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Voicing Silence 7

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Ed Fringe 2017 - Reviews

Porridge with fruit, paper version of the Grauniad and dull, wet
weather - it was good to be back in Edinburgh
There is nothing quite like theatre to make you feel quite so alive. And nowhere is this more evident than in the corpulent overdose of theatre that is Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As with every year, this year too I attended the Festival for my annual dip into the madness. And for three and a half days, I rolled with the punches and tumbled in its excess. What a glorious ride it was. I ate, drank and indulged in a lot of diverse forms of theatre. Personal and metaphorical journeys. Scripted and improvised storytelling. Technical marvels and pared down theatre.

And now that I am back, I am left wishing that I had watched more, stayed out later, braved the cold (yes, even in August, it's Edinbrrrgh) and thrown myself unresistingly into its artful melee. But I rest in the knowledge that I will be back next year and the year after and the one thereafter. For now though, here are brief reviews of  nearly every show I watched.

A Super Happy Story About Feeling Super Sad - Can you make a musical about depression and make it light and frothy while delving into darkness? This show gets the balance just right. 8/10

Eggs Collective: Get A Round - Dark side of a night out with friends. They are soon to be on BBC. Great energy but I didn't quite feel the pull. 3/10

Instructions For Border Crossing - Technical issues hampered this play. Lots of audience interaction but didn't like the actor. Was confused about what he wanted from us or what his stance was. 1/10

salt. - A searing, powerful exploration of identity. Selina Thompson, an adoptee of Afro-Carribean origin who grew up in Birmingham, went on a cargo ship tracing the journey her ancestors would have taken on a slave ship and has written a play about it. As she smashes a large rock of salt ("salt of the seas, salt of the tears"), it splinters and shatters across the stage and into the audience like the lives of those enslaved, resonating across continents, across ages. We were given a rock to take with us as we left. It weighed heavy in my hands. 10/10

Seance - Spooky twenty minutes in a pitch dark shipping container. A long table runs down the length  of the container with chairs laid out quite tight on either side of the table. The participants are advised to wear headphones, place their hands on the table, lights go out dramatically and the Seance begins. Brilliant sound design that unsettles and challenges every rational notion you have. Is this theatre? Is this art? Brilliant entertainment. 10/10

How To Act - This play by Scottish National Theatre meant its posters were plastered on buses. Pity such publicity could not save the lacklustre play. It's set as a masterclass with an acclaimed actor and whose dramatic exercise with one of the participants forms the length of the play. Gradually, the lines between reality and retelling blurs and there's a moment when something dramatic is revealed but it flops and we are urged to "speak the truth". Whatever. 1/10

Out Of Love - Writing that scorched and scalded and soared from the pages. Beautifully acted and realised. The power of female friendship, fierce, convoluted and glorious - all laid out in just over an hour's time. Oh, to be able to write like this! 10/10

Man Watching - An anonymous woman has written about her sex life and each night a male comic reads it out cold, for the first time in front of an audience. Interesting, funny, gimmicky. 5/10

Kafka And Son - Based on the letters that Franz Kafka wrote to his father that were later published as a book. Kafka was bullied by his overbearing father and this appears to have had a lasting influence on his life and his writing. The play was sensitively told by the actor playing both the father and the son to great effect. 8/10

Shape Of The Pain - What is it like to live with chronic pain? What does it look like? How does it sound? What triggers it? What worsens it? How do you live with it every breathing minute? Shape Of The Pain attempts to articulate chronic pain syndrome - something one of its creators suffers from. Its a visual, aural, technical and verbal description what must be indescribable. At the end like many in the audience left with my limbs aching, my head throbbing and my eyes stinging. 9/10

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything - A boy and a girl are born in Hull and their lives are traced over three decades - from New Labour to Brexit Britain - via plenty of live music. The evening of my show, the actor who played the narrator was given a special award by The Stage for being one of the best at the Fringe. His high octane, high energy performance was certainly a highlight but the rest was glittery and loud and distracting. 3/10

Cosmic Scallies - Skelmersdale in Lancashire is a monument to all things tried in failed. It was a town where, in the 1960s planner attempted to create a utopian housing scheme and didn't succeed. It's the setting for an unlikely friendship between two friends who go all the way back to primary school. It is tender, funny and at times brutally honest but the play is shy of going just that bit further. 7/10

EntryNoEntry - A performance art piece by a Srilankan artist who invites you into a dark cave, dances with you, asks gently probing questions of you about who you are and where you come from and leaves you bewildered and blinking into the lights. 6/10

The Road That Wasn't There - A trigger happy old woman, her concerned son, a half-torn map, a graveyard, a young girl in far away New Zealand and some puppets are among this rather Neil Gaimanesque story for children. The kids in the audience seemed riveted. 5/10
Blurrie with Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner 




All shows (bar one) were booked on recommendations by Guardian's theatre critic Lyn Gardner. You can read about my experience and my Primer To The Fringe here.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Voicing Silence - Feedback

Voicing Silence was shown at a film festival in Toronto some time ago and here's the audience feedback. You can read about how the animated short came to be in this series starting from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.



Monday, June 12, 2017

What Use Is Knowing...

...anything if no one is around
to watch you know it?

These are the opening lines of an eponymous poem by Kaveh Akhbar that I came across in The New Yorker recently. I am increasingly given to believe that people and words come to you bearing insights at a time when you were meant to read them. That it would be foolhardy to dismiss them as mere coincidences.

I read the above lines a couple of hours after an exchange on Watsapp which had caused me to wonder if perhaps I should not be giving away so much of what's going on. I began to question if the importance of the event is any less if it is not shared with others or liked by others. Is an event only valid if has been seen by others?

There was something about the culture of oversharing that made me pull out of Facebook some years ago. A decision I have not had cause to review ever since. And yet, it was precisely the kind of 'look at what's going on' that I was indulging in recently.

It was also what made me stop in my tracks to wonder if, I was taking part in whatever it is that I was doing - attending concerts, running races, visiting places - so I can share it with others? And did it matter at all if I didn't do so? Would I still be doing all the things that I was doing if there wasn't an audience? Most likely, but would they matter as much?

