Tag Archives: India

Some Dirty Laundry with Europa’s Lament

“Dirty Laundry” : Taken on the ghats of Varanasi, India, my photo is in issue # 4 of Black Fox Literary Magazine (page 131).

I came across Europa during my research on rape and trauma. It was incidental. She was a myth. Not the real women of war that I was reading about. One of the many theorists happened to refer to her. Allegedly, this Phoenician princess had been kidnapped by Jupiter, the ruler of Crete, and taken away to be his wife and queen. Ovid had immortalised her rape in his Metamorphoses.

I was curious. She reminded me of Leda. Her rape by Zeus (in the form of a swan) had been similarly immortalised in poetry and art over the past few centuries.

Michelangelo’s “Leda and the Swan” romanticized Leda’s rape.

She reminded me of Raavan. The man who kidnapped Sita, but didn’t rape her. He was condemned anyway, while Sita had to prove her chastity. Twice.

She reminded me of the traumatic events I was researching and how every incident had more than just one side to it.

So in a poem, I attempted to question dominant interpretations of myths, especially by male writers, poets and/or artists.

And, what did Europa have to say? Find out.

My poem, “Europa’s Lament,” is in Black Fox Literary Magazine. Read it here (pages 11 and 12 of Issue 4). Incidentally, my photograph, “Dirty Laundry,” taken on the ghats of Varanasi, India, is also in the same issue (page 131).

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Anniversary Blues

I should be up and about. Rejoicing. Celebrating the completion of my second year as a blogger. But I am sick. Even while writing this, I have to pace myself. Type a little. Catch my breath. Lie down for a bit. You get the picture.

When I came back from India, about two and a half weeks ago, I thought the tiredness and the infrequent fevers were a result of overexertion. Four months of it. But the fevers got worse. They were always the same. Violent shivering, followed by sweats. They became more frequent in nature. In fact, I was weak and nauseous all the time. Something was definitely wrong.

The doctor took one look at me and asked, “Did you take any of your malarial shots before leaving?”

Err, no. I was too busy with other things. Plus, I thought myself to be invincible. Surely, a few mosquito bites wouldn’t kill me?

“No,” I said, guilty as charged.

“Hmm… I suspect a case of malarial strain. Get these tests done.”

Wow. Malaria. The Great Indian Adventure doesn’t seem to get over.

Last night, I couldn’t stop shivering. Four layers of blankets did not do the trick. I felt guilty. Ma was awake due to my invalidity. Every half an hour she would feel my forehead. Baba, who hasn’t even recovered from his own illness, was up too. I felt angry at myself. And perhaps, a little vulnerable.

I have found that vulnerability often leads to stupid existential questions. In my case, I asked Ma, “Will I die?”

“If you are fated to, then yes,” she said in her usual cavalier manner. Before I could question her on her morbid joke, she added, “But don’t worry. You won’t die so soon. You will live to be in your eighties.”

You see my mom takes inordinate solace in the words of our family astrologer, according to whom I will live to see the Grand Old Age.

But what if he was wrong and I did not make it? What would I miss?

Let’s see…

I would not live to be thirty (which in retrospect, doesn’t seem like a bad proposition).

The Great Indian Novel that would not be written (ahh.. all that research gone to waste..).

The second M.A and the Phd that would not be done (I did like the sound of Dr. Sanchari Sur).

The dreams, wishes and fantasies that would never get a chance to be fulfilled.

The love that would never be professed…

Okay, maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself. It’s malaria. Maybe. Not c-a-n-c-e-r. Nobody dies from malaria these days.

So, with a brave face and a que sera sera eshque attitude, I gave my blood and other things to be scrutinized by lab rats. The pronouncement comes in a few days.

Meanwhile, I will stop moping, cross my fingers for the best, and hope for a better anniversary next year, and the next, and the next, and the next…

(Afterall, everyone deserves a second chance. I am just counting on mine.)

