget his sorrow. It made its way into the Mozart piece, and it made its way to the little boy, who sat beneath the piano, looking up, to his father, for reassurance, but was denied it. The paternal figurehead is incriminated.

Our love is like nightfall
or a trill: you can see through it
but not it.

These simple lines appear at the end of the poem, full of grace and wisdom. The son, despite his deep disappointment with his father, recognizes that there is love, no doubt. He knows his father loves him, but the affection is inexpressible. Like nightfall or a musical trill, the son senses its existence, but does not have the luxury of experiencing it. This is not enough, and this is the poet’s sorrow. The observation is a commentary on poetics too. How does one express the inexpressible? Their interaction on a rented piano, however tender the image, in the end, just did not cut it, did not make the mark. 

Delicate lyricism is offset by a fierce thesis.

2.
Then time shall be no more.

This line, which comprises the entire second section of the poem, is a double allusion. James Joyce was paraphrasing the Bible in “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” when he wrote, “Time is, time was, time shall be no more”. The meaning is that we are out of time, that time has run out. The narrator is in the present, when time is no more, and there is opportunity only for recollection and synthesis, in poetry. One day soon (if not already), the poet says, his father will be no more. And then, so shall time—his chance for change, for making amends to his son—all of these, will be no more.

I don’t think its a coincidence that the shape of the poem on the page is lean, like a column or a narrow pillar, and its language so simple. Neither its form nor its content convey abundance or excess of emotion. Though the themes of art are universal, we look to art –to stories and novels and poetry and movies– to bring those themes home, to situate ourselves in these investigations into life’s emotional truths, because art is the apotheosis of individual, human experience.  Art does not rationalize. Pure art possesses and projects pure emotion, and when we hear  from the son in this poem, who remembers sitting at his father’s feet as a boy, at the piano, listening to the longing in Mozart’s music, while filled with a longing of his own, we understand fathers and sons everywhere.  In Mozart’s greatness and in his death, we see the figure of the father.  Yet both are only human, and both are tragic, their creations fragile, left to fend for themselves. Mozart’s sonata does not live and breathe in the pianist’s hand in the way he wishes it to. It is the same with the child he created. Like shadows, they touch without meeting, they inhabit the same spaces, but without speaking and celebrating their bond.  In the end, they are tied to each other by the the very gulf of sadness that divides them.

Mary Ann Koruth

 

What we write about when we write about writing. (A response to Yiyun Li).

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li.
Hardcover, 208 pages, Random House Inc. 2017

In “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” Yiyun Li’s intelligent and deeply nuanced memoir on her life and her writing and the interminable connection between the two, she quotes from her novella, “Kindness”. The episode she describes is of a little girl who wants to buy chicks from a peddler. Because her father cannot afford them, two women in the market pay for them. She takes them home and cares for them, but they die, eventually. The girl steals eggs from her kitchen and cracks them open, washing out the yolks and whites. She then tries to return the dead chicks to the eggshells, trying to fit their tiny bodies into the halves, but finds that she is unsuccessful. The excerpt ends with the girl making this observation, “I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the egg shell.”

Li’s assertion, throughout this book, is that she has abandoned her native tongue, Chinese, and adopted English as the language she writes in. In addition to giving up Chinese, but also, as a result of this choice, she has abandoned elements of her childhood in China, and would like to live in a world that is as unpopulated by memories of her life, growing up in China, as is possible. The book was written over a two-year period during which Li was hospitalized twice for suicidal depression.

Though the questions that Li raises, and the statements she makes, are about writing, they become questions about life and living. This is why her book is so unusual and so profound. In giving up a past, in renouncing it as completely and unambiguously as Li has chosen to renounce Chinese, surely her writing is informed and influenced by the vacuum created by that choice, as much as it would have been informed and enriched by embracing it. Li is the first to admit this — in life, as in writing, our selves are as much a result of what we choose to be as what we choose to not be. Like chicks refusing to return to the eggshells, we are what we give up. We can choose not to retrace our steps, but there is no erasing; the erasure of memory and the revisiting of it — aren’t these almost equally unreliable?

Why write autobiographically? Li asks this question pointedly. The word “I”, in English, is melodramatic, she writes. “In Chinese one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.” Li insists that she does not write autobiographically — because she does not, or did not, at the time of writing this book, have a “solid and explicable self”. She refers to a state of “unraveling” in between her hospitalizations. She writes to erase the self — but that is impossible, because nothing brings us closer to our truest selves than the practice of art.

I can often trace an autobiographical element to my stories. But that is not what I am interested in, for this piece. It is the sense of self that Li grapples with, and that she describes other patients in her hospital grappling with, a sense of self so flung into sadness that she wanted to erase it completely. I cannot pretend to understand the depth of Ms. Li’s despair, but I cannot be alone in having known despair and emptiness. I write to escape myself; writers like Li, are talented enough to do so successfully in their stories and novels. In my own poems and fiction, I fear vanity; how much of memory, of pain recalled, is mere indulgence? The “I” that Li suspects and would dispose of, raises a similar question for me. Do our individual selves matter enough to justify autobiographical writing? My answer is no, yet I cannot help returning to that elusive “I”. In any case, all writing is personal, so that trying to escape the “I” is a bit of a bluff. So much safer to publish journalism and criticism. Fiction and poetry are hard, but until I am certain of the validity—and quality–of what I create, a lot of my other writing will remain an escape.

An Indian colleague of mine was surprised when I told her during her farewell party in the office, that two years ago, she had asked me, as I walked through the lobby, to show her to her interview, and though neither of us knew it at the time, her future boss. She did not recall our interaction.

“Am I that forgettable?” I laughed, which was silly, because she was thinking of her job prospects in an empty lobby on a blue, cloudy day. Anyone else, in my place, would have done the same for her. Yet when I took my son to the doctor last week, he told me he remembered me from a year ago, when I visited him with my daughter. I was surprised that he would, because I was, at the time, thinking only of her. I don’t recall saying anything that would make him remember me, but he did. Our ideas about ourselves are consistent only in our own eyes. Writing, unlike life, has the advantage of hindsight, which makes for more predictable results. You might be able to identify a writer by her voice or her oeuvre, but the truth of who she really is can be impossible to lay a finger on. And so, the writer, in search of a self, keeps writing, and her readers pick up the thread wherever she leaves it, in her books.

I have not yet completed Li’s book, partly because I want to linger and bathe in her many aphorisms, her entangled thoughts, which defy and provoke each other, reminding me that uncertainty is a state worth having.

What I take away from it, as far as my own writing is concerned is this: if I could speak with as much assurance as I write, how much more memorable I would be to the people I meet. But the page is more patient than a person, though what I write, I write for people. Perhaps I am simply too careful in relationships, even casual conversations — the fear of causing damage or hurt by saying what I think, or bringing into question my own immaturity, the fear of revealing weakness, seals my lips and distorts what I would naturally say. Writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is a lifelong exploration of the gap between truth and what I think is the truth — between absolutes and relatives, between the objective and the subjective, between negative space and positive space. I seem to have assumed that the truth (of life, of art) is unknowable — distant from my own experience of it. This is a form of posturing, but it is also true. A digression from things is often only a path of return. I can only speak for myself, and so, I write.

– Mary Ann Koruth

Bollywood Movies and Me

My earliest memory of a Bollywood movie belonged to a time when renting out video cassettes from a parlor was quite a popular pastime during vacations. The first movie I saw on one such video cassette was the 1989, Salman Khan-Bhagyashree starrer – Maine Pyaar Kiya. At that time and age, love meant friendship; the “not so wealthy” were always kind at heart; the affluent were nasty and love stories always ended with “happily ever after”. A little later came my first big screen encounter with the 1990, Aamir Khan-Madhuri Dixit starrer – Dil. A trip with cousins, led by my dad (who took pride at haggling with black marketers) will always be remembered for the melodramatic hero-heroine rivalry, defiance towards family, sacrifice and finally again a “happily ever after”.

