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seven years strong: an ode to survival

On April 22nd of this year, WordPress kindly sent me a notification reminding me of completing seven years of this blog business. Little did it know (or, acknowledge) my intermittent growing silence. I have been quiet, most often than not, on and off in the past two and a half years. My closest friends, allies, even some foes, know why. The past two and a half years have been spent in a cloud of anxiety and depression, both triggering the other, more often than not.

My tongue has been in exile in the process. I kept telling myself if only I could convince myself to survive, I could conquer anything. Isn’t it sad how much more difficult it is to admit our fallibilities?

Finding my writing (and political) voice took letting go, took recognizing my limits, took giving up in order to move forward. The desire to sprint hasn’t left me, but the older, wiser, survived-a-battle (both inner and outer) me knows better. This reborn me knows that recognizing limits is not failure, that recognizing failure is not giving up.

It took me seven years to find my writing voice. For the first time in my life, when anyone asks me, “are you a writer?” I hesitate a little at first, and then say, yes.

I started this year with a flash fiction piece that poured out of me, “Mars in Scorpio,” which will be published in Toronto Lit Up’s The Unpublished City anthology; a project curated and launched by Dionne Brand. I will be reading this piece with 17 other brilliant writers on June 22nd at Harbourfront in Toronto. These are big deals for me. Giant leaps for little me.

I also had a provocative essay that questioned the problematic and debatable canon of Canlit published in FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity)‘s Program in early May. The essay was accepted almost two years ago by a big publication in Canada and then revised a million times, and then rejected on some dubious reason (they wanted me to rewrite the whole thing minus the discussion of Writing Thru Race conference held in early 2015 in Toronto because it was apparently “dated”). I didn’t respond and instead submitted it to FOLD when I saw their call. It was a good decision. It was the universe sending me a message.

Finally, I have been writing a lot this year. I wrote a short story in February which is currently under consideration at a Canadian magazine. I am also working on a short story at the moment (which is taking on the length of a novella). And, I am inundated with story ideas, one of them as a children’s book. I am buzzing with creative energy, a thing that was not possible as recently as December. I hear voices that speak to me, that tell me their stories, that lead me to unknown places. I am no longer questioning whether I am a writer. I just know.

There is another part of me that is excited for the academic project I have undertaken, my big fat dissertation. My own idea, developed by me alone, with necessary input from a fine committee. The best possible committee I can have for the project I have undertaken. I am blessed. So very blessed. Sometimes, there is a negotiation, a conflict between my two worlds, but that is a negotiation I have to engage with as I go forward.

And finally, there has been this new desire in me to give back to the community. Curating and running Balderdash Reading Series has been a part of that desire. I was fortunate enough to receive a Graduate Enhancement Fund for the next year to run the series. There are other initiatives I am looking into as well that will allow me to engage with the larger community outside, perhaps even build a bridge between those in school and storytelling? I don’t know. I am exploring possibilities.

A large part of this has been possible because of a few generous people in my life. To name a few: Doyali Islam. Phoebe Wang. Jing Jing Chang. Beth Marie. Bilan Hashi. Heather Olaveson. Samah Katerji. Maggie Clark. My mother, Jharna Sur. And my love, my heart of hearts, Krishnakumar Sankaran. Thank you for giving me so much, and asking for nothing in return. Thank you for helping me survive.

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Notes from a Wannabe Novelist

inspiration

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. – Matthew 7:7

There are days I wait for inspiration to strike me, knowing fully well that true writers can grab inspiration out of thin air, and make words up from even the most mundane. And then, I remind myself that what I imagine to be a true writer is really an idealization of what a “true” writer looks like.

In reality, all writers experience the void of self-doubt ever so often, and that self-doubt itself is a part of the process.

So, I stretch my hands out, my palms open, waiting for an offering. A sign of sorts.

And there you are, handing me exactly what I need, your question telling me what I need to know, the only affirmation I need in myself:

Don’t you want to become a novelist?

Don’t I?

