I will have fallen
but for You.
Not unlike the Moments
of truths on cliff corners
I get drunk on MY
tell me STORIES
DRUNK ON YOU
when the final
I will have fallen
but for You.
Not unlike the Moments
of truths on cliff corners
I get drunk on MY
tell me STORIES
DRUNK ON YOU
when the final
When my devout father exchanged sparks with my mother at her candle stall at the foot of Mount Mary’s Basilica, did they know that, forty years into the future, they wouldn’t be the best of friends? This question has reared its wispy head during the many fights each has tried to win from the other in the recent years. My parents never left Mumbai. Till date, the tone, syntax and vocabulary of their confrontations seem like a projection from the raging streets of that bustling city. The city of dreams. I wonder if my parents are living on the dregs of a dream. Some of their duels make them seem so far away from me, from the home they built together, back to when there was nothing to lose, when they could just brawl mercilessly and later subdue their furies under vada-pavs and oil-soaked bhajias from a cart. Forty years on, living in a distant West-Asian country, they still consider this a full meal, that must be guzzled down with sweet tea. But they’re still not the best of friends. Am the only one who always thought that married couples ought to be besties? Dad keeps annoying Mum with puerile beckonings, which might have appealed to her romantic self in the early days. And when she is in the right mood, she taunts him, prods him in the most tender regions. Both of them wickedly draw each other into this baffling dance, a Mumbaiyya art form called ‘peeing on the Golden Rule’. And they fight, like there’s no tomorrow that must be salvaged from the days that follow, and no past that needs to be secured. And knit of ‘friendship’ loosens, allowing each letter to fall and roll down the nearest gutter.
Pratheek turned in his seat to say hello, and flashed a toothy, eager-to-charm smile. He would deny it point-blank, for what respectable macho wants to be introduced as an over-enthu goat? But I cannot forget that smile, and the moments I spent lingering on the overgrown soul-patch just below. He introduced himself, and turned back to being sociable, asking the professors intelligent questions about the grading process, scent-marking his intellectual domain. He was Hermione Granger with testicles, mischievous eyes, a rough-edged voice, and a penchant for elegant misadventures.
It is only human to expect the relationship between one’s parents to be the first model of friendship. Or to expect a friendship between oneself and at least one parent. Like the white mothers and daughters have it on TV. But they did nothing for me there. I probably learned the word ‘friend’ from my mum, who taught a preschool at home, (cue attention issues) and i thus began bestowing friendhood on any peer who was good to me, and on occasion shared food. The first such friend, E from the first grade, shares his name with a famous English singer, and there has been many a sleepover when I’ve wished that he also shared the singer’s special predilections. I feel a twinge of guilt during those self-destructive voyages of introspection, when suddenly it seems that I was attracted to him by his angelic features, and not his genuinely good nature. E and I stayed strong and true for many years, bed-wrestling, videogaming, footballing and pizza-munching, till I elevated him to the rank of Best Friend. It was mutual so to speak, and years later he retired me from that rank when I called him a Sinner for snogging his first love. When I looked up to Heaven for an explanation, the Bible flipped open to where it was written that “Zeal for your house will consume me”. My formative years, the best years, in which many successful novels have been set, were spent in being consumed by zeal. It scared off many sane potential friends, except the religious sort, who gravitated towards my Buddha-like countenance and asked me to pray for them. Among all the deserters and the beholders, there was just one guy who sat back unfazed, and remains, for all his cynicism, one of the truest friends I have today: B. But I have figured him out, and he would not appreciate a discussion like this. He would not like being described, though he accepts his shortness as one bad card among fate’s many dealings, by which he has also gained an unrelenting desire to cook, an unforgiving IQ, and spectacles.
During my long summer vacation, I hopped on a bus to Kodaikanal for a three-day solo trip, wearing grey shorts and a faded tee. Because who doesn’t dream of being a rugged, adventure-groping white man with the perfect calves, gloriously dishevelled hair and just the right amount of stubble. Google Maps and landmarks aside, there really was no purpose to this trip, apart from trying my feet at flaneur-ism. It was great, even without mushrooms. The buzz of business around Kodaikanal lake is a gentle defibrillator for an urban heart that feels too insulated by silence. The green which spills over onto many corner roads that trail the cut hillside can make one forget how much he has walked, and each wild bloom of hydrangea is a pleasant surprise. I found a warm hippie restaurant called Mucheez which had a fireplace, and served cozy combinations like beef-cheese fries, honey-ginger lemon tea and chocolate fudge. The young, enthusiastic owner played American music and often chatted with some friend. I took to hedgehogging in a couch with my food and his copy of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. And there, at the heart of comfort, which became more pronounced with each passing day, was a twinge of guilt.
To think that one could so leisurely sink teeth into an elegant cut of warm chocolate fudge and revel in Sindbad the Sailor’s excesses all while Scheherazade was trying her best not to shit bricks in the king’s presence. Her plight is something we never really consider, while imagining the blistered screams of each evil thief as Morgiana steeps him in hot oil. The tales outlive their teller in our memories, not least because we try to remember their recurring promise of poetic justice, clad in Arabian style, bejewelled such as would put our own Indian bridal decor to shame. We like the extravagance of reassurance. We all resemble the king.
