Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Floating Lord

We enter through the gate opposite Leo Coffee, insignificant in the surge of arms, legs and braided hair that whip the face if one gets too close. I stumble through the small opening in the wall and all I can see are people. Pressed against one another, buying and selling packets of puffed rice, scolding children, acting truant, laughing, chatting, glaring and protesting. I frequently look up in to the grape black night sky for respite before training my eyes on the moving swirl of humanity. We edge close to the wall, my mother holding my hand as though I am 7 and not 27. But I do not resent this, I am grateful for her fingers entwined around mine, aware that if I let go I might get swallowed by a mouth that might spit me out in some unrecognizable form. We reach the wall and look down the steps that lead to the edge of the tank. Every square inch is occupied by a sari, dhoti, paavadai or trouser clad bottom. Large, small, sagging and compact. Callipygous.

We crane our necks and look around the tank and spot an unoccupied section of steps. It is not too far a away and we are soon over the wall, pulling articles of clothing that have ridden up back in to place. Carefully we make our way to the last and broadest step and begin the walk around the tank. Along the way, female hands steady us and voices shout out warnings ‘Be careful’. Another voice, male and angry shouts out ‘Make way’! We look over our shoulders. A long line of men pulling a thick rope march towards us. Behind them, their Lord slowly bobs up and down on the surface of the water. He is seated majestically on a covered float that is draped with lights, flowers and bare-chested men who are singing His praises. We scuttle up the stairs and stand at an appreciative distance, letting Him pass by before we resume our journey to the vacant steps.

By the time we reach our destination, the Lord has navigated to the other side of the tank. We settle down and wait for our paths to cross again, passing the time by pointing out landmarks, catching up on street gossip and nudging each other slyly when women in particularly interesting blouses with windows, doors and skylights walk by.

The tank serves many purposes. Home to a flock of geese (ducks?) and schools of fish that fight over the puffed rice some throw. A messenger carrying people’s desires, prayers and hopes in the form of lamps set afloat on its rippling skin. A gigantic foot sauna to those who dip their feet in and disturbingly, a source of drinking water to others who greedily drink from it.

While many are there to seek the Lord’s blessings, some appear to have come for an evening out. Women’s faces scrubbed with turmeric shine resplendently and take on an other worldly glow under the lights. Some children are dressed in their best attire. Twins in identical clothes that perhaps still smell of air conditioned shops while there is more than one man who has brought out his sandal wood coloured silk kurta. Some of course haven’t bothered to dress for the occasion, like the group of children still wearing crumpled school uniforms with tattered ribbons in their hair. They cling to the striped walls like baby monkeys shouting out to one another, lost in their own make believe world.

We wait for the float to pass us by once more, and this time study Him closely. Bejeweled and loftily carrying his vel, surrounded by admirers, fish and ducks (geese?), the floating Lord meets our gaze before moving on. It is my first time theppam and I wonder whether the divinity radiates from the Lord outwards and bathes the audience or comes from within the people and shines on to him.

(probably couldn't find it, because I misspelled it :P) (callipygous:Having beautifully proportioned buttocks)

Monday, January 28, 2008

afternoon in the park

The woman wears a lime green sari and a scowl that suits her acidic six yard garb. There is a whiff of Cinthol in the air as Nylex Nalini passes by. Does she bathe before coming to the park? Is each lap a sacred perambulation around a garbha griha *of bamboo trees, sleeping men and young lovers who spend more time texting one another than touching? She remembers a friend of Amma's, a woman who would go marching up to these tanned Laila-Majnus and ask them in a loud grating voice if they knew how hard their parents worked to educate them and why they were wasting their youth on love. Yet another woman marches past. Her curly hair tamed in to a tight braid, dupatta starched and pinned in a ‘V’ – a look more suited for a school girl rather than on a woman of 50. ish. In their uniformly baggy shorts, soft veshtis* and tired looking Tommy t shirts the men rarely attract her attention. Except one. He wears his Jockey boxers as shorts and struts about. She wants to tell him what they are meant for, but is scared he will say ‘I know’.

* garbha griha - womb chamber in a temple
* veshti - dhoti

Thursday, January 24, 2008


The two boys cycle up and down the street, the smaller of the two sitting pillion. He clings to the larger boys back like a small monkey, his eyelids scrunched together to keep out the intrusive afternoon sun that knocks with a hot, insistent hand. After a few lazy laps the smaller one begins to whine and complain. It’s his chance he insists, his turn to navigate their ship. The larger boy ignores him, choosing instead to introduce a swaying motion to his pedaling so that the cycle careens, left right left right. The smaller boy is silenced temporarily; distracted by this new trick but soon starts up again. His pleas get louder, a tinge of annoyance and anger slipping in to the occasional ‘Anna’, picking at the striped back before him and flailing his legs out in petulance. The larger boy finally relents and gets off. He watches silently as his friend struggles on to the cycle with shorter chubbier legs. After a few slips and slides, the small boy sits triumphantly on his throne and beckons the other to sit astride with a jerk of his head. The older boy looks at him a moment before throwing back a careless ‘tsk’ and walking away.