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Eenie Meenie Minie Mo

When I was a child and couldn’t make up my mind, I would close my eyes and resort to the popular eenie meenie minie mo. It was easy for my pre-adolescent self to let chance decide for me.

Of course, these days, even grown ups indulge in the occasional eenie meenie minie mo.

My flash fiction, “Options,” is now in Crack the Spine. Read it here (I am on pages 21 and 22).

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A Novel Idea

Ok, fine. It’s true.

I am pregnant.

With an idea for a novel.

So, after much arguing and shooting down of parental objections-

“How can you go alone?”

“You will be bored in two days!”

“Wait till you fall sick…”

“Is this how you waste your hard earned money?”

“What are your plans for the future? When do you plan to get married?”

and so on it went- I bought a ticket to the city of my birth for a four month stint.

With Calcutta, there is no method to its madness. There is no modus operandi waiting to be cracked.

Winter is not cold. The streets are choked with dust, screaming in silence for the monsoons due to arrive six months later. Cars honk without stopping. People stare and spit, obnoxious and devoid of shame. Mosquitoes serenade you after dark (right before they deliver their love bites). And, the volley of questions… oh the questions.

My mejo jethu asked on our first meeting, “I just don’t get it. How did your father allow you to come alone?”

“I was planning to run away, in case he didn’t,” was my pensive answer with a polite smirk. I am becoming quite adept at these polite smirks.

My maid asked, “What time did you go to bed last night?”

“Late,” I answer again, my polite smirk popping up undeterred. Who the eff cares? You are being paid to clean the house and cook occasionally.

My friend from my nursery days, “You guys are so forward. Your parents are really liberal, aren’t they?”

Just the smirk this time. Oh, if only she knew.

And after being hit by a bout of fever, vomiting, cough and cold, and delhi belly (which should be rightfully renamed to India belly)- all in the span of two weeks after my arrival- I rolled up my sleeves and got down to work.

Work meant research. Work meant reading. Work meant revisiting my thesis ordeal last summer.

Flashback to last summer:

I am trudging through a hundred page Master’s thesis on religious identities of Indian women through fictional representations. In other words, I am screwing myself royally, while the saner of the grad students are taking the easy way out through summer courses. There are nights when I cry myself to sleep, reminding myself constantly of my trip to India that lies beyond those hundred pages.

In the present time, I stare at the books I have ordered. They are filled with academic essays on the time period I want to research.

Smile, dear child, my muse mocks. This is what you wanted, remember?

*I am currently in Calcutta, India, until the month of April, researching and working on my first novel tentatively titled, Blood Red Sky.*

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Crossing the Lakshmanrekha, with impunity

A still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008), directed by Nina Paley

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 22nd October 2011 .

“You know your Lakshmanrekha. Don’t cross it.”

Err, mom. Where exactly are the boundaries again? Spell it out, will you?

Any Indian (Hindu) woman growing up will attest to being subjected to this refrain. The meaning of the Lakshmanrekha of course, depended on how “liberal” one’s parents were. It could mean anything from not talking to a guy, to PDAs, to dressing in a certain way, to indulging into sexual activities, to taking drugs, to… anything that symbolised that a nice Indian girl was going out of control. For some reason, the rekha, or line, is mostly seen as a reference to interaction with the opposite sex, and only applies to women. None of my guy friends have even heard of this rekha business.

Yesterday at lunch, Mom was grandly telling me, “Sure, date. Just don’t cross the Lakshmanrekha.”

“What is the rekha? What is it that you don’t want me to do?”

“You know.”

“Umm… no, I don’t.”

“Well, you should.”

See what I mean? The actual boundaries are never spelt out. I mean, honestly, where does the damn thing begin and end? The ambiguity of the rekha is rather baffling.