As for the poem itself, I couldn't follow much beyond the second stanza. It seemed like broken up and disjointed sentences which may have retained some coherence if had been written in a paragraph as running prose. But then I don't understand such obtuse poetry and I am left wondering if I should have shared with you the fact that I read the New Yorker or that some poetry leaves me confused. I will go now.

You can read all of What Use.. here

Monday, April 17, 2017

Carnatic And Chaos

The last time I attended a kutcheri was a good decade ago at a sabha in TNagar in Chennai when I spent much of the two and a half hours worrying that someone's mobile phone might go off right in the middle of a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi or that a Nokia ringtone would interrupt the neraval. And invariably, when a phone did start to ring, I heaved a sigh of relief at no longer needing to be so angst-ridden.

A few days ago, as I sat at Kabaleeswarar temple mandabam listening to Sanjay Subramaniam sing, I
remarked how much more natural the setting was. It was part of a series of free concerts organised following Tamil new year's day and the kutcheri unfolded amidst the everyday chaos of temple occurrences. There were regular temple goers who'd stopped by to listen to a song or two as much as those who had turned up a whole hour earlier to grab a prized front row seat that made up the audience.

Large screens had been erected in the temple corridors and the audience spilt over
to fill up those spaces as well. I saw families that made a picnic of it, eating pongal prasadam on a donnai, temple bells being rung as part of evening poojai, ubiquitous blue plastic chairs scraping against the smooth mosaic tiles, coconuts being smashed in thanksgiving and a small bajanai goshti walking around in a procession clapping hands and singing. And all the time, Sanjay was belting out some of the most exquisite Carnatic music in the contemporary scene.

It felt right, it felt appropriate that the music should be played out in its most organic state. Not in a sterile environment but in the middle of everyday bustle, high art drawing from the rich soundscape of pedestrian life. In the distance, I heard a horn blare, a child behind me shreiked and Sanjay picked up a high note and somehow, in this uniquely Tamil setting, it all sounded harmonious.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Running In Madras

I'm no stranger to running in Madras. I began jogging in the early nineties, at a time when joggers were not commonplace and you only ever saw one when he (rarely a she) was chasing a bus. As an NCC cadet I used train to run 3 kms and would regularly clock 5 kms in order to improve my timing in the 3 km race.

Back then I used to be laced up and out on the streets by 0530 latest in order to beat the heat and the traffic. But the early hour also meant that I was a target for street dogs to chase and for perverts to grope or slap me under the cover of darkness.

In the intervening years, much has changed in the running scene in the city which hosts its own annual marathon and several smaller runs that it was tempting to experience it first hand. So yesterday for the first time in more than two decades, I signed up to run a 10 km race in Chennai.

The start line was brimming with lycra clad enthusiasts sporting an assortment of running gadgets that have become almost mandatory for anyone who aims to  put one foot in front of the other over a certain distance. By contrast I looked at my nylon socks that I'd borrowed from my father-in-law and the canvas shoes that I wear on a daily basis that I was now going run the race in. I looked ridiculously underprepared.

Where was my ipod? Where was the heartrate monitor, the sun glasses, the bandana, the sun cream, the petroleum jelly, the pace band, the Vibram, the leg compressor? Heck, I hadn't even had a proper pasta dinner the previous night. I'd had sambar rice and mixed vegetable and coconut curry and vaadam and thayir saadam with oorugai.

At least I'd had the good sense to pack a sports bra. I sighed, carried my mother in law's orange tupperware bottle filled with water (what? No even an isotonic sport drink?, I hear you ask) and lined up to run 10 kms at 5.45 am in what must have been at least 33-34 degree temperature. As we began running  (jogging in my case), I was struck by how different the sights and sounds are to my usual route. Bizarrely I felt like a tourist in my own city of birth. I had never taken part in a race in Madras and the novelty of running on the streets that I'd only ever driven on was striking (including on the evocatively named Elephant Gate Road).

For one, there's dodging the traffic but there's also unusual things that you wouldn't expect to find on a regular running trail. Like a horse drawn carriage being decorated with flowers by a group of women in order to carry two Jain nuns (I waved but they didn't reciprocate). Like a water lorry (I had to stop to let it pass). It was life as usual getting ready to unfurl while a motley group of runners made their way round a loop.


(edited to include photo)
And that's when I was struck by an epiphany. Running and exercise should be organic and integral to regular life. It shouldn't require fancy geekery to set it apart as if it were something unnatural. I finished the race with ease, in a less than personal best of one hour and four minutes. Or at least that's what I think it was. I hadn't worn a watch and had to rely on other people telling me the time. Not that it matters one jot.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Voicing Silence 9

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

In the days since I first posted this series, I have had several responses. The most common among them is "You're so brave!" and I thought I'd talk about that a little bit in this post. First of all, I feel a bit of a fraud for being called brave. I feel uncomfortable accepting such praise and it is not just false modesty talking here. Let me explain why I feel disingenuous about considered brave. 

I began sharing my experience at a time in my life, where, by doing so, I stand to lose very little. There is hardly anything at stake here. No lives whose course could change dramatically or limbs who could be severed by my admissions. If I had come out with these allegations several years earlier when the extended family was enjoying grand camaraderie and bonhomie with each other, and done so in such great detail, there is every possibility that the aunts, uncles, cousins and their spouses would have denied everything and reacted with rancour and rage (precisely as they have done in another instance). But saying so now, since the relations have already ruptured beyond repair, there is no new damage to be done.

I am at an age when I have been married for so long and have had children that, barring the inevitabilities of life, my life at present enjoys the gentle boredom of middle age. My current major pre-ccupation in life is figuring out if the new word that I have just learnt in German has a masculine, feminine or neutral article (Der Apotheke? Die Apotheke or Das Apotheke?*). If this had been say, 20 years earlier when, as an as yet unmarried woman I had made these allegations, the ramifications would have been much more. Any potential husband material would only have to google my name to land on this blog and then get cold feet (let's not pretend it doesn't happen, okay?) and knowing that such a possibility exists, would have made me hesitate in the first place. 

