Friday, September 29, 2006

50 Posts to Independence - Post No. 49

I was tagged by Nizam Bashir, who invited me to be the first person after him to participate in “50 Posts To Independence”, his blogging project in anticipation of Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of independence next August. It sounds like an ambitious, and very exciting, project – I’m interested in finding out where it will go. The link contains more on the project, as well as tagging rules.

Nizam asked me to write about what makes Malaysia special to me.


". . . You will leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You will know how salty
another's bread tastes and how hard it
is to ascend and descend
another's stairs . . ."
Dante, Paradiso XVII: 55-60

What can I speak to you of but exile?

The years spent dancing alone in empty rooms.

The years of queuing in immigration, the breath-held tightrope walk of waiting for the validation of a rubber stamp. The years of being harassed at the airport, learning to bite back the spittle aimed at the officer who mocks an accent I don’t even have. Fuck you, you dog. How many words has your language stolen out of mine?

The years of correcting every person, every person, who assumed I belonged to this nation. The years of correcting every person, every person, who assumed it belonged to me.

The years of displacement. The years of too many tears after too much carnatic music at 2a.m.

The years of being told that to be Indian is to wear coconut oil in the hair, interject every sentence with “aiaiyo!”, be a wifebeater or a beaten wife. The years of watching Indians pretend to be anything but. The years, also, of having my fresh-off-the-boat-from-Yarlpanam Tamizh teased by those who didn’t pretend.

The years of temples collapsing. The years of racist advertisements for jobs and housemates juxtaposed beside bullshit Petronas commercials. The years of attending classes with girls who couldn’t even pronounce Bharatnatyam, let alone their own names. The years of watching Bollywood fashion glorified in the same breath as actually speaking in any desi language is mocked.

The years of rage.

The years of living out of boxes. The years of tallying up, over and over, the inventories of the heart. The years of abandonment. The years of fleeing.

The years of speaking to strangers just because of their accents. The years of smelling the pages of India-imported books – that smell so profane to everyone else.

The years of secret envy. The years of crazy half-wishing that was me on CNN, all lost, but still – so close to that earth. So close to that mannvasanai.

The years of accumulating a body memory of dispossession, having it slide in and coat every interior wall.

The years of knowing home is but a magpie’s nest of memories; bricks of nostalgia, mortar of pining, windows and doors that searched outside even as they led within.

The years of being a stranger in my own land. The years of being a stranger in yours. The years of harbouring the knowledge that every chimera of my own countries are only balms for the wounds of my rejection by yours.

The years of privilege – the best cuisine in the world, the ability to walk down a street in jeans and not elicit one violation.

The years of invalidation.

The years of mapping a cartography of crevices, of fractures, this cracked and broken fugitive heart.

The years of loving this nation, longing for it. The years of an unrequited love so great it would not look me in the eye.

The years that should have been my childhood. The years that weren’t. And all the years that were.

Selamat Hari Merdeka.


Nizam, thank you for thinking of me as your first tag. Perhaps my post hasn’t done your vision justice. But then, each of the fifty posts will tell you something different. I am glad to be part of this project if only so that I can add my dua sen as someone who loves this country, however tumultuous and wretched that love (or, for that matter, that country) is.

I am now tagging KG, whose post should be up on or by Thursday October 5th, who in turn has already confirmed that he will tag Sharon, whose Bali trip probably won't let her meet the deadline if I tagged her. I look forward to reading other bloggers' responses and interpretations of what a Merdeka 50 tribute could mean.

Previous post on my exile.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Linkage - Annie Leibovitz, a Magical Garden, and the Incredible Sivakami Velliangiri

Celebrity photographer, in both senses of the phrase, Annie Leibovitz turns the lens into her interior life for the first time in her new book, A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005. An interview, with two galleries of her work, one professional and one personal, is here. She talks to Newsweek about the nature of her work, her relationship with the late Susan Sontag and her lover's death in 2005, and how this book was preceded by the period in which she lost both Sontag and her father, then welcomed her twin girls into the world.

"Alberto Hernandez is out to repair the world. It is a broken place, he will tell you, and his garden is a prayer that it might be healed." This wonderful LA Times article on the ethereal garden built by a man who as a 10 year old had tried to kill himself by lying down behind a truck, seized my imagination, and warmed my heart. Hernandez, whose garden was used as a central setting in the film Quinceañera survived the truck driving over him, but spent the next seven years in hospital, his body broken -- but his spirit infused with profound new wisdom.

