Sunday, February 25, 2007

Chennai, My Heart

(at Valluvarkottam. Pic by my mother)

This time of year, the city is flooded with watermelons. There are clouds; the occasional drizzle. I have seen this city of my birth, a fact I lay claim to by sheer vagaries of circumstance -- riots in Colombo three days before, my mother nine-months pregnant and getting helicoptered out, going into labour at Madras New Woodlands Hotel, where everything interesting in India seems to happen to the Sri Lankan side of my family -- through vehement monsoons, decalescent summers and once, a fateful tsunami, but never this: February. I hold on to each day of thirteen like a book relished in pages, a song savoured in verses. The ritornelle of memory and the revelation of sequences unknown but deemed precious, sacred even, at the moment of discovery. The most amazing coffee for ten rupees. How my accent changes, seemingly, from just breathing the air. Blush-inducing billboards for Aahaa! FM and what I call Chennai Blue, that copper sulphate colour that seems to be everywhere. Always, nothing as ubiquitious as an autorickshaw, which enter frame after frame of my pictures like seashells caught in a net for fish. This city that should have been my childhood. This city that is my photo negative heart.

Madras to me is the house my father grew up in. Visits from Colombo, and later, Kuala Lumpur. Never knowing what my answer was when asked which country I liked better. Never thinking of not being Indian, wherever my life lay, so much so that I would move back as a teenager, alone, and be ripped to shreds by reality. All that was lost between then and before: a childhood that could have been held on to in holiday snatches, playing on the flat, bordered roof called the terrace, that most wonderful thing about Indian houses. The house my grandmother lived in for fifty years only to have to look at it each day from the one across the road when it was sold, no longer the holder of the keys to its locks. But Chennai is mine. The heartbreak that was India -- because therein lies my heart.

City of my heart with its streets like arteries, its pulse a poem in my veins. Bounded by blood and sentiment, the visceral and the empirical.

My soul belongs to Sri Lanka, but my heart -- my heart throbs India.

On Marina Beach, my last day there on this trip, I pick up a fistful of sand to keep. Mannvasanai -- my favourite word in Tamil. The scent of the soil from which one comes. The earth from which one's body is shaped, one's temperament fluted. The fortune-teller with the Amman picture upside down beside her shouts to me as I take her photograph. "You have foreign luck -- it's written all over your face. Foreign luck! Come, let me show you."

And I'm laughing inside, thinking But I'm coming back, I'm coming back.

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Yang-May Ooi

With Yang-May Ooi, author of the novels The Flame Tree, Mindgame (both first published by Houghton Mifflin UK) and the forthcoming Tianming Traviata, at yesterday's Brekkie for Litbloggers at MPH.

Yang-May's talk on her experiences in publishing was easy to get into, and I thought she was very composed and prepared, without losing an air of friendliness and casualness. Also greatly enjoyed her reading at Seksan's later in the afternoon, where she read from two versions of the same passage from her novel-in-progress, one in standard and one in Malaysian English (I preferred the latter).

I was shocked and amused that Eric Forbes, an editor with MPH's publishing division, liked my "controversial" Hips Don't Lie article enough to include it in the list of places where my literary writing has appeared in his introduction to my own reading (sad to say, I am a much more prolific journalist than lit writer -- having written articles for perhaps a dozen different publications in the last five years)!

Yang-May, very impressively, phone-blogs(!) about the event here (episode 6). I am just thrilled to hear what she has about my work! :)

Xeus writes about the event here, Kenny Mah of wonderful prose (download his e-book Broken Mornings, I highly recommend it!) and great posters here, Dina Zaman here, Sharon Bakar's much-anticipated one (How To Tell If You're A Successful Blogger Tip #1: People call and sms you if you don't post for a day, asking if you're alive) here and Seafolding here.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reading with Roger Robinson

On February 5th, I was invited to read at a private dinner organised by the British Council Malaysia to welcome delegates to a regional conference, "Reading Across Cultures" on education and English.

I had the opportunity to perform alongside Trinidadian-British spoken word artist Roger Robinson, author of Suitcase (poetry) and Adventures in 3D (short fiction). He previously managed top UK poetry agency Apples & Snakes, was chosen by Decibel as one of the fifty most influential writers in the Black British canon in the last fifty years, and is also a lyricist.

But more than that, he's just the nicest, most friendly guy -- and easily one of the most fun writers I've met. More on Roger can be found: here, here, here.

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Fear of Flying

Ten minutes from landing at KLIA, I picked up the copy of New Straits Times that, distracted and nervous from the turbulence, I had set aside earlier. Just to flip through. My eyes settled on an article about the MPH Breakfast Club for Litbloggers series: and there was my name and the name of my novel-in-progress. It startled me, in a way that seeing my name in print never has before: that on that same plane with me were people who had possibly also read the same, and had no idea, no idea, that I was there with them.

