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Portraits Unphotographable

5 minute read

Whether it’s a long-haul transatlantic flight or a regional short hop, or even just a trip out on a local bus, the process of meeting and eventually talking to strangers, can lead one to use quick heuristics in sizing them up. Perhaps it’s our automatic mechanism to do so in order to pass the time, while travelling and moving, or that in the restricted space of train carriages, cars and buses, the lack of activity means we entertain ourselves by making up stories about other people, knowing we will never meet them again after you shared space and shared experience has passed. The woman across looking down — maybe she’s broken up with her boyfriend, lost her job, or is having a bad week, you begin. Before long you find yourself elaborating stories about these people, in your head, and these random strangers: soon you start to believe the girl in the school uniform at 11 am, when she should, by all accounts, be in school, is a truant. The inconsistency that is her presence in a school uniform, in public place which is not a school or school-related venue, leads you to draw upon what you already know, what you’re already familiar with, the joy of truancy. It develops further; she becomes a truant perhaps because she has problems at home, or maybe she’s just come from a doctor and found out she was pregnant, and perhaps the person who made her pregnant is a junkie and soon you ponder upon the incongruence of her presence at a place unrelated to what she is supposed to be. Then you catch yourself thinking this whole enterprise going on in your head is ridiculous.

I first noticed *Neha Sahoo* on the platform of Yesvantpur station before we boarded the Bangalore-Guwahati Express. It seemed straight out of a movie, especially a Bollywood one, or one not unlike a typical Asian afternoon soap opera — it was a typical teary goodbye scenario, with the couple glancing nervously at the clock every once in a while, looking frantic as the scheduled departure of the locomotive became eminent. I felt like a voyeur, watching them and imagining stories for them, yet I cannot help it and have no noble excuse to vindicate myself: I write. I eavesdrop. I peek in. I make up things while negotiating the line between fact and fiction, never succeeding. Like all seasoned Indian train travellers, Neha Sahoo and I both head to the man at the platform selling snacks — we know we’ll need it, while we sit on board our berths, waiting for the latecomers to settle in, waiting for our tickets to be checked, waiting to begin. Train travel is precisely like that, tentative and genuine. Tentative while we sit there waiting for something beyond our control, something as much physically larger than us as a train, to decide our fate, our punctuality in our next city, and our sleeping habits for the next two days; as genuine as Neha Sahoo pulling all her life’s belongings on board, while I silently fight with her for space under our berths, chaining my backpack tightly under seat 33. If farewells at airports are already as piercing as only those of us who have experienced them will know, farewells at train stations are in another league of pain altogether. Airport farewells have an element of closure; no matter how much we would like to dispute it, you can lose sight of what you’ve just left behind quite easily, if you let yourself. Train farewells, through the fact that you are connected by a railway line, most probably still within national borders, tosses heartbreak through geographical distance up into the air, making things uncertain though they shouldn’t. The emotions felt by this young woman and her lover were already piercing and intense, even to a casual observer such as myself.

At least with airport farewells there is no chance to see the person you love inside the vehicle which will spirit her away, waving her goodbyes, with all her life’s belongings contained in three trunks you helped to pack. Hidden in my upper berth in seat 35, I was a lone female traveller about to cover 2000 kilometres with only 1 rupee chai, a neighbour who will spend the next 36 hours sobbing and talking on the phone (chalking up huge inter-state roaming phone bill), and my Hindi language books for company. I watched Neha Sahoo’s still unnamed lover watch the Bangalore-Guwahati Express carry her away from the Bangalore in which they had spent 2 happy years together, to the Kolkata which will be her home from now. And in a selfish moment, decided all my farewells from then on had to be neatly and cleanly incised.

36 hours later, we pulled into Howrah station. I helped Neha Sahoo pull her three cases out onto the platform, hired her a porter, lifted my backpack onto my shoulder and walked off quickly without one. This was it, this is how it ends for us all — me, headed to Sudder Street for the third time, a career and a life on the subcontinent to be discovered; Neha, bound for Salt Lake district, for a new job in a new city, just to be close to her sick parents six hours away in Orissa.