I am very, very, very excited to share with you Sivakami Velliangiri's first chapbook. Siva is one of my favourite poets, and I dare say that she is easily one of the best poets writing in India in English. I met her a couple of years back during an ill-fated 8-month-long move back to Chennai. I was shocked, when I first read her poems, that she hadn't already published books -- she had so much amazing material. She was gracious enough to take me around Chennai on several occasions, introducing me to many people and allowing me the use of her computer during a particularly bad period. I am truly proud to know her as a friend and fellow poet. You can download her chapbook, published electronically by Lily Literary Review, here.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


If you are in KL, please come to Fiftynineminutes, a production by The Oral Stage. I'm in a very intense piece called "Fruitcake", and play a high-strung, aggressive and deeply embittered woman who...

... come and find out. ;)

I have no regrets getting involved with this production, because of what the rehearsals have given me. Those three nights a week of hard work, fun and expensive dinners at the Food Foundry will be sorely missed -- I had not anticipated just how valuable they became. I had never before looked forward to seeing the same two dozen faces so often. Whatever statistical improbability made it possible to get along with pretty much every single one of them, I don't know. And regardless of what kind of reception this production will get, I'm just so glad to have been part of the process.

I'd like to thank Vinolan Batsalaruban, my castmate in "Fruitcake", for being so great to work with, for graciously understanding that the things I do (and throw!) in character are not me, and also for the rides to and from the train station. (I owe you dinner, go on -- have the pasta and the nasi lemak, why don't you). Also Gary Ooi, who wrote the script, for such realistic dialogue. For letting us tamper with his baby. Any overdramatizations and cheesiness are the fault of the... director.

:) Which brings me to Kelvin Wong, of course, who has just been wonderful to work with. I have severe problems with authority figures, or perceived authority figures, but Kelvin turned out to be so remarkably lenient and understanding -- as both a director and a friend -- that I grew so comfortable in rehearsals. Kelv, you put your psych degree to good use. I bet deep down, you're really a megalomaniac. But such a damn clever one!

And as for you, reading this -- I'm not going to promise that you will love the production. I'm not going to promise that it will be earth-shakingly spectacular. I'm not even going to promise that you won't hate it, at the very least. All of that, is for you to find out.

All I can give you is a suggestion to come with an open mind, an open heart and a pinch of salt. And here -- my stamp of approval, and my prayer that you'll enjoy it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Silly Search Engine Meme!

When I wake up at noon (or go online at noon, depending on what the day's decadence degree is) and find that my sitemeter stats have reached their daily average, if not exceeded it (sometimes twofold) by that halfway point, my first thought is usually that one of two things must have happened. Either Sepia Mutiny linked me again, or Sharon Bakar did.

But yesterday's "wtf?" reaction was brought on by (drumroll please) being linked by Salon.com! *Sob* Does this mean I have arrived in the virtual world?

Anyway, this is all very relevant because Gauravonomics tagged me for his Silly Search Engine Meme. The idea is that you list five silly search terms that led to your blog, and what post you think they led to.

Silly Searches

Aishwarya Rai virginity taken
Post: This one.
(My poor baby cousins! My poor pictures! Poor camwhoring me!)

Kushboo sex
Post: This one.
(From when I first started blogging. I remember I left a comment about getting hits from the above two referrals on an SM thread, and then referrals from people clicking through via it just rolled in. Pervs.)

Khairy Jamaluddin affairs
Post: This one.
(Great. So people think this blog is a source of information that could be used against political opponents. Either that, or they think I run a tabloid.)

Sharanya is Sharanya
Post: any.
(From this morning. Scandalous! This turns my world upside down!)

Post: This one.
(This one just perplexes me. It's shocking how many times people have entered my blog via this referral -- this referral, not a search for the url above. Someone explain this one to me, please. I get that they're searching for the Monet painting, but from where???)

I know I've had funnier ones, but I can't seem to remember right now! (I'll update this list if I do -- hey, maybe I'll update it whenever I do!)