                                                 

As a teenager, crushes on Bollywood movie stars were quite common. With a single watch of the 1992 release – Khiladi and some convincing at home, I had this huge poster of Akshay Kumar in our bedroom. After learning about some trivia related to the movie – Khiladi was a remake of the erstwhile whodunit, Khel Khel Mein – there was this new found respect for my parents. Suddenly their generation was cool for enjoying a good murder mystery just as much as we did. On the heels of Khiladi was the 1993, Shahrukh Khan-Kajol-Shilpa Shetty starrer – Baazigar. Baazigar was special for different reasons though. Coming from the same school as Shilpa Shetty, as giggly girls, we were just so intrigued by how our senior basketball player got catapulted into the glamorous playground of Bollywood; intrigued by how a chocolate boy hero can metamorphose into a villain and still be likeable. The “Kaali Kaali Aankhen” song brings back sweet memories of afternoon dance practice sessions on a terrace for our colony’s new year bash. It also brings back memories of violence and a gory climax. For someone like me, though, the end never really justified the means.

                            

The latter part of the 1990s’ saw a duo of block busters – Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge(1995) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) release in theatres and into our hearts. No matter how clichéd it sounds, it is actually true that women of all ages and sizes, secretly dream of living a Yash Chopra leading lady’s life – always innocent and beautiful, always attired in an enticing yet elegant way, always falling in love amidst picturesque locations. Both DDLJ and DTPH had this and more. Contrary to popular belief that DDLJ can be watched a million times, I actually watched DDLJ just twice. But twice was enough to touch a chord and leave a lasting impression. While the nation went crazy over the “palat” scene and the “Ja Simran ja…jee le apni zindagi” dialogue; there were nuances -Shahrukh circling Kajol on a cycle in an innovative song sequence; Farida Jalal’s teachings to her daughter about a woman’s life; the subtle comedy slipped between hero-heroine, father-son, hero’s father-heroine’s aunt dialogues, etc. that I recollect even today. DTPH was my first, first day, last show, late night outing. For someone who enjoys dance and is a romantic at heart, it was a pretty good outing. While there was nothing fresh about the story line, actors, dialogues or scenes; what stood out for me was the simply superb music. Every song in the movie was unique in its own way. There was a song for each situation and a heralding of a new kind of choreography for Bollywood. I am not a hard core Uttam Singh or Shiamak Davar fan but the combination just touched a chord yet again and left a lasting impression yet again.

                               

We grow, we change and so do our tastes. Bollywood movies started focusing on characters and themes more than the traditional hero-heroine love story capers. I started enjoying varied genres a lot more than the regular run-of-the-mill ones. With the millennium came the Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty, Tabu starrer – Hera Pheri. Hera Pheri could undoubtedly be the “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro” of our times. A complex plot made simple with clever dialogues and closer to real life characters. The terms LOL and ROFL may very well have been coined after watching this movie. The title justified the story line; the actors did justice to their roles and it was 3 hrs of time well spent. I can’t really recollect any other time when I have laughed so much, with tears in my eyes and appreciation in my heart. A huge salute to the wonderful actor that he is, Paresh Rawal. Another movie that brings tears to my eyes, for a very different reason has been the 2007, Shahrukh Khan and a bunch of talented girls’ starrer – Chak De. It was a welcome change to watch the spotlight shifting from King Khan to the theme – Poignant but strong; unknown faces but high recollection value; zero glamour but captivating; girls’ hockey but still engaging, patriotic but yet interesting… With all due respect to the movies that went on to make it to the Oscar nominations, Chak De, in my opinion should have been there on the list.

                             

Post Chak De, I don’t seem to remember movies very clearly. There has been some brilliant cinema made, wonderful characters portrayed, realistic themes chosen – but something has changed along the way. The Vidya Balan starrer – Kahani; the Aamir Khan venture – PK; the light hearted Ranbir Kapoor, Konkana Sen movie – Wake Up Sid are some that come to my mind. There are many, many more. But…movies are no longer elusive – tickets easily available at multiplexes, actors easily visible on TV and easily accessible on social media are perhaps contributors. Nevertheless, I see the tide turning in my life with my little daughter following my footsteps. She seems to enjoy a good movie over a packet of caramel popcorn just as much as me. 5 movies down and the winner is Bahubali. She has anointed each family member with the name of a Bahubali character. Though not originally from Bollywood, Bahubali deserves a separate write up, I say. It appears as though my movie fetish will be revived!

 

 

 

She the Shakti: A Poetic Celebration of Femininity, A Chorus of Change

An Interview with Meenakshi M. Singh, editor of ShetheShakti anthology and founder of SheTheShakti Inc.

In Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s famous dance drama ‘Chitrangada’, the indomitable warrior princess of Manipur, Chitrangada introduces herself to her love, Arjun through these following lines: “I am not the one you hail in the alter, worshipping, nor am I the one you keep behind you, in negligence. Recognize my essence while you keep me beside you always, in your bounty and amid deep hours of crisis, allowing me to be a true partner in your life’s journey, a true accomplice in your missions” (translated from the original Bengali). While browsing through the pages of the bilingual poetry anthology ‘She the Shakti’ (Authorspress, 2017), I felt the resonance of these lines, which conveyed to me the quintessential spirit of womanhood.  

In this collection of 300 poems in both English and Hindi, composed by 124 poets, both women and men, the editor Meenakshi M. Singh, an award-winning poet and REX Karamveer Chakra Awardee brings to the fore the spirited, lyrical voices that empower womanhood through the potent medium of poetry. The anthology builds a discourse around the concept of equality of women through a unique poetic collaboration spearheaded by Meenakshi and her organization “SheTheShaktiInc”, a women empowerment center that she founded in 2017. The poems and prose-poems collected celebrates this concept of equality of women, which had long been denied by the power dynamics of a patriarchal social structure. Meenakshi writes in the foreword to the anthology: “It’s time that history gets created by female gender and history is written fairly. Where female is the main protagonist. It’s time for that change.” In an intimate conversation with her following the publication and critical acclaim of the book, we talk about her inspiration behind this publication and her mission and vision behind her enterprise SheTheShaktiInc. 

Lopa Banerjee: Hello Meenakshi, in the foreword to the English section of the mammoth and timely anthology ‘SheTheShakti’, you write a poem with a rhetorical question: “Do the pens have a gender? /Is it that the ink flows better through a man’s poem?” Would you say these questions that bubbled in your poetic psyche ushered in a womanly deluge where other voices joined in, which resulted in this anthology?

Meenakshi Singh: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Lopa, if we reflect any of the historical epics, or literary work of significance in the past, there is not much presence of a woman’s voice. The protagonist is always a man. I doubt that there was any dearth of thinking women in past. It’s natural for any human being to claim their freedom through expression, so I believe the subjugation was imposed on women as a mandate; it was all patriarchal conditioning.

This fact has really compelled me to claim an equal ground and to change the history for the future. Shetheshakti has emerged like the lava as if it was there, ready to erupt. I had never expected that an idea of mine could turn so grand that it would engage 124 contributors so actively, to celebrate the spirit worldwide. The huge anthology took birth in just 3-4 months’ time without any sponsors or a big team backing it. I still feel overwhelmed from the tremendous response from contributors, including you, raising a woman’s voice in the patriarchal society. I believe that it’s some supreme power that united us all to bring the muted voice of woman to the fore.

I believe that the claim to equality which is at the core of feminism needs to be celebrated and voiced, regardless of gender. The time has come to unite in this collective sentiment. It’s as beneficial and important to be gender sensitized and perceive the world equally for a woman as well as for a man.

 

Lopa: The blurb of the book describes it as a ‘‘grand poetic celebration of femininity.” As an award-winning poet yourself, what has been your vision and mission behind celebrating the spirit of woman empowerment through the medium of poetry, which mainstream publishers generally refrain from publishing?

Meenakshi: I always perceived woman as a powerful being, as a creator (Janani), rather than a victim and thus envisioned ShetheShakti as a celebration of feminists. ShetheShakti was never objectified as an anti-men or an outcry project of sulking/blaming men. It’s a statement of power of the dissenting woman, embracing the spirit and importance of both the masculine and feminine. 

I chose poetry as my medium to empower woman’s voice as personally, I have spoken most of my truths through poetry. Poetry heals, liberates and empowers and so poetry is an important armor of Shakti. Poetry has enabled me to feel enough and thus I came up with a book in 2016, “I am Enough” which was a tribute to womanhood. I have benefited from poetry to carve out an identity and received respect in society through poetry, so I truly believe in the power of poetry and know that poetry could be instrumental to change the fabric of the diasporic society. And hence, I chose poetry to fulfill my mission of an egalitarian society.

