My lou for The Open Dosa, Paromita Vohra and Agents of Ishq is coming in full force tomorrow at the Love, Sex, and Data conference. Banni. In spirit of total khud-ki-lena/ self- love feels, dropping these cute posters here, please don’t mind.
If like me, you come from an adolescence that didn’t know it was happening while it was happening, if you weren’t aware of the joys that investing in oneself can bring — if you made the mistake of making one person central to your entire life, then you will hurry through the remainder of your youth with a biting madness.
Marquez’s life changed after reading the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It paralysed him first and then set him free. ‘I didn’t know you could lie in writing,’ he said.
A discovery that did the same for me was ‘I didn’t know I could live like this’
Live how you ask. Like you are alive after a long time of being dead. Like you don’t want to share your day with anybody because you guard the time you have like a lion guarding his cubs. Like any moment not spent doing the things you love (even if it is sleeping for 8 hours or staring at yellow curtains for 3 hours) makes you cringe. Like the thought of marriage makes you say no thanks, I’ll give you one kidney if you want. Pliss leave me alone.
When you spend your youth chasing fears and running away from them at the same time, there’s very little left to love yourself. You go to bed unhappy and wake up miserable. You will allow a beautiful thing like love to cripple you. You will invite self-pity and aren’t too far from depression.
I spent last night poring over Amulya Shruti’s blog. Her writing is like carpentry. You can’t help but watch as she is at it – tugging, pulling, breaking, joining, cutting, welding and then when she’s done: the work stands itself up and grins at you. Almost as if the writing came out of her body. This confirms a long standing suspicion I have had of the connection between music and writing.
The practice of writing is not to make writing perfect but to train your body to become a sort of vessel for writing.
Kishori Amonkar has always said about music: that she was not singing a raag, but that the raag was coming through her — where the music was more important than the musician.
Before leaving to college yesterday, I listened to Paromita Vohra speak at IIHS on YouTube (Bless you) — been reeling from too much love since then – for everyone in general but myself, in particular. No one else has made loving oneself seem so attractive and desirable.
She speaks with a clarity that can arm you with a rare pleasure for work. I myself went to college with a spring in my bum.
She wonders what it must have been like for Lata Mangeshkar to go to work every day with the conviction of producing a perfect song. Apparently she drove directors mad because she wouldn’t let go until the song could not be made more perfect. What must it be like to have this kind of a relationship with work? Paromita asks. Then she says, “I like writing perfect columns. I’m not saying all my columns are great but they are definitely good”
I love women. I love it even more when they talk about their work and take pride in what they do. It’s the most glorious ache to spend hours agonizing over each word, sharpening each sentence until they become flesh- ripping canines.
How to produce good writing though? How to make that glorious ache visible? How to begin? How to develop style? I was thankful to all the faces that asked these questions.
Vohra said – ‘It’s important to know yourself and to know the kind of things you like to write. It’s the only thing that helps. You should be able to show your own political journey in your writing.’
Often she has said that she likens the act of writing columns to Bollywood film songs – there’s rasa, there’s oomph, there’s persuasion, there’s a question and then there’s some degree of attempt at solving this question.
This comparison never fails to make me happy. A large part of my childhood was spent listening to these songs, watching useless films and feeling guilty about not doing productive work. But then there are writers like these who seem to be rooting for all the pleasures of my childhood and saying — no no that was good, it’s what makes you write. Work is play, play is work.
For someone whose only occupation was to imagine her own death while brushing her teeth – and to weep while she rehearsed what others would say and feel at her funeral – a commitment to working towards something – no matter how bad she is at it – is a gift, a luxury.
Fab year so far. Got to meet two of my favourite writers.
In Jan, Paro Devi came to college and stayed in the guest house right above the department so every morning, I sat at my desk with a spring in my bum- singing Parodevi is breathing above my desk – now she must be sleeping – now she must be eating.
I got to meet her personally and thank her for all the love she sends through her writing. Here’s a happy picture.
And then Times Lit Fest happened. It’s kakka and I would have never gone. I went only because I was to be on an interview with Sujatha Gidla 🙂
I don’t want to say much here because I’m writing about meeting her. Let me just say that I have never met an author who was just as happy to meet a fan as the fan was to meet her.
Every time Celine Dion’s Titanic song came on TV, Pa would close his eyes and begin singing. He wouldn’t sing the song as much as imitate the way Celine Dion’s mouth opened and closed at certain points. When I started handling the remote control and learnt what the mute button does, I’d hit it and he would freeze. I’d unmute it and he’d unfreeze. Through my childhood – this used to be our favourite game.
My heart will go on used to be my school anthem, he said. Thereafter, all English songs became his school anthems. From Backstreet boys to the Friends theme song.
