Essay | ‘Kāli’s Cleaver’ by Michael David Sowder | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

I’m standing in bright June sun on a landing above the stone steps of a temple to the Goddess Kāli, staring at a portico where her black statue stands covered in garlands of flowers. My partner Jennifer, our two boys, and I have just had darśan, “sight of the deity.” We approached her in a crowded line, people crushed together, sweating.  Excitement rose among the devotees, many on pilgrimage from distant places, bells ringing, priests chanting, everyone shouting, “Ma! Jai Ma!” We bowed and threw roses and came down to where I’m standing, looking back at her. 

Beneath her garlands of jasmine, hibiscus, and marigolds, she wears a necklace of human skulls (fifty—one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet). Her upper left hand holds a bloody cleaver, and her lower left hand a severed head. Her upper right palm is open in the abhaya mudrā, which means, No fear, and her lower right hand offers boons. A bloody tongue sticks out of her mouth. Her eyes are bright, almond-shaped, child-like, dancing. 

Today is June 24, my birthday, and Jennifer has brought me and our boys to Dakshinesvar, India, north of Kolkata, to this temple, where Sri Ramakrishna, my favorite guru (after my own guru), lived and served as Kāli’s priest and devotee. Ramakrishna’s words introduced me to Kāli. I wondered how this playful, ebullient guru could be in love with a goddess wielding a bloody cleaver and wearing a belt hung with severed arms. Now I wonder how I, too, have fallen in love with her. Sachi, our guide for the day, Jennifer and the boys, are waiting for me to come down the steps to continue our tour of the temple complex.

The problem is that I don’t want to move. 

 

The temple stands on the east side of a red-stone courtyard, wide as a cricket field. To the north is a temple to Kṛṣṇa, the avatar made famous in the Bhagavad Gītā.  Along the west side, twelve temples dedicated to Lord Śiva overlook the Ganges River. Śiva, Kāli’s husband, is the Lord of Yoga and the God of Destruction. Himalayan ice and the snows of Mount Kailash are his favorite abode. Winter his season. He and his followers, sadhus (holy men and women) and wild bands of ascetics, kapālikas, hang out in cremation grounds using skulls for drinking cups. Below Śiva temples, the Ganges River spreads wide, close to the delta where it pours into the Bay of Bengal.  The river, itself, like Kāli, is a manifestation of the Divine Mother. Every part of India is sacred landscape.

The temple complex is enclosed by high red walls, and along the base of the north wall runs a veranda supported by red and white columns. Ensconced behind them are shaded rooms where priests, workers, and officials have offices, stores, and lodgings. In the northwest corner sits the room where Śrī Ramakrishna lived his entire adult life. Meditating there today will bring a dream to life for me. Here on the temple landing, I ask Sachi if the temple priest could bless the māla beads I wear around my neck. The priest takes a moment out of his ritual and touches them to Kāli’s feet. Sachi returns, handing the beads to me, saying that this was a great and rare honor.  He seems anxious for us to get on with our tour. 

 

When I think of Ramakrishna (1836-1886) I often think of his contemporary, the American poet Walt Whitman, about whom I wrote a dissertation and book. The two have a lot in common. Their ecstatic, playful personalities mirror each other, and the Indian guru’s teachings about oneness and diversity would have resonated with Whitman, though Uncle Walt would have envied Ramakrishna’s being labeled an Incarnation of God. It’s easier, of course, in India than anywhere else on earth to be called a Divine Avatar. In the Tantrik tradition Ramakrishna partly represents, the whole world is Divine. In a sense, we are all incarnations, our divinity hidden by our overriding egos and ignorance. How to make manifest that natural, intrinsic divinity is what Ramakrishna, Whitman, and Kāli, come to shows us.  

Born in a small village outside Kolkata, Ramakrishna had his first enlightenment experience at age six, when he gazed on a sedge of white cranes lit by the setting sun in flight before a dark bank of clouds. He fell into an ecstatic trance and had to be carried home. Family and teachers recognized him as spiritually gifted, unusual.  Given to reveries, he had little interest in studies or worldly goings-on, and what interest he did have dwindled away after his father died. He preferred the company of the saffron-robed ascetics passing through the village on their way to a famous Kṛṣṇa temple in Pūri to the south. At twenty-two, he was invited to come here to Dakshineshvar, north of Kolkata, to assist his older brother, who had been made priest of the temple. Though poor since the death of their father, the family were Brahmins, of the highest, priestly caste. Brahmin priests, unlike homeless sadhus, can marry and live a more or less comfortable life. But notions of caste were irrelevant to Ramakrishna. In fact, the temple complex was built by Råni Rasmani, a wealthy śudra, or lower-caste woman. Ramakrishna ate food cooked by lower caste persons and fed sacred temple offerings to stray cats.

People thought he was insane. In love with Ma Kāli, he spent hours decorating her statue. He would dance before her, sing to her, put on women’s clothing, remain night and day weeping at her feet. At one time, inspired by the monkey god, Hanuman, he took to leaping around her like a primate. In reveries and ecstasies, which might last for days, he had to be hand-fed by assistants. But Rasmani suspected that his madness was a kind of divine intoxication. She called a symposium of Vedic scholars to determine who or what this creature was. At the conclusion of the convocation, the pundits unanimously agreed that he was not only a saint, but a living incarnation of God. (This is reminiscent of the Council of Nicea (330 CE) where a synod of bishops, determined, by vote, the true nature of Jesus. The vote was: “One in Being with the Father.”) During his early years at the temple, three gurus, of different traditions, came one after another and lived with him, teaching him the doctrines, stories, and ritual practices of the scriptures—outward expressions of inner truths he already had experienced. 

He prayed unceasingly for a vision of the Divine Mother, and Kāli granted him visions many times. He experienced nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest enlightenment experience, in which the human soul merges in oneness with God and the Universe. He said that in such experiences the universe melts in a quicksilver sea of endless bliss.  He disappeared, and only God remained. Ordinary mortals give up their bodies in this experience, but Mā Kāli told him to remain on earth for the benefit of others. 

Like us.   

Luckily, during his last years, a devotee named Mahendranath arrived and transcribed his talks and recorded his activities. After the Master’s death, Mahendra’s writings were published in Bengali, and an English edition came out in 1942, titled, The Gospel of Sir Ramakrishna. This is perhaps my favorite book. Not only are Ramakrishna’s words transcendent, they’re also funny. A disciple asked, “Master, if the whole world is filled with the God, if God is in everyone, then why do you tell us to keep the company of sincere seekers and not mingle with decadent persons?” Ramakrishna responded with a story.

Once there was a disciple whose guru imparted the same lesson. That evening, walking home through the jungle the disciple saw an elephant charging down the path. The mahout on top of the elephant was yelling, “Get out of the way! This elephant has gone mad!” The disciple thought, well, if the elephant is God, why worry? He continued up the path. The elephant rushed upon him, slammed him into a tree with his trunk and hurled him into a mass of thorns. Seriously injured, the disciple lay moaning that night in bed. The guru had heard what had happened and came to see him. After the doctor left, the guru softly asked, “Why didn’t you just step off the path?” The disciple moaned, “But you told us everything was God! So the elephant was God. Why should I have moved?” The guru replied, “Yes, yes! The elephant was God! But the mahout was God, too! And he was yelling for you to get out of the way!”  Funny like that.

Authentic gurus are frequently funny, because they don’t take so seriously a lot of the things we take very seriously, like ourselves. Ramakrishna’s metaphors for the spiritual path come from nature, from rural and village life. Often as you read this book, evening is falling, jasmine in the air, a bulbul or magpie sings outside. Ramakrishna pauses in his talk, in a sublime mood. A disciple sings a spiritual song, and he goes into the vision of samadhi, standing still as a post or collapsing in ecstasy.   

Now, a hundred-and-forty years later, Jennifer, my boys, are going to sit in the room where this avatar, this incarnation of God, lived and taught. The room where Swami Vivekānanda sat entranced, the disciple who founded the Ramakrishna Society and became the first yogi to set foot in America.  

 

All these thoughts are going through my head as I stand here gazing at Kāli. I need to get going, but I feel that she is holding me. I remember having a feeling like this once before, an evening when I was standing in the rain in the hills outside of San Ramon, California. I had just come out the front doors of a lodge-like temple, having been embraced by a female guru, Māta Amritanāndamāyī, affectionately known as Amma, “the hugging saint.” Amma’s darśan is expressed by hugging people. In the U.S., hundreds line up to receive what many call a life-changing embrace. In India, thousands stand in lines snaking down dusty roads outside their villages. Amma hugs each person, one after another—some crying, some laughing, all clinging to her. She doesn’t get up, eat, or go to the bathroom for twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours. 

That evening, I had received my hug and sat and watched others receive theirs, and then I was standing outside in a light drizzle, gazing at the green California hills. I just felt that I could stand there forever, held by a sense often emphasized by meditation teachers that there’s nowhere you need to go, nothing you need to do, no one you need to be. This same feeling I’m having now, but it’s one suffused with sweetness, a sort of tenderness I can’t let go of. I don’t want to leave Mā Kāli, the child-like goddess with the raised and bloody cleaver. It’s as if she’s holding me, like Amma, in a kind of embrace. 

 

How does a Westerner, raised with eleven years of formal Catholic education, come to love a goddess decked out in a garland of skulls? The churches I grew up around were decorated with bloody scenes, but Jesus, the Incarnation, was suffering the violence. He wasn’t doling it out. How does a Westerner make sense of Kāli’s cleaver?  

The Indian spiritual traditions we lump together as “Hindu” acknowledge the suffering, horror, and death that surround us every day. There’s a god of creation and a god of destruction. It’s an expression of clear seeing, like Kāli’s eyes. Everywhere in nature, in our daily lives, beauty and horror exist side by side. In Nature, everything is beautiful—and, everything is eating everything. The West has struggled with this paradox. Nietzsche said the world can be justified, if at all, only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Given the world’s many horrors, the best you can say about it is that it is beautiful. In Europe, before the end of the eighteenth century, wildernesses, stretches of uncharted forests, unnamed peaks, were known as wastes, deserts.  New England Puritans called nature a howling wilderness—the home of devils, wolves, and (American) Indians. But by the end of the eighteenth century, Westerners began to see beauty in wilderness, or, perhaps, the wildness in beauty—or began to be able to hold the two together. 

Poets and artists sought out wild landscapes to have experiences of the “sublime”—views that inspired not just appreciation but awe. In his work, A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke clarified the difference between “the beautiful” (as in, flowers, butterflies, cultivated parks) and “the sublime” (cataracts, ice-cloven peaks, lightning storms). A landscape can be called “sublime,” he wrote, only if it exhibits an element of danger, terror.  A sublime landscape both draws us and repels us. 

We all know this feeling. We like to stand at the lip of the cliff, but not too close. We love the thrill of roller coasters, horror flicks, true-crime podcasts, and rope-less ascents of El Capitan. We crave the “little death” of orgasm and escape the strictures of self with alcohol or oxycodone. It may seem at first that Kāli’s cleaver is too strange, too morbid, but we find something like it—a fascination with death—thanatos—in Western culture, too. 

We find it in Western religion, though we have to look to the mystical, contemplative traditions. Sixteenth-century John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Doctors of the Church, for example, speak of the death one must pass through before attaining Union with God. St. Teresa cries out, “I die because I do not die!”  The Sufis, too, the mystical wing of Islam, including poets like Rabia, Rumi, and Hafiz, speak of fana, the ecstatic annihilation of self, undergone before entering the Oneness. 

