Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thumbelina-Charit: What's In the Name?

I have been thinking of the name Thumbelina-Charit. Charit, is, of course, the biographical genre, and I always think, there is an eulogizing content to it. That's why I like this name. At least for now. Not only are the Bengali post-independence femininity made small, and thumblike, those very small women are eulogized, legitimized, glorified in the national imageries, allegories, everyday patriarchal discourses and practices. So, since it's a book on silenced women, women who participate in their own silencing in multiple ways, the pain of growing up as the daughter of a silenced mother, I think, it makes a lot of sense.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Poem and Some Thoughts About Poetic Language

My current poetry workshop is taught by a woman who is a spoken-word poet. I like to work with her, except that there are times when I think she is a little too literal. She believes in “bringing poetry from the coffee-shops to the sports bar.” Ideally, I agree with her. But I think, just from the kind of feedback she gives me, there might be some differences in the way we perceive the process. There might also be ways in which we differ in our perceptions of functions of poetry. I am not someone who believes in “dumbing down” my writings, whether creative or scholarly, for an audience. Yes, I am willing to provide contexts, and be reader/listener-friendly, but I also want the reader/listener to do the work.

Also, in my interactions with “ordinary folks”, I have found, there is an incredible amount of poetry/metaphor/magic in proverbs/sayings that they use to communicate wisdom. I believe, it's important for my poems to tap onto those reservoir of poetry/magic in everyday language, and also enrich it by adding my own metaphors. But when I am creating too literal work, because it needs to reach the masses, I am really banking upon some archaic presumption of popular literary tastes, rather than taking up the challenge of making poetry/literature be relevant to folks who are not going to be in academia, within literary circuits, amongst the blessed circles of the cultural elite. I don't have all the answers to all the questions this post will arise, but one thing I am convinced of: dumbing down in not the answer.

So, her suggestion to me is to write in more “concrete imageries.” One of the things I wrote in this poem was “rainbow-smelling oranges.” Her specific question to me was: do rainbows smell? In a literal world, perfectly magic-less, rational, it doesn't. But I see the work of poetry as stretching the limits of those perfectly rational experiences, to expand our so-called normal world of senses. So, when I write something like “rainbow-smelling”, I know perfectly well, rainbows do not smell. But I am inviting myself to imagine a rainbow that emits a smell. Simultaneously, I am also inviting my readers, to put pressures on their world of senses, and thereby, hopefully, consider the implications of what I am saying through that non-realistic imagery to think through the meaning I am trying to construct in these lines, in this poem.

The other imagery that got me in trouble with her was:

But on mornings I become
the leaf-sculpting caterpillar,
looking for the rhizome-shaped vein,

I am insistent.

Her question to me was, “What does this mean?” Well, imagine a caterpillar moving through leaves, the way it makes the leaves its habitat, the way it feeds of them, sculpting them into different shapes. Imagine those veins in the leaves. They are veins, but they also look like roots, hence the word “rhizomes.” Those veins do enable the plant to survive, and in an ironic kind of a way, they also resemble the roots in terms of their visual impact. And since this was a poem about what's often erased within a patrilineal culture, I thought, comparing the narrator of the poem to a caterpillar will make space to write about a young woman who is looking for ways to retrieve the erased/silenced women's histories.

Now, I am not sure if this is working fully or not. But the meaning is clear inside my own head. And in certain ways, I do agree that I am expecting my reader to think through it a little bit deeply. Am I expecting too much? Yes, I am. Why should it be different? I respect my readers, and their abilities to cull meaning from the worlds and words around.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pepperoni Fried Rice

I desperately needed to clean the refrigerator. Hence, this one.



Onions (I used pearl onions, around 8. But others would do too.)

Tomato (1, finely chopped)

Garlic (four cloves, finely chopped)

Green chili (1, slit in the middle)

Coriander Powder


Red Chili Powder


Basmati Rice


Frozen mixed veggies (anything else will do too)


Heat butter in a skillet.

Temper it with cumin seeds, turmeric,salt, coriander powder, red chili powder, paprika.