I accept, holding your question close to me, reveling in the lightness it brings to my writer’s being, that indescribable feeling of contentment, that unnameable vital energy I have been running after, hoping that it will solve the puzzle of me being who I think I am. And accepting that conviction isn’t enough. The “doing” is also important.

Or else, how am I supposed to become a goddamn novelist? How else am I going to say that, yes, yes, I am! I am a writer.

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Five Years Strong

4 stages of writing

I woke up earlier today, cognizant of the fact that five years had passed since I embarked on this self-journey of finding myself as a writer. Five years is a long time.

So much has changed since. I have changed since. There are days when I stare at my face and can’t recognize who I am anymore. Not that it’s a bad thing. Change is good. Change should be constant. What is life without change? It’s complacency one must fear most.

I realize that every time I hit a year with this blog, I come farther away from the naive twenty four year old who on an impulse one night created this blog, ever hopeful that within a few years, she would be. A writer.

But a year comes and goes.

Not that I am not proud of all that I have achieved since the last time. Taking into account all the drama that went down, I am doing alright.

I had the privilege of working with Sonnet L’Abbe on a bunch of my stories these past few months. She was perceptive enough to point out that I need to manipulate my readers more. Play with their emotions. That makes sense. I am not very good at being tactful. I like to lay out things the way they are. Yeah, I am not very deceptive. That is an area I must work on. (Yet, I do know of a person who is extremely deceptive as a person, has an MFA in creative writing, and hasn’t published anything ever. So, I am not sure if that is an accurate assessment – on my part – of why I fail as a good fiction writer.)

novel

Meanwhile, I continue to publish more poetry. This year I have two poems forthcoming in The Feminist Wire. That’s the biggest publication I have ever broken into.

I have also become more sure of myself. I understand people better, read them better than I read myself sometimes. I work by instinct now, and it works.

No, I am not ungrateful. But somehow, somewhere, it doesn’t feel enough.

I guess I should do something about this feeling of unhappiness. Harness it, like Sara Ahmed says.

Watch me, go on. Watch me do it.

I have a few projects lined up this year, but I also have a few loose ends to tie up. So far, this year has been so damn promising. Even with the drama. And my instinct tells me, it’s just going to get better.

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The Stuff of Life (of a writer-in-progress)

drama writing

A few years ago, a fortune cookie fortune stated rather simply:

You will become a famous writer.

I stared at it, not in disbelief, but in the cognition of the steadfast reality I have carried within me for many, many years. It is my destiny. I was just staring at the obvious.

But as time went on, and I settled into complacent happiness, I felt my ability to write shrink into a memory of a desire that may have belonged to someone else. Instead, I worked hard to steady my world, and lost my narrative edge in the process.

Perhaps, I need drama to revitalize myself. Perhaps, I need melancholia.

Someone I know, once alleged that I search for drama in my life just so that I can recreate it into fiction.

Now I know that isn’t true.

Drama just finds me wherever I am. Even when I am complacent to the point of boring, something will simmer within and force me to break the mould. It’s a simmering I cannot control, and yet it’s something I do not entirely abhor.

It’s a simmering without which I would become an empty shell.

Simmering is the stuff of life. And every tragedy (and the not-so-tragic) is fodder for writing.

The only way to exist is to forward march.

So, I am not sure about the fame. Nor fortune. But the writer within me is writing. Again.

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Why I Can’t be a Fashion Blogger

Okay, I found this funny.

Okay, I found this funny.

It’s simple, really. I love fashion, but I am too lazy to be fashionable all the time.

Okay, maybe that’s a tiny lie.

I do make the effort. I have been making an effort ever since my India trip (a trip I still haven’t recovered from and long to repeat and re-repeat till I do).

So, not too long ago, I had the chance to meet with two fashion bloggers in Calcutta.

Debiparna Chakraborty, who had invited me, is a fabulously sexy plus size blogger, much like my friend, LuAnne D’Souza from Dubai who goes by the name Weesha in the blogging world. The second one was Anupriya Dutta Gupta, also known for her fashion line, Howrah Bridge. There was a third person as well, Shreya Goswami, but she is a photographer.