It was hard to reconcile this realisation of my own latent grandiosity with the sheer expanse of inundated green all around me. On one occasion I travelled to the Southern end of the city to stand on the edge of a famous precipice; and my legs began to tremble as if some greater force was unscrewing the caps of my knees, causing my muscles to hastily tighten around them. Nature is scary, as a certain professor of mine later corroborated. To think that I could be dead and digested in a matter of days if I lost my footing shook me to the core and made me pull myself together with greater force. And now, safe and in retrospect, I think of Scheherazade.
Why am I fixated on this queen, my more Freudian readers may wonder. Shortly before my vacation, I had submitted a research paper on the poetry of John Ashbery. One of my key texts was a poem titled “Scheherazade”, in which he regales the reader with the backstory of the neglected teller. He dwells on her plight, and in the desert she inhabits. Its scarcity accentuates her need for options for a way out of the king’s wrathful plans. So she decides to tell him stories. Ashbery here marvels at the exquisite river-bank of words with which she decks each story. To his poem, her art is precious. To the unthinking reader, as to the king, they are just a bunch of cool bedtime stories – to the same end. The difficulty lies in spinning a new tale every time, one that can be considered unto itself, with its own integrity and substance – much like an individual human person. Literally, it is her making of a convincingly ‘new’ character in the next story. All this tapestry is lost on said unthinking reader, whose oxymoronic identity is derived from his tendency to make a noncommittal survey of the plot, without really “surrendering” himself before a text, as CS Lewis would say.
But while the reader may be a couch-potato king before Scheherazade, he throws down his crown in frustration before Ashbery, because he does not make an easy read; my supervisor would draw five pages of meaning from the first two lines alone, all under fifteen minutes while I would be making hailmarys out of technical words like simile and metaphor.
Ashbery’s poetry is difficult for a complex interplay of reasons, but most notably for his use of reflexivity. The poetic device of ‘self-reflexivity’ was a defining feature of literary modernism, which enabled a poem to ‘reflect’ upon itself; the contents of the poem would also be its bare constituents, as in Pound’s metro station and Williams’ red wheelbarrow. Ashbery one-upped literary modernism by factoring the reader into the experience of self-reflexivity. Thus, while every poem reflects on itself, it also causes the reader to reflect on himself. It’s as if each poem is written on a mirror, and when I read I see myself between the lines. Ashbery defined this ontological overlap in the last line of “Paradoxes and Oxymorons”, where it is written, ‘The poem is you’. Many of his poems are concerned about how the reader has resigned himself to a noncommittal existence, allowing his thinking mind to be usurped by the drawl of strong-enough external rhetoric. In the research paper, I focussed on the rhetoric of consumerism. And I was reminded of the statement with which linguist Robin Lakoff commenced her book Language and Woman’s Place; she said, “Language uses us just as we use language”. Language is, in fact, the operating tool in Ashbery’s ontological overlap.
This was a damning realisation for me, an aspiring white man due to find a job and earn a living and take responsibility and so on in a couple of years. Poem after poem made me swear and ponder my state of being. Language is a jungle we are all born into, which we cannot exit. Ashbery, in many words, heralds a message of hope, that we can learn to live in and negotiate this jungle. Nature really is scary. But the act of reading is the act of unravelling something else; it could be the act of disentangling oneself from a cluster of vines, or perhaps of learning to be still when in quicksand and gently manoeuvring oneself to solid ground. Ashbery’s poems thus offered me some vital resolutions. I vividly remember a night when I sent a frantic email to an old professor, blubbering about how pointless literature seems. And now I think of Ashbery; the first name that floated past from memory, when my supervisor asked me to set aside my earlier topic of slam poetry. “How about John Ashbery, then?” And I wasn’t the only classmate who felt tears streaming down his cheeks while reading the poet’s magnum opus, “Self- Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. Who’d have thought that academic assignments could make you cry not out of fear but for the sheer joy of connection, of seeing yourself, of recognising your own painful existence so elaborately contextualised along a fifteen-page poem written forty years ago, thousands of miles away.
They say he won the three highest American literary awards for that collection.
Two nights ago, I caught myself bingewatching Madam Secretary when my phone buzzed. There was a fleeting, almost unconscious twinge of guilt between my looking away from the laptop and lifting up the smartphone. It was a notification from The Guardian. John Ashbery had died.