It had always been his dream to study in a convent school, to speak in English, to watch English films without subtitles. This led him to be fascinated with those who spoke English fearlessly and fluently.
He believed that my sister was far more fluent than anyone in the family because she was able to pronounce difficult words effortlessly.
What is that word, he asked me one day when we were watching Simi Garewal.
-Redezvas, I said.
-No – that’s not how you pronounce it. Call your sister.
-She rolled her tongue, pouted here and there and said – Raundevoo.
-Ah! he said, delighted. His tiny eyes smiling.
A week before Christmas last year, he came to me and asked if I knew any Carol songs. I found some that we both knew from having watched Home Alone obsessively. I played them for him. He bobbed his head this way and that.
–School alli ittu ee haadu (We had this in school)
— Haan, howdu, aaytu (haan, yes, ok)
So while my father was busy making faces to match Celine Dion’s song, my brother was convinced that the song was written for him. He played with his toy cars with an insane energy singing – ‘My Hot wheel go on and on’
I seem to have inherited some part of this fascination with English. In school, I was crazy about all the catholic girls in my class. I wanted to be very much like them – smell like them, bring lunch dabbas with ham sandwiches and hot dogs in them.
On the rare occasion that I went to their homes, my head would wrap itself around whatever smell there was. In Madam Rose’s tuition, I spent all my time trying to figure out where the bedroom was so I could quickly go smell it.
Sometime back, I watched this documentary, Where’s Sandra? by Paromita Vohra and was immediately reminded of my school girl days – How I longed to go to Mass and Sunday church. How I once told Madam Tara that I was Christian too so could she please allow me to accompany my other Christian friends to go build Baby Jesus’ crib?
I remembered a lanky tree we stuck in the living room of our Belgaum home and how we proceeded to assault it with ribbons and chocolates. I was crazy about Christmas and cakes and cookies.
I once spat out all the water I was drinking when my friend said that they give wine at some communion type thing in church. Wine was what my father made excuses to drink- with great difficulty to avoid amma’s pressing looks.
-It’s actually grape juice.
-It’s good for the heart.
-I’m drinking white wine. The red is actually bad for health.
-I’m drinking red wine. The white is actually bad for health.
It appeared that my mother was the most unsocial parent so every time I took friends home, she would shrug. And I was amused that in the homes of various catholic friends, their mothers seemed open with not just their children but also me. “Yes sweetheart – what’s your name,” they’d ask me. And I’d smile shyly.
-Your mom called me sweetheart! She’s so sweet – I’d say to my friend.
Josephine and I met in college. She’d wear sleeveless tops and midi skirts & again, I longed to wear the things she did. She brought me homemade beef pickle in glass jars and I emptied them into steel dabbas and told people at home that she’d made me chicken chilli pickle.
Somethings never change. I buy mouth-watering beef pickles at North-East food fests, bring them home, tear the beef label, write chilli on them with a black pen and keep them in the fridge next to the Mallige Hoovu kept for God. Something else that hasn’t changed is that I still watch English films with subtitles (only reason why I was overjoyed about Netflix and Prime coming to India.) I have a nagging worry that if there aren’t subtitles, I will lose out on bits of the film – especially when white people talk fast.
There are many reasons to love Where’s Sandra? I love that when you watch it – you aren’t just seeing Bombay – you are also hearing it.
You hear the sound of moving taxis in Bandra where she interviews shopkeepers and Sandras. The drone of the sound of Taxis pulling themselves together – the kind that I imagine comes from the pit of Bombay Taxi engines – like the sounds that came from the pit of my brother’s stomach when he played with his toy cars.
My favourite woman in the documentary is Sandra D’Souza. Her face moves from one expression to the next so quickly – it brings to mind the faces of Catholic mothers whose daughters wanted you to ask them permission for night-overs at your house.
The face goes from jolly to strict in a matter of seconds. So you learn to be watchful in their presence – you train yourself to look at your hands because you have the feeling that if you look in their faces – even if you haven’t lied, you will want to admit to having lied.
Sandra here – sits by the piano and under her sometimes stern, sometimes playful gaze, you hear the story of a community adjusting to a vast city.
I must return to Bombay for several reasons. One because I tricked myself into believing that a poem is enough but it never is and two because I am reading Vivian Gornick.
Seven years between you and a city of your childhood is enough to make you want to give up everything in its honour. Even if a great deal of this childhood was spent stuck in an apartment on the 8th floor. Even if Bombay was a two- month long vacation in a house full of singing aunties, a toothpick of an uncle whose only connection to the house, and his solitude was the wheezing AC in the only bedroom of the apartment, and an OCD prone grandmother who washed the floor and the TV with equal amounts of Surf Excel and madness.