And it’s there in Walt Whitman. In his great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, “the father of American poetry reminisces about one night in his childhood when he walked the beaches of Long Island, with moonlit surf swirling around his ankles. He hears a mockingbird sing what sounds like a sorrowful melody and gives voice to the song with an aria of lost love.  He says, “a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder, and more sorrowful . . . / . . .  . started to life within me.” In a climax of emotion, at dawn, he demands of the sea, the great old mother, to give him the final answer. “O give me the clew! . . . / . . . Are you whispering it, and have been all the time you sea waves?” And the sea, answering,  

Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word, death,
And again death, death, death, death, 
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart, 
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over, 
Death, death, death, death, death. 

Which I do not forget  . . .  
My own songs awakened from that hour, 
And with them the key, the word up from the waves, 
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word, which, creeping to my feet 
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending 
aside,)
The sea whispered me.

 

When Whitman calls “death” the “word of the sweetest song and all songs” we are not hearing a Romantic poet in philosophical reverie one evening by a window. As a volunteer nurse in Civil War hospital tents, Whitman cared for young soldiers with traumatic injuries, assisted in amputations, held them through screams of pain, and wept over their uncountable deaths. He speaks of a deeper, perhaps inarticulable, mystery at the heart of death that few of us can fathom. 

 

The twentieth-century monk, Thomas Merton, in the final chapter of his book, Seeds of Contemplation, describes the culmination of a life of prayer in terms Whitman would understand. He says that after years of deep meditation, you come to an edge, to a moment when you feel that with the next step, you may find yourself flying in interstellar space. But what you actually find, he says, is that  

The next step is not a step. 

You are not transported from one degree to another.  

What happens is that the separate entity that is you apparently disappears and nothing seems to be left but a pure freedom indistinguishable from Infinite Freedom, love identified with Love. 

 

There are myths and stories in Indian religions to account for Kāli’s cleaver, but on a deeper level, it is this mystery of death that she lifts before us. With childlike eyes, she comes like Whitman’s sea-crone to sever the bonds of what we know as our self, our socially-conditioned identity and ego. She will lift us, through our own death, into that Freedom, where we are, in yogic terms, united with the Transcendent, sometimes called Śiva, the Formless, Unmanifest, Absolute. In the traditions out of which Kāli arose, when we have direct experience of that—then we realize that this whole world is Divine—every child, every crane, every elephant, hibiscus, mockingbird, and wave. We realize then that there never was any place to go, anything to do, anyone to be.  

I come down the steps, not knowing if I will ever stand before her again, the Goddess who ravished Ramakrishna, Whitman’s brother, spiritual genius and holy fool, childlike guru and Incarnation of God.

Sachi, my family, and I walk barefoot across the hot brick courtyard.  We enter the Master’s room and sit on the hard tiled floor. Sweat pours rivulets in down my back, drips down my front. I look around. His bed, his divan, photos of gurus and disciples. I close my eyes and my mind quiets, simply stops. It opens in a vast emptiness. Just breath moving in, moving out. Like surf. My heart melts in love for Ramakrishna, for Whitman, for my family, and full of gratitude flows out into a silvery sea of rejoicing. 

The boys are restless, suffering in the heat. We don’t stay long. 

As we leave the temple complex, we retrieve our sandals and carry them down the ghats to the Ganges to fill our bottles with water. I look across the river, so wide near the delta, waves like platinum in the afternoon sun, and think of Emerson, so influenced by Indian philosophy, who said that every view of nature is a thing complete, a picture never seen before and never to be seen again. A woman in a green and purple sari, gold brocade, hip deep in water, motions for our bottles. She gives them to a boy who dives with them like a fish. I think of Heraclitus, how we never enter the same river twice. Each moment death, each moment birth. The boy rises from the water, body glistening, with child-bright eyes and bottles full. We thank him with rupees and namastes and screw our caps on tight, to carry home water of the Goddess, tucked safely in our bags. 


Michael’s first poetry collection, “The Empty Boat,” was chosen by Diane Wakoski to win the T.S. Eliot Award, and his recent most collection is: “House Under the Moon”. His study of Walt Whitman’s poetry was published by Routledge as, Whitman’s Ecstatic Union. In 2014 he lived in India on a Fulbright Fellowship, one of the six stays in the country. 

His work has appeared in American Life in Poetry, Five Points, The New York Times OnlineLion’s Roar, Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, Sufi Journal, New Poets of the American West, Sow’s Ear, Pilgrimage, and elsewhere. He used to write a religion blog for the Huffington Post. A professor of English and affiliated faculty member in Religious Studies and Yoga Studies at Utah State University, he lives at the foot of the Bear River Mountains with his wife, the writer Jennifer Sinor, and their two boys. 

Iranian Edition (Vol II) | Essay by Annahid Dashtgard | Issue 40 (2021)

An Ode to Anger

Just like every culture prepares tea differently, each expresses emotion uniquely. Is it sucked, hot and sweet, right onto the tongue, or cooled with milk before being carefully sipped? And anger, she is the most chameleon of them all. In Iran, she was a frequent visitor, expressed at the dinner table over the latest revolutionary news or because of missed dirt in the corner of the kitchen floor. She was accepted, part of the air we breathed, how we expressed our love for each other and the country we were part of. But in Canada, where we live now, the status quo modelled on emotionally repressed British society, anger hides herself in the closet made available only to certain people, in certain identities, over certain topics. Perhaps reframing my relationship to anger has been the hardest part of assimilating after exile.

When I first arrived in this land of winter cold and ice, to a northern city in the most conservative province of all, I was an unruly and opinionated girl of nine. Steeped in Iranian cultural traditions of ta’aroof, of heaping tables of food wherever we went to visit, of the loud cacophony of sound all around us in the city of Tehran, I was…not quiet. I was also quick to express anger– “Why did you do that?!”– in a tone at least two decibels higher than necessary, only to be found a minute or two later humming or reading quietly to myself. With such ease, the emotion had no more or less hold on me than any other passing through my small growing body.

But that’s not entirely true. When one remembers, one has to try and remember it all.

I was more acquainted with anger than those around me, not just because of the difference in cultural expression, but also the deep grief and injustice I felt about our forced departure. I was seven, playing outside in our walled garden just outside of downtown Tehran, when my father pulled me aside and told me, “We are leaving Iran next month. The country is changing and it is not safe for us.” I don’t remember my reply, just the protective tidal wave of anger that rushed through me. “Why, baba, why?!” I cried. He went on to explain, “Because someone named Ayatollah Khomeini is taking over and he is a madman.” I spent the next couple of hours tearing orange blossoms from our home branches, repeating under my breath, “I hate Khomeini, I hate Khomeini.” I knew I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t also know how much I was losing. Not yet.

By the time I got to Canada, this anger at our forced displacement had seeped more deeply into the bone and marinated into a more complicated melange of rage, fear and grief. Like most children, I was adaptable. Had we had a welcome reception in our new home, perhaps the rupture of soul after leaving might have healed over, to be a forgotten and distant scar on the adult shape of self. But when we immigrate, as foreign bodies, we don’t have much say over what happens to us, only how we survive the transplant.

“The other children say she smells,” my grade six teacher reports to my parents, in front of me, in the classroom, my prison. I am three years into life in Canada and have gone numb, not from the bone chilling winters but the emotional temperature here. I don’t understand why the other children don’t like me, why they cross the street to avoid me. I don’t understand why people move away when I go with my father to get groceries or to the library for books. I don’t understand why I am spat on, or called Paki, or worst of all, the way I am rendered invisible by people passing by to greet other people who look and sound like them, pale skin and thin accents. I lose faith in the adults around me to make things better, because most of these adults do not seem to see what I see or hear what I hear. Like many children, I have taken belonging for granted and now that it has been stripped away, out of my reach, I don’t know where to go.

I can’t sleep at night. A few months into our arrival, I stay awake for hours after the lights go off and that continues for years. I want desperately to rest but am unable to surrender. I am not aware of feeling much of anything, just an internal crouching like a fox in its den, hearing the howls of the hounds from a distance. The emotion I reach for, wrap around me as a cloak of protection, is anger. Anger is safe, she is a gatekeeper holding back the less predictable monsters of fear and grief. Anger stokes the coals of hope, that perhaps one day things just might change, get easier. Anger helps me hold on to the notion that I deserve to be greeted like those around me, with smiles and cocked ears, micro-signals of respect. Anger holds my hand through the long years of childhood, as much an internal parent as the ones I have outside of me who themselves are surviving this foreign territory.

Years later, I’m twenty-eight and living thousands of miles from the small town I immigrated to, in the major metropolis of Toronto, and I am confronted with these ghosts of the past in the aftermath of 9-11. I watch images of middle-eastern people on TV and hear their voices speaking about being called names or spat on, or their houses or places of worship being vandalized and burned down. The fresh skin of belonging that has grown over my early wounds of rejection, is stripped away. I feel exposed and raw. I call my family members almost every day, unclear whether I am reaching for support or offering it. A week after witnessing the world I thought I knew dismantled, my white landlady knocks on my door to whisper to me with mock concern, “Are you okay? I can hear you yelling into the phone. It seems like you have a lot of anger.”

Rather than abashedly apologize, this is what I wish I had said to her: “Fuck yes, lady. I am angry. I am tired of swallowing the grateful immigrant narrative when I bust my ass twice as hard and get half the recognition. I’m angry when I watch the rising racism and Islamophobia and realize that the diversity Canadians pride themselves of being so tolerant of actually masks a fear of difference, which has, like most uncomfortable truths, been swept under the happy Canadian multicultural mosaic rug, waiting, just waiting, to emerge. I am angry that people here move away from conversations about race and immigration, identity and power, words that are my world. I am angry because I want things to change and anger is the emotion that drives things to be different. I am angry because I don’t know how else to be in the world right now. For the same reasons you can’t access anger, it’s all I can feel.”

But for any of us, we cannot be colonized by a singular emotion. That moment of waking up to my anger set me out on a journey to better understand it. I realized that because anger was so marginal in my adopted culture, I often felt ashamed of it and ignored what it had to teach me. Gradually, through years of meditation, therapy and bodywork I bravely allowed the fire of anger to quell so the waters of grief and fear could start flowing again. It took many years. Trauma–as a result of threatening experiences we cannot undo or escape–means that we lose our ability to know what the boundary is. Sometimes I overdid it and reacted to things my partner or children did that were clearly undeserving, or underdid it in other moments like being yelled at by a white teacher in my child’s classroom as I stood numbly.

Gradually, I developed my relationship to anger apart from trauma, one that allows for spontaneous opinionated expression aligned with my passionate Persian roots. For any of us it is hard to differentiate what is personality vs. what is identity: one is intrinsic and the other, a response to external systems where we are molded into ways of being not always of our own choosing. The ability to express anger freely is liberating, whereas being in anger lockdown as the way to survive racism and xenophobia is the opposite.

Last week, I got angry when a conference organizer asked me for my professional title to promote me in their advertising, and after giving it to them, heard back that they’d have to check ‘if it was okay to use’ as there was no self-promotion allowed. I was speaking for free, and this happened already after much time donated from my end. I swallowed and paused before responding. I let myself feel the feeling and what it was telling me. I was angry because I was feeling disrespected, and because I suspected this wouldn’t happen to a CEO of a bank, a white man who would never be questioned about their title or integrity. I replied via email: “I am formally declining the invite to be part of the conference. Given the time and generosity I have extended to be part of this, the level of micromanaging about how I am expected to show up is not what I would expect and it doesn’t feel good to me.” I moulded my anger into a boundary; no drama, no depression, just a line in the sand. A healthy relationship to anger offers a border between ourselves and the world, allowing us to thrive.

