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Voicing Silence 7

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

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(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



Recent posts

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 fil…

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 any…

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 a…

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 …

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 …

Voicing Silence 5

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

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 de…

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.

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 i…

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.)

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…

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.

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…

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.

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 wa…

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'…

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 o…

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…

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

http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/whats-on/talkback-2016--readings

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 …

Memories Of Food - Butter Biscuit

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.


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 articulat…

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 puttin…

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.

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 h…

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 blasp…

A Tough Life

The other day, my younger son and I went on a 10-mile bike ride punctuating our ride with breaks for snacks, dangling our feet in the river and foraging for fruit. We had a picnic by the Thames, munched on our sandwiches, drank juice straight from the carton, hid behind the trees to wee while the other kept a watch and gathered bouquets for a small donation. It reminded me that living in England in summer truly takes some beating.

Monty Python Live (Mostly)

It was some time in the late 90s. An ex-boss who had been born and raised in Britain and had returned to India mentioned something about Monty Python in a conversation. Now, I had no idea who Monty Python was and thought it was something to do with The Full Monty - a movie I had watched on TV not long earlier. Internet was a recent distraction back then and keen to exploit everything that search engines had to offer, I yahooed Monty Python and was promptly directed to a website which offered their scripts to download for free. And thus began hours of reading and lol-ing (another recently discovered term back then) Monty Python scripts. When I moved countries to Britain some years later, one of the first things I did was to borrow a DVD of Monty Python shows and watch their work and marvel at their collective brilliance. Earlier this year, when I read that the Pythons were going to come back together for a final few shows, I made a mental note of it and then promptly forgot about it -…

Some free, some foraged

A Brief Spell Of Spring 2

Continued from here

The phone never rang unless it was to announce someone's death. Its loud piercing shriek broke through the thick afternoon listlessness. Vatsala raised herself from the chair resting both her hands on the handle, her knees protesting under the strain. She must remember to call Dr. Rajaram for a check-up – perhaps tomorrow, if she can remember it. Now, who could be calling them at this godforsaken hour? She mentally lined up all the possible relatives who could have died and creased her forehead in preparation for the impending bad news. “Hello?”, she said tentatively. Answering the phone always reminded her of opening a handwritten letter – the envelope held such promise. “Hello?”, she repeated, her eagerness mounting. “Vatsala akka, is that you?” “Yes, it's me. And you are...” “Akka, naan thaan. Srividya. Lalli oda thangai. Saroja oda ponnu...America-lendhu phone pannaren.” “Yaaru? Srividya-va? How are you? I am fine, I am fine, thank you”, blurted Vat…

Tasteless Promotions - A Contest

Recently, I came across a promotion by an Indian radio station. They were giving away pepper sprays for free in the wake of Delhi gang-rape incident and subsequent gang-rape of a journalist in Mumbai. The pepper sprays had been very catchily rebranded Mirchi Spray. The radio station is called Mirchi, pepper is Mirchi and therefore - Mirchi spray!

Women across the country were shocked by what had happened, turning hysterical and were keen to protect themselves from potential assaults. And who comes to their aid? Mirchi Spray! A woman's friend and ever-reliable in a world full of callous, brutal rapists. Mirchi spray - always at hand to protect the most vulnerable. What perfect brand synergy! Mirchi would be seen as caring, empowering and this was an ideal opportunity to promote its values.

It was as if the gods of marketing had themselves designed these gang-rapes so brands such as Radio Mirchi could piggy back on it to add more sheen to their halo. As if they hadn't been expl…

A Brief Spell Of Spring

It would have to be கத்திரிக்காய் again, sighed Vatsala. The புடலங்காய் and the பாவக்காய் were in season and would have made an excellent curry for their lunch that afternoon. But no, Rajeshwari had ruled thaத புடலங்காய் caused her to suffer from wind and பாவக்காய் was just not bitter enough these days. So it would have to be கத்திரிக்காய் yet again. There was no point suggesting anything to her. Once Raji had made up her mind, that was it. She would not be budged. And that's how it has always been between them.
Rajeshwari would decide which channel played on tv, what colour the living room wall should be painted (copper sulphate blue) and how much to pay for the கத்திரிக்காய் that they were going to eat later that morning. The sisters had been coming to the vegetable market every day for the last 50 years but Raji would never tire of talking the price down by another 50 paisa. 
இருக்கட்டுமே, pleaded Vatsala feebly, it is only small amount. How much profit do you think she is g…

Tide - 27

Part - 27

The woman Padmaja spots in the far corner of the music hall looks familiar. The hair is the same as she remembers, only it has grown wispier and more threadbare in the intervening years. The woman wears a saree that seems to have been hastily draped like a giftwrapper that's too big for a small parcel - bunched up here, crumpled there. But did someone just refer to her as Dr. Gulati? Padmaja hears the woman's throaty laugh and that clears the last of her doubts about her identity. As if on cue, the woman too recognises Padmaja and quickly peels away to get closer.
“Padmaja! How are you dee?”, Sudha demands hugging her.
“Sudha, how are you? You're now Dr. Gulati?”
“Yes, Punjabi husband. Kept the name, lost the man. You look the same.”
Sudha is a professor of Anthropology at a University in Delhi and she is in town for a conference with her American friend Brad.
“Come visit me in Delhi, Padmaja. My project will be over soon and once Brad goes back...”
Seeing Pa…