By the way, Gauravonomics, it's probably pretty clear by now that I can't resist a silly tag. So, send some more silliness my way! (I hope I don't regret saying that.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


I must admit that when Aneeta Sundararaj (probably most known for her bestselling self-published debut The Banana Leaf Men) insisted that I read and review Snapshots!, a collection of stories by Saradha Narayanan, Jessie Michael and herself, I was filled with trepidation. To read is one thing, but to review a friend's work? After promising that I could do so without fear or favour, and that nothing was at stake, Aneeta handed over the very first copy of the book. Hot off the presses (okay, straight from the distributor's office). If I was apprehensive before then, things got even more intense. This was several weeks back, and let me start by apologising to Aneeta and her co-authors for the delay.

Snapshots was edited by Craig Cormick and features a spread of work by the trio of writers, who worked together over the course of a year shaping and refining their stories.

What I enjoyed most about the collection was its simple prose and local flavour. The former allows for the easy enjoyment and digestion of the 18 stories, while the latter adds a spark of originality to each of them. What delighted me most, in fact, was how original the stories actually were. These stories prioritise good old-fashioned storytelling ahead of all other concerns, and that is their strength. Their conciseness is also especially effective, and by and large most of the stories live up to the collection's title well, providing the reader a brief but memorable glimpse into the lives of the protagonists. Illustrating this, for example, are when Aneeta Sundararaj explores tensions in a marriage in "Enchanteur", and Saradha Narayanan deals with the suffering and eventual vengeance of a Filipina maid in "Maid of Honour" -- the dramas of both situations are neatly dealt with, cleanly closed, and completely molded within the span of just a few pages.

By far the superior of the three writers, in terms of both content and craft, is Jessie Michael. Through uncluttered and straightforward prose, she weaves imaginative, highly localised plots, narrating the lives of a myriad of protagonists, from a kacang putih vendor who is cheated of her lottery earnings to a frustrated man battling commercialism in Malacca's Portuguese community. However, I was put-off by the comprehensive glossaries in her stories, which to me smacked of deliberate exoticism and too much concern over a foreign audience. For instance, when discussing a type of food, there isn't necessarily a need to provide a technical description of what it is. These references, at the bottom of the page, are jarring in terms of the flow of the story.

Overall, I recommend Snapshots! as a good introduction to light, local literary fare. Particularly worth applauding, also, is the resolve of the authors to complete the collection and get it published with such a professional finish; the collaborative effort and the book's packaging both serve as wonderful models for other writers floundering in Malaysia's pitifully small artistic pond. More on the book, including where to find it (you can order it online), is here. Also, my congratulations go to all three of the authors for Snapshots! making it to number 2 on the MPH bestseller list for the week ending August 27.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Remembering Gandhi on 9/11

In a stunning and symbolic contradiction, September 11th is not only the anniversary of the day on which two hijacked planes were rammed into the WTC Towers in New York, exactly five years ago, but is also the day on which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a lawyer in South Africa, launched his satyagraha movement, which revolutionised the 20th century.

Today thus also marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Gandhi's most important legacy to the world. More on the concept of Satyagraha -- passive resistance and non-violence -- can be found in this 2002 article, and also here.

A few weeks ago, I saw a play entitled Sammy!: The Word That Broke An Empire, which was supposed to be about Gandhi, and found it one-dimensional and disappointing. It would be unfair to simply condemn it without explanation, so will write a proper review soon.


Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Silly Photo Meme Tag!

Shashi has tagged me for the Silly Photo Meme!

I'm silly in this one because I'm wearing the turtleneck collar of my top on my head.

I'm silly in this one because I was caught laughing with my face all scrunchy and I'm silly to share this pic. ;)

Now, here comes the really good part. I tag: Momo (because I know you want to!), Kevin Brokenscar(a farewell treat for your fans, maybe!) and Janet ('cause you'd do something outrageous!).

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Troubaganger Finale Show!

You're coming, right? ;)

I'm tempted to do another performance of the poem I read on Wednesday night. The crowd should be bigger, definitely. What do you think? Does anyone want an encore?

Farah Khan Is Off Her Freaking Rocker

I love Shakira. And call me stubborn, or stupid if you will, but I don't like finding out unpleasant things about people whose work I admire. So when I heard that her recent "Bollywood-themed" performance at the MTV Video Music Awards included Bharatanatyam, I grimaced, expecting the worst. And I was right.