I think the trouble started when a bunch of Indian Hindu men decided to come up with the Ramayan (Yes, I believe it’s a myth. They call it Hindu mythology for a reason.) that spelt out ambiguous rules and regulations to overlook the Indian Hindu women’s behaviour towards the opposite sex.

[Insert Indian accent]

Man 1: We must do something to protect our women’s chastity.

Man 2: You are absolutely right!

Man 3: Our women must be under our control!

Je-sus.

Think about it. Lakshman, Sita’s brother-in-law, draws this protective rekha (a boundary, if you will) around her to protect her from the lustful nazaar (or, eyes) of unknown men (here, Raavan). Not only is it a warning tale to young women about the consequences of defying the rekha (I mean, poor chick gets kidnapped, then disowned in a pregnant state despite proving her chastity through fire acrobatics… twice!), but the rekha itself symbolises the many boundaries imposed upon female sexuality while growing up.

In my case, the “rekha,” or the allusion to the sacred line drawn by Lakshman to protect Sita, changed meaning as I grew older. In fact, even as recently as 2007, I was not allowed to stay out all night. Even though it was on New Year’s, I remember cabbing it back from Niagara Falls all alone back to my suburban home, just because staying out all night would have been crossing the rekha. And yet, I have been at a crazy bachelorette party at the same Falls in 2010 doing things that would have certainly fallen outside the sacred line. Irony ahoy!

I think parents forget that just like boys, girls will be girls. Seriously, now. Do you think we do not get up to mischief? That we do not cross the goddamn rekha that you have not specified for us? You are wrong. We do. All the time. We are just too damn clever about hiding it.

But why should we go undercover? Why pretend? Why is it such a taboo to flaunt our sexuality? Why can’t I kiss a boy openly if I like him enough to? Do I become a slut? A whore? Such tired comparisons. Why can’t I be compared to a classy courtesan for a change? Or, one of those talented geishas? Hats off to those women for owning their sexualities.

So, when my dad said, “We should not have to spell out your boundaries for you. You should know them by now,”

I said, “If I can face myself in the mirror unflinchingly and without shame, I have no one else to answer to.”

I draw my own rekha. Lakshman can keep his.

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Nuit Blanche 2011: Art for Art’s Sake

Ride the Rocket, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 6th October 2011 (print version).

This year was a cold Nuit Blanche. If you think about it, it almost sounds morbidly romantic. The Cold White Night. You know, the whole shindig about the blank canvas painted with the creativity of art. Yes, that. Except, it was très cold.

So, another year. Another Nuit Blanche. My fourth year. I was excited. Honest. It was the first Saturday since I had handed in my M.A. thesis. My mind was devoid of academia and free to take in the sights and sounds of the novel art fest that I look forward to each year. Last year was disappointing, no doubt. But this year took the cake… in disappointment.

My night started late. I joined a couple of people (friends and friends-of-friends) at around 9:30 on October 1st in Zone A, at Bloor and Yonge. After trying to figure out the map for a while, we ended up walking west on Bloor. The night was young. So were we. Spirits were high (literally, since some of us were surreptitiously drinking). Conversation was flowing. Kind of. And then, bang, at the corner of Bloor and Bellair Street, we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of couples dancing to classical music.

Dancing Couples (unoffical exhibit), Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

“Wait, guys,” I said. “This must be an exhibit.”

One of the guys sniggered. I wanted to smack him (as I will for most of the night, but that comes later).

After two minutes of checking them out, we walked on (later, I pored over the list of exhibits to locate what/who they were. Finally, I must conclude that they were an unofficial exhibit.).

Next we ended up at Avenue and Bloor, and entered Church of the Redeemer that hosts an exhibit without fail each year. We were greeted by a smiling old lady who went “welcome”. And then, we were face-to-face with static-y televisions. “This is art?” the same annoying guy started again. “Open your mind,” I said, tersely. The church atmosphere was awe-inspiring. You have to admit that there is something about a holy place that demands reverence. And, silence. But some giggling teenage guys (perhaps, drunk, too) kept yelling out obscenities. The tiny candles, however, along with the choral music, kept the ethereal atmosphere of Compostela alive.