I chose to articulate what had happened to me at a time that suited me best. I have said what I have to, as to carry on any further would have eaten into me, leaving me sick, angry and bitter. What I have done is a selfish act of self-preservation and self-improvement. It is anything but brave. 

*it is die Apotheke, since you ask. 

Watch the feedback to Voicing Silence here 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Voicing Silence 8

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

It's almost two weeks since I posted the last instalment of Voicing Silence and I have heard from a number of people including some with whom I had lost contact years ago. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to do a FAQs. This list is by no means exhaustive and will continue to grow. Please feel free to add to it by either commenting below or by writing to me.

FAQs

1. I cannot believe something like this happened to you. Looking at you, I would never have thought that. Are you sure you are not imagining it?

Sadly, I am not imagining it. It is true what happened to me. 

2. But you grew up in a traditional Tamil Brahmin household in cozy 80s Madras. Such things don't happen in our community. It's a foreign invention.

Yes, they do. No, foreigners didn't invent child sex abuse.  

3. I still don't believe you. I think you are out to besmirch your family. 

Okay.

4. Why have you come out with these revelations now? After all these years? Couldn't you have remained silent?

There was never a good time to say what I have said. It was always going to upset someone. I commissioned Lucy to create Voicing Silence because it was the first time in years that I was ready in my head and knew I could afford to pay her for her services. No, I couldn't have remained silent any longer. 

5. And now that you have spoken out, have you got any closure?

I don't know what closure means. If it means zipping something up and putting it away for posterity, no. I don't know if I can ever be rid of the event or stop reacting to it. But what it feels like is this. Some days, it feels as if a scab has been freshly picked open and the festering, pustulating wound has been laid bare. It will heal eventually, I hope. 

6. What do you want out of it all?

To be honest, in the course of writing it and creating Silence, what I want out of it has changed over time. Initially, I wanted retribution, then it became articulation. Now, I just want to be able to share my story in my own words. I want more of us to acknowledge to our own selves what has happened and seek professional help. It really is not worth carrying on living compromised lives. 

I used to see initiatives around teaching kids 'Good touch, bad touch' etc and used to wonder why so little was being done to address the trauma that adults were coping with. While it is vitally important to prevent such instances happening ever, it is paramount we talk about those who are living in the aftermath of horrific abuse from their past and I felt not enough was being done about that. 

From personal experience I knew that there were several in my own small circle who had experienced abuse and I knew that none had sought professional help. And all the time I kept reading about kids and safeguarding and all that. In my head I kept hearing, 'but what about me? I am not dead, know. I matter too.' I sincerely hope more adults begin talking and taking care of ourselves. 


7. What has happened since?

Lots, I am happy to report. One of the first people I shared this series with is my friends from school, including some whom I first met when I was three. My posts sparked a lively debate and it broke my heart to hear some say how they needed to borrow my words. Another friend from the same primary school group shared an incident which I have no memory of. 

She said that this happened when we were eleven or so. It seems it was my birthday and my mother had brought some sweets to the school but it appears, I had had a meltdown earlier in the day and my mother tearful when she talked to my class teacher about how I threw tantrums and how little I appreciated her efforts. Although I don't recall the exact incident, I know that that would have happened not long after the assault and it was when I started to get really, really angry. Just listening to my friend's recollection was touching. It meant that she had seen me, seen what state I was in and noted the instance when my social mask had slipped. 

I have heard from a cousin who wrote in a long email about how one can never be neutral when someone confesses as I had. And how he could not understand how anyone would doubt such an allegation. It was especially touching as it is the first time I had heard from anyone in the extended family circle in over a decade when similar allegations were first raised, which tore the family network  apart with several choosing severe ties with us. 

Long-forgotten friends and readers of this blog have written wonderful emails expressing sadness and promising support which has been lovely to read. 

8. Someone has just told me that they were abused as a child. What do I do?

Disclaimer: I am no professional or an expert in this matter. Please seek appropriate professional help. 

If someone tells you that they were abused as a child, please, please, please do not discount them. Or worse, doubt them. Listen to them. It takes a lot for someone to summon the courage and the words to say out loud what must have been whirring in their heads for so long. If they have chosen you to confess, they have placed their trust in you. Please just hold their hands and listen. And then very gently, guide them to seek professional help. 

9. All of this makes me very uncomfortable. Why can't we talk about something nice instead?

Yes, it is uncomfortable, yucky and unpleasant to talk about something so gross. For all the wonderful people who have written to me, there are a fair few who did not reply when I shared the blog series with them. And I understand their reluctance to engage with something so discomfiting. We would all rather run a mile than be confronted with something as horrific as this. We think it has nothing to do with us and we don't know of anyone to whom something like this has happened. 

There is a truly appalling statistic that says that as of 2007, nearly 53% of Indian children had been subjected to one or more forms of sexual abuse. I have no reason to believe that this number would have been less in the past, which means a majority of today's adults who grew up in India have suffered abuse. That's truly an epidemic proportions. Now tell me, do you really think there is no one in your family or friends group who has not been abused? 

We can either look away and hope that someone else will deal with it or step up and start doing something about this ugliness that pervades our every day life. The choice is ours. 

And since you wanted something pleasant, here's a picture of me and two people I am utterly besotted with. 


My babies and their mum


Read the next extract here at Voicing Silence 9

Friday, March 03, 2017

Voicing Silence 7

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

Headphones recommended




(Click on image for link or click here)

Written and narrated by 
Abhi Arumbakkam

Animation and edit 
Lucy Lee

Sound
Louise Brown

Music
Nefeli Stammatogianopoulu & Stelios Koupetoris



Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 8


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Voicing Silence 6

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

One of my favourite speeches is this one that Neil Gaiman gives as the commencement address at an arts college in the US. In it he urges the students that whatever misery may befall them, to turn it into art. Use it as fuel to power their creative engine. I had decided that the best way to articulate my story was to make an animated short video of it and my friend Lucy was ideally placed to realise it. That said, how do I communicate the Madras of 1980s to someone who has never been to India?