So, let me be honest. I had been apprehensive about this meeting. Me, a struggling writer-in-progress/grad student (for life!) who didn’t care too much about fashion (well, not until recently) was about to meet fashion bloggers. For fun. Yeah, right! Too-much-pressure, I tell you.

Plus, there was this fear. What if they were superficial? Yes, I stereotype too.

But nice people, them. Debi and Anu. I was almost sad I was leaving India two days later. Anupriya asked me if I intended to ever have a lifestyle section on my blog, and I said no. Because you know, the blog is my creative space as a writer/photographer.

But then, I seriously thought about it. Why not? I could be a fashion blogger if I wanted to. I could fill this niche of a short, curvy, big busted brown girl fashion blogger, something I hadn’t seen yet. So, why not, right?

Well… no.

For one, I simply don’t have the time or energy. I am a full time graduate student. I am working on my second MA thesis. I am taking a poetry workshop/class this term with seasoned Canadian poet, Carolyn Smart (see what I did there? Name dropped…). I just finished all of my PhD and grant applications (phew!). I am planning to launch a literary magazine soon (an idea I had been flirting with for a year). I am also working on my novel and a collection of short stories on the side. So… no way on earth did I have time for fashion blogging too.

Two, I barely know anything about fashion. What I do know comes second hand. From magazines, from my ever fashionable younger sister, from friends, from the internet (long live fashion bloggers!). For example, I recently learnt about accenting, how you can accent certain fabrics with certain colours. The lingo is still very new to me.

And three, I am more of a voyeur, rather than an exhibitionist. It’s true. I love watching (no, don’t you dare go there). So there is no way in the seven wonders of the world am I going to put up pictures of me on the internet for the world to see. Especially pictures of me accompanied with posts that talked about clothes on my body. My BODY.

I am the kind of person who self-censors her private life on social media.

And oh my god, I completely forgot. My brush with a stalker/harasser last year (that led me to making an official police complaint. The police of Mississauga were so very helpful in taking care of that. Thank you!). I don’t want to encourage my stalker (or, potential stalkers) in any way.

I am better off, living the life of a pretend-recluse writer. The one who parties with people she knows. The one who is mostly very social in person, and online, but won’t cross certain boundaries because it is beyond her comfort level…. wait, what?! I didn’t just type that. That is a complete lie.

I cross boundaries all the time.

Not just because as a writer, you should, but because that’s who I am.

Sigh, I guess I could be a fashion blogger after all.

If I really wanted to.

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Writing from a Stream of Unconsciousness

Am I a writer?

Why do I write?

Am I just enamored with the idea of being a writer, or is this more than just a self-righteous obsession?

These were questions that had begun to plague me lately.

You see, most stuff that I have/had written stem from some personal experience or the other. Some of it also comes from having overheard stories. But everything had been a reproduction of some sort, and even though I am proud of some of it, they seem to be missing some essential ingredient. Maybe, some inherent truth of life.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure. I was just stumbling in the dark.

So, I started reading/watching interviews of writers online. Why do writers write? Why do great writers write? And, what makes them write the way they write? I began to study the art of writing in earnest.

Most of them (like Sarah Selecky, who came to give a talk at the English department at Queen’s,) spoke about writing as a journey with unknown destinations. Some mentioned a plan with a possibility for uncertainty.

But one thing was clear.

To be a great writer, I had to trust my characters. I had to let them take me somewhere. And, I had to be open to whatever/wherever this “somewhere” was.

I began to doubt myself. I had never actually experienced this. My characters didn’t talk back to me. They did what I told them. Or, they were just reproductions of me and – what I began to realize later – derivations, at best.

If I couldn’t tap into this great unconscious where magic happens, then I could just pack up and quit.

But like the serendipity of all magic and miracles, I had a breakthrough. One of my characters spoke to me, and a story emerged.