Lopa: What kind of societal change do you envision from the production of such a collaborative project?

Meenakshi: ShetheShakti did prove that it was the need of the hour, and therefore numerous people united with this cause.  I must confess that I received many requests after the anthology launch to bring a second edition. I express my humble gratitude for AuthorsPress publisher and Director Sudarshan KCherry ji, who stood like a pillar for this cause. Also I express my heartfelt thanks to the volunteers Aparnaa Laxmi for being the co-editor, Samrudhi Dash, Simran Arora for her enthusiastic efforts in the compilation and graphical posters, Mahima Sharma for spreading the spirit out and loud. I also want to thank eminent poet Chitra Desai for writing the foreword in the Hindi section. I want to thank the male poets especially Dilip Mohapatra Ji to join this celebration of feminism and make it an all-inclusive project. My humble gratitude to each and every poet who came forward and joined this chorus of change.

 Lopa: The themes of gender and sexuality, the feminine identity, the theme of repression of the woman in patriarchy have evolved a lot over the ages, and across cultures and continents. Which feminist poets/authors and artists do you draw inspiration from, if any?

Meenakshi: I have been influenced by many feminists but especially the voices of Maya Angelou, Virginia Wolf, Anais Nin, Coco Chanel, Chimamanda Ngozi have liberated me and empowered me. I feel amazed to think that the viewpoint and the literary oeuvre of Maya Angelou and Virginia Woolf are  still so relevant. Kamala Das, Shashi Deshpande, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey are few of my favorites. And I love feminists of all types from Kamla Bhasin, Shobha De, Meghna Pant, Lady Diana, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Diksha Bijlani, Kangna Ranuat, Priyanka Chopra, Natasha Badhawar, Shaili Chopra, Aparna Vedapuri, Vinita Agrawal, Joie Bose, Smeetha Bhowmick, Lopa Banerjee, Chitra Desai, Vinita Dawra, Geetika Goyal, Meena Agarwal,Shivangi Maletia, Malala, Emma Watson, Santosh Bakaya, Nabina Das, Neela Kaushik, Joshna Banerjee, Paromita Bardoloi, Abha Singh, Monica Oswal, Shivani Pathak, Smriti Irani, Meena Kandasamy, Milee Aishwarya and all those men who respect and celebrate women. There are many groups, forums and portals which give me inspiration in daily life.  

Lopa: What connotations do the coinage of ‘feminism’ bring to your mind as a poet, author, woman and mother?

Feminism is humanism to me, being sensitive and respectful to all humans regardless of gender, race and creed. Feminism to me, is synonymous with equal opportunities, privileges and the status for women at home ground and workplace. Unfortunately, feminism is often seen from a negative perspective, like a feminist is angry, anti-men, rebellious and one who doesn’t conform. But as a poet, writer, mother, feminism to me translates as equality and balance leading to harmony.

Lopa: Keeping in mind that we women have really come a long way from struggling to claim our rightful space in the universe to actually accomplishing giant strides in the diverse spheres of society, has the world really known the importance of gender sensitization?

Meenakshi: The identity of female has gone through evolution in terms of roles and responsibilities. As if earth has boundaries, territory for sexes. Roles were acquired as per the innate qualities of each sex and now is the time where they need to be redefined. We are much beyond the age of hunting where only masculine was revered. In this age of technology, women have all the access, skills and tools to reach out and the professional world needs the gifts of innovation, creativity, communication, which is possessed by both the genders. I feel disturbed to think that in the Indian context, the mindsets of people are still wired, stereotyping the roles of women and men. The Laxman Rekha still gets drawn and the woman who dares to cross it is called a feminazi. Even in the society of animals, there is no gender inequality between sexes but humans hold this distorted view. This gender bias is still evident in the 21st century. 

Lopa: Do you think we still need to evolve a lot in our thoughts and actions regarding the true essence of woman empowerment? 

Meenakshi: It needs a revolution to shake things and restore that balance and ShetheShakti is not less than a revolution. I would be happy to witness those times when a woman stops imitating a man to prove her equal identity but embraces her womanhood to be able to celebrate herself emotionally, physically and financially. That is woman empowerment to me and that is my mission.

Lopa:  The depiction of womanhood, the strength, power, frailty and humanity of a woman in Indian society has mostly been shaped by religious conditioning, by the portrayal of women in mythological epics and scriptures. What is your vision regarding the force of femininity as depicted in religion, culture, literature and epics?

Meenakshi: Indian society is rich and empowered due to its roots but there is no mandate or guideline to renew it to make it suitable to the contemporary times.

I would like to point out the hypocrisy in Indian society, especially in the portrayal of a woman. On one hand, the woman is worshipped in temples as Shakti, the symbol of power and on the other hand, she considered as the weakest, dumbest, lowest creature in the society. I understand the derivation of this philosophy from the financial status quo of a man in the family. But then the woman is supposed to follow certain norms, she is rendered mute and caged in homes. This arrangement of keeping the women confined might have suited in the days where enemies invaded.

But in today’s times, I find it ridiculous and irrelevant. I wonder, unless a woman comes out of her shell, how she would be able to prove her independence, and equalize with a man’s status quo? It is heartening to see so many women coming out, reclaiming their equal rights.

Religion has a significant role to play in a woman’s journey in India. My thoughts could be scandalous but most of the Goddesses, the ideal women were muted, underpowered and followed their counter parts like blind followers. All man Gods had their own vehicles but goddesses didn’t…they sulked and waited and dedicated their lives, waiting for their men. I doubt such mythological depictions. I have my doubts about such stories and fables crafted by men, but then that’s a personal viewpoint. The entire lifecycle is governed by the conditioning a girl child goes through in India. The Indian ethos and norms need urgent revision to suit to contemporary requirements and gender roles. 

Lopa: Let me also ask you about the organization “She The Shakti Inc” that you founded in 2017, which is an initiative of yours towards attaining woman empowerment. What are the major highlights of this initiative, apart from its literary aspect, i.e., books/anthologies?

Meenakshi: To give back to society, I pledged to have a mission to empower fellow women through their creative expressions and dissent. In order to do this, I launched SheTheShakti Inc., a woman empowerment center, on Jan1st, 2017. It came up with ShetheShakti, an anthology of 124 poets, a grand poetic celebration of feminism, a collective voice towards empowering woman’s voice in the society. It expressed a chorus of change, of celebration, of hope. It is founded to empower a woman’s voice and raise her identity from all aspects. ShetheShakti is also bringing out an anthology of poems, ‘A Chorus of Youth’ by young Indian poets of age 8-16 years, to foster the creative expression in today’s youth as I believe the voices and creativity of youth don’t get platforms other than schools to get unleashed, and ShetheShakti wishes to be an enabler for our future generation. ShetheShakti has tied up with the NGO Neofusion and announced ShetheShakti Star award on Kaka Hathrasi’s Day to recognize the most creative student in neoFusion academy where all under privileged children are getting holistic education under the tutelage of Dr. Anubhooti Bhatnagar. 

Lopa: Do you think literature and arts is sufficient to attain the goal of empowering feminist voices, or we need more grassroot level initiatives to attain it?

Meenakshi: Literature and art do possess the power of altering society’s gender consciousness, thereby empowering women. It all sprouts from the mindsets of people; gender equality has to be sown in young minds first so that our daughters can blossom. So literature might not seem enough, but has significant role to germinate gender equality in society. Since ages, history, literature and art has shown the supremacy of men over women and thus we are in this unequal state. If you read any story of a fast which Indian women keep, it’s all about duties and dedication of a woman for men/boys. There is no fast in the Indian culture which is kept for a woman/girl/mother. So the attitude needs to be changed at the grassroots level.

My vision for ShetheShakti is to become an instrument to build such a humane society which celebrates, embraces and empowers girls and women psychologically, emotionally, physically and socially. I am working as a woman empowerment coach at the minimal level now. I am exploring various mediums other than Literature and arts and have high hopes towards ShetheShakti. 