I recorded a narrative and gave the audio to Lucy and she came up with her own set of question. Where did you sleep when you were young? Did you have beds? Did you change out of your day clothes to go to sleep? Did the rooms have windows? Did you grow up eating jam? What common insects would you find around the house? Would you sing or dance? Did you use ceramic mugs and cups? What did you wear on your feet when you went out? What sort of taps did you have in your house? Did you celebrate Christmas? Did it mean anything to you?

I started crowdsource responses including some from my school Watsapp group who were highly bemused with my request of photos of their kitchen sinks and utensils. My father sent me a whole bunch of photos from my childhood which prompted a blog post too. I sent links to Louis Malle's L'Inde Fantome which had significant portions shot in Madras but a couple of decades early. I sent links to some of my favourite Ilayaraja songs from that period and also some Carnatic music tracks which I grew up singing and listening to.

Lucy would get back to me every now and then with a line drawing or colour scheme that she was trying out and I would respond enthusiastically to it. I had left the artistic vision and the direction of the story entirely to her, secure in the knowledge that she would do it justice. She had watched the animated story of Malala and came back to the project refreshed.

Lucy wanted to bring in a sound designer and a musician that she had worked with earlier on board and as ever, I nodded eagerly. I also knew that she was juggling so many other projects and that the creative process some times takes as long as it does, so didn't want to push her too much with deadlines and demands.

Mangai introducing the Voicing Silence
troupe to gathered street theatre audience*
Me performing as part of
Voicing Silence*
I had decided to call it Voicing Silence, shamelessly plagiarising the title from a project about female infanticide and foeticide in Tamilnadu from the mid-90s that I had been a part of. It was also a lazy hat tip to A Mangai (aka Padma Arasu), whose ideas and work on feminism and theatre and gender and language I admired tremendously.

By the time Lucy shared with me the final version of Voicing Silence, I had watched the drafts so many times I couldn't react to it with fresh eyes but I knew it would be a conversation starter. Lucy had shared it with those in her circle and that prompted many to voice their own trauma which had not been spoken of for decades. But not everyone was as willing to react. It was difficult to accept that my own admission could startle and shock people that they would rather not say anything. Some people I sent the video to didn't reply and that is something I had to learn to accept.

Close friends responded with kindness and compassion. One of them called up and spoke exclusively about the film and  didn't say anything about the incident that had triggered it. She later wrote about how angry and how sorry she was that I had to go through what I had. She said that she found it easier to write because she would not have been able to say it to my face.

Lucy began sending it out to various festivals and we decided to give it year in the circuit before publishing it on the web. So tomorrow, with great joy and pride I give you Voicing Silence.

* images are screen grabs from A Mangai - a documentary (link here)

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 7

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Voicing Silence 5

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here, the second one herethe third one here and the fourth here)

For years I had been wondering how to articulate my trauma. And then, a little while after I'd moved to the UK, I'd done courses in documentary film-making and had started telling factual stories. Could there be a possibility there? What purpose would retelling a personal story in all its gory detail serve? And is this what I wanted?

In 2013 I watched Yael Farber's Nirbhaya in Edinburgh to an auditorium full of sobbing men and women. I found its portrayal in all its attendant specifics and bit too real. Even the actors playing it had each suffered horrific abuse and it was their own story that was being told. It was discomfiting and I knew I didn't want to go down that route.

With Leslie Udwin
A year or so later, I met with Leslie Udwin, director of the documentary India's Daughter, the day
after it had been banned in India. Leslie was deeply upset about the ban and couldn't understand the reason for it. I however, only got it too well. We would much rather look away and will it to go away than be confronted with its dark underbelly of entrails.

So what do I do with my experience? It had been playing in endless loops in my head and I wanted to share it with others. And the answer was hiding in plain sight.

With Lucy Lee and our respective boys
I had known Lucy Lee for well over a decade and we had worked on a few projects together. Our kids - her first and my second - were born within months of each other and we compared notes on motherhood frequently. For a while, Lucy would bring her newborn to mine on Tuesdays and we'd spend the day listening to talks, discussing pressing issues and setting the world to right.

Lucy also happens to be a talented animator who graduated from the National Film & TV School which is widely regarded as one of the best film schools in the world.

So I decided I would commission Lucy to do an animated short documentary of my experience. After all, as Lucy would often point out, the advantage with animation is that it is the medium of metaphor. You could say a lot without showing anything literal and letting the audience fill in the gaps. I sounded her out and she was delighted to be asked and we set to work straightaway.

There was only one issue. How do I communicate the world I grew up in - its sights and sounds and smells - to someone who has never been to that part of the world?

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 6

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Voicing Silence 4

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here, the second one here and the third one here)

Some years ago, my mother mentioned to me that she had attended my sexual assaulter's Sashtiabdapoorthy and I was appalled. This filthy beast was a pillar of the society and had had the temerity to invite my parents to its (no human pronoun for it) birthday celebration. Suffice to say I was apoplectic.

It was also around this time that the whole sordid episode of Jimmy Savile came to light and I had a thought. I began to wonder if I could take my abuser to court on historic sex abuse charges.

My shorts-wearing, middle-finger raising, Guardian-reading,
mobile-carrying, pineapple-wielding (not idea why
pineapple, may be 'cause the fronds resemble her hair?)
Kali 
For days I fantasised about dragging the filthy piece of shit to court and have it look me in the eye as I would recall in graphic detail what it had done to me. Then, I would watch with glee as it lost its house, its job, its status in the society and delight in the gradual unravelling of its life.

I would have my perfect revenge. I would be able to show it that it had not undone me and I would laugh the laugh of the triumphant survivor, the defiant avenger. And I would dance the dance of The Righteous And Indestructible Kali as my nemesis lies reduced to embers.

The reality however was starkly grey.