It has been twenty years since I was that young woman who started embracing her anger. I’d like to say I always use anger mindfully and purposefully, that I have it under control, but that’s not true. Anger can still be a volatile and mischievous mistress. What is more true is, with time, I have learned to be playful with my anger, to be more aware of her chameleon nature, of her need to sometimes control, sometimes speak out, and sometimes appear when she is not needed at all. I’ve embraced the knowledge that she is an essential part of the stuff I’m made of, and impossible to separate from; as valuable a piece as my heart, or courage. I will never deny or dismiss her, denounce her or worst of all, pretend she is not here because without her, dear reader, I may not be.


Annahid Dashtgard is a renowned author, changemaker and co-founder of Anima Leadership, a boutique consulting company specializing in issues of diversity, inclusion and anti-racism. Previously she was a leader in the economic globalization movement, responsible for several national political campaigns and frequently referred to as one of the top activists to watch. Her published writing credits include The Globe and Mail, CBC and numerous magazines. Her first book– Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation (House of Anansi, 2019)– garnered stellar reviews, referred to as a “luminous inventory dappled with joy and pain” (Quill and Quire). Dashtgard is currently working on her second book, Bones of Belonging, a collection of stories linking the personal to the political (follow her @Annahid).

Iranian Edition (Vol II) | Essay by Amir Ahmadi Arian | Issue 40 (2021)

The Plague Incarnate: Ghost-Spotting in Times of Pandemic
By Amir Ahmadi Arian

The Scottish traveler James B. Fraser arrived in Persia in 1821 as the cholera epidemic was raging through the country. He disembarked from a ship in the port of Bushehr, and was immediately shocked by the enormity of the suffering that awaited him. Death was so omnipresent in Bushehr that in his daily walks, Fraser witnessed people falling to the ground and dying in the street. At the graveyard he saw a long line of residents, their dead relatives on their shoulders, lined up waiting for their turn to put their loved ones into the ground. Only a few days later the mortality rate was so high that the public burial ground could no longer accommodate the dead bodies, so they were abandoned wherever the disease felled them.

Fraser left Bushehr for Shiraz hoping to secure safer lodgings but the situation was not much better up there. He noticed that, as time went by, the period between the emergence of the first symptoms of illness and death rapidly diminished. A family member who looked healthy and sound would leave to fetch water or buy bread, and two hours later his body would be found lying in the street. In one case, in a family of five women and nine men, the women left for the mountains as soon as one of the men showed symptoms. A few days later they returned and discovered the bodies of all their male relatives. The disease had attacked the nine of them at the same time and incapacitated them so fast none could muster the energy to leave the house.

The Shirazis noticed that different communities were affected differently. The Armenians and the Jews did much better than Muslims, which prompted people to believe that the consumption of alcohol reduced the risk of contracting the disease. Those who were drinkers doubled down. Those who had never touched the stuff decided that God would withhold his wrath just this once.

The result was wild. Hordes of inebriated people staggered around the streets amid the decomposing corpses, moaning, yelling and crying. Fraser saw a drunk man running along, tripping over dead bodies, screaming, “Where is this disease, this dreadful malady! Let him show himself that I may fight and kill him!”

In Journal of A Plague Year, Daniel Defoe offers one of the earliest examples of what today we call the “documentary novel.”

Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe survived the Bubonic Plague of 1665 in London and later gave his nephew an extensive account of what he endured that year. That account, combined with Samuel Pepys’s diary, inspired the author to write the story of the plague. Defoe conducted extensive research on the patterns of everyday life in London during the time of sickness, and used this material as the foundation for the novel, which appeared in 1722.

Named in honor of Defoe’s deceased uncle, the protagonist H.F. is a keen observer in the plague-stricken city. He wanders around to bear witness and records what he sees in vivid detail. People have either left town or died. The ones who stayed are mostly the poor who couldn’t afford to leave and now wait for the inevitable. Human interaction is mainly characterized by violence and backstabbing, as people have decided that survival as a collective is no longer possible. Given this dismal state of affairs, when H.F. sees a crowd at a street corner peacefully staring into the sky, he is instantly drawn to them.

When he approaches, he realizes that the people were thronged around a woman holding forth about a white-clothed angel hanging above them in the sky and brandishing a fiery sword. Her audience responds with enthusiasm to everything she says. Yes, yes, I did see the smile on her face, they call back to her. Yes, yes, I saw the flash of the sword as she raised it.
H.F. looks up and all he can see is a smallis small piece of cloud hanging low in the sky. The woman, noticing the newcomer, tries to show him the angel. H.F. refuses to go along with her, insisting that he only sees a piece of cloud. The woman calls him “a profane fellow, and a scoffer,” and tells him to go “wither and perish.” H.F. notices that the mob is stirring, ready to jump on him if he doubts the existence of the angel one more time. He walks away.

On May 14th, 2020, the New York Times reported multiple ghost sightings by people in quarantine across the US. Aman in L.A. heard the loud rattling of a doorknob and the hard shaking of the window shade, both occurring inexplicably. “I am a fairly rational person,” he insisted, yet he couldn’t help thinking something out of the ordinary was happening. Elsewhere, a young man reported that in lockdown he frequently got blasted by cold water in the shower. Every time he reached for the nozzle, he realized that an invisible hand had turned off the hot water.

The piece mentions many other cases of paranormal in passing. People in lockdown reported hearing whispers in empty rooms, the ceiling light suddenly alit without anyone touching the switch, and objects disappearing or getting moved around the house.

In this report, the story of Patrick Hind caught my attention in particular. He is a 42- year- old man who left Manhattan for a cottage in Western Massachusetts. One night he descended the stairs at 3 am for a glass of water. The Times reported that, “he walked into the kitchen and saw a white man in his 50s, wearing a well-worn, World War II-era military uniform and cap sitting at the table.” Initially, Hind said, he didn’t even register the strangeness of this, and continued drinking water unfazed. A moment later the peculiarity of the situation struck him and he did a double take. The man was gone.
None of these accounts are first hand. In all three cases the narrators chalk up the behaviors they observe to the psychological pressures of living through a pandemic. Fraser took the shouting drunk man as an example of mass “confusion and consternation.” In Defoe’s Journal, H.F. regarded the crowd as delusional. As he realized the beleaguered Londoners, under the thrall of the charismatic speaker, would not listen to reason, he was dismayed that “this Appearance pass’d for as real.” The New York Times reporter, writing in an age of disillusionment, somewhat absurdly reminds us that “there is no scientific evidence for the existence of ghosts.”

What makes so-called ‘rational’ people seek or see ghosts during a time of plague? Why is it that in such distressing circumstances the human mind conjures a visible embodiment of its predicament?

Pandemics are caused by invisible pathogens that travel covertly and replicate with incredible rapidity. A pandemic is declared when the pathogen reaches an incalculably large number of people in the world, thus generating another form of invisibility: sheer size. Thanks to this dual invisibility of extreme smallness and extreme largeness, pandemics paralyze human reasoning. The calculating mind, habituated to ferreting out cause-and-effect relations, is at an impasse.

Faced with a pandemic, we become like characters in Rumi’s famous “elephant in the dark” story: an elephant is brought into a dark room. People enter and attempt to figure out what it looks like by touching it. One rubs his palm along the trunk, comes out and says that the elephant is like a rain pipe. The next one touches the ear and reports that the animal resembles a fan. A third person feels the leg and believes the animal to be a pillar. If their palms held candles instead, Rumi says, their accounts would converge.

For the human mind, grappling with the reality of a pandemic amounts to feeling out an elephant in a dark room. We can only use our fumbling palms to offer flawed, distorted versions of reality. We are simply too small to wrap our heads around it.

A pandemic is a perfect example of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”. It is an entity that spreads so vastly in time and space that the human mind has no way of capturing it as a whole. It is everywhere and nowhere. It sticks to everything, becomes present in all aspects of our lives, and yet stays far out of our mind’s reach. It resembles the image of Allah in the Quran: “He is above everything they attribute to him,” (6/100) while being “closer to man than his jugular vein.” (50/16) It bends time and space, defying the accustomed Cartesian breakdown of the world.

The story of the 21st century may well be one of emerging hyperobjects and our inability to contain them. The COVID pandemic is only one example. Every move we make, everything we say or write, is stored in a cloud somewhere. Big data is a hyper object specific to our time. Then there is global warming. The thickening cloud of CO2 in the atmosphere is a hyperobject if there ever was one, enormous and absolutely omnipresent, leaving its mark on every aspect of life. We see its discrete manifestations as individual hurricanes and droughts and melting icebergs, as disappearing islands and extinct animals.

Conjuring a visible embodiment of a hyperobject is what we have always done in the face of the unknowable. When a hyperobject strikes our lives, usually our first response is to find a visible embodiment for it: the greedy immigrants, the careless poor, the free-loaders. The pandemics are no different. The drunk Persian man wandering in the streets of Shiraz was desperate for an embodiment of cholera, so he could wrestle it to the ground. The Londoners of the 17th century needed an embodiment of the unstoppable disease, and found in the lingering death angel a soothing answer. The half-asleep Manhattan man in Massachusetts cottage gave the pandemic a body and outfit similar to what the Londoners saw almost four centuries prior.

Facing hyperobjects, we only have two choices: either accepting that we simply cannot defeat them and try to mitigate their effects on our lives, or scapegoating, designating or conjuring up figures that serve us as hyperobject stand-in, and project our fears and onto them. The latter has been by far our more common response over the course of history. There is no reason to think we will change any time soon.


Amir Ahmadi Arian teaches literature and creative writing at CUNY City College in New York City. 

His work has appeared in The New York Times, Paris Review, New York Review of Books, Al Jazeera, London Review of Books, Electric Literature, Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Words Without Borders, the Guardian, Lithub, and elsewhere. He is the author of Then The Fish Swallowed Him (HarperCollins 2020).

Review Essay | ‘Vexing the Exemplary’ by Paromita Patranobish | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

on J.M. Coetzee’s recent novel, The Death of Jesus (2019)

From David Lurie to Michael K, J. M. Coetzee has shown a penchant for drafting commonplace protagonists who end up quite unexpectedly in the thick of extraordinary historical circumstances. To these fallible, unassuming characters falls the overwhelming burden of bearing witness to and reckoning with a newly discovered complicity in social and political processes beyond the self’s agency, and become accidental bearers of a certain socially imposed mark of exemplarity. In the trajectory of their diverse modes of resistance to this process, another narrative of exemplarity is produced, one that charts the full tragic implications of being human. Constrained by historical forces, these characters remain irreducible to available cultural frameworks, enacting deliberate, corporeally mediated engagements with precarity, destitution, shared animality, and the mutability of the flesh. 

In many ways, Coetzee has continued this basic idea in his trilogy about an orphaned child named David, the final installment of which came out late last year. The Death of Jesus despite its brevity upholds the patent standards of stylistic acuity and philosophical rigour that Coetzee has set in books like Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Age of Iron (1990), and more recently Slow Man (2005), all of which pivot around the provocative collision of individual life and private temporality with the density of historical change. 

The insertion of a singular life into the grammar of exceptionalism is effected in the very title of the book: ‘Jesus’ is not a character in the novel, rather he/it is a cipher, at once a cultural reference and a heuristic device, and thus an invitation, playfully and drolly offered to the reader, to embark on varieties of allegorical and speculative reading. The tantalising sparseness of the narrative, effective in sustaining what appears to be Coetzee’s reluctance to provide interpretive closure, is supplemented with a proliferation of multiple voices converging around the central enigma of David’s presence (and eventually absence) with minimal authorial interference. Hence, even though the novel uses an attenuated version of the third person narrative perspective, it takes us in and out of the minds of its characters as their separate paths and claims over David cross, creating a rich texture of partial, fragmentary, competing, and complementary variations on theological, ethical, social, pedagogic, familial, aesthetic, and philosophical questions.

