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Defeated Despair

1 Mar

A few weeks ago Caravan published After the Last Sky, my first paid publication in almost three years. I wrote it for Caravan because I’m a completist, and I wanted to close a circle that opened three years ago with Darkness Visible.

After the Last Sky was written just as I was transitioning from one of the darkest periods of my life into the sort of smack-dab happiness that is impossible to channel into language. It’s odd how that happens, this chiaroscuro of emotion, but without that joy, or the pain that came before, this would have been a very different essay and perhaps a feebler one. This was an essay written, as John Berger once said in “Undefeated Despair” from a familiarity with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words. It is an essay about ruin.

Here is a simpler formulation: I wrote an essay about women who learned to live without love even as I was falling in love. If that makes me a hypocrite, all I can say is it makes an excellent change from an earnest despair. But there is despair in that essay, of course there is, it’s all over the place. Despair with prescriptive, idealized feminisms; despair with structures that exalt and oppress women; despair with explanations that remain trapped in clichés, despair with myself, with the smallness and uselessness of my words in the face of totalizing narratives. Perhaps, then, all that my tiny satisfaction offered me was a way out of defeat, and with that I must move on. And so I will.

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The Swift and The Sardonic

11 Jun

An Elegy for the Gentle Art of Viciousness. 

Three days after my aunt Saroj died, I was surveying her library in her new house. Her husband, who blamed their new house for her death, wanted it packed up; he planned to go as far away as he could, take as little as he could, and stay gone as long as he could. Like any library, it was a glimpse into her soul, in this case the soul of a practical oncologist who had little time for the finer pleasures of literature. It was only on two shelves, stacked behind her desk, that my aunt revealed she had an astonishingly coy heart: every Georgette Heyer novel in the world, each stamped with a date, a place, a memory.

In the weeks since, I have often wondered about my own comfort shelf, a mix of science fiction and Wodehouse, and why it is that I, unlike so many other women, find no comfort in the cheery plots, regency settings, and smooth prose of Georgette Heyer. I like my relationship-novels to be arch, biting, even cruel—not for me the dashing dukes and modest maidens that make up so much of her world. Georgette Heyer is witty and often wise, but I don’t enjoy the illusions woven into her work, and I despise the convention of the happily-ever-after. I need my humour to arrive from a dark place, to be carried, as it were, upon the winds of satire. What puzzles me, of course, is why. Why do I need a twist, either of irony or, even worse, of malice?

All that thinking happened later.  That day, surveying my aunt’s upstart romances, all I felt was a slight, affectionate twinge of pity: there was no one left to cherish these old paperbacks that she had so painstakingly collected. Then the phone rang, and a familiar tingle of dread surged up my spine.

It had all started about ten days before. When the first call came, I went into shock. My oldest friend’s mother was dead. Two days later, another. Cancer. Then another. Car accident. Then came Saroj Mausi, by which time my mind had been pummeled into resignation. I asked no questions, spilt no tears, was just grateful that this time, at least, I could show up and be useful, for the only thing lonelier than unrequited love is grieving alone. But here was my phone again, announcing another call from another continent, and it told me K was dead.

K, whom I had loved so long ago I had forgotten I still loved him. But this time I knew that I could no longer stay away; that I had to go home and greet his end. I could see it unfolding. I’d march straight up to his stranger of a wife, and announce myself to her: “I loved him too. A decade ago, your husband and my brother were sleeping together. They broke up, we got drunk…” and, once done with the whole salacious shambles, I’d likely find myself being offered tea and samosas and a baby to hold.

So there I was, staring at a shelf of Georgette Heyers and planning a prodigal return, living through a postmodern Barbara Pym novel, laughing uncontrollably. Life, they say, is sometimes weirder than fiction. It’s not. Death is weirder than fiction.

Kara Walker, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occured between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (detail), from Guernica.

Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occured between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (detail), from Guernica.