When I told my father about this idea some time later - it was also the first time I had told him of what had happened to me - there was none of the anger I had expected (note: people's reaction rarely matches your own expectations of how they would react). There was not even a hint of surprise. He just sounded immensely tired and wearily accepting of what I had told him. He then said that he would not be interested in becoming involved in such a legal battle.

Given that he was perhaps the most qualified person for the job - I don't know of any one else who has been practising criminal law in India for fifty plus years - it was disappointing to say the very least. I consoled myself that perhaps it is because he would not be able to be objective about it in the same way as he is when he handles sexual assault cases. So I had to reluctantly give up on the idea.

But I was not about give up on the thought of retribution. It would take some time but when the thought occurred to me, it felt like a jolt of lightning passing through my entire being.

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 5

Monday, February 27, 2017

Voicing Silence 3

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here and the second one here.)

Aged ten, around
the time of my assault
In the intervening years since my assault, the whispers grew ubiquitous. Hushed conversations from scarred friends who all talked in coded language about what had happened to them. I should have stopped becoming angry but I just couldn't. Instead I channeled all my rage into the blows I rained on the random stranger who once groped me as I was walking past him one evening when I was in my early twenties. The nonchalance with which another pervert thought he could get away with pinching my breasts made me chase after him faster. But I could rarely sustain the rage which would blaze fiercely and frequently but never long enough for anything positive to emerge. There were no planned course of action to follow through, it was largely fire fighting on a daily basis.

And then something happened a decade ago which reminded me of what triggered my anger all those years ago. I won't go into the specifics of it but suffice to say that the extended family was in vehement denial of it and that caused a permanent and irreparable rift in the circles. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that they all been subjected abuse in some form or the other. They were either themselves assaulted or knew others who had had that happen to them and they had all chose to keep quiet about it. After all, what could they do? And who would believe them anyway?

Remember the aunt from the earlier post who'd had a nervous breakdown? She said something to me not long after the family kerfuffle. She said, "there are very many respected people in this family, many of whose photos have hung on the walls in this house. But few would believe what they got up to." and then she held my gaze for just that little bit longer. She knew that I knew what she was talking about and I also knew that our stories were far from the only ones.

Anyway, by the time we had this conversation,  I was a mother and not constricted by the stifling environs of India and I wanted to do something. And not just for my children's sake but my own. Anything that would articulate what happened to me but nothing seemed right.

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 4

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Voicing Silence 2

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here)

I realised, almost instinctively that what had happened to me was not a one-off. A casual conversation with a cousin revealed that she too had been touched by the same person. She didn't give me details but all she said was, "that one, him, you know...he's a devil" and gave me an almost imperceptible nod. A secret code that meant that she knew about what had happened to me too. It was our shared language of shame, wrapped in silence and consigned to the deep recess of our minds.

A 10 year old me,
around time when I
was assaulted
Every now and then the incident would get an airing but I would almost dismiss it by making light of it. During joint studies with classmates from the 11th and 12th standard, two of them talked about the improper touching that had happened to them as children with an almost casual aloofness that I added my incident (for it was now entombed and labelled as Exhibit A in my mind) to the mix. Being abused was so endemic to our lives that it barely needed elaboration. Only the details of it was different. Imagine that. A group of sixteen year old girls talking about being sexually abused as if it were a dress we all owned, only in different shades. "Oh, I have that in a Dirty Uncle shade", "Mine is a Filthy Neighbour hue" or "I have many in Ugly Relative colour". Yes, that's how normal it had become, how casual our acknowledgment of it was.

Plus, it was also the time in our lives we were becoming newly aware of being targets of casual everyday assault. Like having our butts slapped, our breasts fondled, our bodies rubbed against. We were facing turbulent times nearly everyday that serious crimes from childhood were packed off to the Unwanted Archives Department. But I wasn't prepared to forget it just yet.

(This is a series of posts which will culminate in an animated short film that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old). 

Read the next excerpt here at Voicing Silence 3

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Voicing Silence 1

There is no nice way of saying this so I will say it as brutally and as unvarnished as it needs to be said. I was sexually assaulted when I was ten and a half years old. While I recall the precise details of what happened that night, much of what happened in the immediate aftermath, I have little memory of. In the days and months that followed, I became increasingly angry. I would smash things, kick people, yell, scream and throw a tantrum at the drop of a hat. I was labelled difficult and called names. Rakshasi was a regular epithet and it clung to me like an dirty scent.

The red dress some time
before it was ripped
apart
There were so many incidents of rage from those years and most involved destruction of some sort. I once lost a card game and went about meticulously ripping up an entire pack of cards much to the amusement of the gathered extended family. There was some other minor provocation which ended in a lovely red dress which was a gift from abroad being shredded to pieces, again to a mute audience

Word got around that I was prone to having temper meltdowns and random strangers would remark upon it - once the father of an aunt by marriage mocked me in public and few people came to my defence. It was not until I was thirteen that an uncle clocked that something was amiss and took me to see a psychiatrist. Back then no one ever went to a psychiatrist. General Practitioner, yes. Dentist yes. ENT specialist, yes. Dermatologist, yes. Eye Doctor, yes. A doctor for the mind? Never. That was strictly for those who were certified mad, and we'd seen plenty of them.

There were loads of mad ones on the streets running around with bedraggled clothes, we'd seen them in movies, always  played to a hilt by actors who always rolled their eyes too much (yes, that classic symptom of insanity) and on our annual sympathy fest when we distributed prasadams to the inmates at the Kilpauk Mental Hospital on Deepavali day.  Psychiatrists were only for those who were properly insane and no one from our family could ever become mad. We were not that sort of a family. There were those who had this mysterious illness called 'hysteria' and I certainly wasn't hysterical.

A digression. Sometime around then an aunt was sent from her marital home to spend some time at ours. She had clearly had some kind of a mental break down and as a pre-teen it was amusing for me to see her sing and play an air-veenai as she wept copious tears. No one seemed to know what had triggered the break down and everyone just assumed she'd get over it. In the subsequent years, (possibly as a side effect of the medication she was taking) her speech slowed down and her voice grew loud and people treated her like an idiot. Not seeing her for the kind and loving person that she was but as someone who was a nut job.