The trilogy follows David, a young boy separated from his mother while crossing the border, and adopted by Simón, a gentle, peaceable man, and fellow refugee. Simón and his wife Inés move to the provincial town of Estrella, a fictional Spanish neighbourhood, but which could easily serve as an imaginative reconstruction of the gritty Cape Town suburbs of Coetzee’s own childhood. Here David grows up into a precocious, athletic, and highly imaginative adolescent excelling in dance and soccer. In this novel David, now ten years old decides to leave home to embrace his “orphanhood” in order to enroll in a soccer team that claims to play “proper football.” But his stint at Dr Fabricante’s institution with its dubious conception of charity and education, is short lived, as he contracts a degenerative neurological disease that affects his mobility and vigour. Confined to his hospital bed during his final days, David creates an audience around the telling of stories from his child’s edition of Don Quixote, a book that like the Biblical narrative functions as a meta-textual key to Coetzee’s own explorations. There is, of course, an almost caricaturish use of Christian symbolism in the allusion to the form of the parable (the novel’s clipped, stark style in fact, gives it a parabolic quality as well), and David’s own apotheosis from an ordinary immigrant child into a charismatic young intercessor between the Letter and the masses. 

Coetzee fully relishes the possibilities of the allegorical mode replete with a cameo lamb and David’s sagacious injunction to his dog Bolívar to not harm it, recalling Christ’s vision in Isiah of the wolf dwelling with the lamb (Bolívar sneakily disobeys while David is asleep). But much of the novel’s strength derives from the gaps and ruptures in this allegorical structure, in its exploration of the ways in which David’s story does not overlap with the symbolic logic of mythic archetypes, in Coetzee’s attempt to wrench from this symbolic order what Gilles Deleuze refers to as “an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life.” An underlying conflict between the sociological grand narratives of exceptionalism, victimhood, social justice, and salvation on the one hand, and life as a “pure event,” a dimension of autobiographical existence that is unclaimed, liminal, a remainder that erupts at the borders of identitarian constructs, is the source of ethical debate in this novel.

The Death of Jesus is roughly divided into two parts: the first deals with the impressionable David’s own ambivalent relationship with questions of personal identity and interests, and his entanglements with a maverick (and corrupt) pedagogic system that exploits his mental amplitude and athletic abilities while feeding him fantasies of his own grandiosity. The second part in the aftermath of David’s tragic death chronicles the attempts of his adult caregivers to weave his live into a cogent, meaningful narrative, the search for meaning being depicted as having less to do with the boy himself, and more as a futile and gratuitous exercise in assuaging the adult community’s insecurities and narcissism. Who or what is David, and more pertinently what is the meaning and value of a life that by normative standards occupies cultural margins: at ten David is a transitional figure between childhood and adulthood, he is an immigrant separated from the place and family of his birth too early leaving him with unreliable memories with which to weave a unified sense of self, the familial set up in which he finds himself is ad-hoc, contingent, made up of caregivers who do not share a conventional marital or sexual bond but are as Simón says, “companions” held together despite their mutual differences by a shared commitment to David’s well-being. This ambiguity of origins and family life is complicated further by the heterodox education he receives at señor Arroyo’s Academy of Music, where aesthetics and philosophy interpenetrate to produce a unique curriculum. David’s abstraction from the pragmatics of social existence is further exacerbated by his affinity for Don Quixote, a book meant to serve an entirely mundane function: to teach him Spanish, but becomes instead a site for activating the young boy’s wild fantasies and imaginative forays. Inés, the boy’s mother is the only person who seems to insist on the importance of providing David with the discipline and rigour of a quotidian, “normal” education. Even Simón’s, conversational, indulgent, overtly liberal approach to David is based on a desire to allow the latter the full expansion of his independent faculties without the imposition of adult will. This could be a fault, as Inés argues: a child needs to be given the occasion to be a child first, in the absence of which disaster might ensue. However, Coetzee’s novel is less interested in elaborating a case for an ideal pedagogy, and more concerned with the irregularities and contradictions that emerge out of this fraught space of guardianship and care-taking, and the implications that the irruption of these tensions might have for the geopolitical, discursive, and biopolitical contestations over individual identity.

Dr Fabricante’s orphanage is the first space of such contestation, and in the novel’s scheme of indirect indictment, perhaps the most dangerous as well. We are, of course, never offered any privileged access to the vantage of narrative omniscience; rather a critical perspective emerges out of Simón’s predicament, as he watches David swing between (a fairly usual) adolescent impulsiveness and youthful rebellion against perceived authority on the one hand, and Fabricante’s manipulation of the volatility of the child’s inchoate subjectivity intended to turn him into a poster boy for his social justice rhetoric. As David leaves home lured by the seductive appeal of the label that he desires to don, Simón is horrified to discover the hegemonic mix of insinuation, flattery, false assurance, and moral jargon at the root of David’s attraction for the orphanage. Dr Fabricante’s vision of victimhood and justice, as Simón finds out, is beset by deep hypocrisy and moral vacuity. His charity is soon exposed to be a carefully cultivated performance for personal power and political clout: the orphanage is a workshop for churning a cheap labour force out of vulnerable children, education and nourishment are curtailed to a bare minimum in the name of social rehabilitation, while bullying, dishonesty, retaliation, and violence are encouraged as justified means of addressing issues of deprivation and marginality. 

Coetzee’s reader of course is no stranger to similar scenarios in his earlier books dealing more directly with the complex social and ethical dynamics of Post-Apartheid justice, reparation, and anarchy and lawlessness in the name of affirmative action. Thus at a football match the team from the orphanage is unfairly set to play against a group of much younger children in order to boost the morale of the disadvantaged youth: aggression and foul play are projected as legitimate tactics in the service of the larger cause of leveling the social field, and David’s position in this community of misplaced, corrupted ideals is that of a model specimen, the exemplary orphan whose talents, earnestness, and sensitivity are exploited by Fabricante to further hegemonise his cohort of docilised subjects, and illustrate to Estrella at large, the necessary value of his philanthropic projects.

When David emerges from his stint at the orphanage both disillusioned and critically ill, the hospital turns out to be yet another Kafkaesque labyrinth of incompetence disguised as obfuscatory mythification. The hospital staff includes a kindly but inept pediatrician Dr Ribeiro, a former psychopathic murderer turned penitent janitor Dmitri, and a self-righteous resident teacher, señora Devito who treats David with alternating condescension and reverence, dismissing his cherished fantasies as “extravagance” while claiming to be David’s chosen confidante. The supposed “mystery” of David’s “atypical” illness is approached by Ribeiro’s staff through a confused patois of medical and mystical vocabularies, both serving to reinforce his status as exceptional, anomalous, and belonging to an altogether different ontological realm: his blood type is deemed to be extremely rare and without a successful match, his disease seems to have an etiology and prognosis without scientific precedent, in Dmitri’s quixotic hallucinations (which the novel does not dismiss but offers as a credible possible alternative) David is “the lord” and saviour communicating with his followers in a coded language full of hidden meanings, whereas for senora Devito, David becomes a psychiatric case study for which she opportunely engages him in private conversations. In keeping with the allusions to allegorical reading then, David often seems to emerge as the figure of the “homo sacer,” the unassimilated and politically disenfranchised “bare life” who is excluded from the frameworks of socially intelligible and recognised personhood in order for him to be collectively given over to death with impunity and without accountability, and whose exceptionality then is that of the sacrificial being and not the politically marked citizen.

David himself oscillates between performing the role of the exemplar– especially in his bardic capacity as the hospital’s unofficial storyteller– and questioning the logic of this arbitrary imposition. At times his fascination with heroic fantasy and his penchant for magical thinking settles in comfortably with the structure of adult projections. Yet at other times, especially as his treatment fails, the novel depicts his interiority ravaged by loneliness, confusion, and crippling physical pain. It is a measure of the moral bankruptcy of the community at Estrella that the only way in which an imaginative and energetic boy of ten can occupy the poetic and oneiric spacetime of daydream, reverie, and enchantment is through the appropriation, fetishisation, and commodification of his faculties. 

David in the throes of suffering rebels against his elevation to the status of the chosen: “Why do I have to be that boy, Simón? I never wanted to be that boy with that name,” just as Simón and Inés at other times have to demand “normalcy” from a society that wants to seek its redemption, material and spiritual by scapegoating a young boy. In that sense David is at once an adumbration and a refutation of his parallel with the figure of Christ, inasmuch as he shares Christ’s passion but with the resistance, hesitation, and ambivalence of an ordinary boy. In death David is further abstracted, rendered spectacular as the orphanage forcibly claims his body and turns the event of his death into a grotesque morality play, while all over Estrella and its neighbouring areas there are riots demanding justice and social equality in David’s name.

The saving grace in the midst of this macabre absurdist spectacle comes from David’s classmates at Juan Sebastian’s Academy: a dance drama celebrating David’s extraordinarily fertile imagination and the special place of the child’s edition of Cervantes in his life. It is the graceful and tender choreography, the simple yet attentively composed dialogue, and the frank depiction of David’s tragicomic incorporation into the Biblical mythos, that brings about a tentative closure to the grieving parents. The children’s play is in stark contrast to both the sententious symbolism of the orphans’ ceremonial performance at David’s funeral, as well as Dmitri’s letters to Simón claiming privileged knowledge of David’s preternatural identity and transcendental message. The open-ended, self-reflexive fabrications of art offer solace, to David, and later to his parents, in the aesthetic object’s capacity to accommodate multiple realities and afford expressive space to the play of possibilities without casting upon these the structural constraints of a totalising design. These polymorphous interventions of art occur in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the ideologically laden grand narratives through which a particular culture attempts to order, homogenise, and render legible the messy realities of social iniquities and interpersonal omissions. 

It is in this connection that The Death of Jesus provides a subtle but powerful critique of modern apparatuses of biometric profiling in which individual singularity is diminished to an arbitrarily assigned number. David’s conflicted relationship with numbers and his affinity instead for the illusionistic, promiscuous, rule-defying world of Quixote is an indication, later asserted by Simón, of Coetzee’s critical view of the conversion of human lives to the dehumanising logic of numbers and body counts.

Ultimately however, The Death of Jesus refuses to offer neat conclusions. Is David a regular albeit a bit excitable child whose message turns out to be a childish reworking of the instructions at the back of a library book? Is his anxiety about passing without imparting his message connected thus to an anxiety about failing to occupy and participate in the fictional constituency that he so strongly identifies with, by inscribing his own critical interpretation of Don Quixote? Is the literalism of a cynic’s perception a better approach to the world or must we take metaphysical/metaphorical recourse to address the horrors and enormities of late capitalist modernity? The book leaves this open to debate. 

David is an anti-Scheherazade, the crux of his tragedy being his unfinished narrative, his removal from the scene of storytelling and thus the truncation of his narrative autonomy. David’s creative redeployment of the outlandish scenarios of Cervantes’ book in relation to his own life and situation, like Simón’s private love of dance, Juan Sebastian’s music, Inés’ experience of maternal affect, is a particular form of linguistic and narrative inhabitation through which he is able to effect a partial recuperation of the singularity of his life from the regimes that seek to number and categorise him even if the latter is in the form of an exaltation. With the last book of his Jesus trilogy, Coetzee in the manner of the trope of the truncated message, has pared the novel’s moral, political, and literary intervention into a sparse yet densely textured structure, while gently admonishing our obsession with gleaning clear and unambiguous conclusions from the many sided fabric of reality.