I was working on my final assignment for Carolyn Smart’s fiction workshop. It was supposed to be a flash fiction piece under 500 words. We could play around with it, but it had to sit within the word limit.

I didn’t know what I wanted to write on, or where I wanted to go with it.

For inspiration, I turned to one of Sharanya Manivannan’s published shorts. Since I have been an ardent fan and a writer-in-progress groupie of Manivannan’s work for a few years now, I was already familiar with her stories. A particular story stuck out in my memory and I pulled it up. Her “Stream of Unconsciousness” in Fictionaut. The first two lines of the piece stared at me:

In his dream, he was choking on an ice cube. He didn’t know what would happen first — if it would melt or he would die. 

And, from those two lines, my first two lines emerged:

In his dream, he has a vagina. He doesn’t know what came first – the vagina, or his desire to have one. 

These lines would have never come to me a year ago.

Smart’s fiction workshop/class at Queen’s had helped a lot to open me up. I had begun to write without fear. I even put forward my full blown queer bildungsroman short story for workshop in class. A story that starts with a sex scene. Yes, me. Me who couldn’t even write about sex without being self-conscious.

And, there they were now. Undeniable. Waiting for something to happen.

Then, I heard it. The voice. A person, talking. In my head. Leading me somewhere.

And then, a narrative emerged.

A narrative that had absolutely nothing to do with my own lived experience.

So, this is what it feels like, I said to myself once I was done. This is why people write.

And, this is why I want to write.

Check out this article, “The Case for Writing a Story before Knowing How it Ends,” by Andre Dubus III (author of Dirty Love and The House of Sand and Fog), to get an idea about unconscious writing.

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Author Thomas King and I

Thomas King and I, Luminato event, Toronto, June 2013.

Thomas King and I, Luminato event, Toronto, June 2013.

This is a photo I should have put up earlier.

He said something about his wife being tiny, but me being tinier than his wife. Sigh.

Taken at a Luminato event featuring Trillium Book Award finalists at the Toronto Reference Library.

Photo credit: Bilan Hashi (friend / poet / photographer)

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Writing an Awesomesauce Novel isn’t easy. Please understand. OkayThanksBye.

Sigh. Story of my Life.

Sigh. Story of my Life.

It’s no secret that I haven’t been writing my novel. Okay, maybe it has been. Kind of. The truth is I have been finding this novel writing very cumbersome. It has been coming to me in spurts, like tetris blocks that do not belong together. Or, broken jigsaw pieces.

It doesn’t help when people who know about this novel-in-progress, ask me, “So, how is that novel coming along?”

How about you shut the eff up? No offence, but really.

Aunties, uncles, friends, friends-of-friends, foes, random person I just met, mom, dad, sis etc… I apologize in advance, but I am in no mood to kowtow with you on my novel, okay? It’s my novel. I am writing it. I will finish it when I think it is finished. So, if you will please bugger off until then, it will be much appreciated.

To boost my inspiration, I have started working on my short story ideas. It is easier to tackle the short form. For the most part, my approach is very clinical (very similar to my academic essay writing tactics):

1. Make an outline

2. Detail the outline

3. Follow the outline

It works every time.

Well, almost every time.

When it comes to poetry or flash pieces, I have taken the free form route. You know,  just write? Unlikely narratives have emerged that way.

But this novel… it already has a structure- in my head. The details, however, come in bursts.

Yesterday, for example, while in that zone of half asleep, half wakefulness, I wrote an entire excerpt. In my head, of course. Then, I fell off the edge (not literally). In the afternoon, I forgot all about it, until something I was reading triggered the memory. I sat and jotted it down. A novel excerpt, complete! Ta-da! You may clap, now.

I suppose there’s no method to the madness. The modus operandi differs from person to person. So far, this cut-piece method seems to be working. I have written more in the past two months than I have since September.

I have even joined an intensive writing group in the hopes of beating my quarter written novel into a recognizable shape. A shapely mass. A shapely mess?

Anyway, just a word of caution in parting. The next time you are compelled to ask me, “How is the novel writing going?”, don’t be surprised if I ask you to mind your own beeswax. And not too sweetly, either.