Anyway, we had limited understanding of mental wellbeing back then and the trauma of the assault which may have been causing me to have regular outbursts of anger was not addressed. The sole visit to the psychiatrist was an odd one. I sat on a chair next to my uncle with the doctor on the other side. He asked me why I got angry and I just mumbled something incoherent as my uncle looked on helplessly. He filled in the gaps with some of the aforementioned anecdotes and the psychiatrist said we should schedule another visit this time with my parents included. I never went back. In fact, I once ran to hide myself inside the house when I chanced to see him on the road, convinced that he was paying me a home visit. Most unnecessary, I thought and carried on having a short fuse.

(This is a series of every day posts which will culminate in publishing an animated short film - Voicing Silence that I commissioned and helped create documenting the sexual assault that happened to me as a 10 year old).

Read the next excerpt at Voicing Silence 2

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sivaji, Jayalaitha And Us

I first noticed it when Sivaji Ganesan passed away. As someone born in the 70s, much of my growing years was marked by the rituals of Sunday evening Tamizh cinema and Friday night Oliyum Oliyum. And Sivaji Ganesan was a permanent fixture in them. Anyone who was melodramatic was a 'Sivaji' and rhymes like 'Sivaji vayile jilebi' were very much part of our book of nonsense rhymes.

So much so, I remember being fourteen and being part of the school drama team enacting a popular scene from Sivaji's Thiruvilayadal. It was a plum role that we all vied to play. Sivaji played Lord Shiva in the movie and in our minds, he might as well have been immortal. So years later, when news broke that he had died, I was in utter shock. Heck, I was not even a fan. Apart from Motor Sundaram Pillai and more recently, Thevar Magan, in every one of his movies, I felt Sivaji had outacted the entire cast. As if to tell the producers, you've paid me a lot, so let me give you your money's worth of acting. That said, I could not help feel a deep sense of loss that he was no more.

I wrote an email to the rest of the extended family (we were all still talking to each other then - long story) asking them to recount their favourite Sivaji moment. It was a way of sharing our collective grief. Each one came back with a story, a song, a tenuous link. We were mourning our own lives, our own youth and childhood which would never return. These people had been the bedrock of our growing up years. Towering flag poles upon which we festooned our own buntings and now they had been felled.

It happened again and again in the coming years. With M S Subbulakshmi, RK Narayan, Gemini Ganesan and more recently, with Jayalalitha. I find that we immediately scramble our brains to find an incident or an association with the deceased and write about it. Some of the pieces that I have read in the past couple of days have done it quite effectively. I have come across some very touching tributes and because it too soon for it, they all seem to omit some colossal pitfalls in the administration and chosen instead to write encomiums. And here's the thing about it, almost all of them are about the writer. Although it is ostensibly a eulogy, it is much more about their own lives that was enriched by association (however long-winded) rather than about the recently departed. As if to grieve the loss of years of their lives they will never again see.

About Jayalalitha, I cannot say I was a fan. Of her acting, I didn't think much and of her administration, I knew very little. I do remember feeling nauseated by the sight of vulgar display of wealth when her adopted son got married and rage when a few dozen were crushed to death in the security cordon when she visited Kumbakonam to take part in the Mahamagam festival to mark her birthday. That said, I did think she was formidable. And the sight of grown men falling at her feet was at once revolting and amusing. With so few women in leadership roles, the few that I got to see, however flawed, were inspiring.

As for my brief Jaya moment, here's a photo I took of her convoy the last time I was in Madras. Word was out that Amma's entourage was going to be passing through and the streets had been swept clean, hours ahead of her arrival.

Some six hours after the first notice, a wail of sirens from a series of vehicles was followed by a large white van with security personnel hanging from it.

And inside it sat a woman with her palms folded in 'Vanakkam'. I was chided by a waiting police woman for taking a photo without permission. I am British, I replied, I am not bound by your arbitrary rules and she looked at me as if to say, 'If you are British then I am the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu'.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Die Der Das

I lived in the same house for the first quarter of a century of my life. And I knew every crevice on the floor and every dent on the wall like the palm of my own hand. It was as if the house had gently shaped my own self, in much the same way as waves make their imprint on rocks, sanding down its edges to soften it over time. When my well-worn self then stepped out to live elsewhere, the angles of my shoulders and the curves of my feet didn't find their own groove for a long time. I would find my rhythm with a house and a few years later move again. My last move was eight years ago and this August I packed my bags and relocated again.

This time to a new country, to a place whose language is alien to my ears. And it is a struggle to find my bearings with it. The house is big and its belongings borrowed. I don't step off the stairs knowing for sure that I have landed. My feet are still surprised by hidden corners. My eyes are still getting accustomed to the lights and shadows of the house.

The hardest has been getting used to its sounds. It is not the easiest of languages to master and my tentative attempts to learn it more than two decades ago ended in an early abandonment. And now I am forced to resume and the vowels hang uneasy. Its vocabulary obtuse and its grammar bewildering, I am unable to grasp the contours of this language. My tongue and my mind are resolutely not in sync with its pauses and its enunciations. I drop the essential and emphasise the unnecessary, it is a sea of confusion in my throat and I just haven't got the taste for it.

Truth be told, some days I yearn for the familiar and the friendly. There where I would slot right back into a puzzle. Right now, I am still reading the instructions on how to assemble and it's proving tricky. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

What Would You Do?

This afternoon, I went to our local leisure centre to use their steam room and sauna. I had an hour to kill before it was time to collect my son and the leisure centre is across the road and I couldn't think of a better way to spend a tenner and so I went. No sooner had I settled into a corner of the steam room than I heard a voice ask me, 'are you from India?'. Yes, I nodded before it struck me that if I couldn't see the person clearly neither could he. Yes, I said. To this he (by now I could make out a dim outline of a man) volunteered in a very heavy accent 'My country Bangladesh' and then went on to ask me if I lived locally and if I was living with my family (yes and yes, I answered) and told me that he worked in a local Indian restaurant as a chef and that I should visit them if I hadn't already.