The book I was thinking of, in that instant, was The Sweet Dove Died, one of Pym’s most melancholy novels and the last one published in her lifetime. It takes its title, like many Pym novels, from a poem, but the title isn’t the only reason it floated into my memory. The novel is about a cold and elegant woman who finds passion late in life, with a man half her age, only to lose her lover to another man. The novel was a departure for Pym, featuring as it did a fading beauty caught in a whirl of shifting sexuality she doesn’t quite comprehend. Most of Pym’s heroines are dreamy, shabby women who survive on the fringes of gentility and grasp reality rather better than they let on. Leonora, Sweet Dove’s protagonist, is their foil: a woman whose confidence derives from her beauty rather than her wit, who believes herself worldly until the world proves her otherwise. A Sweet Dove Died seemed, in the circumstances, to be an uncanny parallel of my situation. I am the quintessential Pym heroine—a dowdy spinster who knows her way around a quote—and I had once fallen for a bisexual man who discovered he preferred elegance to intelligence. It was a reversal to do Pym proud, and I thought, yet again, what a deep misfortune it is for literature that there is no such thing as a postmodern Barbara Pym novel.

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The Dying of a Light.

27 Jan

On 27th January 2010 I had just finished setting up my first apartment. I was 23, I was in love, the world awaited my storm. I had an independent study in which to be an Intellectual. I had a boyfriend who did the dishes. Nothing could stop me now, this was It. It was perhaps the last time in my life I would be incorrigibly optimistic.

That was the day Howard Zinn died. That was the day when, though I didn’t know it then, I set out to be a writer. Was that a fair trade on the universal balance? Probably not. But this is how I began. I restrained myself from tinkering too much with this elegy, and not only because I’d end up rewriting it entirely. It might be verbose and a little pompous, but it was written for love, and that is rare in this writing life. Besides, as it turns out, I did spend 2010 researching the Reformation and (in)direct democracy, and there is a lot to be said for beginning a new life with an act of mourning. In the darkest part of this silent Sunday morning, as Barthes might have said (but did not quite), I was vigilant. And all of him leaped before my eyes.


An Encomium

Professor Howard Zinn died on 27th January 2010, a fortnight ago at the time of writing. Apart from the resigned rage one feels about the mortality of one’s heroes, my primary emotion was anticipation. I had recently procured, with some difficulty, a copy of Zinn’s Passionate Declarations. I now had good reason to ignore boring daily life and work my way through Zinn’s legacy, a project as inviting as it is daunting. After a month spent separated from my library, the prospect of a reading list soothed me.

In the fortnight since his death was announced, I have spent many nights listening to his lectures, mining his books, locating his prolific journalism. I spent even more time tracking Zinn within a maze of historiography: all great scholars spin a web around them that can prove as revelatory as dissecting the shape of the beast itself. I gave myself a week to “get a grip” on Zinn, and have never underestimated a task more.

It was not the sheer profligacy of his work, as I never expected to read all of it, but the amazing variety of subjects that his writing suggested that ultimately did me in. It’s difficult to chart matters in an organized fashion when a single book (Passionate Declarations) can make you want to research everything from the Reformation to direct democracy. When one ventures into the vast terrain of work inspired by or transformed by Zinn’s historiography the project looses all moorings in rationality. It becomes epic, spawning academic cottage industries.

I have no doubt such a fate lies in store for the late, great Professor Zinn. I suspect he would be amused by all the posthumous interest, considering he spent his lifetime languishing in academia’s back closet, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Genius is historically betrayed by the grave.

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Tabernacle or Tomb?

19 Jan

One of the dilemmas I’m grappling with is that of an audience. Who am I writing for? It’s not that I write to be read – this would be foolhardy- but that the proposed reader influences how any text is constructed. It’s a question answered instinctively when you write for publication, even when that publication is simply your own blog. But I remain entirely at sea when it comes to writing as a graded exercise with defined guidelines. Partly, of course, it is that I carry it badly. Last semester I folded my words into my life, rather than the other way around, which is never a good idea for someone as chronically fickle as me.

The Dickinson essay below is a good example of the weird niche I currently occupy. I wrote it (and I admit this is dubious) for a “controversy” assignment, and while it was fun reading Dickinson for two weeks, I’m not sure where/how to pitch it, or indeed if I should pitch it. I’m leaning towards no: which self-respecting books blog would accept my solemn exegesis of her verse? (in less than fifty words!) Who else would care? Is this basically a blogpost pointing out that other people are writing blogposts? Is it only logical to expect my reader to know who Emily Dickinson is and why she is VITAL? If so, why bother writing it?

