Tag Archives: hena pillai

Bizarro world’s Arundhati Roy

cover1I must be bizarro world’s Arundhati Roy. Opening up the weekend paper a few days ago, there, spread across four pages was every minute detail of Roy’s new book, from how the cover got made to how many translations were in the works. It must have induced the green-eyed monster in me to open up its beady little jade eyes. Hence the following.

We only ever hear stories of success, also known as the survivorship bias, and never hear from those who failed. Well, I failed, and even if my story does not inspire anyone it could perhaps contain a kernel of value. My book did not get published. Although its manuscript was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize in 2009. Immediately after this announcement, a leading Indian literary critic wrote in a column that a manuscript longlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize does not mean much. Though she did not say so in these exact words, she more or less said only the shortlist that follows matters as it weeds out the chaff. After the shortlist came out, I realised I was human chaff. Ultimately, only getting published is of merit. But in India, perhaps elsewhere, getting published is about effective networking. This means that the writer either needs to market themselves, move in the right closed-publishing-group circles, know the right people, so that the powers-that-be will give you a reasonable hearing.

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Why English

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‘Beti’, daughter in Hindi

I live every day inside a tower of Babel. That’s what it feels like as I stroll about the Indian cities I have lived in, acclimating to a new language with every move, being an outsider, the alien in the crowd. Around me I hear only babble. If I murmur, they tell me, sometimes reasonably and sometimes with hostility, why don’t you learn our language? I am privy to only so much of anyone’s culture that the few kind people are willing to translate, explain to me. I chose English as a raft to guide me along, through this many-tongued sea.

As a teenager, I once confessed my choice to a teacher and regretted my moment of candour immediately, as she said if you choose English you will never belong, anywhere. Maybe a few months afterwards, I would come across a poem in the library. A verse from this poem by Indian author Kamala Das went up on a wall in my bedroom. It was my answer to everyone. The part that interested me talked of why the poet was determined to write in English, no matter what other people thought of her decision. What follows is the relevant verse from the poem ‘An Introduction’,

by Kamala Das:
….“I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write inIMG_2057
Two, dream in one.
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions,….” Continue reading Why English

Why blue jeans are feminist

The hardest thing to do is to come out from behind the glass walls of the tribe. You become so good at covering up, appeasing, never telling on its members, even when you know there is something wrong with the picture. As members of a tribe,  glass walls of silence are built around us, the dominant among us think it’s safe to do what they want, get way with it, anyone who has felt their tyranny know to keep silent as they will be violating an unwritten social contract by telling.

You can scream, but no one can hear you through the glass walls. That is where feminism came in a generation ago. It broke through and told on everyone. But there was a price to pay, to come out and tell, for trying to upend the social order. Blowback. Things have come to such a pass that even the word feminism is now tainted with unflattering nuances. It now needs UN campaigns and celebrities to reclaim its place in the world.

I write in search of expiation. This is a piece I had wanted to write more than any other, but one that turned out to be the most intimidating to attempt. The effects of a lifetime wracked with guilt for not doing what is the norm won’t easily wear off. A norm that instinct tells you is deeply prejudiced even if socially sanctioned.

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Why history

I wanted to tell a story in novel form. One evening years ago, as I wrestled with how to turn my favourite archaeological mystery into fiction, I remember, my husband and I were standing at a white porcelain kitchen sink. Swirling around our little apartment was the political debate of the time emanating from a focal television set.

The argument on TV was about the differing versions of history, and which among them were more right than others. In my country, we had been used to a condescending socialist school syllabus, which, by the time I was standing at our kitchen sink, began to be called leftist by those who were right of centre. They had gained in power and were now calling for an amended history to be taught in schools. They believed children needed to be in touch with their traditions and not be apologetic about their customs.

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Why write

We are all made of legacies. In the genes we get, the cultures we are doctrinated into, and at the most obscure level of the jumping, vanishing electrons bequeathed to us by the stardust that begot us. We seem compelled to leave behind an imprint in the dust of time, however we can manage it. While striving to be something more than animal, we crafted civilisations, societies, rituals and religions, thereafter calling ourselves human.

But as time passed these institutions callused over killing thought and creativity, killing the very thing we sought to become—human. We could go back to that cave wall where we felt the first sparks, to that early song in which we discerned a pleasing pattern. Perchance then, by tapping into that spark, we could communicate with sentient beings elsewhere who call themselves something else, but who feel the same yearning to leave behind an imprint.

And this book is mine. I leave it behind in the binary code of an ebook, in the dust of the virtual world. As a reclusive author you learn to live with paradox. Which is that if you have wares to vend you cannot afford to be retiring. I find it difficult to upsell self, speak up and be heard, to ask people to read my book, let alone buy it. But that is what I do here with these words. Please pardon my retreat from grace into mercantilism, if you can excuse it, dear reader.

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