J. M. Coetzee. The Death of Jesus. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2019


Paromita Patranobish is an academic and writer based in Delhi. She has a PhD on Virginia Woolf, and echoing the spirit of Mrs Dalloway’s walk, likes to think of her writing as immersive journeys through routes traversing multiple sites and sources of belonging and fascination. She has been a Visiting Professor at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University, Delhi. Her review essays and creative writing have been published in Scroll, Cafe Dissensus, Firstpost, The Assam Tribune, The Chakkar, and Feminism in India. Her camera remains a faithful companion of her itineraries. 

Personal Essay | ‘Escape’ by Karan Madhok | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

I wore my favourite shirt on that chilly, September morning: button-up, collars, short sleeves, and coloured in a tie-dye chaos of reds, blues, greens, and oranges. My mother had purchased matching shirts of different sizes—one for me and one for my elder brother—from the Tibetan-refugee market in the Mussoorie bazaar. It was one of her many last-minute purchases before she and my father admitted us into boarding school in Mussoorie for the first time. We were left a thousand kilometres away from home. My brother was fourteen. I was ten. 

That September morning was also the day before my English exam. I put on my colourful shirt, stuffed in all the money I had—a soggy 20-rupees note—in my jeans-pocket, convinced the dormitory warden that I needed to go to class early for revision, and then, decided to enact my masterplan. 

I was going to escape from school.

 It was the mid-90s, and my parents were a middle-class couple from Varanasi, a city like many others in North India with a failed public-school system; to them, a boarding school in a Himalaya was a status symbol, a sign-post of some disposable income. The higher the income, the more extravagant the school. 

The Mussoorie Modern School, however, was low on the extravagance scale. I shared a large hall as my bedroom with 80 other elementary school kids. We were served meat once a week. All my clothes—including that tie-dye shirt—constantly smelt of mould. 

Years before my parents could even afford that boarding school, I remember being in Varanasi when I was much younger, small enough to fit standing in the space between the seat and the handle-bars of my father’s Bajaj scooter. My father sat on the seat behind me to drive the scooter, his two arms caging me in as he steered side to side and served as my protective boundary. My brother sat behind my father, his limbs wrapped in a tight embrace around my father’s waist. My mother sat behind my brother, squeezing herself into the last few inches of the seat cushion. On that two-seater scooter, the four of us were a tight, snug fit, carefully equipoised as my father drove us all forward. 

Over the next few years, I saw him graduate from owning that scooter to buying a van that carpooled me and my four cousins, to owning a couple more of his own cars, to moving our nuclear family out of the extended family home, to earning enough to send my brother and I off to boarding school in another part of the country. Like us, millions of other young Indian families rose after the economic liberalisation of the early 90s, going from lower-middle-class to middle, and then flirting with those on the upper strata, too. 

After a couple of false starts, my father had finally found business success to be able to provide us with a better education, a better life. And throughout this journey, he repeated the same adage to my brother and I, on the scooter, in the car, over the phone from Varanasi to Mussoorie. 

“This is nothing,” he would say. “You kids have to have the ambition to be better than me. To achieve much more than I have.”

A better education—studying and living away from home—was supposed to be the first step towards this future achievement. It was only years later that I understood my parents’ motivation to push us away from the comforts of home. They wanted us to have the opportunities they never had. No schools in my hometown or anywhere nearby would’ve offered that option, and they sacrificed family togetherness for our education. 

As an unhappy ten-year-old, however, I wasn’t concerned about the quality of my education or the lessons in self-sufficiency that boarding school promised. After my first two months in Mussoorie, I yearned for home, for the safety net of my parents, for my mother’s warm embrace. I wrote weekly tear-stained letters to my mother to bring me back home and sobbed with practiced self-pity in the hostel’s phone-booth whenever they called, glutinous snot forming crusts of sorrow over mouth and cheeks. They didn’t flinch, however, convinced that I would eventually settle down into my new reality.

But my parents had underestimated my ambition for freedom. It took weeks of methodical planning, and early on that morning of the English exam, when all the guards were still asleep, I ditched my classmates outside the dormitory, jumped off the ledge by the ramp rising up to the school building, fell into a steep jungle of devdar trees, muddied my favourite shirt almost instantly as I tumbled down the khud to the bottom of the hill, crawled on all fours under the barb-wire of the lower fence, and climbed over the ten-foot gate that was the final bastion of my imprisonment. 

I landed with a thud on my little feet on the road outside, ignored the pain of impact on my soles, and raced away from the school. 

I was free.

When I reached Mussoorie’s Library Bazaar twenty minutes later, the euphoria of freedom began to simmer down. I had only plotted an adroit escape out of the school’s boundary walls; but, now, with a measly twenty rupees in my pocket, how was I going to get home? A bus ticket on that budget could get me to Dehradun—a whole five percent closer to Varanasi from where I’d begun—and then leave me hungry, penniless and stuck in another unfamiliar city. 

As the sun rose into breakfast time, I decided to focus on my hunger instead. I spent all my money on packet of Lay’s potato chips and ten tablets of Hajmola candy from a store. Then, I returned to school, taking the more picturesque trekking path up, allowing the woods, the foliage, and the clean Himalayan breeze to calm me before the inevitable punishment. 

I turned myself to the guard at the main gate. A few hours later, I was back in the dormitory, where the PT Teacher unleashed a fusillade of canings on my butt, each strike delivered with his taut, efficient ferocity. I spent that evening nursing the stinging pain on my ass-cheeks, sobbing, studying for the English exam, and eating Hajmolas.  

My parents reacted more with concern than anger when they hear the story, and perhaps, my desperate act made them rethink their decision. A year later, they shifted my brother and I to a better boarding school in the same town. This one was more prestigious, cost them a lot more, and punished me with detentions instead of canings every time I bunked a class or escaped to the bazaar for lunch. 

I liked the new school, and I was older, too, suddenly weaned off from the necessity of home. I began to find my new comfort zone and a company of friends that quickly became akin to an extended family. I missed home occasionally—mostly when I craved home-food over the school’s bland rice and dal—but whenever I returned to Varanasi for the holidays, I yearned to be back in Mussoorie, to be back with friends and to my independence away from my parents. 

I spent my adolescence and teenage years all in boarding school, coming of age over seven years away from my parents. Then, I went off to college abroad, and was never homesick for Varanasi again. 

Mussoorie Modern School doesn’t exist anymore; the massive metal main gates that I used to find so intimidating as a child now stand bolted and shut. In a visit back to my old haunts recently, I recalled that day in the mid-90s again. I remembered that, days before my escape, I had approached my elder brother with my plot. He had advised me against it—but hadn’t taken my threat seriously. 

My brother didn’t run away with me that day, and I never would have expected him to. He took fewer risks than I did, and only as an adult, I understood why. Four years of separation between us meant that I had fewer years than he did on the family scooter. He viewed money as a necessity, I thought of it as a bonus. My brother listened to my father’s adage. His goals became my father’s goals: to follow in his footsteps, to learn and manage the family business, to aim to be more successful than my father was. 

I was different—and I continue to be. I looked at my father’s sudden success as an opportunity, a sort of freedom. While my elders were forced into their professions for economic survival, I could risk—with less fear of hitting rock-bottom—to follow my heart. Their ambition was out of necessity, mine could be a choice. 

So, I chose a different path that separated me from my family. I moved to a different part of the country, and later, to a different part of the world. But my parents weren’t happy with me: they blamed my education—the education they enabled—for encouraging my sense of independence and separation. It took many years for acceptance to creep in, and that process still continues today. In small doses of family reunions, my parents tolerate—somewhat—that I would be happier carving my own path than following theirs. 

When I look back, I know that my parents never changed. Their priority was always envisioning the best-possible life for us. They enacted whatever means necessary to achieve it.  

But me? I changed drastically. I was once a boy yearning to run back home. I’m now a man stubbornly running further away. And even the most ingenious plot couldn’t conspire of a way back. 


Karan Madhok is an Indian writer, journalist, and editor of the Indian Arts Review The ChakkarCurrently based in New Delhi, Karan‘s fiction, translation, and poetry have appeared in GargoyleThe Literary ReviewThe Lantern ReviewF(r)iction, and more. A graduate of the American University’s MFA programme, Karan is working on his first novel.

Essay | ‘Rhapsody on the F.M.’ by Tristan Marajh | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Rhapsody on the F.M.

The first time I heard “We are the Champions” by British rock band Queen, I must have been a child. I had a sharper sensitivity to music as I grew older and into secondary school, where I knew that song by Queen as one of those timeless ones – ever universal, relevant and enjoyable. Indeed, it speaks about trials, tribulations and triumph and was and still is used as a motivational anthem for countless sport teams and individuals since it came out in 1977. It is almost impossible not to know the song; one would have heard of it or highly likely heard it before. Queen, indeed, were the musical champions of the 1970’s and 1980’s until Freddie Mercury, the band’s lead singer, passed away in 1991. Back in secondary school, I never knew his name or who he was, but I was always rendered highly impressed by that vocal range whenever I heard “We are the Champions”, which Freddie wrote, sang and played the piano for. The song was released eighteen years before I started secondary school and persisted in the decades to follow. Each time I heard it and “Another One Bites the Dust” on the FM radio, I remained privately impressed by the sheer classiness of the rock singer’s vocals. I still didn’t know his name; nineties music was all the rage for my schoolmates and I at the time. Singers and bands from decades before – like Queen – were deemed irrelevant by and to us; old-fashioned and out-of-date, their days of glory behind them. No doubt that today’s youth, in the era of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, feel as disdainful about 90’s idols the same way I had once felt about Queen. 

I was in secondary school in the latter half of the nineties. It was a religious school with all male students. There was, therefore, a lot of misguided testosterone that teachers tried to restrain through strict discipline and enforcement of rules that, in retrospect, many former students now consider comparable to a prison camp. Rebellion, or just plain misunderstanding, was met by corporal punishment. Every other morning, our principal would conduct the school’s student assembly, which comprised a devotional message, prayers and the singing of both the national and school’s anthems. And that’s when Fionn Maharaj took to the stage, much to the chuckling and mocking of the students. A Chemistry and Math teacher otherwise, Fionn would strut to the podium, remove the microphone from its stand and twist his body this way and that as he moved to the rhythm and the melody of singing, which, in a school comprising proud, macho – or more accurately, pretending to be macho – boys, wasn’t too much melody to go with. He – Mr. Maharaj – sashayed his legs and hips and timed his musical rhythm by snapping the fingers of one hand as he held the microphone in the other.

You might imagine the kind of fun young boys lucky to have been born into heterosexual humanity would have had at Fionn Maharaj’s expense. As our Chemistry or Math teacher, my school- and classmates did not make Mr. Maharaj’s experience pleasant, or leave him with the conviction that he got through to his students. To be a teacher in secondary school is difficult enough; to be a “pansy”-male teacher in an all-male secondary school would have been extremely difficult. In his classes, students taunted Mr. Maharaj as he tried to teach, mocking his sissy-ish (as it was regarded) voice, his unmale gestures and movements and his attempts at disciplining students, which, often, resulted in physical shoving back by the student. Such was the level of contempt and disrespect the students showed toward Mr. Maharaj, but this did not seem to faze him – he never toned down his body language or style of speaking to seem more “manly” and so the fodder for ridicule never diminished. Throughout my years at that school Mr. Maharaj remained the target of mockery and contempt. It was a process that I’m certain repeated itself with each influx of new students. Yet Mr. Maharaj took it all in stride – or strut – and never toned down the tendencies he possessed. In retrospect, I realize now, it was very tough of him. Tougher than my schoolmates postured to be, and more resilient – very deserving of the respect and admiration that was flagrantly denied him in my secondary school days. Paradoxically, Mr. Maharaj was more of a man than we could have hoped for as students at that time. If we regarded him with contempt and disrespect then as unrefined boys, it now seems the opposite as matured young men – Mr. Maharaj was not beneath us by masculine standards, but above us; a real man among boys, a teacher not only of Math and Chemistry but also of courage and truthfulness to oneself no matter what the world. A man among boys indeed; a royal among knaves, not a king but more aptly, a queen.