And this.

And this (for you-know-who-you-are).

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Breakfast with Teju* (Cole)

Teju Cole, author of Open City (2011)

*Because we are on a first name basis now. 

Yes, it’s true. I had breakfast with Teju Cole.

But of course, like every life changing event (because yes, it is indeed a life changing event for an aspiring writer to have a meal with a world famous writer), this one had a series of causalities that led up to it.

For one, I happened to be in Kingston this year because I am a student at Queen’s University.

Two, I am at Queen’s because I decided to do a second Master’s. I mean, how many people do you know who willingly signs up for a second Master’s? Exactly.

Three, I am friends with Bilan Hashi, whom I had met with as a consequence of her being a student in my program at Queen’s.

Four, Teju Cole happened to be in Kingston this particular year for the Kingston Writers Fest.

And five, both Teju Cole and Bilan happen to follow each other on Twitter.

Of course, Bilan may have never actually messaged Mr. Cole to meet with aspiring writers like herself and her friends (like me) if one of her acquaintances hadn’t done the same with Junot Diaz. Which had worked. Because not all famous writers were stuck up people and actually cared about meeting other writers-in-progress. Hmmm. Who knew?

So, this was the morning of 27th September. Bilan and I are in the lobby of Holiday Inn on the waterfront. We have a breakfast appointment. With Teju Cole.

It’s 9:30. We are on time. I haven’t had more than an hour’s sleep the night before on account of Foucault but had dragged myself out of bed at 8:00 because you didn’t miss these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities unless you were stupid.

We are contemplating whether to approach the lady at the reception, who is eyeing us suspiciously anyway, when the elevator doors open and Bilan goes, “There he is!”

Teju is all smiles.

There is a round of hellos and handshaking and introductions.

We are about to head into the hotel restaurant when we are stopped by none other than Michael Ondaatje.

Was that a sharp intake of breath? Hold on. There’s more to come.

“Teju. We are leaving at ten,” he says. He is talking of their drive to Toronto that morning. Teju leaves on a plane to New York later that day.

“Ten? Can we leave at 10:10? Or, 10:15? I was going to have breakfast with my friends,” and here, Teju introduces us, “Sanchari and Bilan”.

We shake hands with Mr. Ondaatje (while slightly in awe, if I may add).

“You can have 10:20,” Mr. Ondaatje smiles.

We walk into the restaurant, take our seats, and order coffee and breakfast. While Bilan goes for pancakes and I for a garden omelette with fries, Teju settles for a croissant.

The conversation is organic. We discuss our research interests. Bilan talks of her experience of living the underground life in Jeddah, to which Teju makes up a first line of a possible short story where the narrator finds herself snorting coke with a mother of three in Jeddah. We laugh. He shows us Variations on the Body by Michel Serres, a book he is reading at the moment. He tells us about how he quit his doctoral degree halfway through just to finish his novel. We talk of (Jhumpa) Lahiri, who he’s friends with, and whom I admire.

Then he follows me on Twitter right in front of me. And soon, the half an hour is up and I have forgotten the questions I had planned to ask him. He had not at all been what I had expected. Friendly but not superficial. Intellectual without being pretentious.

Before we can protest, he has paid for our breakfast and scampered away with an impish smile.

For a few seconds, Bilan and I are in a daze.

We solemnly agree that yes, we can now successfully cross ‘having breakfast with Teju Cole’ off of our bucket lists. Like it’s no big deal. Yup, none at all.

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I have Got the Pins and Needles

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 10th September 2012.

Needle and Skin

I have always wanted a tattoo. Nascent pictographs created from the controlled symbiosis of needle and ink on nothing but bare skin… yes, it has held a certain allure for me. But of course, it was off-limits. Read: strictly forbidden by my parents.

Mom: “You will get AIDS!”

Dad: “You want to be like those hippie kids?”

Me: Silent (You know the pose: Eyes down, serious face with occasional nodding. I am usually in my happy place in my head.)