Lopa: The best thing I have seen as one of the contributors of ‘She The Shakti’ is the outpouring of the poetic voices of men joining in this collaboration of change. Do you think this will add to its constructive, proactive dissent and solidify the awareness of women being synonymous to Shakti (power)?

Meenakshi: I am grateful that you acknowledged the solidarity and the potency for change in ShetheShakti. Having male poets joining in for feminism and woman empowerment is the most beautiful phenomenon in this endeavor. I salute the male poets, especially for being man enough, for their courage and resonance. As I mentioned earlier, ShetheShakti is all inclusive and stands to raise woman’s voice, but at the same time it carries equal respect for a man’s voice, resulting in a balanced society. You must have noticed that during the recent “MeToo” campaign all around the world, some men also came forward to join in the campaign and it’s beautiful that men also feel it is the need of the times to unmute the silence of women. 

Lopa: Creating an anthology is always a collective experience, rather than anything else. However, the cathartic journey of publishing the anthology invariably enriches our sense of self-exploration by reading the literary works of others. Do you think any of the discerning contemporary poetic voices in ‘She the Shakti’ has strengthened your vision of femininity and humanity?

Meenakshi: ShetheShakti stands on behalf of every woman and thus will stay as a collective voice forever towards elevating the status of the half of the world. It belongs to each and every poet of ShetheShakti as it does to me but personally it has been the most fulfilling creative project for me for some beautiful reasons. As I expressed at the book launch program in Delhi that the amount of joy I felt at the launch of Shetheshakti was boundless, way more than I would have felt at my exclusive books. Secondly, I was from IT industry and it was my dream to get published few years back. I knew that feeling of ecstasy and I wanted to give back to the society in a manner to enable others to feel that joy. So we engaged poets in ShetheShakti, including both veteran authors and literary stalwarts and also emerging poets and this concoction is very special to me.

I received so much gratitude and respect to the point of being overwhelmed from contributors from all walks of life, including a scientist, housewife, dancer, doctor, and even an underprivileged woman and an 84-year-old woman. This will stand as my most precious fortune.

I have deep regards for the stalwarts and eminent poets who engaged and graced ShetheShakti anthology and since numbers are huge, it won’t be feasible to list the names here. All the voices bring power, change and uniqueness to build feminine voice and it’s not possible for me to compare and judge anyone’s poetry. Each poet is dear to me and is an important member of ShetheShakti family. 

Lopa: As a mother of two daughters, do you wish to sow the seeds of woman empowerment and gender sensitization in their young minds, starting from a tender age? 

Meenakshi: I envision ShetheShakti Inc as a change maker in the society towards an equal, humanistic, sensitive and egalitarian world.

Me and my husband used to work together. I chose to quit my corporate job when my twin daughters were born. I did receive consolation from a few aged neighbors for giving birth to twin daughters in this 21st century.

My role as a nurturer at home has never been looked down upon and I am able to pursue my passion of writing as my choice. So the seeds are already sown in the psyche of my daughters. And the way we celebrate the presence of our daughters does bring delight to my heart and a sign that times have changed. My writing, my choices and my identity must have played a role in shaping the viewpoint of my daughters about a mother.

My twin daughters Mihikaa and Maansi are stronger feminists than me as I have encountered during our discussions. Once there was a placard, “Save the Girl child” when my daughters were just 5 years old. Then Maansi had asked: why not save the boy child, mama? At home, sometimes we pass statements like girls keep their room clean due to our conditioned minds and instantly my daughters correct us pointing out the gender stereotype and then we need to utter the correct statement: kids keep their rooms clean. I wish in our future generation, both sexes are always treated equally.

I feel delighted when my daughters look up to me and want to be like me when they grow up. It reflects they have no such prejudices that a woman needs to be submissive and apologetic about her choices.

When we were children, it wasn’t easy for our mothers to make independent choices and they would have felt apologetic if they partied or dressed up like today’s women do. They were apologetic for claiming their own freedom. I could claim that my pen gave me that power and confidence.

Once my daughter asked me that why do we worship these goddesses and who’s the best? There is a poem of mine, “Don’t be a goddess dear daughter” which I wrote, reflecting on a role model among our Indian goddesses. I told my daughter to be her own goddess than follow anyone though my daughters are not that old to understand the meaning fully. I was quite apprehensive to recite this poem in public as it could indicate sign of blasphemy, but as a poet I felt it was my responsibility to show the mirror of our society and to discard irrelevant thoughts. This poem has been well received in all forums and I believe the society is ready for change.

Lopa: What are your future endeavors towards women empowerment, empowerment of the girl child and societal changes?

Meenakshi: I envision great things for ShetheShakti, but since I chose to raise myself through raising my daughters and being there physically present with them at home, I am working from home. I envision expanding this center to be an institution of creative expression, running workshops, open mics, theatrical workshops, bustling with creativity, art and nurturing women empowerment, thereby transforming our society into a sensitive and humane one. It will be an organization where women come to realize their innate potential. I founded this single-handedly and would be happy to have like-minded partners and a team towards strengthening ShetheShakti.

Woman empowerment doesn’t translate into aping men or being like men but being like a woman, embracing and celebrating herself, as is. In this consumerist age, women need to go beyond pink and be truly empowered beyond the stereotypes of looking good. Rather they need to feel good from within. And when one woman stands to empower another woman, the results are better as it is the women who have a bigger role in society to weave its mindset. So it’s time that she doesn’t feel limited, confined and prejudiced.

We envision a transformed world where both the sexes collaborate in tandem as Shiva & Shakti. That is our legacy for our sons & daughters to blossom in a gender-neutral society. She is the Shakti herself and she needs to realize and believe in herself that she is enough, as is, always.

 

Lopa Banerjee is an author, poet and editor based in Dallas, TX. Her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’ and her debut poetry collection ‘Let The Night Sing’ have received honorary mentions at Los Angeles Book Festival 2017 and New England Book Festival 2017 respectively. She has also received the International Reuel Prize for Poetry (2017) and for translation (2016), instituted by The Significant League.

Meenakshi M. Singh is an author, founder of SheTheShakti Inc., a woman empowerment centre. An author of three books, her literary work has also been published in more than 50 national and international anthologies and journals. She has been conferred the much reputed Karamveer Chakra Award, the REX Global Fellowship and also the Magicka Women’s Achievement Award, Pride of Women Award by the Agaman group and the SashaktiNari Parishad Pride of Nation Award in 2015. 

Learning from Andal, Learning from the Devadasi

Andal as a Goddess depicted in Tanjore art.

Recently, the Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu called Andal a devadasi and sparked off some protests by the Tam-brahm community. Honestly, the protests by this unassuming, middle-class community in the history of Tamil Nadu caste politics are a new and far more interesting phenomenon, the historical scholarship, on the other hand, is old, hackneyed, ideological and in urgent need of revision. In the face of the protests, Vairamuthu apologized and pointed out that he was not calling Andal a devadasi anyway but another scholar from a 70s book that can’t be located easily was (in Indian Movement: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform by Subhash Chandra Malik). As usual, the issue spiraled into pointing out the distorted histories of the left and corrective attempts from the right on some fora. Tradition has it that women are excluded from issues concerning them, so we must ask: what should our take be on this issue? As feminists, we revel in Andal and her exemplary life as much as we do in the devadasis’ contribution to our society, temples and art forms. Yet, the feminist take on the Andal-devadasi controversy cannot be simplistic or shy away from the problems of history-writing. To show why, I draw from my own research into medieval bhakti a bit and present some thoughts you could consider in making your mind up.

For those of you yet to google Andal up, here is her story in brief. Andal as a baby is found in a garden by Vishnuchitta, a temple priest who then brings her up as his daughter. She tries out garlands meant for the temple deity, thinking they must first look beautiful on her if they are to look beautiful on the deity. One day, Vishnuchitta catches her doing this and admonishes her, for unworn and pure flowers must be offered to Hindu deities. Soon after, the deity appears in Vishnuchitta’s dream and insists that he wants only those garlands tried out by Andal. Andal’s devotion is so deep that she asks to be married to Ranganatha at Srirangam when she grows up, another form of the same deity. Upon marriage, she merges with her beloved deity with no traces left behind. She is hailed as a Goddess and is one of the twelve much-revered Tamil Vaishnavite saints of medieval India. Andal composed two works, Tiruppavai and Tirumozhli. Andal means ruler. The story of Andal is deeply moving. Andal’s innocence, sincerity and perseverance as well as her strength and delicateness are remarkable even when her story is told in unsentimental ways.