The biofilm of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, recently came out (pun intentional). Admittedly, I’d watched it in the cinema one night after work; I was restless, bored and did not want to return to my house just yet. Indeed, if I’d had another endeavor I deemed better to do than look at a biopic of a singer I considered – as you recall – irrelevant to my current tastes I’d have no doubt pursued that other thing. The theatre at the time was empty; there were about eight or fewer people who were probably there for the same restless reason as me. Bohemian Rhapsody is the title of the film. Its accolades include: Winner, Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the 2019 Golden Globes; Winner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture at that same event (won by Rami Malek for playing Freddie Mercury); Best Picture nomination at the 2019 Academy Awards; Best Actor award at that same event to Rami Malek, as well as Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing – all at that event. 

Rami Malek was tasked for and by the role of Freddie Mercury, but Freddie Mercury made those awards easy to win. I was ignorant of him until the movie, and after the movie I was in awe of him. He was a musician, a singer, an artist and human being before his time; even before current time today, when the movie provided for himself and Queen a renaissance of sorts. Their music both merged and transcended genres, eras and sensibilities. Freddie – aka Farrokh Bulsara – had a beautiful spirit, unfazed by the ridicule and contempt he was subjected to not only as a Parsee immigrant to the United Kingdom of the 60’s, but also because of his homosexuality which was implicit in his on-stage antics, costumes and gestures; not to mention, of course, his off-stage lovers. Yet he pressed on: creating and moving queenly on stage; his voice not just soaring but climbing, climbing up to heaven where his fans are convinced he is carrying on as he always did to this day. He was indeed a fearless man – resilient and convinced of his talent – yet by the same token those who knew him spoke of his humility, his unassuming bent, his kindness, introversion and loyalty to his artistic drive to create, play and perform. I – you could say – unabashedly fell in love with him the more I delved into his music and the kind of person he was amidst the challenges that he faced; that unbroken, unfazed spirit that persevered. It confirmed a notion I had: that a heterosexual man could fall in love with another man; more in the direction of true love because it is love that is artless and comprised of respect and admiration. As a student I’d thought I’d only fall in love with women, yet perhaps it is not unfathomable to understand that I could with a man describing himself as a queen. And after all, what did he name his band?

There was no difference, in essence, between Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury. They had the exact same initials, even. Perhaps that was – as Freddie and Fionn might have believed respectively – a symbol. Freddie Mercury received the world’s love, but Fionn Maharaj did not receive love from his own world; that world that consisted of contemptuous, ridiculing and mocking students. And yet, Fionn strutted, sashayed and hip-swayed despite it all, despite us all. That’s what made true royalty: not brute presentation, but self-composure in the face of tribulation. It was known that Fionn did have a wife and children with her, yet we eagerly chose to assume he was gay and living falsely, instead of denying he was homosexual at all. If he was indeed gay, such suppression even has nobility to it: it must have taken a gargantuan internal and external effort for Fionn to do the “right” thing by his parents, religion and society at the time and his own conditioning by them all. It must ultimately be the right thing, however, for individuals to healthily and openly actualize themselves as who they are – that’s when nobility ends and royalty resides. Freddie Mercury, British citizen and frontman for a band named Queen would have – figuratively – told you that nobles are below royals, and no one is above royalty. That’s what Fionn was: despite the ridicule and mockery, he remained upbeat, positive and concerned about our well-being, just as Mr. Mercury had been amidst his own mockery from others; even from biology itself, as AIDS decayed his body and took his life – his physical form, at least. Yet, even that is not true, for decades later Freddie Mercury’s astounding voice still remains, climbing and climbing, higher than heaven, “punching a hole” through it on the way, as the film remarks. 

And what of Fionn? Even if he was gay and eventually came out, it would be naive to conclude that he also eventually lived his life as expressively, experimentally and experientially as Freddie Mercury: fully and openly queer. The true admirability, however, in Fionn’s story is that in his time as a teacher, in the midst of the torments of testosterone-titillated young men, he carried on regardless – just as Freddie did until his death; just as millions of other unsung individuals do in the midst of their own respective external and internal torments. They both had resilient, persistent, mighty spirits, unswayed by their respective worlds – Freddie Mercury in 1950’s-1980’s society and Fionn Maharaj in one more recent; one that might as well have been in Freddie’s time in its attitude to queenly and queerly expression in men. Resilience, unswayed determination, fearlessness: the very traits that boys ridiculed in my secondary school were keenly sought out by us as we grew into young men.

And what indeed is a man, I would often ask myself since those school years, as I’m certain most of my schoolmates did. We have bumbled and suffered in our journey to know exactly what a man is and many of us still do today. Back in secondary school, we dismissed the likes of Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury, making conspiratorial fun of our teacher’s initials – F.M. – to validate our assessment: the Fag Man, the Fairy Man, Fruity Man, Foolish Man, Female Man, even Femme Man (by those of us “cultured” enough to know the term yet rarely using it, lest we, of course, incur the accusation that we were of the type of people we were mocking). We did not know – far less even think of – the truest, most resonant expression of the shared initialism of both Freddie Mercury and Fionn Maharaj: F.M., of course, standing for the Free Man.

 


Tristan Marajh is a Winner in the William Faulkner Literary Competition of 2020 and his work can be read in a number of literary journals; most recently in down river road, based in Kenya and Ayaskala, based in India. With a childhood spent in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

‘An Indian gothic drag art performance’ – A photo essay feat. Patruni Chinanda Sastry | by Saumya Kalia | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Where patriarchy ends, expression begins: An Indian gothic drag art performance

The lore of vishkanya is intoxicating in its effect on the Indian cultural discourse. The “poisonous maiden”, enrobed in myth and legend, carries an ominous mark. It is a secret that hangs heavy in the air; neither fully embraced, nor completely eschewed. It passes on in grim looks, exchanged as demure whispers, understood as cautionary tales in traditional set-ups. Like all things clandestine, its lure indulges social dogmas and inspires a web of fancy. 

But for Patruni Chinanda Sastry, the lure doesn’t warrant loyalty to the myth. The 28-year-old artist is known for many things: dancing, drag art, LGBTQI+ activism. Which means that he knows exactly how to turn the prism outwards. If anything, he believes, the myth demands a closer look, a dissection, a complete evisceration if needed. 

His recent performance, VisssKanya, does exactly that. It is a play on the legend, the tradition of witch-shaming, and the force of patriarchy that binds it all. Along with Sajiv Palasa, he mixes it with the contours of drag art and gothic culture, albeit within the Indian sensibility. Captured by Hyderabad-based photographer Manab Das, what unravels is a spectre of delirium, defiance, and delusionment. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das and Artist : Patruni Sastry

Time stands still in the land that vacillates between tradition and modernity. The parable of vishkanya has evolved but never once betrayed the violence, lethality, and deviousness the female figure is understood to possess. The most recent figuration came in the form of a Bengali actor politically and socially indicted. Rhea Chakraborty’s role in Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide was sold as witchcraft on television screens; anchors swearing by occult forces at play. The woman was unwittingly vilified to preserve the presumed innocence of the man. 

This is in line with India’s sordid history of witch-shaming — labelling norm-defying, often independent women as “daayan” or “chudail”. Witch shaming in India is a departure from Shakespearian witches and their green faces and black robes. Here, the daayan or chudail was marked by her association to black magic or the tropes of jaadu-tona. Progressive or independent women were relegated to be these anomalies, devious figures, sinister witches. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

This characterisation was where gothic drag art found the need to intervene in the dominant narrative. Somewhere between their transgression and expression was a mirror that could reflect the reality of patriarchal forces at play. Two figures headline this performance: one played by PCS in a vivid red-and-black saree donning the feminine figure, with Palasa playing the masculine entity. The two bodies continue to pose with constant contact without a break, unlike other photo shoots.

In two hours, their progression reveals the notoriety at play. PCS, dressed as a woman in the garb and jewelry of a traditional woman, was the seductive, poisonous “vissskanya”. The man was swayed, cajoled, and his mouth strapped shut. The slurring ‘s’ uncomfortably hung in the air, as if the passage of utterance might inspire introspection. 

Traditional understanding of goth in rural areas manifests through stories of witches, black magic, vishkanyas. So it was imperative that the gothic anchored the performance here, but without the pre-conceptions it remains shackled with. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artist : Sajiv Pasala 

PCS explains how gothic culture was growing as a counterpart to gothic music and punk trends; a lifestyle being developed from a music setting. It is a way of living, and not restricted to fanciful notions it is often confused with. Goth in drag came to grow in prominence in western drag culture — PCS hat tips to artists like Sharon Needles who would dress in the widely-accepted black-and-white binary, a western goth staple.

Is gothic an often-used medium for drag artists? Now more than ever. As creativity thrived, drag artists went ahead and looked for inspiration from the society they lived in. Goth culture was resounding with gender fluidity — a western figure titles emos muffled the gendered aspects of play. Gothic drag matched the non-conformity with artful performances. 

But Vissskanya is again a departure from the western gothic drag portrayal — the white is quickly replaced by the red. Feedback from some sections railed in how the absence of white didn’t make it gothic enough. But for the artists, it was more important to do justice to the context behind the presentation. The red carried a powerful message to a patriarchal set-up, especially when used as a tool of subversion.

The clarion call thus becomes evident: “Even men are witches, I am just one”, the artists explain.  With this, the performance shirks off taboos and time-honoured beliefs: a headstrong woman is not a witch, and witchcraft deserved a different treatment. This was a chance to recalibrate morality within tradition.

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

To take it a step further, the performance deludes the gender binary as is widely understood. There stands the traditional alpha, gazing at the seductive beta. But a closer look shows the feminine figure, adorned with jewelry, with a mustache. Gender permeates through the performance, pushing forth forces of fluidity.

The ring that sat on the man’s finger in the previous picture now binds his mouth shut. This was the man who had the power to oppress the feminine voice, but the progression of the performance uses the ring as a symbol. The imagery interrogates male privilege and puts it into perspective. There is something about a man ceasing his railing defence of “not all men” that paves way for reflection. 

In another image, PCS dressed as a woman bites the glorious chain of patriarchy and oppression.  It then disrupts the traditional set-up and encourages conversation around patriarchy, as documented from the lens of the oppressed. Myths may continue to be weaved by gatekeepers of traditions and values, but for PCS these time-honoured traditions hold little weight especially when times keep changing.

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

Drag art transcends labels and stereotypes. It throws caution to the wind in its attempt to transgress and create. So it’s only natural that it adapts and grows into an entity of its own, beyond the restrictions of stage. The photo performance grew out of a desire to unify the drag diaspora during these times; and like all art eclipsing through a pandemic, it reached its audience virtually. 