Compostela, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

We moved on, and out into the cold. Where to now? We wondered. “Can we go to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum)?” one of them asked. “No baby, they are not open today.”

“Actually, they might be,” I ventured. “They had an exhibit last year too.”

We wandered upto the ROM, only to be greeted by milling people, but no sign of any exhibits. There were no welcome Scotiabank info tents to help us either. Wow, we must really be in the midst of a recession, I thought. As we were walking away, I saw people heading out of the side entrance of the ROM. Then, I noticed pictures of Bollywood flicks plastered on the side, announcing the Bollywood Cinema Showcards exhibit. “Guys, they are open!” I yelled, happy as a clam. For those who are not in the know, this exhibit had made its appearance at AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) a while back, and now it was being recycled for Nuit Blanche. The reason for my happiness was that I had missed it earlier (read: working on my thesis), but now I got to catch it. For free!

The exhibit had us climbing three flights of stairs. “They must really want to discourage us from catching this!” I said out aloud. The exhibit, however, was every bit worth it. It was interesting to watch non-brown people reading out the names on the hand painted showcards, and not getting what they meant. There was one that cracked me up. Ek Sapera, Ek Lutera. One Snake Charmer, One Robber. It had a figure of a very lust ridden Feroz Khan gazing equally lustfully at a helpless half-naked wide-eyed damsel, while in the process of robbing her honour. And there was a snake charmer too in the corner, but it was unclear what his role was. I surmise she falls in love with the snake charmer, who saves her from the Lutera. Oh, well.

Our steps took us to a Niagara Falls exhibit next. Slow Falls Rising, located on the University of Toronto campus, was a video installation of Niagara Falls rising upwards. In slow motion. Don’t look surprised. Yes, that’s all it was. “Je-sus, if this is art, I am entering something next year!” one of my friends called out. “Hey, look at me! I am walking backwards in slow motion!”

Slow Falls Rising, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

We sniggered and tee-heed and went to look for something meaningful in this melancholic night of disillusionment.

We ended up in the middle of Queen’s Park and spied a large exhibit in the distance. We walked, without inspiration. And then, we were silenced. Because The Feast of Trimalchio did just that. Subliminally sexual, the images created tension (all kinds of tension, if I may add). We were silenced, as were most of the crowd. Most of them were open-mouthed and unable to walk away. Reminding myself that the night wouldn’t last forever, and there were many, many more exhibits to catch, I reluctantly moved away. The annoying guy, however, put a damper, as usual, “My evaluation: this sucks”. I had to retort to shut the prick up, “My evaluation: you have no imagination” (He ignored me for the rest of the evening. Not that I care.). We lost him and his friend momentarily in their quest for washrooms (thank god!) and headed to Hart House. There were atleast four exhibits there.

The Feast of Trimalchio, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

The first three inside the building are nothing to write home about (and I won’t even bother). But the one in the courtyard should be applauded for its innovation. Known as Medicine Walk, and organized by the Aboriginal Studies Program at UofT, it was a group exhibition on (quoting from the Nuit Blanche booklet) “aboriginal knowledge, artistry and language”. I made out a beehive made of wood and big enough to accommodate atleast 10-12 adults in it. There was this one guy handing out a drink of some sort. I refused, well, because I had my own drink. There were also rows of pod-like capsules that were filled with crickets. A man at the exhibit explained how crickets needed a certain amount of warmth to stay active (the pods had some kind of heating), and they went into hibernation once they lost that warmth.

Wooden beehive (part of Medicine Walk), Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

After having exhausted Hart House, we walked to meet up with the annoying guy and his friend, and went to catch a train from Queen’s Park. Meanwhile, I was informed in hushed whispers that the annoying guy had decided to head home (again, thank god!). The train took us to St. Patrick, and hence, to Zone B.