When I first heard the story as I child, I was moved to tears and didn’t need to know the history of medieval India to understand it. I say this because there is nothing complete or irrefutable about the history that is doing the rounds aka one that Vairamuthu is drawing his understanding from. Why? The mainstream history that we have today is indeed leftist. It works on the standard format of looking for the feudal lord and the underdog in everything it touches. Even simple inferences about the extraordinariness of Andal makes it paint the rest of the women as super-ordinary. It is such an attempt that makes historians say speculative things like, women took to spirituality because of the oppression of patriarchy in those times or that women never ventured out of the house. My research reveals many credible historical sources wherein women ‘converted’ their husbands’ sect from one to another and even demanded to be married to a person with a certain kind of devotion. They are known to have rejected or rebuked husbands for their lack of devotion as well. The birth of daughters was prayed for and celebrated in medieval India and their loss upon marriage, mourned. Women ruled as queens during this time. In leftist histories, the regressiveness of medieval society and tradition is premised on an assumption of egalitarianism and Protestantism that is attributed to the Bhakti period in comparison with the Protestant movement of Europe. Contrary to the assumptions made, Bhakti did not seek to eradicate caste or gender inequality, it only reiterated what was held to be true in the Vedas: that for spiritual sadhana, class, caste, gender and such worldly categories do not matter. Further, viewing medieval society by premising ourselves in modernity shows our uncritical affiliation with modernity so as to declare tradition as its polar opposite, rife with superstition and backwardness. We must simply disagree with and condemn Vairamuthu’s position that Andal was a devadasi because it is historically inaccurate with no evidence to back the claim. Devadasis have a rich and varied history—not all women who were devadasis were treated as prostitutes; some were performers of various art forms, others led pious lives within the bounds of temples. Andal lived in the immediate surroundings of a temple because she grew up as Vishnuchitta’s daughter and temple priests traditionally lived within a stone’s throw from the temple. This doesn’t make her a devadasi. Andal lived most of the years of her short life being in love with Krishna, her favourite deity and her compositions express her love in erotic terms. But this too does not make her a devadasi necessarily, she could just be a devotee. She married her beloved deity, but this was no ordinary marriage or devadasi marriage. She was dedicated to the temple deity beyond and above requirements of her, of her own will and inclination. She was not bound by tradition to do so. Her choice is what we should find fascinating. Andal surrendered herself to Krishna, but also chided him when she wanted to, accusing him of anything she wanted to. For her, Krishna was real; she was not deluded. Her life was a miracle in itself and though hagiographies may exaggerate, she is not the first or last in the long line of saints who leave their physical bodies in an unusual way—whatever we may or may not understand or believe of this today. We don’t have to uncritically accept these claims but they are stories alright. It is better we let questions persist rather than propose answers that are baseless.

This said, the protests from the Tam-brahm are not unproblematic. They tend to emerge from a moral position of superiority that looks down upon devadasis and sex-workers with enormous insensitivity. Though the protestors have put forward a simple demand for apology, the contours of their position are not entirely unknown. Their moralistic position refuses to acknowledge the complexities of caste, class and gender and seeks to look the other way when complicity in forms of oppression are mentioned. They practice such petty moralism today that they disown their own if they feel that one or another person does not conform to the black-white world they love to hold dear. If only they developed a more sophisticated stance towards their understanding of society and history, could we take them more seriously each time they cried ‘hurt religious sentiments.’ I say this despite the fact that the Tam-brahm community rarely comes forward in this manner, remaining genteel, even effeminate and ultra-cautious. The Tam-brahminization of classical art forms that were wrenched from the hands of the devadasis during the nationalist period is a well-known history that we need to remember on this occasion. The point again is not to critique individual left historians or be anti-brahminical and attack them but to be aware of the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their approaches even if on a case by case basis.

Whether women are religious or not, their cause does not benefit with affiliation to either of these positions. One extols the devadasis and condemns Andal somewhat, the other extols Andal and could condemn the devadasis. If women would like to be respected, not for their sexual choices, which is an intensely personal matter, but for being women, as humans equal to men, then where do these two polarized options leave us? Feminist positions unassociated with the left are hard to find. Yet, in this era of postmodernism where ideology is quite passe, why shouldn’t we hope to embrace multiple, vague and arbitrary positions regarding Andal instead of insisting on one or another history?

The bare minimum of Andal’s story, whether fact or fiction, is inspiring enough for women. We would have a problem with Andal if our understanding of feminism was simplistic enough to admonish femininity, devotion, marriage, family, love, sexual desire because they are patriarchal. The truth is, women embrace all of these or reject them or tweak them, or like Andal interpret each in her own way. Women of today tend to marry and redefine it, fall in love and opt out of it, have families they care enough to fight with, call out on their children, celebrate and contain their desires and practice any number of variations of all these. Being feminine does not mean being weak. Strength and femininity can co-exist and has co-existed, as in Andal. It is patriarchy that would like to have us believe otherwise. In addition, it is our general assumption that medieval India did not speak out about sexual desire, which is why we tend to think of Andal as extraordinary or rebellious. Medieval women negotiated sexual desire anyway.
Even if streedharma was followed during these times, it was considered a path to the highest cultural goal, moksha. Women by tending to their husbands and his family would secure a coveted position for themselves, their labour was of value. Miraculous powers were often a byproduct of their filial devotion, while filial devotion in general had rewards as well. Andal’s love for Krishna followed the marriage model and streedharma which reaped her very rich rewards. She vanished without a trace into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple at Srirangam, uniting with a deity who rules the earth and the Gods! Within the logic and narrative of the story, there is enough to convey the effectiveness of Andal’s devotion, the perfect achievement of her worthy aims. The characteristics Andal displays in her story are of great value too. Persistence being one. Purity being another. How much control over one’s actions should one have to be single-minded and unwavering like her! It’s not trivial; anyone of us working outside the home or inside it knows that our everyday tasks too demand great focus from us. Cultivating a character is not to be underestimated and inculcating values considered noble are not necessarily futile though there is much cynicism about them today.

 

Andal, her life story narrated pictorially.

If our feminism is not just a bunch of stereotypes and one where we don’t look at our past or tradition as inferior and silly but are ready to learn some lessons from, we may find much that appeals to our critical minds in there. If our feminism is one where we know that traditional women make choices too—within tradition, whatever the repertoire maybe and however it may appear different to those who have opted out of tradition, then Andal and the devadasi would be equally great. We will help ourselves much if we viewed medieval India as we view our own society today with versions of tradition and modernity competing for our attention; the spectrum beautifully diverse, fickle and irreducible. Let us hope that the young women of the Tam-Brahm community are already asking important questions of their mothers, chipping away at the black-white world into a grey. In her own life, Andal convinced her father to a marriage with the deity Ranganatha in Srirangam, a town far from Srivilliputtur where she resided. Vishnuchitta assembled his family and others and traveled the whole distance as the bride’s party. No ordinary feat. Any of us who has stood their ground on career or marriage with our families would know. Andal does not have to lend herself to our 21st century life directly, women have the imagination to understand her life and her achievements as per her own context, spiritual as it maybe. Neither does the devadasi have to narrate her woes to us in detail before we feel a burning rage against those who exploited her. Andal, the woman, sans her modern and so-called traditional interpreters, is all we women really need.

This essay was first published on Women’s Web. http://www.womensweb.in/2018/01/vairamuthu-learning-from-andal-learning-from-the-devadasi-topical-jan18wk3/

Interviewing the Master-minds Behind Silhouette I & II And Other Fiction

Silhouette I & II And Other Fiction published by Authorspress, edited by Reena Prasad, Michele Baron and Dr. AV Koshy, is one of its own kind of an anthology in the arena of contemporary Indian writing in English. The anthology features the International Reuel prize winning novella ‘Eternal Links’ by Sunila Kamal, ‘The Silhouette’ by Dr. Santosh Bakaya of ‘Ballad of Bapu’ fame, and ‘The Silhouette Sequel’ by Dr. AV Koshy (co-editor), which explains the title of the anthology. The book also consists of a variegated assortment of short stories penned by established and upcoming authors who all happen to be the members of the Facebook literary group ‘The Significant League’. I am also one of the contributors of this anthology.  