Flair and flamboyance, markers of most drag performances, run in abundance through the performance. But more importantly, it is true to its form. As a drag artist, PCS’s performing philosophy lies in the transparent reign of ‘tranimal drag’. Put simply, it is the idea that drag can be created out of anything. You enrobe and adorn what is in sight; in this case, the red saree, strings of jewellery, and dabs of rouge are what PCS plays with. The vision has to fit the elements, not the other way round. There is a lot of creative freedom in making something which can be found anywhere — an idea that resonates in the times of a pandemic. This approach of drag made fashion and performance accessible to people sitting at home. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry

This does two things, One, it caricatures art into a more inclusive mould. Art, PCS explains, has often governed conversations around beauty and romance. Even drag art has to a certain extent dictated ideas about how women should look, how they should dress, how long nails have to be in order to replicate the woman. Cross-dressing was in turn enabling stereotypes — a cycle that needed disruption. With tranimal, drag artists can put multiple things on their face and create a look that aligns best with their identity.

And two, it unravels the idea of privilege and the fashion benchmarks accompanying it. Tranimal doesn’t invest money in clothes or cosmetics, it just makes do. It juxtaposes the costly with the cheap, the pedestrian with the luxurious. Everything is made accessible on one body form and mixed together. The audience then needs to question and wonder what is what, and the aesthetics of privilege are abandoned for the time being.

Drag art in itself is intersectional — involving theatre, music, dance whatever suits the whim of the artist. Dance has been PCS’s preferred form of expression. He was five when he saw the Tamil movie Padayappan where the heroine was angry because she was rejected by the hero. In fury, she screams loudly and dances. This was the kind of implication he grew up with — whenever you’re angry you’ve to scream loudly, his five-year-old understanding dictated, and only then will people take you seriously. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

He later learned Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Odishi, and Buto, a Japanese art form. To balance this artistic flight, he trained to be a full-time engineer who now works in the poetic city of Hyderabad. 

It soon became a part of his expression, where the spectrum of emotion oftentimes translated into dance. He paced with agility, and soon came to view the art form through the lens of drag. He finally found the vocabulary — a visual language — to distill ideas and explore issues of identity.

In many of his performances, he asks audience members to pull out chits out of a jar with each one having a gender or sexual label written on it. He then presents it for the individual sensibility. That was the only way for him that stood a chance to reach out to people and denude the richness of gender and sexuality for a more accepting audience. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one can only wonder how potent a moving performance can be.

PCS describes himself as an expressionist dance, and one has to merely gleen through to see strokes of the German movement across his body of work. It is the idea of creating oneself, reproducing a feeling or thought for public spectacle that ushers through. The visuality has since carved his identity as an activist, as he established pieces that were relevant and political in nature. Commentaries on same-sex marriage, equality, the MeToo movement all found space in his oeuvre that has went on to inspire many and initiative conversation. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

Drag art for performers like him became a conduit for a thriving socio-cultural discourse around the LGBTQ+ community. In their transgression is an abundance of expression often tucked away from the mainstream. People have innumerable pre-conceptions and often dismiss it for sensuality or vulgarity. There are assumption that you have to be gay or transgender to participate, or the stigmatisation of drag queens as ‘hijras’ (eunuchs). The acceptance of drag thus endures under a spectre of shame and unacceptability. 

But like other drag artists, PCS is no friend to conformity. He didn’t find it necessary to dwell on mythology or take stories in the way they came. Traditions were accepted as much as they were rejected. This becomes evident in his understanding of art: the abstract concept is like water which takes on the shape of the jar it flows into. Famous drag queen RuPaul’s words quickly ring in resonance: we’re all born naked and the rest is drag. Art, for him, will always exist as an asexual entity that can be moulded into any gender identity. 

He adopted the stage name S.A.S, an acronym that would come to undergird his body of work. It stands for “Suffocated. Art. Specimen.” Suffocated, for the plurality of expression that strokes within him. And specimen — of art —  to distance himself from gender labels. It is the fluidity of being that holds his confidence and loyalty.

What would it take to move the dial forward on drag culture, gender, and sexuality? Conversation. Artists like PCS are inching close to an answer. Blogs like Dragvanti, that delves into Indian drag in particular, are an instructive medium for knowledge. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry

As long as we’re fighting patriarchy, we’re also fighting expression that enables it. The photo performance, along with his other work, criticises the binaries of masculinity and femininity. PCS’s art probes the normative theories of gender and sexuality, and exists in the visual realm. In fact, it insists on creating a performative experience. How do you explain the spectrum of gender or sexual orientation in a way that people understand it? Why don’t we go ahead and dance on it instead of talking about it, PCS thought. And that’s exactly what he continues to do.

He negotiates with his performance on two fronts: one, as an artist, who must do justice to an evolving creative express; and two, as a member of India’s vibrant drag community that fights for a place in the cultural tapestry. Art and activists bind PCS’s work; each breathing a life into him: free, fluid, and transcendent.


Saumya Kalia is a journalist and writer. Most days she is proud to be a product of her times; other days she finds a deep hankering to move to the rhythm of the good-old-days. Her tryst with time inspires her to explore life and living, as it cuts across socio-cultural periods. She swears by coffee, good literature, and everything popular culture. She mostly lives out of suitcases and currently finds base in Mumbai. 

Read more:

Top 25 LGBTQI+ Magazines and Zines from India/Asia

Authentic and alternate: LGBTQI+ Writing in india and the rest of asiasubmit your creative writing, read proud, write proud The pride movement took off in the 60s and 70s. With it, came forth magazines and publications that would come to archive voices, experiences, and the social change. Words poured here, insights shared, norms questioned —… More

LGBTQ+ Vol 1 – Issue 35 released.

Submissions now open for Vol 2 of the series, scheduled to release in 2021. (Art, reviews, fiction, poetry, essays, and more)

Solicited entries are paid. Submission details here.

Essay | To perform is to be: Drag culture, Indian art, and activism – Saumya Kalia | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

To be a drag artist is a curious thing. You can be anyone, everything, the sum of your desires, all at once. But what becomes of this curiosity in a cultural discourse that doesn’t let the mind wander? A discourse that thrives on stereotyping, refuses to recalibrate, and reduces everything to a label? 

If the Indian drag culture is anything to go by, then this curiosity endures. In the fall of 2018, when the Supreme Court passed its landmark judgement on Article 377, two things happened. One, a promise of liberation hung in the air, with a renewed resolve for the challenges to come. And two, the lid on a boiling pot was finally removed for drag artists — their art receiving a nod-of-sorts to waft through mainstream Indian art. 

Across time and continents

History stands clear and consensual on one thing: drag is not a product of the 21st century. The earliest documentation of cross-dressing — to wear clothes culturally ascribed to the opposite sex, that is central to drag art — is strewn across cultures. Jonathan David in his book Drag Diaries writes about how native Americans, indigenous South Americans, and Ancient Egyptians often cross-dressed for ancient religious ceremonies. 

The most culturally notable figuration of drag is through theatre; more particularly in the plays of Shakespeare that opened at London’s Globe Theatre in the 17th century. It was convention for male actors to play female characters, and cross-dressing was a common trope in his plays. Viola became Cesario in the Twelfth Night, Rosalind transforms to Ganymede in As you like it. 

Some activists, however, trace the roots of drag closer to home. It was documented in texts with varied terminologies, and smidgeons witnessed in dance forms like kathakali and theyyam. Variations of the term were being documented in late 800BC texts. Patruni Chidananda Sastry, the founder of DragVanti, a blog for uplifting desi drag community, says, “If we try to compare the first draft (of drag culture), it was something that was a part of the Indian art circuit.” Instead of being developed into a singular art form, it had intersectionality with dance, theatre, and other creative fields. 

The Desi drag culture

Despite the rich history of drag in India, there remains an uncomfortable distance between drag and mainstream culture. One reason can be traced to a general wariness to western ideas and art forms. Drag, by and large, is seen as a western niche — a premise further cemented by the popularity of American drag shows. 

The reluctance can also be ascribed to cultural barriers. Cross-dressing or violating gender norms are seen as social aberrations, and thus anything in relation is saddled with misconceptions and misrepresentations. It is thought to be “incorrect” or “vulgar”, mostly because its messaging rallies for an alternate value system. 

But an evolving art ecosystem is working to destigmatize drag culture. Indian drag performers borrow stylistic elements from western conventions: flamboyant clothes, theatrical make-up, sashaying through stages. But there is an effort to retain traditional markers of Indianness, as they opt for saree and salwar-kamiz in their stories and performances. 

The ‘desi’ gets prefixed to ‘drag’, to visualise a community of change-makers, performers, and pioneers. Maya the drag queen, Lush Monsoon, Betta Naan Stop, amongst others performed at clubs and social gatherings. The solidarity of Indian drag community has strengthened with time, making it easier to articulate what’s needed to develop this nascent, vibrant scene of art. What started as an isolated, individualistic flair has swelled into a movement of expression. 

Drag art and the message of inclusivity

Language and identity are interlinked, with language evolving itself to be more inclusive. But it has to reach everyone and be comprehended to make an impact. Where language fails, art when compounded with drag culture can do wonders in reshaping cultural sensibilities. 

Drag artists are finding transcendence, meaning, and community in a moment of socio-political upheaval. What inspires drag art in India? One merely has to look towards social movements in time to understand what breathes life into it. Since the essence of drag lies in transgressing binaries, the community becomes an artistic ally to other disenfranchised groups. Stories of women, gender representation, sexual identity, and other minority groups often anchor drag performances. 

Names like Gulabi Gang, and Pink Chaddi came to be associated with social campaigns against domestic violence and Hindu nationalism. Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a 28-year-old expressionist dancer, started a blog, Dragvanti in addition to performing on politically relevant themes. Art and activism become bound in a promise of liberation, communicating fraught social relations and structural inequalities.

For art to connect with contemporary ideas, there is a need to tell true and diverse stories. Drag culture offers an unassuming and rich medium of storytelling, that breathes life into this fight for inclusivity. 

It is also worth mentioning that the discourse isn’t limited to drag queens; there is non-gendered drag, artists who are indifferent to conversations about gender. To create inclusivity, underplaying the gender card is important and must align with an understanding that is constantly developing. Gender, after all is said and done, remains a social construct. Drag art becomes a tool for plugging the loopholes that come with a constricted view of identity, gender, and sexuality. 

The next step

Indian drag landscape stretches along upmarket clubs, literature festivals, and cultural spaces. In the pandemic, these artists have taken to social media to connect to their audience and unite the drag community. Drag art is being used as a tool for activism and expression, now more than ever. As a nation that is still coming to terms with same-sex relationships and gender fluidity, India needs an artistic push. 

The first step in this pursuit is for drag culture to be integrated in the broader cultural conversation. Right now, it relies on internet subcultures and social fringe groups. Whatever widespread representation does exist does more harm — shows like Zabardast, a Telugu show that portrays drag culture, unwittingly passes along homophobic and offensive messaging. 

In order to preserve the authenticity of drag, there needs to be a determined effort by members of government and civil society to embrace it. Steps like identifying drag as a field of art, acknowledging artists and performers, offering accolades and institutional support, and building more vibrant platforms can be a positive start. In many ways, drag continues to fight art and demands respect.

Art carries fierce activism, and much like drag, it must be allowed to continue unapologetically. It is only then can Indian drag art can reach what it has set out to achieve: steer discourse, facilitate dialogue, and inspire movements. Its curiosity keeps it alive, only when it remains untamed.

 


Saumya Kalia is a journalist and writer. Most days she is proud to be a product of her times; other days she finds a deep hankering to move to the rhythm of the good-old-days. Her tryst with time inspires her to explore life and living, as it cuts across socio-cultural periods. She swears by coffee, good literature, and everything popular culture. She mostly lives out of suitcases and currently finds base in Mumbai. 