Friday, January 18, 2008

It was a dark stormy night...

My favourite Peanuts strips were the ones where Snoopy banged away at his typewriter sitting on top of his little red dog house. His stories always started with 'It was a dark stormy night and suddenly...'

Well if you've managed to go beyond that first line, take a look at this. Or, if flash fiction is more your thing, check out this. Actually, just check out the entire site. I wish I was in Bombay.

(Link via Spaniard)

Save Dedalus Books

Dear book-lover

The Arts Council UK is poised to disinvest from DEDALUS BOOKS – a successful, 25-year-old independent literary publisher.
Dedalus pride themselves on taking on good writing that slips through the cracks of conservative corporate publishing.
Disinvestment will put Dedalus out of business.

If a petition can help, please sign it:

(Link via email from my former writing instructor)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Her bangles jangle all the time. Bangle. Jangle. How is it possible that something she once took so much pleasure in has become such a nuisance? They didn’t even match. Oththai padai and rettai padai. ‘You must not remove them until your delivery’ her mother-in-law had said. ‘The sound of the bangles is music to the child in your belly’ another Mami had informed her. A friend tells her otherwise on gchat ‘In the olden days these paati’s made us wear them so when they sat outside the bedroom at night they could tell from the noise the bangles made if husband and wife were up to no good’ Olden days. No good. The very same no good that had brought her to this state. State. Not solid, liquid, or gaseous but strangely amorphous. Neither here nor there. ‘Unless the bangles break themselves don’t take them off. Don’t accept any more bangles from any one after this. Or coconuts’ How odd, she thought, that strangers might come and offer her a combination of bangles and coconuts. ‘Listen to good things. Don’t watch foreign television. No English movies.’ She pictures herself watching Aastha TV with her contraband coconuts. As she waddles to the kitchen she slams her hand against the wall leaving in her trail two red crescents made of glass. Oththai padai and oththai padai.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Dayavu seydu kadavai moodavum*

I wake up every day in London to a silence that school teachers term 'pin drop'. Silence and darkness. In Madras, each day starts with sunshine, a woman(who sounds like my class xii chemistry teacher Manoja) asking people to 'Please close the door' of the lift in the apartment next door, the watchman and vegetable vendor arguing over whether the latter did or did not close the compound gate behind him the previous day, milk cookers and pressure cookers whistling and letting off steam, vessels clanging, far off strains of sun tv (yes, that early!!) and the soft swish of a thodapam against tiled flooring. Each sound distinct in the swirling cacaphony that is our street waking up. I don't miss the silence at all.

(*Advance apologies if I have misspelled anything in the title)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Seduced at the Barbican

It is that which we should eschew before marriage and participate in only after tying the knot, and even then only to procreate and not for pleasure. We are told not to look, not to touch and certainly not to do. Growing up, sex is often a topic shrouded in mystery, presenting itself in various guises that can leave one confused. For children of the 80s, television and cinema were poor sex ed teachers using flowers rubbing against each other, shaking palm trees and striking lightening as confusing class room aids. Contraband Penthouse and Playboys smuggled in to school bathrooms were more amusing than enlightening and the advent of VHS and satellite television found my pre-teen self and sister instructed to cover our eyes when confronted with scenes of a violent or sexual nature. Of course I would follow my parent’s orders but like most other children my age, curiosity would get the better of me and I would peer through the tiny cracks between my fingers and guiltily watch what was taboo.

It’s funny how that feeling of guilt can lie dormant for so many years, only to resurface when I purchased my ticket for the Barbican’s exhibition Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. The fact that I was asked to provide ID for a show meant for those over 18 years did not help assuage these feelings. I was 13 all over again. Having proved I was indeed old enough to vote, buy alcohol and view sexually explicit art, I embarked on a two hour long journey through sculpture, ceramics, paintings, photography, audio and video installations that covered over 2000 years of sex from Ancient Greece to present day Manhattan.

As I entered the first viewing gallery I was assailed with anxieties - what would other people think – a single woman at an exhibition about sex? A pervert surely. How much time should I spend studying a ceramic plate that depicted a Grecian man fondling his young male lover? But then such questions of propriety seemed misplaced in this no holds barred look at sex and my fears slipped away as I observed the air with which the other visitors approached the exhibition. A German man described the marble sculpture Sleeping Hermaphrodite from the Galleria Borghese in Rome to his companions with a scholarly air, two female pensioners discussed in detail the merits of late 15th century paintings that explored divine and mythological love and others wandered about in curiosity. In retrospect, sharing that space with a group of strangers was much easier than doing so with a group of friends.