Let the spices sizzle.

Pour in minced garlic, tomato, green chili, onion pieces.

Let everything mix together into a mush.

Throw in the pepperonis.

Then the de-frosted veggies.

Let everything mix thoroughly.

Throw in the rice. Let it mix with everything, fry them together a little bit. (I did it for around 7 mins.)

Pour some water. Cover the skillet.

As always, I don't really keep a record of the portions. I do whatever my eyes suggest. But the result wasn't bad at all!

Feeling Heavy

In a week and half, I have a campus-interview, and a 35 minute presentation to go with it. I have six pages of the presentation written down, and I feel vastly unprepared. Part of it is just that, I have too much stuff, and I feel like cutting it down to 35 mins. (15 pages roughly) will be a hard task. I am nervous, and I am procrastinating. Anyways, I will have to make myself work on it as soon as I am done with dinner. In terms of other things in life, I have been thinking of love, friendship and hurt a lot. Yes, I do have a few intense friendships in this life where things aren't always smooth. Yet, I do not want to let go of them. I know, any therapist I will go to will say exactly the opposite. But I am not someone who believes that I need to drop my friends and loved ones at the emergence of first (or second or third)sign of conflict. There was a time when I used to do that, but I think, growing older has changed me in this respect. Honestly, I have become more aware of human mortality, and this awareness of death does change things. In my present life, I am trying to do two things:

1. Letting people know I love that because I love them and support them, it doesn't mean I am letting themselves off the hook.

2. Trying to avoid meanness. In recent past, I have wished loved ones immense suffering, all because what they were doing were hurting me. But honestly, I shouldn't have done that. Meanness, and pettiness do not change things.

I am beginning to feel, and think, that if I need to see certain things change in this world, I need to set the example myself in my own little way.

I have always believed that work (creative, political, scholarly) is more important that personal dramas and personality issues. To a certain extent I still do. But I am also realizing, work is also embroiled within personal dynamics. The kinds of work I do are especially fertile grounds for them, because at the end of the day, we bring our personal histories into our creative/artistic work, political work, scholarly work.

Normally, I don't write such personal stuff in this blog. But I am writing this down, because I want to be accountable to these processes I am undertaking.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Teesta 2

I had been shrinking from writing about girls who embark upon intellectual quests in my stories, who look upon reading and writing as their primary forms of connection to the world. Rini was smart, and had intellectual quests, but what I wrote about was primarily about getting to occupy a space which has been reserved for men. So, there is an intellectual quest in the narrative, but that wasn't what the story focused on. Similarly, Toi wasn't a big reader. Bindudi's story had a completely different dimension, and of course, Pipli stories were very different in their themes and textures. I am wondering, is it that I am scared of exploring intellect as a site of feminine coming-of-age in my stories? Am I scared of finding these stories too autobiographical? Am I scared of being called pretentious? And I think, the answers are yes. But now that I have dissected this, I need to address it. So, I am thinking of making that reading-writing theme more explicit in the Teesta story. Once I begin to revise it, that is. Teesta has speaking impediments, great. That is why she depends more on the written word to express herself. I don't know how the actual writing will turn out, but it does seem to be an interesting possibility right now. But before that, I will have to finish laying out the event structure, the plot structure of the story. Let's see!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Teesta: Character Development

According to MD, the narrative of the Teesta story seems flat. I agree. I was trying to write about a politically naive girls' coming into some kind of social consciousness. I was trying to write about the classic teenage apathy to anything social, political that I have seen in my high-school buddies. In other words, I was trying to write about a girl very different from myself. Not only different from the person I am now, but also the person I was in my teens. Now, M's comment made me re-think something. I had been feeling the flatness even before he pointed it out to me. I had been feeling this flatness while I had been writing the story. It is as if I don't really know how to get inside Teesta's head. What I realized is that, I don't really know how to write about politically naive girls. Besides, why would a girl who is un-interested in arts, activism, politics, society be interested in anything that Teesta is taking upon herself to do in this story? None of the apathetic teens I knew in my neighborhood got involved in community leftist theater groups, would care about Anne Frank. So, I need to be upfront about it. I think I am beginning to figure out what was happening there. I was trying not to write about the classic leftist proto-type activist girl. I was afraid of falling into the socialist realist stereotype. But then, I haven't met anyone who is totally naive, totally in-interested suddenly beginning to inhabit the spaces I am trying to write about. Heck, someone totally naive and without a capacity to observe social norms wouldn't even observe and care about what I want to write as the culminating point of the story! So what am I afraid of?