Her tribhanga at the beginning comes off as though she's a limp puppet.
Her poker-faced walk forward, hands supposedly in Bharatnatyam mode and legs doing some weird kicking thing (a "frappe", says my friend), during the flute sequence at the beginning made me want to yell "elbows up, elbows up!"
Her nethichuthi looks positively ridiculous alongside that slitted sarong that's supposed to be a lengha of sorts, loose hair, and an absence of something as basic as eyeliner.
Her back-up dancers are downright scandalously awful. And sadly, most of them look like they're actually Indian.

And this complete disaster -- which successfully makes Shakira look stupid to anyone who really knows their Bharatnatyam, and makes Bharatnatyam look stupid to anyone who doesn't -- comes courtesy of Farah Khan, aka Bollywood choreographer extraordinaire.

Can I accept it as Bollywood? Sure, but only because Bollywood by its nature is kitsch and mismatch. As Bharatnatyam? Fuck no.

What Farah Khan has done is to simply take the easiest route -- easy, easy exotica. A couple of mudras here and some really bad atami there -- at one point, the dancers in orange rush forward while trying to maintain atami, and end up looking like ducks -- and voila!: fusion at its most cloyingly worst.

In doing so, she does a disservice to both the dance and the dancer, not to mention all those sad girls in orange. "Hips Don't Lie" is a great song -- go on, laugh at me -- by itself, with a great video. How Khan took something like that and turned it into something like this (yes, I was going to give you the link eventually, I just wanted you to read what I had to say first) is beyond me. What she should have done is to have kept it really Bollywood -- fun, light, funky -- instead of making a total mess of it with all that pretentious pseudo-exoticism. Should Shakira herself have known better? Probably not. After all, if an Indian choreographer insisted she was teaching her an Indian dance, what reason would she have not to believe it? Should Farah Khan have known better? Hell yes.

Khan's problem here seems not only to have been careless unprofessionalism, but also over-ambitiousness and a disregard for the fact that when invited to represent, one has the responsibility to represent. Not distort. Extremely annoying as well is the fact that real Bollywood numbers, by and large, are so much better than this performance, as is Shakira's own bellydancing as seen in the original video for this song and in others. In trying to negotiate some hip, global convergence between Bollywood and Bharatnatyam and belly-dancing, Khan fails all three artforms.

I can't help but make a comparison to the Bharatanatyam dancer in the street with Michael Jackson in his "Black or White" video. She, at least, came across authentic.

I still love Shakira. Farah Khan, meanwhile...


I am just thrilled by this! http://www.softblow.com/manivannan.html

The publishing of these poems by Softblow is my first "big" one since the 2004 anthology Collateral Damage. In between were a couple of anthologies that fell through (the editors had trouble with the publishers, in both cases), a response from Agni saying they would publish something but only if I changed the ending, an email-shy editor who complicated things, and a bunch of rejections. (After all that, the process with Softblow was a great relief. They responded within a week with a request for more poems -- saying that they would publish three but hadn't decided which ones! -- then published four.)

"Inventories of the Heart" was from 2003, and "Water" from 2004. Both feel, now, like they were from a very different personal time and personal place. I no longer relate -- but I remember.

"The Mapmaker's Wife", the most recent of the poems, was written only a couple of months ago. One of my wishful thinking, living vicariously poems. Sometimes, I meet people and they say, with an expression of recognition, "Oh - you're the one who writes erotic poems!" Actually, and I am being dead serious, all of my poems that are supposedly erotic are really about loneliness and wanting to be desired -- that yearning. I am not the mapmaker's wife, but I sure as hell wish I was.

"Parampara" is from mid-2005, and is one of my personal favourites. It was written after I was visited by the spirit of one of my great-grandmothers. Valliamma was my maternal grandfather's mother. She left her husband and infant son shortly after her small daughter died to live alone, supporting herself for the rest of her life. This was the late 1920's or early 1930's in small-town Sri Lanka. She died when my mother was in her early teens. She visits when necessary. And sometimes, more often than not, we are the same person. She's a demanding woman with a strange sense of humour and absolute, forgiving love. I call her Ammachi. I celebrate the blood in me that is her.

As a thoroughly narcissistic writer, by my own admission, "Parampara" came as a surprise. I believe to this day that she wrote it through me.

I hope you enjoy the poems. Tell me what you think. I'll leave you with this cutie-pie, just because. :)

Kittykat's happy