From brooches measuring no more than an inch in length and breadth to Jeff Koons’ iconic blow ups, size most certainly did not matter here. The exhibition’s 300 pieces were divided chronologically and thematically, starting off with a large cast of a fig leaf commissioned especially to cover the modesty of Michelangelo’s David to spare Queen Victoria any embarrassment during a private viewing. It was perhaps the most innocuous of the lot.

The section Under Lock and Key looked at how our predecessors reacted to what they perceived as obscene. Works from the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet) in the Archaeological Museum at Naples and the former Secretum in the British Museum were on display in this section and included an 18th century Arabic manuscript illustrating 10 men having rather innovative group sex, phallic pendants made of amber and a tintinnabulum (bronze windchime) that featured a winged phallus. I must admit that it took me a good five minutes before I could figure out why the piece was included in the exhibition at all, so artfully incorporated was the organ in flight. While the Ancient Romans seemed to openly embrace sexual acts of all kinds, works excavated from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were deemed too explicit for prevailing sensibilities. Those sent to Public and Private collections were placed under restricted access so that ‘the eyes of the innocent (women and children) and the corruptible (those lacking education and social standing)’ were shielded. It’s funny how all these years later and such decisions are still being taken by the moral police on behalf of the public.

What’s an exhibition on sexuality without a look at Mughal Miniatures and some mention of the Kamasutra? Though after watching Andy Warhol’s Blowjob, there was something almost blasé and detached about the expressions on the faces of the Mughal men and women participating in the rather acrobatic unions. Though the detailing was exquisite the images appeared antiseptic and asexual to me. In stark contrast, the Japanese Woodblock prints or Shunga works on display in the adjacent room portrayed the sexual act in detail: enlarged and engorged forcing a far more visceral reaction from the viewer.

The exhibition also charts the advent of photography and its impact. Some images required viewing through special two eyed apparatus embedded in the wall and tapped into one’s inner voyeur. The video and photo installations on the second level brought out similar feelings, heightened by darkened corridors and piped in choral music, the strains of which could still be heard when viewing Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrayals of bondage and Nobuyoshi Araki’s series on sexual organs. These last two rooms were definitely not for the faint hearted. For those with more subtle preferences, the fluid lines of Gustav Klimt’s sketches and Rodin’s watercolours were of a more intimate nature while a series of tenderly erotic sketches by JMW Turner’s showed that even the most respectable of landscape artists had sex on their minds.

Some could ask what is the point of an exhibition like Seduced. Titillation aside, what purpose does it serve? Isn’t it obscene and vulgar? Personally, the exhibition made me think about why we accept explicit music videos with a shrug but shut down art exhibitions like Clits, Tits n Elephant Dicks at the Jehangir Art Gallery on grounds of obscenity. I was forced to confront my own feelings, pre conceived notions and moral judgements about sex and what is right and what is wrong. Graphic as it was, Seduced was an open, mature look at one of the most basic and beautiful of human acts. Intimate, discomforting, explicit, subtle, arousing and shocking. A lot like sex itself really.

An edited version of this appeared in the arts section of today's NewIndpress Sunday Magazine.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

no loose ends

She has been cooking all day, steadily filling up the freezer and refrigerator with labelled Tupperware boxes. The grinder whirs loudly, crushing hundreds of individual grains of rice into a submissive idli batter. She has finished vacuuming all the rooms (and behind the sofas), dusted, scrubbed away at the mould clinging to the corners of the shower cubicle and unclogged all the drains of hair – human and canine. She has done the laundry, ironed her husband’s work shirts and packed the children’s gym bags. The sheets have been changed in all the bedrooms and her son’s Geography project sits finished on his table. She stops for a coffee break and watches her usual mid morning chat show. The obese mothers of promiscuous thirteen year old girls are crying in to handkerchiefs and wondering where they went wrong. She is strangely comforted by these scenes, safe in the knowledge that it will never be her sitting on an uncomfortable chair crying to the nation. She looks at the clock and switches off the television. The children will be home from school soon. She makes their tiffin and places the casserole, glasses and jug of juice on the dining table before loading the dishwasher. The dog is sleeping. She fills its bowl with food and another with some water. As she completes each task she ticks it off her mental check list, pleased with herself, with her efficiency. She showers briskly and vigorously, hoping the scrub she uses will slough off all signs of domesticity.

She pauses in the hallway and checks her reflection in the mirror before writing the note out in her rounded handwriting.

Gone out for milk. Don’t know when I’ll be back.

She looks at the note for a moment and wonders whether to sign off. She realises that they will not recognise her handwriting and neatly prints her name at the bottom.

She waits a moment, her tense shoulders relaxing as soon as the three beeps of the dishwasher call out, indicating its job is over. She picks up the small suitcase and steps out the front door.