Yes, I do not want to write a kind of triumphalist red-sun kind of a story. That's why I need to examine the contradictions of girlhood and an emerging political subjectivity thoroughly within this story. But a girl who is passionate otherwise, precocious, observant, with artistic impulses, but with a speaking impediment, a fear to speak out, should make for an interesting character. Because there are some glaring contradictions right there! And I need to explore those! And yes, I shouldn't really feel apologetic about the kinds of characters I explore in my stories. If I am primarily concerned about the people and subjectivities which crowd the post-Partition middle-class Bengali leftist subcultures, and the place of women within that, I need to write about their contradictions without feeling inhibited. That is my material, and while it might be too limited for some, there is no way I can be a writer without exploring the questions my life within such spaces had given rise to. Yes, basically, I need to go deeper into my own childhood, young adulthood to write about Teesta than I was daring to do in this story. So, right now, I know, I have a lot more to do in terms of the Teesta story, but I am beginning to feel a kind of peace about the whole thing too. Thanks, MD.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Broken-Ness and Language

In the fiction workshop I am in now, last week's lecture focused on the "ugliness" of the characters. This was how the lecture tried to put it:

Here's a secret about writing successful fictional characters ("success" here meaning that which connects with readers): They should be broken. No good story ever came from someone being just fine and super-competent. If you think it did, and this is a main character we're talking about, look at that person again: Were they just fine and super-competent and pretending not to notice the chaos around them? Were they these things at the expense of something else? If so, guess what? Still broken.

We need this. It's an essential part of character, which makes it an essential part of drama, possibly THE most essential or at least primary part. Look at how many of Shakespeare's characters fall into this category. (Spoiler alert: All of them.) Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Caesar, and so on: prideful, myopic, covetous, self-involved bunch of motherfuckers.

I am not someone who writes about flawless characters. Long before I have attended this workshop, or any other creative writing workshop, I knew great stories emerge from representing the fucked-upness of the characters involved. Although, I didn't always put it this way: broken, or broken-ness was not a term I used. But I have been aware of it on an intuitive, instinctive level. However, as I have been trying to write about a story set in the aftermath of December 6, 1992, I have been wondering--there isn't one version of broken-ness is this world. In fact, there are many many many. My biggest problem is, I do not have a language yet to write in stories and poems the broken-ness of the people who inhabit my world. I don't know for sure, but possibly this is the biggest struggle that every writer has to go through? To evolve a language which will succeed to represent the specific kind of broken-ness of his/her world? All I can say is, I am still groping in the dark!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Children's Literature: Random Thoughts

I have been reading a lot of children's literature lately. Partly because a dissertating mind is not always conducive for complex novels. Partly because I enjoy reading children's books. I have also been thinking about what makes good children's literature. I realized, children's literature is not necessarily simple writing. What one needs to do:

1. Endow children with agency

2. Give primacy to the children's inner worlds

And I keep going back to Winnie-the-Pooh. The way the book plays with words, the way it plays with both the literal and symbolic nature of words and language. And it makes perfect sense. Children, obviously, are in that stage when they are trying to learn the language. So, words assume very different meanings when one is a child. For instance, if we think about the Discovering the North-Pole chapter in Winnie-the-Pooh. It's not impossible to think of all the colonial/imperial implications of that whole thing. But then, those imperial connotations have also been debunked by reducing the North Pole to its very stark literalness. For the child Christopher Robin and his band of animals, the North Pole literally becomes a pole stuck in the ground. So language-acquisition assumes a symbolic meaning here, it gets associated with political socialization, and it becomes so by reducing language to its very literalness.