Half an hour later our paths crossed again — the big yellow Ambassador taxi I had bargained down to 50 rupees to take me to my two dollar room, stopped in the traffic while crossing the Hooghly. I had come to Kolkata once in the winter, once in the summer, and here I was waking up with the city in the monsoon. I shut my eyes and let the lightly acidic Kolkata rain fall onto my cheeks through the window, which was predictably jammed. Always happy to be in Kolkata, my body adjusted itself to the city, the distinct aroma of Kolkata others find to be a stink, my linguistic brain adjusting to the switch in languages from Kannada to Bengali, trying to realign myself geographically from Karnataka to Bengal, from South India to the East. I saw her in another taxi, a few glimpses away, stuck in traffic while crossing the Hooghly too. The rain fell upon her cheeks through the predictably jammed window of her big yellow Ambassador taxi, though she did not notice: she was gazing out into the river, or what was visible of it. This was me, happy to be away from the city which had my comforts, my lover, my defining moments, in the monsoon on a famous bridge in an infamous city, seeing myself, my own recent pain in the beautiful Orissan lady I had spent 36 hours sleeping across from; a beautiful Orissan lady just two years older than myself. As our taxis diverged and mine sped into Sudder Street, backpacker central, and hers left for Salt Lake, upper middle class district, it also took her deep into a city which her heart will never be in because she left it back in Bangalore, on platform number five, at 6.15pm precisely.

Amar Shonar Bangla

6 minute read

Where I dig into my archives and repost stuff I like. This one’s from August 2006, when I’d spent some time in both sides of Bengal.

Nine in the morning, every morning — a chef in Sirajgonj district’s “only acceptable hotel”, the Hotel Anik (Residential), cooks me a breakfast of two parathas and two eggs. My decision to omit a dish of “vegetable” (pronounced “va-gee-tay-ble”) caused many eyebrows to be raised, when it was first heard, as if you could even hear cooks and waiters alike exclaiming in Bengali: “What? No vageetayble? Is she mad?” It’s one of those cultural idiosyncrasies, when it comes to food — waiters puzzle at how we can possibly eat roti or naan with only tandoori chicken (bread and tandoori, both considered dry), without a gravy, and leaving out any component of the rice-vegetable-dal holy trinity is considered absurd. Until we foreigners came along with our ketchup and eggs (sunny side up) inside parathas or rotis, rolled up, trying to form a pita wrap. Even India, so used as she is to hosting a wide, mostly eccentric array of foreigners for decades, still noticeably struggles to figure out her guests. The bashful new kid, Bangladesh, at 35 years of age, naturally has even more issues on that count. Especially out here in rural Sirajgonj.

I looked forward to Bangladesh with the earnestness of a long time lover of all things Bengal. Bengali culture, poetry, their towering figureheads — I worshipped people like Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen; almost melted and died of shock and ecstasy the first time I heard Tagore recite the Gitanjali at his Nobel Prize reception. I sat in the cars of my ex-boyfriends, as a teenager, often suspecting I liked the classical Bengali music which emanated from their fathers’ CD collections in the car, more than they did. As a familiar lover of Bangladesh’s cultural cousin, Calcutta, I felt the need to get on The Other Side of West Bengal.

I knew Calcutta’s accents, her dingy streets, and felt at home in her local tea shops where three cups of tea and three biscuits cost me only seven rupees every morning. I knew Calcutta’s history, her public infamy and private fame; I knew how she woke up and went to sleep. My SIM card was considered by the telco to be in its “home circle” whenever in West Bengal, be it Calcutta or Darjeeling, even in the states of Sikkim and even Assam; her street food comforted me, as easily as a cup of fresh misti doi did at the end of every meal. It is in Calcutta where I land, pick out the exact change for a prepaid taxi (Rs 210) then head for the hotel that is my home every time I’m there, change, freshen up, and go out and see friends. The staff at the Blue Sky Cafe whoop and rush up to shake my hand the moment I walk through the door, leaving the French volunteers’ pancakes to become cold. I wolf down a quick breakfast, then go to look for Sanju and her children, spending my next few hours sitting down on a pavement sharing a cup of tea with the family. Not entirely a scenario that is difficult to imagine, until you find out that Sanju is a beggar that lives outside my hotel, but who has never asked me for money. I connect with her for reasons I cannot explain, other than how she is 21, as young as I am, has two young children, and has the look of a fighting woman, the sort I look up to. If cities and countries are languages, Calcutta is the one I have learned well, the one where I have begun to imitate her inflections of speech and colloquial habits.