This is all that Bombay was. This and the shopping bags from Linking Road that amma lugged into big suitcases every evening. These bags had what my sister and I wore for the rest of the year – pants in the gaudiest of red, purple, and pink. Jackets in Amrutanjan yellows, and night dresses with cows and moons on them.
She really did shop for the whole town, as dad would often say. She got bags with 20 compartments for various sisters-in-law and their cousins. Back in Bangalore, during functions, ‘Attige Bombay inda tandiddu,’ (Aunt got from Bombay) was muttered approvingly.
The evenings were hot and sweaty only because we stepped out of the AC room then. As I remember Mahim – its street walls were permanently blackened by building after building of factories. Blue carts stood idly on the footpath- and behind them – bearded old men in off-white shirts selling vad-pav. We’d hit Icy Spicy for Chinese and the good old Shobha for North Indian and Kulfi.
When I found myself in this city seven years later, I asked the nearest taxi driver to show me the way out and he mumbled something from his swollen red mouth, pan juice overflowing.
In the taxi, I was glued to the window, inhaling the formless, moving shapes outside. Big billboards with Deepika Padukone’s face on them told me that it has indeed been seven years. I think back to the time when long ago, returning from a film at 8 in the night, my aunt suddenly announced that Rani Mukherji and Karan Johar were sitting in the car next to us at the signal. I poked my head out the window, in between our car and theirs- and gaped at the horrified couple who were not Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.
They were then visibly upset and my aunt proceeded with all shamelessness to make it clear to them that even she wasn’t all that happy with them for not being Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.
Bombay hadn’t changed or if it had, I was happy to note that I didn’t care. The air was hot and smelled like it always had – Like the fantasy I had of going to Juhu Beach or an open drainage and blinding myself with a pair of binoculars, having set upon myself the task of finding the sea smell. I say binoculars here because of Garcia Marquez.
In Living to Tell the Tale, he mentions a night he spent with some friends. His brother couldn’t sleep properly because the goat next door was giving birth and the persistent moans of labour disturbed him so he said that the goat’s noise ‘is as annoying as a lighthouse’
That Lighthouse is my Binoculars.
Marquez later says that he would never forget this moment. And as it turns out, neither have I.
Bombay smell is like petrol smell. Not everybody appreciates it. There are takers and then there are abusers. I take it whole-nosedly.
It’s what I imagine I’ll smell if I stand at the edge of a flyover and open my nose out to the sea – and it’s the same smell that follows me, away from the flyover, past Kamathipura and Andheri and into Marine Drive.
In my room at the hotel next to Bombay hospital, I sneak into the small, parched balcony that is barely holding itself along with its hundred pigeon-droppings and the blackened floor. I lean out and leaning out, I reached into the corners of the mind where Bombay was tangled like the numerous black wires on the clotheslines outside the Loreto building in Mahim.
The next morning, I was walking up and down the Marine Drive beach assuming I’d get to see Shah Rukh Khan’s house somewhere. It was only after fishing out my phone and keying in my destination did I realise that that was in Bandra. You know how when you are young and if you are going to a city of film-land; you are positive that you will ‘run into’ a famous film star or at least catch a passing glance — à la Fan in Fan.
What is the point, I felt like asking after Google told me how far Mannat was from Marine Drive. I was sad for a moment and then I realised that I was in Paro Devi’s city and immediately felt like I do when I’m in love. I felt hopeful and alive from the pit of my stomach. It was 7:30 in the morning. I was a little drowsy, mildly hung-over, and no Shah Rukh Khan anywhere. But I realised that just being in the same city as your favourite writer can save you in ways even Shah Rukh Khan can’t.
Did Paro Devi come here often, I wondered. And through the rest of my stay there – it’s all I asked myself.
I was in the same city as another Shah-Rukh lover and that seemed enough. I was in the same city as a writer whose work I’d stalked for years. And there – standing in Marine Drive smiling sheepishly at all the joggers, I was able to rescue Bombay from Bombay.
I returned home with Two Bombays. One is the Bombay of my childhood and there it will remain happily for the rest of my life. The other is a borrowed Bombay – one that you know through someone else, one that comes alive in someone else’s writing. And because of some one else’s love for the city, you consume it and learn to love it.
Elena Ferrante said “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”
When I first read this, I shook my head. I didn’t agree. For a long time I believed that cities come out alive when one is not in love. But maybe I should have just read it more carefully. She is not saying anything about being in love, she is saying when there is no love. Very different things. And back in Marine Drive that day, if I hadn’t thought about Paro Devi who had taught me so much about love through her writing and her documentaries — Bombay would have become sterile.
Feminism is about Love and kindness, she says in so many of her interviews. And as I have come to realise, it really is the closest definition of Feminism.
But what does Shah Rukh Khan have to do with love or feminism?