‘An Indian gothic drag art performance’ – A photo essay feat. Patruni Chinanda Sastry | by Saumya Kalia | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Where patriarchy ends, expression begins: An Indian gothic drag art performance The lore of vishkanya is intoxicating in its effect on the Indian cultural discourse. The “poisonous maiden”, enrobed in myth and legend, carries an ominous mark. It is a secret that hangs heavy in the air; neither fully embraced, nor completely eschewed. It passes… More

Top 25 LGBTQI+ Magazines and Zines from India/Asia

Authentic and alternate: LGBTQI+ Writing in india and the rest of asiasubmit your creative writing, read proud, write proud The pride movement took off in the 60s and 70s. With it, came forth magazines and publications that would come to archive voices, experiences, and the social change. Words poured here, insights shared, norms questioned —… More

Essay | Reading Bombay through Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda poems – Saranya Subramanian

 
Shit city, he thunders;
the lion of Bombay thunders,
Shit city!
 
I shit on you.
You were a group
of seven shitty islands
 
given in dowry
to the Shit King of Ing
to shit on
 
— and now it’s all
one big high-rise shit,
waiting for God
 
to pull the flush.
And it won’t be long
for God is great.

- The Shit Sermon, Kala Ghoda Poems, Arun Kolatkar[1]

I read Arun Kolatkar to read Bombay. Is it right to read a poet, or poetry, as an extension of a place? I don’t know. Maybe not. Or maybe there is no right way to read a poem, or a poet for that matter. Still, I can’t help but see Kolatkar as synonymous with Bombay. Or perhaps synonymous with a Bombay that is musical and hilarious, twisted and hopeless, and very much existent even today. To me, Kala Ghoda Poems is an honest, unique narrative of my city that was otherwise unapparent to me until I read Kolatkar. For the first time I stopped to notice parts of Bombay that were right under my nose all along, but perhaps not visually appealing or relevant enough to be worthy of my seemingly precious time.

I started my initiative, The Kolatkar Crawl, as a continuation of my research. My graduate thesis was a digital humanities project, where I used the software tools of spatial mapping to chart Kolatkar’s stellar collection published in 2004, the Kala Ghoda Poems, onto a map of Bombay and the world. Pinning poems, characters and events onto a visual map was a fantastic, insightful experience that explicated on the truths and fantasies of urban development. But the real fun, and the real struggle, was in finding these locations firsthand in my own city. My primary research involved walking around Bombay to follow the animals, people and piles of rubbish in Kala Ghoda Poems. To see Kolatkar’s Bombay is to see a city stitched together by a poet (and the Pi-dog). Ordinary things are turned upside down and magnified. Multiple lives jostle against each other and are made apparent in lyrical verses that subtly expose the collateral damage of a city plagued with development. The Bombay that Kolatkar writes, while being a global city, does not project the illusion of globalization as one that only involves skyscrapers and successful narratives of becoming rich and famous worldwide. The very real consequences of uneven development—pockets of rich and poor, past and present, grand buildings and piles of rubbish coexisting—distort this illusion. Kala Ghoda Poems teaches me to shift focus of my own city to the sidelined people on the streets and the scraps of dirt that are peppered on the ground. Kolatkar writes them down in poems that are delicate and light, never taking themselves too seriously. The poems are just as whimsical and musical as they are jarring and expository.

The first thing that strikes me about Kala Ghoda Poems is its characters. These are animals, objects and people who are almost spillovers of development, pushed out from social institutions and buildings onto the streets. For the first time, I viewed them as stuck, stranded, marooned in Bombay, far from home. The people from Kala Ghoda Poems are best described in “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda”: “the little vamp, the grandma, the blind man/the ogress,/ the rat-poison man,/ the pinwheel boy,/ the hipster queen of the crossroads,/ the Demosthenes of Kala Ghoda,/ the pregnant queen of tarts,/ the laughing Buddha,/ the knucklebones champ.[2]” As opposed to the bankers and lawyers who remain on the periphery of these poems, here are street dwellers, prostitutes, drunks and the homeless, made out to be almost mythical, magical creatures, asserting themselves over unmarked patches of land. The Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads has dominion “over two traffic islands/ and three pavements,[3]” the so-called Man of the Year stands proudly at a street corner, the girl who looks like “a stick of cinnamon” sits upon a concrete block “as if it were a throne[4]”. I see how the whole city, including my home, is literally either in their hands or on their body. Pi-dog’s body patches look like a “seventeenth century map of the city,”[5] the Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads wears Bombay on her sari: each flap representing Dadar, Parel, Lalbaug, Byculla, Bori Bunder, Flora Fountain and Kala Ghoda.

Kolatkar’s characters make me question my own identity and experience of Bombay. Suddenly the colonial Kala Ghoda statue, that lent its name to the entire South Bombay locale, is replaced by the Pi-dog who commands his city from there. The Pi-dog chooses his lineage by tracing his descent from his mother’s side—a bitch who was brought from England to Bombay. He consequently opts for a narrative twice subversive: of colonial and matrilineal descent, challenging common postcolonial attempts of reclaiming the Indian identity. My position in an increasingly commodified world is questioned when I find myself wearing or carrying objects that are presented in Kala Ghoda Poems as rubbish littered on the road, in ubiquitous piles and pieces of junk that have been ridden of all their utilitarian properties. Yesterday’s commodities become today’s garbage, and Kolatkar urges me to stop and look at them—really look at them—as he individually picks out a red plastic hair comb, scraps of paper, an old bicycle tyre, a three-legged chair, castoff condoms, prawn shells, dead flowers and clay. As I walk around the beautiful, artistic hub of Kala Ghoda, home to a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s turned into a garbage dump. But rubbish and urban expansion are inextricable from each other, and I am reminded that much of Bombay is built on landfills converted into sparkling suburbs. As Kolatkar says, “the more you clean Bombay,/ the more Bombay there is to clean[6].”

The first time I followed the Kala Ghoda Poems trail, I expected to be taken on a linear journey from morning till night through 28 poems, but that was far from reality. In between “Pi-dog” and “Traffic Lights,” Kala Ghoda Poems goes back and forth in time and space, tugging me all around the world even, making a chronological trail an impossible feat. Other time zones and time periods are very much alive and breathe life into Bombay’s present reality. David Sassoon’s spectral presence looms over Bombay, indicating how the 19th century Baghdadi Jew painfully watches over his “cement-eating, blood-guzzling city[7]” of which I am a part. A queen from 13th century Granada is embodied in the Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads, whose demeanour could very well make the pavement she dominates equivalent to a courtyard in Alhambra. Time is also a paralysed, stagnating thing in Bombay. Kala Ghoda Poems stops time and stretches moments of a box of idlis collectively sighing, a pinwheel rolling down the street, or a woman delousing her lover’s hair. I am made to stop and smell the idlis. In “Knucklebones” a women selling drugs controls time in the modern world: “Your sari wears a grin/ where your buttocks have sucked it in./ Which sets us all back by a good ten seconds./ It isn’t just your sari;/ it’s time itself that feels the pinch./ The clock outside the Lund & Blockley shop/ that shows the different times/ in all the big cities around the globe/ stumbles and loses ten seconds worldwide./ Flights are delayed./ Trains run behind schedule[8].” Suddenly, I see the fate of all my travel and business plans in the hands, rather buttocks, of this street peddler. The absurdity of development depending on the economically weak sections of society is made obvious in hilarious verse.

Some locations are often impossible to find or measure in exactitude while on The Kolatkar Crawl, locations that are beneath mahogany and banyan trees (trees themselves are a rarity in Bombay these days), at a street corner and a pavement teashop. Others are impossible to reach, such as the Danube River, the Black Sea, Hindu Kush Mountains or Heaven, Sheoul, all of which are tied to Bombay through drug trading, migration and even violent processes of war and colonization. Buildings that have lent their names to roads and areas become mobile caricatures stripped of all magnanimity and glory. Jehangir Art Gallery is “sleeping with its mouth open, as usual,[9]” St Andrew’s church “tiptoes back to its place,/ shoes in hand,/ like a husband after late-night revels,[10]” and the drunk in “The Shit Sermon” yells curses that circle over “the stock exchange,/ the High Court and Mantralaya”[11]. These buildings of art, religion, finance and law, are made comical and fluid, cursed and laughed upon.

Walking through Bombay and reading Kala Ghoda Poems recreates a city that is constantly shifting and dancing around, full of noises and colours, all the while exposing those lives that are pushed out of an expanding concrete jungle, hidden under bright lights and tall towers—the triumphs of development. Kolatkar weaves a Bombay that has no spatial and temporal coherence. I walk in zig-zags and stop midway to search for the smallest of creatures: crows, dogs, homeless snails, injured rats, black cats. Bombay, I realise as each poem pulls me in all directions, cannot only be drawn on the ground. It is a collection of fragments from land, air and sea; it is a disjointed, multidimensional city. Kala Ghoda Poems is an evocative, visceral read. The collection heightens all senses, making me smell and taste and hear all sorts of things as I even visualise Bombay through a charas pill’s journey and traffic lights. It’s a city full to the brim with filth and life pouring out from all cracks and corners.

Is there a right way to read poetry? I don’t have the answer, but I believe that experiencing poetry physically allows me to see things that I have never noticed before. Right now, under lockdown, the characters from Kala Ghoda Poems are important voices of those generally treated as dispensable—migrant workers, unemployed labourers, hungry, homeless strays—victims of a glaringly uneven development. Living on the streets, outside of Bombay’s high rises and social institutions is detrimental, today more than ever. I started The Kolatkar Crawl as an initiative to take people on walkthroughs of Kala Ghoda Poems, but the entire pandemic, lockdown and migrant labour crisis has fuelled the collection with a renewed urgency.

The Kolatkar Crawl is momentarily paused due to lockdown, but the virtual world still allows us to share our thoughts on Bombay and poetry. I conducted a conversation with researcher Laetitia Zecchini and poet Arundhathi Subramniam titled “Reading Kolatkar Under Lockdown” on 6 June 2020, which explored all three of our own entry-points into Kolatkar’s work. Bringing together the perspectives of a poet, an academic and a self-entitled flâneur (myself), was an enjoyable, enlightening experience. Arundhathi spoke about how she is drawn to Kolatkar’s incisive usage of unsentimental, unflinching image and tone and how there is reverence in his seemingly irreverent poems. Laeitita Zecchini seconded this, and added how she is fascinated by how Kolatkar never, never imposes his voice onto the characters in his poems. He gives them time to surface, and in doing so immortalises a city that hasn’t yet been ‘cleansed’ and sanitised.

Reading Kala Ghoda Poems becomes an act of reading Bombay. Now, I surrender fully to the delegations of crows, walls of cafes, watermelon carts, the legless hunchback and jerrycan of kerosene, delinquents in jail, lepers and potato peelers, street dwellers ruling over pavements and playing cards under banyan trees. I learn from them how my city has a shared geographic history with a larger subcontinent and I see the multiplicity of lives and stories that coexist with my own. I learn that my city cannot be tied down to a singular language, identity or history. This is the Bombay that Kala Ghoda Poems encourages me to experience. This is the poet’s city.

WORKS CITED:
Kolaṭakar Aruṇ, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2010.

BIO: Saranya Subramanian is a writer and theatre practitioner based in Bombay. Under her initiative, The Kolatkar Crawl, she takes people on walkthroughs+readings of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems, bringing the poet’s city to life, verse by verse and step by step. And she writes because, well, it’s all that she can really do.

Follow @thekolatkarcrawl on Instagram and Twitter for updates!

[1]Kolatkar, Arun. “The Shit Sermon.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 146–149.

[2]  Kolatkar, Arun. “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 120-144.

[3] Ibid., 124.

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 87.

[7]   Kolatkar, Arun. “David Sassoon.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 173.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Ibid., 149.