Having exhausted his arsenal of polite questions to ask a rank stranger, he fell silent. Shortly, I left the steam room to take a shower before dipping into the jacuzzi. But the man had beat me to it and settled himself in the bubble pool straight from the steam room (not paying heed to the suggestion that we shower before entering the pool). I was acutely aware that it was just the two of us in the area and I felt myself growing distinctly uncomfortable at the thought of sharing the space with him.

Part of me wanted to get into the jacuzzi. after all what could happen? But there was a larger voice screaming caution. Because every time I have gone swimming in India, I have had to contend with unwanted attention and stray hands that have 'accidentally' touched and grabbed me. So much so that what was perhaps an innocent attempt at making conversation set alarms bells ringing in my head. I decided to ignore the warnings and slid into the jacuzzi pool determined not to make eye contact with the said man. Mercifully, he seemed to have got the message too and no small talk was exchanged.

It was only on my drive back home that I wondered if I had judged the man too soon. And if my reaction would have been different if he'd had a different skin colour and if his accent had not been so pronounced. It is very likely that I would not have had the mental tussle if that had been the case. And that's the sad truth. What would your reaction have been?





Sunday, January 10, 2016

An Invitation

Last year, under the banner of Kali Theatre company, I attended a series of playwrighting workshops with established theatre directors and playwrights. I then submitted my own draft of a play. Following a brilliant feedback from two RADA trained performers, the play was selected for rehearsed reading in London this year. 

Since its selection, I have attended one half-a-day's workshop with actors and a director. I tweaked my script even further before submitting it one last time. I have a day's rehearsal this Wednesday and the reading is on Friday the 15th of January. Details on where and how to book tickets may be found on the side bar of this page

It is giddying creating people and making them say things you like and just as easily, kill them off. At the rehearsals, it was remarkable seeing characters that had lived disembodied in my head suddenly be transformed by actors who charged the words with emotions and gave their actions a motive. 

I approach it with a mix of trepidation and excitement. If you are at loose ends in Central London on the 15th of January, 2016 it would be great if you could come along. It would mean a lot to this aspiring playwright. Thank you! 

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Memories Of Food - Butter Biscuit

Butter biscuit imposter
There were little golden discs stacked inside a glass jar. Towers of forbidden delights. It's only 50 paisa each, I'd plead with Amma who for some unfathomable reason was against me buying loosely-sold food. Her ban only made the butter biscuits at Chettiar quad more attractive, Someone once bought me one and the biscuit tumbled in my mouth all too easily leaving me to lick my fingers for hours. The taste lingered in my memory for days afterwards.

I cannot remember how or when I stopped pestering for butter biscuits. May be it was a case of sour grapes (bitter biscuits?). May be I just grew up, I cannot tell. Not long ago, I gave into my son's nagging and bought a packet of All-Butter Shortbread. I was tempted to pick one for myself but stopped short. It somehow didn't look right inside a packet. It belonged in a glass jar on a grime-laden counter with a watchful old man sitting behind it.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Being Bullied

It is anti-bullying week here in the UK and listening to some of the stories, I was reminded of the time when I was bullied. Unlike many of those that endured cruel taunts and jibes at schools and colleges, I was bullied at work. I was in my mid-twenties and working at what was considered a cool  TV station. I was reporting to a woman called Natasha (Nats, I hope you google your name and land on this page). For the duration that I worked there she made my life an absolute wreck.

It was pathetic to see colleagues bow and scrape to her authority. There were a few who stood their ground and memorably, one who walked away. But most of us suffered and I, in particular, was singled out for casual cruelty.

If you ask me what exactly she had done, I would be unable to point out any one incident. But there were throw away remarks intended to hurt, there would be instances of humiliation targeted at me. Sadly, back then I did not have the life experience that would have allowed me to articulate the helplessness I felt. I lost a lot of hair, I put on weight, I was high-strung and anxious most of the time.

Unable to handle her on a daily basis, I eventually went freelance with the company and would work for them on an as-and-when basis. Sensing what I was doing, she coined the term 'permalancer' which meant that she would have completely control over my time and who I worked for and what I did with them.

I will not go into detail about how I left the company - it was less of my decision and more of circumstance. But when I did, I felt a surge of relief that I cannot quite explain. It felt as if my head had suddenly grown two valves to release the pressure that had been building up for so long.

After all these years, with enough time having lapsed between what happened and recalling of the events, I am able to say that Natasha was a bully and a coward. And it gives me great pleasure in calling her out.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Picture Yourself



For some time now I have been meaning to write a post about a photo my father brought with him when he came to visit us earlier this year. It is a photo taken when I was two and half years old and was rather unusual in our family given that it was taken when there was no wedding or a celebration in the household.

What is even more surprising about the photo is that it holds just a single person - me. I have noticed that back in the days when photographic cameras were a rarity, there would often be several people crammed into a photo when one was taken at home (unlike a photo in a studio). Sort of like more people per precious click.

It is also one of the few pictures that we have from my childhood. It reminds me and reassures me that even in that household heaving with people, individual children mattered. That someone thought it important to document me as a toddler.

I took a photo of myself holding a similar pose earlier today and put the two together. It was only when I was putting the old photo back in its case that I noticed a thin scribble in pencil at the back. 14th of October 1975, it said. Exactly 39 years ago today.