The first thing we saw was Ride the Rocket, a multimedia video installation that transformed a street car into a virtual ride through video. It appeared to be a popular exhibit, judging from the long line, so we moved on, after taking pictures for posterity.

Next, we walked into The Heart Machine. Termed as an “interactive fire sculpture” in the booklet, the exhibit was too crowded to get a clear glimpse. However, I think the heat from the sculpture may have something to do with that. Cold night. Hot sculpture. Freezing people. You make the equation. I did catch some shooting flames in the air, but it wasn’t enough to keep me around.

Egerton Falls, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Our next stop took us to Dundas Square, again too crowded to move about in. We headed towards Ryerson University, and stumbled upon Egerton Falls. The fog, music and the lights around the water had me transfixed for a few moments. But the increasing cold (and a desire to empty my bladder) pushed us along. Looking for a restroom, we ended up at Atrium on Bay. After my business, we headed to the underground parking to catch a sound installation known as Border Sounds. The novelty of the exhibit was that it was in an underground parking. The exhibit had different makeshift stations with tons of headphones at each station. Each station played music that referred to a particular area. I caught Israel, Pakistan, India and finally, Canada. And, if you like dubstep, then this was probably your scene.

Border Sounds, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Later, we caught Paparazzi Bots on Yonge Street. The bots moved around and took your photos and then displayed them on a screen. Brownie points for another inventive project. After this, we stumbled upon Shannon’s Fireflies that had strings of LED lights that react to people’s whispers and convert them into light. Sure, it was “pretty,” but it was also similar to Ning Ning on Bond Street last year. Another case of recycled art? Bah. (Apparently not. Check comments section below.)

Paparazzi Bots, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

We meandered into Zone C, after I filled my belly with some yum yum from one of the food stations in front of Nathan Phillips Square. No, I didn’t see the flying human birds at the Square. Maybe, I was too tired and cold to care. Also, hungry. Hunger makes me blind. The first exhibit that caught my eyes in Zone C was Cardiac Combustion Chamber.  It was a bunch of guys playing drums in the center of car parts suspended into space. The music was mesmerizing, and I wanted to stay. But one of my companions (and, my ride back home) was cold and wanted to leave. It was probably minus 1 at this point, and I wanted to catch Bone Dump, before we called it quits.

Cardiac Combustion Chamber, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

On our way there, we passed by I just know that something good is going to happen. People were standing in lines to grab an umbrella and experience rain. Yes, rain. In the cold. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. Sometimes, people are crazy, or too drunk, to care. We also passed by New Dawn Fades on 100 Yonge Street. It was a row of cyclical rings lit by blue lights. There was a line to get in. Again, I don’t know why. It didn’t look very interesting from outside. Not in my opinion, anyway.

I just know that something good is going to happen, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

I just know that something good is going to happen, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

And finally, we came upon Bone Dump in the Financial District, in an alley between 10 and 18 King Street. It was a dump of porcelain bones. At this point, my friend gave me a look that said, “This is what you made me walk in the cold for? This?” “Oh, come on,” I said, “this is better than most of the crap we saw tonight.”

Bone Dump, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

“True,” he nodded. And, we headed back home.

(Interesting stuff seen that night that was not a part of Nuit Blanche: a man in a green skin-tight suit, two guys vomiting together and a man in Snuggies.)

Man in the green skin-tight suit, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Two vomiting guys, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Man in Snuggies, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

At two-thirty, when we left, downtown was pretty crowded. This was new. People were genuinely out to enjoy the fest, despite the insipid “art”. But hey, that is a good sign. For artists. For the city. And, to an extent, for the economy. Smile, Rob Ford.

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur (if it wasn’t obvious, already).

Crickets in pods (part of Medicine Walk), Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

Shannon's Fireflies, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

New Dawn Fades, Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto

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Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Arabian Night(mare)s

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 27th June 2011.