Dr. Santosh Bakaya in the introduction to the book, refers to Neil Gaiman’s words: ”Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back for dinner.” Each of these stories in the collection solidify this quote. There has never been a dull moment while reading it yet. Each story comes with its own journey, its own ascending and descending points, its own rising and climax.

The interview below is with two of the anthology’s three editors, Dr. AV Koshy and Michele Baron.

Lopa Banerjee: Hello Dr. Koshy, Michele Baron, can you tell me a bit of the background of this compilation of stories, and how this book came into being?

Dr. AV Koshy: We ran a NANOWRIMO in our group and Michele chose Sunila’s as the best story. That was the beginning. As we got other Reuel Prize winners like Santosh Bakaya and Pramila Khadun published earlier, both Reena and myself wanted to get her published too.  Around the same time Santosh wrote Silhoutte and I felt like writing its sequel and as a result we suddenly had three things we wanted to publish. We felt that was not enough, so we put out a call in our groups and the anthology, not defined with any specific theme, got terrific responses. We put it together and hey presto! We had one more after THE SIGNIFICANT ANTHOLOGY. Sudarshan Kcherry came forward to publish it and we were so grateful to him for the same, so that was how Silhouette I and II and other short fiction came into being. As usual, we tried our best not to compromise on quality.

Michele Baron: Many of us, emerging and established authors, readers, and experimenters-of-form, came together in a global Facebook group called The Significant League (named after our pilot offering, ‘The Significant Anthology’, published in 2015). ‘Silhouette I & II’ contains novelettes written during the NANOWRIMO challenge 2016. There is always a lot of energy, a plenitude of inspiration in a young literary group. Our authors were eager to write, full of wonder about what might be possible. Title stories composed by Dr. Santosh Bakaya and Dr. Ampat Koshy form the glue binding this hybrid collection of short fiction, and the editors worked diligently to preserve the authenticity of each contributor’s voice, ensuring a co-creation of works that embraces the many different traditions, aspirations, and world-views of the participating writers.

Lopa Banerjee:  What inspired you as editors to choose the title of the anthology as ‘Silhouette I&II’? Can you tell the readers a few words about the concept behind the book’s cover illustration, i.e., the silhouette of a man standing on the rocks by the ocean? What does that image signify in terms of the subject-matter/theme of the anthology?

Dr. AV Koshy: I will let Michele talk on the powerful cover as she did it mainly but I took Gauri Dixit’s photo of Kovalam which looked beautiful as a backdrop and the final touches were done by Authorspress who always does scintillating covers. He superimposed Michele’s painting on to the beach and rocks for the back. This one was no exception.

Michele Baron: The anthology’s title is inspired by the short stories written by Dr. Santosh Bakaya, and Dr. Ampat Koshy. Other works are written on themes chosen by the respective authors. Actually, I painted the image on the cover of Silhouette I & II, although the publisher re-formatted the title/author-info I’d originally written upon it. The image is of a long-coated figure, which might be a man, but the hat and looseness of the coat obscure the gender, age, and even the aspect (coming or going) of the silhouette. The foreground, as well as the background is mottled and shrouded with fog, and was meant to resemble the changing tides of fortune, the uneven, unpredictable landscapes of the journeys each of us must take through life.

The light emerges from an undisclosed source, and might be the headlights of a vehicle passing by, or other ray of illumination breaking through the darkness of uncertainty—at once providing visibility, and spotlighting just how intangible the moment of waiting, before immersion in each story of the anthology, each adventure of our own lives, can be.

The silhouetted EveryPerson of the cover art might be an ‘Other’, ourselves, or “our hero” — who enables us to safely view life’s various challenges and mysteries through the lenses of each author in the collected volume.

The back cover image of the rocks along the ocean at Kovalam was supplied by another of our authors, Gauri Dixit; the rugged beauty of the coastline speaks for itself.

Lopa Banerjee: How do you think this anthology can make a difference in the contemporary market of fiction anthologies?

Delhi Litexperia–book launch

Dr. AV Koshy: See, Lopa, frankly today’s world is disappointing as they seem to look for brand names in publishing and already famous names to decide who is good and who is not. This anthology was read by many whom I knew and whom I did not– each person said it is remarkable, it is easily a 4.5 or a 5. But it goes no further. However, we scored a great success when Sudarshan Kcherry sent his catalogue to Library of Congress USA with no recommendations of books published in 2017 and backwards and this was bought by the Library of Congress. I hope it shows someone somewhere has/had the brains to realize just how good it is. Hopefully in libraries they send it to in eight or so countries or where it will be listed in the books, so that someone picks it up, and then it will go further. Truth is, unless academics write of us, no one cares if we don’t get awards or are published by big names or are not available in bookstores.

Michele Baron: Our contributors hail from all across the globe, and offer voices ranging from the newly-fledged, as well as highly seasoned and published. Not all of us, as authors, have been encouraged to sing loudly, but in Silhouette I & II, all our contributors face the dragons and uncharted territories of their fiction, and map the journeys for us, in songs and anthems, stories and poems clearly articulated. Such a compendium of international voices, and the tales they tell, is special, and well deserves its place on the marketing shelves of contemporary fiction anthologies.

Lopa Banerjee: Your thoughts about the Reuel Fiction Prize winning novella by Sunila Khemchandani Kamal, ‘Eternal Links’? Why did you choose to feature this novella in ‘Silhouette I & II And Other Fiction’, along with the other stories featured in the anthology? What would you say about the novella in terms of theme, characterization and style of narration, with your editors’ lens?

Dr. AV Koshy: We try to get Reuel Prize winners and our admins in TSL and others there published and promoted in our own way. This was our prize or gift to her. Instead of money a publication is better, don’t you think, of course due to Sudarshan’s kindness.

Michele Baron: In so many cases, it is difficult to choose from among the panoply of so many authors, so many thoughts, and styles, and stories. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote several famous maxims which may illuminate the mystery of writing, and the vagaries of choice:

“Forget all rules, forget all restrictions—as to what ought to be said.. Write for the pleasure of it… No ideas but in things… Invent!” [W.C.Williams’ poem “A Sort of a Song”].

The novella written by 2016 Reuel Prize Winner Sunila Khemchandani Kamal stood out among the entries presented for consideration for Silhouette I & II, but the anthology as a whole is a very strong collection of voices, speaking from experience and imagination, concocted of local idiolect, dialogue, imagery, and invention. It was indeed a challenge to choose from among the great variety of engrossing offerings, and a joy to include so many authors in the anthology itself.

Lopa Banerjee: Dr. Koshy, what prompted you to write the ‘The Silhouette Sequel’, taking the cues from Dr. Santosh Bakaya’s dark, sinister thriller ‘The Silhouette’? Do you think such cerebral and creative collaborations in short story writing will go a long way in promoting the real essence of literature? I am asking this question since I have seen that currently the trend is to write more market-oriented novels in the thriller genre, with less literary flair and more glossy storytelling with fast-paced narration? What is your take on such fiction?

Dr. AV Koshy: Silhouette Sequel is cerebral, it is also fast paced even for those who don’t get the allusions, but it is meant for a niche audience. As for the collaboration, Santosh’s lovely story really inspired me– that is why I took it on. The trend is always to write what is more popular and we fight against it as we are naturally trying to write at a higher level, nothing can be done about it. Popular fiction has its place as people do want light reads but no reason why we should compromise and be less demanding in our writing of our readers and not stretch them as I have done in my story in their capabilities.

Lopa Banerjee: If I give you the choice to pick and choose the most poignant and remarkable stories in the collection apart from the title story ‘Silhouette’ by Dr. Santosh Bakaya, which stories will come to your mind?

Dr. AV Koshy: Well, this may be biased but Joanna Koshy’s story stands out for me as does the stories of Angela Gamos, Dominic Francis and so many others including Reena’s snake story. The question is a bit unfair actually as the truth is, we got only good stories and all matter, though some may matter more to some and some to the others. A reader of mine loved your story Lopa. I loved Aiswarya’s too and Daipayan’s and Gorakhnath’s and, well, as editors we liked all, or we would not have taken all. Michele’s is very fine writing.