It has been eleven years since my first poem, a poem about springtime. It used the adjective ‘frolic’, the newest word and the toughest word I knew at the time. The computer class teacher, Jean Sara, was very impressed and projected it in the dark lab for everyone to see. For some, to read. Well her name was Jean Sara Ajith, but Jean Sara sounds cooler, like Tristan Tzara. She had an interesting signature that always depicted with great clarity her three initials, one curving into the next in effortless completion. Most teachers have the same signature, bored of lingering beneath the same homework every year – it usually resembles a fancy Q, with the circle slightly elongated and italicised and the tail first creased then lengthened. But my ninth-grade social science teacher, a lovely, knowledgeable man by the name Jose Thomas, who introduced me to the revolutions, would always pause a minute halfway through the signature to trace out the cursive capital J and the small t in his head. My second eventful poem was in class 7, when I drew inspiration from a Hellen Keller piece and wrote a longish lyric titled “Three Days to See”. The English teacher, a tall feisty Punjabi named Rita, said it was very good. Rita. Ritas are always a pleasure to regard. One of the first famous women I had a crush on was a Rita, by the surname Ora. With a look reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, her voice was the sound of the sea in a shell, organised into words, words which would become songs. A sound I’ve always wanted close to my ear. But the English teacher, Rita Sardana, sounded like a gunshot. She was one of those teachers who made us bring five newspaper headlines to class every day, on pain of having our recess cancelled for a week. But her heart was soft like hot butter. My brother always said I had a thing for older women, women in power perhaps. It was also said that Margaret Thatcher’s persona attracted many gay men into working for the government. I was especially fond of the nuns in the convent school with the british syllabus where I completed my primary education, before moving to CBSE drudgery. Philomena Menezes, the 8th grade class teacher, who taught English of course, knew my parents through her husband. He owned a restaurant adjacent to our church. The pav bhaji there was always lovely, more so the cheese pav bhaji. My dad would try everything imaginable, from simple morsels to pav-bhaji sandwiches to optimise the amount of bhaji going in with the pav. But wastage was usually inevitable. The ninth grade, A-grade English teacher was a performer, but he, like every other Indian man with daddy issues, was prone to administering tight slaps as corporal punishment. Gunshots and slaps ensure that growing boys are never left unattended. But then came the best English teacher, the high-school best that kindles a desire to take up this subject of many escapes. Her name was, is, Hazel. And we read Keats, following which I wrote “Ode to the Rain”, full of interdental expletives like thy thee thou. And we read Julius Caesar. And we read Cutie Pie. And she made us perform Mark Antony’s speech for internals. I didn’t know it then but I would fall back on memories of her classes during the ordeals of higher secondary school science, and eventually pursue a degree in escaping. But two more English teachers came and went in the course of those two harrowing years. The eleventh-grade gentleman with a lisp, the most respectable mallu uncle you can ever have, tall and teacherly, a stereotypical working man who took pride in his profession and smiled sparingly – from whom I received my first lesson in linguistics: English grammar is not so sexy. You have to make it sexy. He was a fan of Nani Palkhiwala. And was succeeded in the 12th grade by someone who had taught my sister, and would often enquire after her. She was one of those thought-for-the-day-people, who made all of us write the thought on the board and tell a story about it. I had been glad to have her, she was believed to be the coolest English teacher in higher secondary. I was also taught by the coolest chemistry teacher in the higher-sec staffrooms. She was an avid reader, and the first person who introduced me to feminism, by lending me her copy of Sasson’s For the Love of a Son. Then came college, and my degree in escapism. But I will put off college for another day.
Prudent ally of my people,
Romping in the colours of our pride,
Indulging your messianic self and whitewashing
The broken bedrooms of our minds,
Hit the road already! And take your brute
Virtue and your generous spurts of objectivity.
I must say,
For the sake of all my friends and lovers
Under your most sacred eyes, being
Cajoled out of experience by your
Kind words of wisdom and protection:
You rent abandoned closets to priests, who
On Sundays chastise queers who confess
Until they forget themselves and starve to death.
We have all been good children,
First-borns born again,
To our mummies by day, and
To our daddies by night, but
Oh! to be killed by the sword
Of an angel
Of death! dear God.
‘We live by the sword, we die by the sword’;
My saviour knew his symbols.
‘Eat my body, drink my blood.’
My lord was a fag, with a love for leather
And in that first pride parade
He rode an ass unto his death,
Above the young disciple he knew and loved,
And that mother too good to be true.
The people still wave their palms.
The high-pricks in white who ran the faith
Denied me a saviour who decentralised hope
And said that the heavenly kingdom
Was within me, on that fateful night
When I invited him over for tea.
The night they came
And took him away from me.
Betrayed with a kiss from a sellout
For thirty silver bullets.
That commie then tripped on his own left foot
And died. Life, is bourgeois when you’re dead.
That’s as organic an intellectual as you’ll ever get.
I may not turn tables on
Money-lenders or on a doomed turtle-dove
But I remember my middle-eastern messiah
A fag who lived
And died for love.
My body is a 2BHK on the ground floor.
I don’t have the luxury of a back door, but just the one that everyone knows. People I like and people I hate use the same entrance, the size of your regular 2BHK door.
I use it too, to take out the trash at night, when nobody’s looking. When I return I must lather my hands with Dettol Handwash, or time will conspire with space to drive me insane. Inside my own house. My body.
There’s no soul or such. Just me and my insecurities; the people who come, the people who stay, the people who go.
My eyes are what happened when a teenager got hold of a wrecking ball. Holes in the wall. I have come to love holes, just like I love to eat donuts — my mouth, it’s a secret window. My tongue is a dance floor.
Because you only live once.
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