But I have always wanted a tattoo. And, I usually get what I want. Eventually.

So, this was me in Bangalore in Jan. I have recently had an irreconcilable tiff with a boy I liked back then. I was also discovering new facets to my personality, being away from home for the first time. And not just away, mind you, but away in a different continent altogether.

It’s almost afternoon. I am alone in my friend’s apartment. Her friend, Swati Kejriwal, calls me up.

“Dude, it’s my day off. Let’s do something!”

“Yes, let’s. I want to get a tattoo. Can you take me to your guy?”

“Her guy” referred to her tattoo guy who she went to for the numerous tattoos she already had. I mean, if I was going to immortalize a part of my body with body ink, the least I could do was go to a place I could trust.

“Do you know what you want?”

“Yeah.”

It was a dragonfly. I liked what it signified. Maturity. Awareness. Independence. Renewal. Not to mention that Konkona Sen’s character of an aspiring writer (like me) in Wake Up Sid also had a dragonfly. Just where I wanted it.

We fix a time, she shows up in an auto, and we leave.

The parlour, Dark Arts Tattoo Studio, is a part of a comfortable little bungalow in Frazer Town.

The owner of the parlour, Pradeep Menon, is sitting in the front of the entrance, sipping beer. Swati and Pradeep greet each other like long-lost friends.

“This is my friend, Sanchari. She is the one who wants to get a tattoo,” I am introduced.

He glances at me, “What kind of tattoo?”

I hesitate, “A… a dragonfly?”

He asks one of his workers to take me inside to help me choose a design.

I am surprised to see the inside of his studio. It’s clean and brightly lit, cool with the air conditioner on. There is another woman inside, waiting to get a large tattoo on the inside of her arm. I am too nervous to ask her what she’s getting.

I choose my tattoo, and then am introduced to Anurag Pradhan, who’s to be my tattooist.

“Here, do her’s. It shouldn’t take much time,” Pradeep smiles, “it’s a puchki tattoo.”

This makes me giggle. It is indeed a tiny little thing I am getting.

So while Pradeep takes on the monster on the lady’s arm, I am ushered inside to prepare my nape.

I deliberately choose the nape. Think about it. You can hide it with a collared shirt at work, and then flaunt it in a swimming costume. Or, halter necks. Or, low-cut blouses. Or, to lovers. In moments of intimacy. Like your very own dirty secret.

Any-way.

The lady who helped me earlier, wipes my nape with an alcoholic solution, and then shaves the area. Then she sticks on a paper with my chosen design, pulling it off after making sure the design stays put on my skin.

Imprint of the design

“Ready?” Swati grins.

“Sure…”

I am not, though. I am having sudden second thoughts. I remember my childhood visits to the doctor.

Doctor (holding the injection with the evil, glinting needle on it): Ready?

Me: Won’t hurt, will it?

Doctor: Not at all.

What lies! Inevitably, I screamed. Was this going to be a nostalgic reprise?

Here too, I surrender. I hand my camera to Swati and position myself as directed. Anurag is serious, his concentration elevating my nervousness quotient.

I hear the needle whirring. I wait for the pain.

Anurag at work

I wait…

There is none.

“Well?” Swati asks, as she clicks away.

“It doesn’t hurt! I mean, I kind of like it…”

Everyone laughs.

In fifteen minutes, tops, I am done.

I am given instructions on how to keep my wound clean for the next two weeks, and then, after throwing away the ink used on me, the lady offers me my needle.

“Do you want your first needle?”

“First needle?” I am confused.

“Yes. Everyone keeps their first needle.”

She sounds sure of my desire to come back for yet another tattoo. I don’t contradict her, even though I know I won’t.

I accept the needle as my due.

Later, I ponder breaking the news to my parents. Eventually.

I touch my dragonfly for reassurance, tracing the wound with the tips of my fingers. The permanence comforts.

As does Swati’s mantra:

It’s the only thing you can take with you to your grave.

Amen.

Photo credits: Swati Kejriwal

Dragonfly

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