I am attempting some poetry (or broken down prose, as I like to think of it) and submitting it to this call out curated by the very talented Sridala

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Medea

I have just returned from watching my very first Greek tragedy - Medea by Euripides (now spectacularly staged at The National Theatre). It is a story of the most horrific of crimes. That of a mother killing her own two children. Had I known what it was about, I would not have watched it but having watched it, I am unable to shake off the extraordinary derangement of energy of the titular character. Her raging outburst and her deeply wounded sentiments that propel her to kill her kids in an attempt to get back at her husband who has left her for another woman. She implores the audience to bear witness to this act and unable to look away, we do with mounting horror. We watch as Medea's mind at once argues at the wrongness of and the compelling inevitability of what she is about to do. We watch helplessly as this ancient train wreck gathers storm until it explodes in a grisly act of double murder. It was cruel, unrelenting and in a strange way, addictive. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cat O' Nine Tales

I have never had a pet. Except for one day when I was five or six when I picked up a kitten from a warehouse I had gone to visit with someone (why, I cannot recall). We cannot have the kitten at home, I was told categorically and was to go drop it back where it came from for its mum must be missing it by now. My desperate pleadings went unheeded and I climbed sobbing on to the front end of the scooter while an uncle (I imagine) took his place in the driver's seat. I was handed a large bag made out of rexine with the mewing fur ball inside. I was instructed to hold on to it tight and I did so accordingly all the way back to the warehouse where I left it reluctantly to fend for itself.

I have never been tempted to buy or adopt a pet since. I have very little interest in them and after the children, I have come to see pets as another responsibility I can do without. Every now and then, my younger son asks me about having a pet and the conversation goes like this:

Him: Amma, can we have a dog?
Me: No.
Him: A cat, then?
Me: No.
Him: A hamster? A rabbit? Or at least a rat?
Me: No, no and yuck, no.
Him: So what can I have for a pet?
Me: Look, there goes an ant...
Him (on all fours, talking to the floor): Come here, buddy...

A few days ago, a neighbour knocked on our door to wonder if we can look after their cat. I told her that I had never had a pet before but with enough instructions, I could do a fair job. Plus, it would give the boys something to do over these interminable days of summer. So that's what we have been doing these past few days. Feeding and playing with Archie.

He is a docile house cat who resolutely resists any attempt to be taken out of the four walls, he wouldn't even venture out into the garden. He is easily startled and runs into hiding where he remains, sometimes for hours, until he is gently coaxed out. He can be very, very hungry but he would still want to be petted and stroked and given attention to first before having his food. And his food...for a lifelong vegetarian, it took some effort not to retch at the smell of it. It comes out of a pouch but god, it stinks. Archie is also very well house-trained and does it business in a small litter tray behind the door which I dutifully clean up.

The boys don't want him to feel lonely, so insist on looking him up several times a day, even introducing our friends to him. It is a real joy to see the boys treat him with such tenderness. If I am late to feed him, they worry about him going hungry. My younger son who it turns out, is sensitive to cat hair (he came out in a rash the other day), takes toys around to play with him while the older one teaches him to dance to Ganganam style.

Oppan, Gangnam style!

After this, experience you would think I would have softened my stance on the no-pet rule. You're right, the next time I am asked about having a pet, I might relent and say yes to a pet snail - of which we have no shortage in our garden.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

But is it art?

In the main concourse of the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam hangs a large notice which begins by saying that I may not like everything that I was about see that day. And that it was okay. I do not remember much else of this notice but it reassured me greatly. It was part of the 'Art As Therapy' route that you could take, if you so choose to, around the museum and it was one created by the philosopher Alain De Botton and someone else. Now, I must put my hand up to being one of those bourgeois Indians who have made it a nouvelle habit of visiting art museums around the world only to have my photo taken next to Mona Lisa/Sunflowers or any other painting that I have only ever heard of and feel compelled to record my presence in front of it rather spend the few precious seconds that I get amidst heaving summer crowds looking at it. Mind you, my own reaction when squeezed by such throngs at Tirupathi would be different. I wouldn't be posing with the Perumaal, no, that would be blasphemous.

Anyway, so as I was looking at the paintings that cataloged in glorious brush strokes the tedium of medieval lifestyle, I began to wonder, so, bloody what? Milk maid? So bloody what? Sunflowers? So bloody what? Windmills? Who honestly cares? I was at once aware at my own pretending to enjoy it while still being very aware of the pointlessness of it. May be pointless is rather strong a word, I found myself wondering why the painters did what they did. Perhaps they wanted to document their world for future generations to see them. Perhaps they wanted to tell a familiar story and were compelled to do so in their own way. Perhaps they wanted to show off their talents. Perhaps they were commissioned by their rich patrons to depict them for posterity. Perhaps it was all of the above. I was thinking about the whys of it so much that I was aware that I wasn't enjoying the painting as I was supposed to (supposed by whom? And why should we?). I felt like a cheat being there.

I was also conflicted by the thought that so much of the art that was there in the spectacular setting of the Rijks Museum was beautiful. Even those that showed beheadings and gruesome murder was set in a gorgeous frame and a painted so skillfully that it became a thing of beauty softening the gore it portrayed. Why must it be so? And was that what the painters intended? Has their astronomical rise in value since they were painted meant that they are to be preserved in museums and removed from their normal settings? And has this removal meant that they are now even more distant from the people for whom it was intended?

You see, not long earlier I had been to the Serpentine Gallery in London to witness and to take part in Marina Abramovich's 512 hours performance piece. Now, that's a kind of art that is at least not hung on a wall for all to stand in front of and pose. I had not heard of Marina until someone sent me a youtube link of her now famous MoMA performance of The Artist is Here. It is most arresting and if you haven't, do take three minutes to watch it on the link in the previous sentence. So having seen the video and having read about Marina's most utterly extraordinary life where she has pushed her own body to its extremes, I was curious to be part of her new installation. It seemed somehow more visceral and less disingenuous to me.

The Serpentine Gallery is not very well sign posted and it involved me dragging my son along the entire length of Hyde Park. We stopped midway to dip our toes in the paddling pool in memory of Princess Diana - no, our dip was not in her honour, only the heat necessitated it but the elliptical pool is there to mark her life. So, having finally found the Serpentine Gallery along the long, circuitous and scenic way, I was greeted by a queue of about 20-or so gallery goers. Presently, a security guard informed me that the installation was only for those over 12 years of age and so I would have to leave my son outside but that they would keep an eye on him for me.

Diana Memorial, Hyde Park
When my turn came, I was asked to deposit my mobile and my belongings in a locker before being directed to the gallery.

(to be continued)