Michele Baron: Our authors provided much inspiration to the editors, from stark stories of survival to fanciful presentations of alternate realities. “Dreams and Reality” (Rhiti Bose), “Destiny Meets Me” (Anindita Bose), and “Beauty Revised” (Soumya Mukherjee) combine with “Survival of a Stripper (Angela F20cc), “A Bottle of Vinegar” (Fatima Afshan), and “Moon River Debris” (Vineetha Mekkoth) with flair and promise — a promise further extended and expended by all the participating authors of Silhouette I & II.

Bangalore launch of the book in Atta galatta bookstore

Lopa Banerjee: What has been the publishing journey of this anthology with Authorspress, one of the scholarly and literary publishers based in India? Authorspress in the recent few years has been quite known to publish literary works in India which are sometimes avant-garde, experimental and out of the mainstream in terms of their subject matter and writing. Who would be your readers of this anthology of selected fiction, now that the book has found a home in the Library of Congress, USA? The usual fiction readers in India and USA, or the more discerning readers who understand and appreciate quality literature?

Dr. AV Koshy: Absolutely, without Authorspress we would be nowhere or nothing. I hope we find quality and appreciative and discerning readers but nowadays it is tough with an anthology coming out every day literally. I do want to thank the publisher for arranging a beautiful launch for us in Delhi, especially, apart from bringing this book out in such a fine manner.

Michele Baron: I defer to my co-editors, who have greater tenure, training, and accomplishment as scholars, educators, critics, and authors of writing.

Lopa Banerjee: Short stories written since the times of classic English fiction writers like O. Henry, Guy De Maupassant, Earnest Hemingway and Teo Tolstoy have been the celebration of the tiny windows in the lives of their protagonists which have been delectable for their engaging narratives in spite of the precision in their scope of storytelling. In the Indian subcontinent, authors like Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore and others have excelled in this art of storytelling, as did some Indian authors in English including R.K. Narayanan, Mulk Raj Anand, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri (diaspora category) and not to forget, Khushwant Singh. Do you think some contemporary fiction writers have the same sharp literary attributes, though they may not be as renowned as them, presently?

Dr. AV Koshy: Definitely, Lopa, but no one will believe it till we get awards and are written of in critical studies which is how we enter the mainstream and also till we are found in book stores and appear on syllabuses – we just need more validation.

Michele Baron: People find their points of reference not only in looking to the past, nor, alone, in standing upon the shoulders of the greats, to gaze into the still-nebulous future. I think contemporary readers, and readers of the future, might, indeed, discover that some of the short fiction written in these times, some among the contemporary “college” of authors, do possess the acuity and appeal of the “timeless” authors who have preceded us.

Lopa Banerjee: As founder and admins of the Facebook literary group, The Significant League, you have instituted the International Reuel Prize in poetry, fiction and translation and also literary criticism which is in its fourth year in 2017. Can you tell me a few words about the significant milestones achieved in these four years as a part of this literary group and what is your vision for the International Reuel Prize and its awardees in the coming days?

Dr. AV Koshy: We are building step by step and stone by stone but the awardees have done well. Very well. All of them have carved a niche for themselves now, and how they leverage it in the near future is up to them. The milestones are introducing it for poetry, expanding it to other genres, and keeping its special thrust for differently abled people also alive. It is an activist prize. We try to be impartial and fair and give new comers a chance and I don’t really see others doing that as much in my opinion.

Lopa Banerjee: Finally, what would be your message to the aspiring south-Asian writers trying to break in the contemporary literary marketplace?

Dr. AV Koshy:  Get proper contracts, get into bookstores, use literary agents if need be, get awards, be on it all the time but don’t forget that ultimately the content and style and form of your language is what matters.

Michele Baron: We are an internationally-educated, internationally-located writing group, and yet we form a neighborhood, small enough that we recognize names, become familiar with the styles, and begin to be somewhat jocular in our online commentary and support of our fellow authors. We do have contributors in other tongues and alphabets, but the language of our publications remains English and its jargon and vernaculars.

It is interesting to be something of a migrant among people (as I seem to be). Market demographics target specific groups, and attach labels and priorities which writers, themselves, might not discern as relevant during the process of inspiration, creation and publication. As humans, we experience hopes, fears, disasters, and dreams. Some of our journey is informed by our origins, race, religion, education, and access; some of it is general to all of humanity. As far as my message to the aspiring south-Asian writers trying to emerge in the contemporary literary marketplace (or to survive the slings, arrows, and edits of time, and be “discovered” in some distant future) is concerned, I would say, to any, as to each, be true to your experience and capacity to conceive, and create, a coherent piece of writing. There is plenty of ‘formula’ writing available, and I suppose it is profitable to those in the ‘formula’ slip-stream, but the vitality and veracity of the art, for me, is in the purity of the need to give voice to thoughts and experience. Whether through written word, spoken word, music, visual arts, or other performance arts, the light of truth which can unite heart, mind, and the intangibles of being are what I find most inspiring, and most necessary to writing.

This probably makes me an anomaly, something of an outsider to the “marketplace” of writers, of writing. It would be lovely to be successful. People do strive for excellence, thirst for recognition, after all. That an internationally-authored anthology of writing, such as Silhouette I & II, has emerged from indie ranks to its seat on the shelves of readers in private homes, and included among the many noteworthy works in the US Library of Congress archives is a wonderful thing — to writers of south-Asian origins, or of, any, all, nationalities.

I would also add to this, write, listen, and write some more. Find your voice, and present it, and your stories, to the world. With thanks to anthologies such as Silhouette I & II, the world will have its chance to discover, and read, your writing. The future will proceed from there, if you keep writing.

 

Bios:

Dr. AV Koshy is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English at the College for Arts and Humanities for Girls, Jazan University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a widely published poet and Pushcart-nominee, literary critic, fiction writer, editor and anthologist. He has won many prizes and holds many positions and awards as a writer. He is the founder of The Significant League, a vibrant literary group in Facebook, has instituted the Reuel International Literary Prize in 2014 and runs an autism NPO with his wife Anna Gabriel.

Michele Baron is a world traveler, former Fulbright Fellow who currently lives in Kyrgyzstan. She develops outreach projects, writes poetry, prose, nonfiction, has self-published A Modest Menu: Poverty, Hunger and Food Security, in Poetry and Prose; and A Holiday Carol, and blue wings unfolding at Amazon.com; and is a visual/performance artist, among other occupations.

Lopa Banerjee is an author, poet and translator, a Journey Awards winner of Chanticleer Reviews 2014 and Honorable Mention awardee at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017. She is currently based in Dallas, TX.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of “Night of the Fiestas” By Kristin Valdez Quade

In “Night of the Fiestas” (W.W.Norton, 2015), Kristin Valdez Quade explores the complicated question of class and race in contemporary America — a double-sided coin of fascination and, often, disdain. Her characters might be separated from each other by socio-economic chasms, but their lives touch in intimate ways. The socialite is set against the striver, the climber against the arrived, the ambitious against the complacent, employer against employee, the well-adjusted against the malcontent. The sparks set off by these interactions awaken Valdez’s characters to their demons and disappointments, leaving them stunned and humbled by the consequences their own actions unleash. In several of the stories in this collection, we see the artlessness of the protagonists and how their blundering, all-too-human over reaching comes back to haunt them.

In “Cannute Commands the Tides”, Margaret, an older woman, dissatisfied with the mediocrity of her artistic achievement, becomes enamored with her cleaning woman, Carmen. Her dreams of  emancipating and understanding Carmen end in violence and shock when the latter’s no-good adult son shows up at her home with a gun. Margaret becomes an escapee from her own mansion, a disappointed Cannute watching from the driveway, as Carmen tends to her abusive, criminal son, “the two of them as destructive and unstoppable as any force of nature”.