Once upon a time, in a book rife with lies, Princess Scheherazade spent one thousand and one nights in bed with Prince Shahriyar… talking.

Poor child. Not a single glass of cool sherbet was offered to soothe that lovely throat that may have gone hoarse as she spoke to save her life.

Princess Scheherazade. Of noble birth and noble poise. She gladly gave herself up to satisfy the prince’s twisted sense of humour where he took virgin brides to bed one night, and had them beheaded the next. His reason was fuelled by a fear of infidelity on their part. Notice how he sacrificed virgin brides after he had deflowered them. Ironic. No one ever questioned the prince’s virginity. Or, sanity, for that matter (I wonder if he was afraid that he wouldn’t get his seventy-two virgins after death, and was trying to make up an equivalent in human numbers).

But Scheherazade? Did her heart pulsate wildly as she made a careful note to appeal to the prince’s mental libido, while keeping his physical libido at bay? Did the imagined swish of a sword at the guillotine haunt her dreams, as she struggled to maintain the veneer of an artful storyteller, with apt tincture pauses at the exact moments in order to create an illusion of drama and mystery? Or, did she just inwardly maintain a running record of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” as a talisman against fear?

Was it perhaps a girlish infatuation that led her to his bedroom of doom? Did she secretly hold a special place for the prince, to willingly walk into a death trap? Or, were her motives more selfish and lay in her desire to be immortalised in history? Perhaps, she lost herself in the somnolence of a utopic fantasy where her tormentor would fall hopelessly in love with her storytelling skills (and… other things).

I wonder if even once in those one thousand and one nights, she regretted her decision. Did she ever daydream of taking the prince by his beard and shaking his face, out of frustration and rage?  Or, was she one of a perverse mentality whose kink lay in a masochistic self-torture where she fed off from the dread evident in the flutter of her heart? Did she ever in those long, long nights mistake that flutter for… love?

Love, indeed. The bane of life. Look at Sita. She insisted that Ram come save her from Raavan, and what did she get? Two counts of fire acrobatics to prove her chastity.

Look at Europa. Ovid’s Metamorphoses etched her “rape” by Jupiter for centuries to come. But if Jupiter’s fulfillment lay in plain ravishing, then why make Europa his queen? Why choose her to rule Crete, with a special place right next to him? What if “love” was all they really had?

Tabitha Vevers' "When We Talk About Rape" (1992), based on the myth of Europa's rape by Jupiter

But Scheherazade and love? Was she in love with a murderer who had a trail of massacred damsels on his hands?

Myths and historical myths are often interpreted (and misinterpreted) at will. I could give you a lecture on the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy manipulated by political parties that led to unnecessary bloody communal riots. But let’s stick to simple things.

Think. For once.

If just like Ovid’s possible misinterpretation of a possible love story, there had been no pointy sword hanging over Scheherazade’s neck? Maybe, her stories were just sweet nothings between two lovers after a very “sexy time” in bed (a commonplace substitute for the modern-day post-coital cigarette, perhaps?). Then, the massacres could have been a lie. A cover-up made up over time to spice up the origin of the one thousand and one stories. Spice sells. And, love stories are trite and common, anyway.

But let’s ask an expert on relationships. Freud, darling? What do you think?

He takes a long drag of his pipe, strokes his beard, and says, “Love, shove, nothing! What really happened was: once upon a time, a woman fell in love with an infantile man, and told him bed time stories to fulfill an unfulfilled Oedipal complex. By being able to do so, his love for her was unshakeable. And, tell me this, how could he let go of that mother figure, once he had her?”

Maybe, the guy has a point.

So Scheherazade, forgive me. But your tales are all you have. The rest will be reworked again and again in an infinite loop, till we have exhausted
the possibilities of your life. Truth comes in many versions, and maybe some day, we will hit upon the right one.

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