I hope the photos I took were burned into that CD properly. If they are, I'll blog them soon.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Brekky for Litbloggers

Eat me!

Love the posters by Kenny Mah. Feel free to put these on your own blog. :)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Ringing of the Bards Poetry Carnival

I'll be hosting it here on March 24th.

More about the carnival: here.

Looking forward to your submissions! Email me -- don't leave your link in a comment as that kinda defeats the purpose of having a carnival! :)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Nominated for a Koufax Award

I was surprised and happy to learn, via Technorati, that my Open Letter to Indian PM Manmohan Singh has been nominated for a Koufax Award in the Best Post category. The Koufax Awards recognise the best progressive/left-of-centre writing in the blogosphere each year. I'm not entirely sure what this nomination means (if this is a rough list or the final list for the first round, etc) or how people can vote, but I'll keep you posted as I find out.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Forest For The Trees: Manglik Dosham and Same-Sex Marriage

I don’t care much for Valentine’s Day, much preferring to observe V-Day. But to those who do, this year, spare a minute to think about the gross inequality of the fact that in India, a person can choose or be made to marry a tree, urn or idol as a means of remedying an astrological defect but a pair of consenting adults of the same gender can not only not celebrate and consolidate their love in a legal or socially-sanctioned manner, but technically qualify as criminals just by virtue of that love.

A frequent argument used against proponents of same-sex marriages is that the legalization of gay marriage promotes a so-called “downward spiral” – that the acceptance of unions between people of the same gender will pave the way for the acceptance of unions between people and non-human species, people and inanimate objects, polygamous unions and other non-conventional deviations from the one-man-one-woman formula (which is neither necessarily natural nor the norm: even today, polygyny is a reality in the Islamic world, polyamory is increasingly acceptable in some communities, many biologists say that monogamy is a social construct not a biological imprint and last year, a woman married a dolphin in Israel). It is thus an ironic victory for the gay rights movement that here in India, that argument is void, thanks to the existence and cultural canonization of some of these “lower moral rung” marriages.

Personally, I don’t think that performing a symbolic ceremony with a tree or some other object so as to cure manglik or sevai dosham is something to polish the ammo about. Firstly, societies everywhere have their own unique rituals, and these are the essence of culture – weddings, in particular, have some of the strangest idiosyncrasies. Contextually, is marrying trees really more silly than the American tradition of the catching of the bridal bouquet being a predictor of who will marry next, or more humiliating than the tradition in Burkina Faso in which locals welcome a bride from a different village by spitting milk on her? Secondly, in terms of what some believe is the fundamental sexism of this particular ritual, there are far more severe struggles that women face everyday (such as, just to draw a related example, forced marriage). I don’t quite see the comparative urgency of ending a ritual that some people choose to undergo, not to mention the fact that if choice is truly a feminist ideal, the reality of that is that some people will most certainly choose the very things which one may personally abhor, and that is their right. Thirdly, the ritual in itself is harmless, to both woman and tree, as long as the former is not forced into or somehow hurt by it, and the latter doesn’t suffer any uprooting or chopping down (which as far as I’m aware, and I may be mistaken, doesn’t usually occur).

So the civil lawsuit filed against Aishwarya Rai by lawyer Shruti Singh, as well as the overall feminist outcry against her for following these rituals prior to her engagement seem a tad dramatic and unnecessary to me. As a public figure, Rai has never been much of a good role model for Indian women and girls for various reasons anyway, so this bullying her instead of leaving her to her happily-ever-after doesn’t quite strike me as worth the effort for the protestors, or the aggravation for her. Ms. Plastic becoming Ms Bachchan after a couple of cursory flings with a banana tree, a peepal tree and a god's idol is interesting to me for simple tabloid-voyeur surfing purposes, not feminist ones.

All in all, I anticipate that the lawsuit and fiasco in its entirety will be of little legal consequences to the Bachchans, though they’ve pretty much guaranteed a built-in punchline at their expense in any future dealings with the foreign media. Singh has based her protest on the argument that Rai’s marriages effectively violate Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, which concerns the Abolition of Untouchability. It reads as follows: ‘Untouchability’ is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of ‘Untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. Perhaps I just don’t have a decent enough grasp of legalese to understand how untouchability comes into the picture here, but I don’t see the relevance. Untouchability, in what may be my limited understanding, is a caste issue – serious for different reasons. Once again, if you’ll excuse the obvious pun, the outcry has missed the forest for, well, the trees.

What does rile up my critical juices, however, is the fact that the tree-bride practice has come under fire without, so far anyway, a broader outlook on the entire situation with regards to conjugal rights in India.