 Anyway. I fully expect y’all to consider this a purely rhetorical puzzle, so here’s another reason to read it. This essay has sentimental value: the first booksy thing I did in NYC was attend the launch of Paul Legault’s Emily Dickinson Reader. It was my first solo outing in DUMBO; I got spectacularly lost* and I kept circling this guy selling pretzels until eventually he took pity on a starving student and gave me one. It was a magic pretzel. I finally found my way down Water Street the next go-around and a great good time was had. I mingled. I sipped artisanal beer and made eye-contact and small lit-chat and was generally an urbane sophisticate** and a new din was born. All for the love of Emily Dickinson.***

 *Even google is stumped by Brooklyn.

** yeah, ok. I wore perfume and I scuffed my sneakers.

***tbh, I often find Dickinson fucking exhausting. So frenetic! So baroque! I know her well enough to misrepresent myself as a fangirl, but in most moods I’m.. conflicted.



All great poets spawn cottage industries of interpretation. Emily Dickinson, High Priestess of American Literature, is no exception. There is an Emily Dickinson museum, an International Society, and an academic journal dedicated entirely to explicating her riddling verse.  Several poets have written tributes to Dickinson, from William Carlos William’s “To An Elder Poet” to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home” to Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters.

 What is curious is the extent to which she survives in the popular imagination. There has been a novel written about her every year for the last five years, as well as six popular biographies, a parody, and a book inspired by her penchant for writing on envelopes.  In 2010, the New York Botanical Society held a Dickinson-themed flower exhibit. She was on Broadway in 1976, as the protagonist of The Belle of Amherst. She turns up as a larger-than-life puppet in the movie Being John Malkovich, a mockery of the Dickinson cult that Joyce Carol Oates expanded by writing a novella featuring a diminutive robotic Emily.  2013 will see a Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City’s Miranda. Popstars, a certain barometer of the cultural temperature, have also invoked the spirit of Emily Dickinson: Pete Doherty admits to “nicking her lines” because she’s “fucking outrageous”; Carla Bruni went so far as to set an entire poem to music. As Paul Legault writes in the introduction to The Emily Dickinson Reader, “Emily Dickinson used to exist. Now she’s doing it again.” The question, then, is why. What’s the secret to Emily Dickinson’s immortality? The best vitality, she once said, cannot excel decay. But what of that? 

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Conversations with Dead Folk.

10 Jan

Fellow twitterers will know there are multitudes within chaosbogey. What began one diary amidst many became the metadiary, a distillation of my (very dull) existence. Din would read for bogey, she’d think for me, then I’d write for someone else. It clarified my analysis, this messy divorce, yet its memory still stings and I remain hesitant about how well we succeeded. I do know why we fragmented into a halt. IRL, I rarely summon the energy to be this long-winded. or angry. or honest. or curious. or wise. IRL, I’m occasionally funny. Bogey’s peculiar personality is her own, and I’m almost convinced this is a good thing. In my apps to grad school, I call chaosbogey a palimpsest; pompous as it sounds, ’tis closest to the truth as I read it. It’s either that or insurrection/orgy/mutation, and to call her any of those would be an unkindness.

Sanya Glisic, Der Stuwwelpeter.

A hefty bit of bogey’s composite is an absent ally.  On behalf of every ghost within the works, his pledge for 2012 —

Listen carefully,

Neither the Vedas

Nor the Qur’an

Will teach you this:

Put the bit in its mouth,

The saddle on its back,

Your foot in the stirrup,

And ride your wild runaway mind

All the way to heaven.


(trans. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra)

In the final year of college, as my friends went about the business of ambition, I spent my nights adapting The Coast Of Utopia for the NLS playfest. Stoppard credits Isaiah Berlin as an inspiration, and so I started Russian Thinkers. Here my theatrical pretensions quickly quailed, for Berlin was my window into a tradition far removed from everything an Indian legal education teaches you about the world. He showed me the ‘tangled undergrowth’ of modern history, enticing me into an alien universe populated by folk my textbooks only accorded footnotes to. Three years later, I documented the journey in the first mystic myna column.

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