In “Jubilee”, Andrea, is to all concerned, the ultimate achiever. She is the daughter of working-class New Mexican parents. Her father owns a taco cart and has worked, all his life, in some capacity or the other in the fruit orchards and home of the wealthy, landowning Lowells. Andrea is admitted into Stanford on merit, and in her cohort is Parker Lowell, the daughter of her father’s employer. Every interaction between the two girls – including Andrea’s recollections of her childhood with Parker — is shrouded by the narrative of Andrea’s life, a narrative constructed by herself and skewed from having grown up in the shadow of the successful Lowells. In the face of Parker Lowell’s innate sense of ease, her beauty, her ‘whiteness’, and the many gifts of privilege she enjoys without question, Andrea is and will always be no more than a striver and an outsider. Andrea’s alienation is intensified from her notion that however hard she works and despite the professional success she knows will come to her, she was born to none of it. In this very keen revelation, Quade questions the truth of what is at heart a uniquely American theme — that of democracy and self-determination, of inventing one’s destiny in a society founded on the fruit of individual effort, free, as its immigrant beginnings would suggest, from the class and caste structures of the old country. Yet in Andrea’s struggle with class and race, Quade identifies our near-universal hankering to share a seat with the blue-bloods, and our instinct that it is more elegant or desirable, somehow, to be born into privilege than to earn it.

At the jubilee celebration that the story takes its name from, Andrea’s interactions with Parker are alternately awkward, manipulative and finally, damaging. One of her earliest memories is of Mr.Lowell yelling at her when he catches her plucking blueberries in the orchard. No doubt, it is a memory altered by Andrea’s resentment of the Lowells. At the end of the story, a chastened Andrea recalls that Mr.Lowell had not yelled at her, and instead had affectionately requested her to stop, and sent her away with a Coke. Having wounded both herself and Parker, Andrea returns to the orchard and plucks blueberries frantically. It is ironic and yet, not surprising at all, that the single activity that helps her escape her shame is the work of her parents and of her people – fruit picking. She returns to the work whose stain she has dreamed of erasing all of her life. Valdez Quade’s empathy and talent come through in the wisdom of this sentence that reveals Andrea’s need to obliterate her past and her actions, and if it were possible, her culpability.

“She picked and she picked, until she forgot that there were other people around, and as the leaves rustled and the light scattered around her, she forgot herself too.”

 

— Mary Ann Koruth

Craft of writing: No Bells, No Whistles—The Power of Simple Language

Twilight (by Henri Cole, from his collection, “Blackbird and Wolf”)

There’s a black bear
in the apple tree
and he won’t come down.
I can hear him panting,
like an athlete.
I can smell the stink
of his body.

Come down, black bear.
Can you hear me?

The mind is the most interesting thing to me;
like the sudden death of the sun,
it seems implausible that darkness will swallow it
or that anything is lost forever there,
like a black bear in a fruit tree,
gulping up sour apples
with dry sucking sounds,

or like us at the pier, somber and tired,
making food from sunlight,
you saying a word, me saying a word, trying hard,
Though things were disintegrating.
Still, I wanted you,
your lips on my neck,
your postmodern sexuality.
Forlorn and anonymous:
I didn’t want to be that. I could hear
the great barking monsters of the lower waters
calling me forward.

You see, my mind takes me far,
but my heart dreams of return.

Black bear,
with pale-pink tongue
at the center of his face,
Is turning his head,
Like the face of Christ from life.
Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion—
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.

Come down, black bear.
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.

I have read this poem over and over again, loving it each time. I return to it like I do to many poems, because it provides an affirmation of my own feelings, my own condition at some point or the other. Like all good art, it mirrors pain rather than seeking to resolve it; it captures rather than critiques; it does not pretend to understand passion. It simply evokes the narrator’s exhaustion and sadness.

“I want to learn the faith of the indifferent”.

Peace eludes the narrator; even indifference will do in its place, he says. The line is ironic but also gives the poem its pathos–is there a greater tragedy than to want to be indifferent to life?

Less is more, they say, and this poem uses that adage to great success. Its language is simple, and its delivery, direct. It possesses the same qualities that Mathew Arnold praised about Homeric style: “…that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble…”
When I read “Twilight”, these words came to mind—simple, direct, rapid. The black bear in an apple tree is a simple metaphor for the mind: dark, unknowable and unpredictable, cradled in branches that bear fruit, so full of color and life.

“I can smell the stink of his body”.

Cole does not mask the stink of the bear in more sophisticated language. The plainness of his language is intentional—and the intentionality is enforced in the rhythm and meter of the line, with the emphasis on the words, “smell”, and “stink”. Read it aloud to yourself, and see.

Go further down the poem and you see that there is no pedantry, no flourishes, no poetic effects. If there is any conceit, it is only in the words “your postmodern sexuality”: how is sexuality postmodern? Everywhere else in the poem, our trust and attention are won over by simple pleas, and clear statements.

…Come down, black bear
Can you hear me?

You see, my mind takes me far,
But my heart dreams of return…

And then, the most enthralling lines:

Black bear,
With pale-pink tongue
At the center of his face,
Is turning his head,
Like the face of Christ from life.

Five lines that connote the contrasting states of suffering and satiety—the bear, sated from eating, turns away blindly, letting its tongue hang out, oblivious to the inner life of the narrator, in a gesture similar to the way that Christ on the cross turned away his own head, but with his eyes wide open, acutely aware of suffering.

The power of the poem lies in its quiet confidence: short sentences, unassuming language, and the single, consistent image of the bear. The image of Christ is universal and accurate, throwing open the poem, and inviting us into the utter despair of the narrator. It appears, completely unexpected, at the very end, shaking up the reader, before it closes in an echo of our own discomfort:

Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion—
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.

Come down, black bear.
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.

Pickle Jar – Community of Cinema Lovers!

Pickle Jar is a Bengaluru based community of cinema lovers, who are bound by their passion for watching movies and their commitment to social issues. This community consists of members from different walks of life who, while holding full time professional roles, come together and conduct film festivals that leave a lingering taste and some happy memories long after they are over, just like a pickle!

The community was founded by Vasanthi Hariprakash, a well-known Radio and TV personality in Bengaluru. Known for her vibrant enthusiasm and her passion for all things social, she says she thought of this group after reading an article by the well-known actress Shabana Azmi on her contemporary actress Smita Patil. While the article initially seeded only a thought to catch up on a Smita Patil movie, it eventually – on prodding by a friend – transformed into a bigger vision, why not get some more folks and see the movie together?

And, that led to creation of Pickle Jar, a community that converses, co-creates and curates cinema.

Their journey began in 2016 with a Smita Patil Film Festival, the first of its kind in Bengaluru in May last year that was inaugurated by Shyam Benegal, and it was a huge success. It managed to enliven back Smita Patil into our lives and showcased her as a classic actress to the newer generation who had only heard about her. What made the festival different though was the conversations that made people reflect and think deeper, and of course left a lingering taste and memory long after it was over, much to their liking!

Charged with the response they received, in November last year, they hosted the Hrishikesh Mukherjee Film Festival that had renowned actor Amol Palekar conversing and sharing many unknown nuggets on the one of the best film makers known for his simplicity. Much before Steve Jobs coined the phrase, Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, Hrishikesh Mukherjee had lived it while making his films!

Since its inception, the group has been progressing ahead and getting some nods, pats and applauds by some greats of Indian cinema like Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Amol Palekar TS Nagabharana, and some younger directors like Vikas Bahl, Raam Reddy and Suman Kittur.

The next on the card for them is Travel Talkies, a film festival scheduled to be held later this month in Chennai (16 and 17 Dec), where they will feature some travel related feature films, must-watch documentaries and, short films from across the country. As always with Pickle Jar, the festival will be unique in quite a few ways. It intends to show 7 feature films in 5 Indian languages to show case the beautiful multilingual diversity of India. This time around, they are also planning to show some short films to showcase new talent. These travel-based short films will be judged by a renowned jury. And, most importantly will encourage and inspire women to travel solo and see the world!  Entry to the show that is being held at Wandering Artist, Chennai is free.

So, if you happen to be in Chennai for that weekend and are a travel and movie buff, you know where to go!

Meanwhile I am so glad that my city Bengaluru, largely known as a Startup city in the IT industry, is transforming itself to be art, culture and literary hub too, with such fledgling initiatives like Pickle Jar.

Love you, Bengaluru!

 

Swapna Narayanan is an author of short stories and poems currently based in Bengaluru, India.