An aspect of Hindu myth and culture which is especially intriguing -- and I bring this up because the tree-bride practice is a Hindu tradition -- is the religion's openness to alternative sexualities and sexual lifestyles. From the hermaphrodite Ardhanareshwara. to the gender-bending Vishnu as Mohini to Draupadi with five husbands and (but of course) the countless male characters with haremfuls of wives, deviations from the one-man-one-woman formula run the gamut. India is a secular nation, but its everyday realities remain rooted in tradition and superstition, whatever the faith, for better or worse. And tradition, in this regard, offers some amount of consolation. Speaking secularly however, the right to have one's partner be one's benefactor upon death, to receive compensation or shelter for domestic violence, to jointly make purchases or take loans, and to simply not have to worry about criminal persecution, among other things, is a necessity -- otherwise, the same-sex partnerships are left in a legal limbo.

You may accuse me of jumping the gun: when Section 377 of the Penal Code, a nearly 150-year old colonial throwback, explicitly criminalizes those who engage in “unnatural” sexual acts (oral and anal sex), which while practised by people of all sexualities particularly denies the right of sexual expression between gay men, is still very much in place, why even think about gay marriage? Primarily, because the public is moving much faster than lawmakers, and even those seeking to repeal the law. In recent years, a number of gay marriages, usually officiated by sympathetic priests, have taken place in India, including those of Jaya Verma and Tanuja Chauhan, Pooja Singh and Sarita, and Wetka Polang and Melka Nilsa (take a moment to notice that all three examples I’ve used are lesbian marriages. I know I must either be missing something in my research, or there’s just a much higher rate of reportage on lesbian marriage, if not a much higher rate of lesbian marriages per se in India). These marriages have no legal standing, and in some cases have even resulted in jail terms. But always, they are bold gestures – love standing up to law, even the most uninteresting of them sending ripples of more consequence than any heterosexual union. Regardless of opposition, hatred or abuse, open homosexuality and bisexuality are a part of the reality of India. From support – organizations including The Naz Foundation, GayBombay and the Sangini Trust have mushroomed – to celebration – actor Rafiquel Haque organizes a Mardi Gras parade in Kolkata annually, Indians of “alternative sexualities” have come out in full force in defence of their sexualities in a manner which, one notes wryly, heterosexual Indians simply haven’t yet been able to. Why then is not just ditching the rickety old Penal Code Section 377, amending the law so as to make room for the parts of it that have been used in assault and abuse cases, and in one fell swoop recognizing same-sex marriage legally not possible? All three seem, at least at first glance, to be a single process, given the speed at which India is changing.

In the sum of things, what, really, is worse: a pretend-marriage to a tree or inanimate object as insurance against tragedy or, to quote from the Vikram Seth-spearheaded campaign to overturn Section 377, leaving in place a law that “has on several recent occasions been used by homophobic officials to suppress the work of legitimate HIV-prevention groups, leaving gay and bisexual men in India even more defenseless against HIV infection”, among other atrocities? Is taking up arms against a harmless old tradition more important than taking up arms against a contemporary tool of persecution? I know this much: traditions, we need to keep some of, whether for posterity, for nostalgia, for belief, or for identity. Violent, life-threatening or rights-denying discrimination? That, we need no more of.


On a less serious note…

Anyway, it being Valentine’s and all, so as not to be too much of a cynic, I suppose it’s appropriate to share my own story of love and heartbreak. Especially because the heartbreak in question came courtesy of, well, not quite a tree but a rather tall, interestingly-endowed plant of some kind (I never found out which kind). Friends will surely remember my own star-crossed affair with Amarasinghe, the plant outside the neighbouring apartment whom I watered diligently because those neighbours, inexplicably, were never around. I showered Amarasinghe with affection, talking to him (getting caught once or twice by other neighbours) and taking care of him until the day he vanished. Suddenly. Brown stains on the floor. Wetness. But not a leaf left of him, or the other potted plants that used to crowd the front of that apartment. That terrible day, I saw him and blew him a kiss as usual on my way down to get something to eat, and when I came back, he was gone. I was frantic: I rang the neighbours’ bell, went back down to search through the garbage dump, even went to the security office to enquire if any large plants had been moved out. But I never saw him again… Amarasinghe, wherever you are in plant paradise (because I just know they would have let you rot), this one’s for you. (picflicked from here)

Happy V-Day!

Woman Flower, Pablo Picasso, 1946

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Paula Gunn Allen Fund

Was shocked to see this bulletin, forwarded by Leah. More about Paula Gunn Allen, who easily holds her place among the most important Native American writers, can be found here.


The Paula Gunn Allen Fund has just been established to provide financial assistance to Paula, whose car, double-wide trailer, clothes, appliances, books, and papers burned in a fire in mid-October.

Evidently, some oily rags, stored in a shed on her newly built deck, ignited and burned her house and car. Paula, who was in the house when the fire started, suffered smoke inhalation and was briefly hospitalized after the fire. Two weeks later, her landlady found Paula unconscious on the floor of her temporary apartment. Hospitalized again, Paula was in a coma for at least six days and in the hospital for two weeks. Since returning to her apartment, she has responded well to physical and lung therapy and her spirits are better than they have been in some time. As of today, she can walk ten steps without a cane.

This has been a hard year for Paula. Just before the fire, she had successfully completed radiation therapy for lung cancer, which doctors found in its early
stages. The treatment, however, debilitated her.

Paula has given us all so much over the years through her creative and scholarly writing and her direction of the 1977 NEH-MLA Summer Seminar in Native American Literature. Your donation can help her rebuild her life.

Send your donation to The Paula Gunn Allen Fund, Account No. 0129540739, Bank of America, 228 North Main Street, Fort Bragg, CA 95437. (Include "The," which is part of the fund's legal name). The donation is not tax deductible.

Paula also needs copies of books containing her essays or poems because hers burned in the fire. Fortunately, she had deposited most of her papers in the library of the University of Oregon several years before the fire.


If you have questions, feel free to contact me. Patricia Smith and others are planning some events to help raise funds. I will inform you about these as
plans are finalized.

For health reasons, I am not coming to MLA this year. Happy holidays.



A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff
Professor Emerita of English
University of Illinois at Chicago

Hearts 'N' Lightbulbs Valentine's Charity Show

Update 11 Feb: I've just been informed that in a really unbelievable move, Plaza Damas has refused to allow the organizers, The Feathered Friends Network, to hold the event on their premises. No reason has so far been provided! The event has now been moved to Laundry Bar, The Curve. All other details remain the same.

I'll have to miss this event, but I think it's a fantastic effort, kinda like the CRESCENDO: Raise Your Voice series which I founded (which I'll blog about in future, because no, it wasn't a one-off: I've always intended to do more with it). My friend Erin is one of the co-organizers, and the line-up, as anyone familiar with KL's underground music scene will know, is pretty good (I'm a big fan of Zalila, Saerze, Estrella and Nick Davis particularly). Apologies for posting it up late, but hope some of you can catch it and do your part for charity!

Thursday, February 08, 2007



Picflicked from here

Friday, February 02, 2007

VCD on Temple Demolitions Is Out

Yet another brave and wonderful move by Hindraf.

On an related note, I find it richly ironic that the Indian government stepped in such a huge way against Shilpa Shetty's treatment on Celebrity Big Brother, but to date hasn't responded in any manner whatsoever on this crisis here. (Please see my open letter to PM Manmohan Singh from mid last year). Is racism on the international front against Indians and people of Indian descent an issue worth taking up only if glamourous starlets are involved? I am deeply, deeply disappointed by my country's stand, because silence too is a response.


Temple demolition VCD out

Andrew Ong
Feb 1, 07 3:45pm

Fifty thousand copies of a documentary on the demolition of Hindu temples by state authorities are being distributed to temple goers performing their religious duties during the current Thaipusam celebrations.

Titled ‘Hindu Temple Demolitions by Malaysian Government: The Struggle’, the 52-minute documentary with English subtitles is produced by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).

Since yesterday, the documentary has been distributed in VCD-format in Batu Caves, where more than a million Hindu devotees are expected to turn up over the weekend to carry out religious rites.

The VCD will also be distributed by volunteers at major Hindu temples in every state in Peninsula Malaysia except Terengganu and Perlis.

Truth on video

“The purpose of the documentary is for people to find out the truth on such demolitions and allow them to draw their own conclusion,” said Hindraf president P Waythamoorthy

The footage includes confrontation between authority figures and Hindus trying to prevent their temples from being demolished - one of which results in a devotee being bloodied in a scuffle.

The video gives viewers a rare glimpse into how local authorities, sometimes with help from the police, tear down Hindu temples usually on the reason that the structures were ‘squatters’.

For more than a year, Hindraf has argued that such acts are illegal and unconstitutional.

They claim that these temples, protected under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, are usually in existence long before local laws used to carry out demolitions were even drafted.

VCD a public document

According to Hindraf legal advisor P Uthayakumar, a copy of the video have been filed as a court exhibit yesterday, in his Dec 18, 2006 suit against the government to halt temple demolitions throughout the country.

“The documentary is expected to be screened during court proceedings. It is now a public document,” said Uthayakumar.

The video, which took nearly a half a year and about RM50,000 to produce, is being funded by Hindraf supporters and Hindu devotees.

The documentary can be viewed online at the Police Watch and Human Rights Committee website.