Dhaka was a shock, coming from Calcutta. Bangladeshi roads were smoother. The city even seemed cleaner. The air did not have as much pollution — an index I know from how the contents inside my nose at the end of every day were not as dark as they are in Calcutta. Everyone smiled, or stared. But there wasn’t time for Dhaka, we had to be shipped off to Sirajgonj, one of Bangladesh’s 64 administrative districts, two hours away. Sirajgonj was a dusty town not unlike the other dusty towns in developing Asia, the ones I spend so much time traipsing around. Only the very old or the very young could be found here; only the enterprises of family, and family business; no venues of extravagant leisure or recreation, no places for the young to mingle and socialize, for the opposite sex are not to mingle so freely. Cycle rickshaws happily stopped, even with passengers in tow, to stare indiscriminately at my foreign face — the passengers don’t mind, they want to stare too, a practice I attribute to how television channels in developing countries have not yet exposed their viewers to the Global Village.

It’s never easy to be a foreigner anywhere. To be a foreigner in a place with no tourist or business appeal, no culinary highlights or natural beauty, a place such as Sirajgonj, was simply to court attention with a capital A. For six nights we hid in the Hotel Anik, tired of stares, tired of the attention. It was to be in any village, trying to escape the mob by sliding off for a fag in a quiet corner, then looking up to find 200 or more people staring at you having a fag. Conditions did not improve even as we moved from one part of Sirajgonj to another, then through Bogra, Rangpur, Syedpur, Nilphamari. The same things happened with such uniformity: everywhere, people stared, hung around. One evening, after what seemed like our millionth village mob, done with work and done with shouting over 10 heads at a time trying to get answers from interviewees, my escape plan backfired dramatically. I had tried for a stealthy exit but before I could take my second step out of the village compounds about a hundred and fifty adults children had gathered to give me a memorable send off — children surrounded me, running alongside and behind me, whooping as I indulged them by letting my camera and camera flash go off in their general direction. Young disabled children hobbled around on their wooden twigs pretending to be walking aids, running much faster than I could have on two feet. My British colleague, still scarred by his country’s poor showing at the World Cup, decided that if the Union Jack could not be raised at Germany this year, he would at least try to make her name resound through the country of Bangladesh, and led the chorus of children in chanting “England, England”, even if they did not know what it meant. To them we must have appeared a duo of whacky looking characters out of a movie, who for no particular reason, decided to appear in their village to teach them a chant about England.

As “England, England” resounded through the village of Rudapur, I drifted away. My phone rang and a familiar voice I had loved said, “You’ve probably been to more parts of Bangladesh than I have babe, welcome home.” My head was bursting to say, “Oh? Apnar gram naam ki?” (What is the name of your village?) yet I had to remind myself I was here, sitting at 1.30 in the morning having a bowl of century egg porridge at Crystal Jade — a sign that I was “home”. Not long before that I was sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Anik, bottle of contraband Indian whisky in hand, and together we sang a song. “Sometimes… I look into your eyes, I swear I can see your soul…”

Sirajgonj, the district that loved to stare, left me alone for the first time, or so I thought. A family standing on the roof of the building across from me caught wind of two mad foreigners singing James and Radiohead anthems on their rooftops. It was that evening that I learned to wave madly before they did, and returned the stare for the first time.

Why I Am Still A Feminist

5 minute read

Reposting stuff I like from the archives. This is from 2006. It has also been republished in print in GASPP, A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose.

I am still a feminist because I am no longer ashamed of saying I am one. I have grown tired for apologizing for so many of the things I am: for being liberal, lesbian, anti-Bush and anti-war, a Christian that hates the fundamentalists. Anymore to apologize for, and I may have to apologize for being Chinese.

I was feminist before I was lesbian. I was feminist before I was liberal. I was feminist before I knew feminism had become synonymous with ‘bra burning’ and ‘aggressive’ (I like my bras too much, and I prefer to be passive-aggressive). I was feminist the moment I was acutely aware that being a girl meant there were many things I could not do, and so much more I was expected to.

The first feminist I knew was my father, who taught me I must never bow to the demands of any man, and must never let any man suppress my intellect or free will. He must have known I was a feminist from the time I was 4, when, I did not believe the distribution of potato chips was fair and equal, and demanded he demonstrate by bringing out actual weighing scales, that I had as much as my male brothers and cousins.

In primary school, I was an avid soccer player. About as good as the boys, the boys told me. I played every recess time and after school, every day. I was the midfielder with stamina, who was fast as well and was everywhere and anywhere on the pitch at all times. Good enough, that the boys thought nothing of inserting me into their ambitious tournament plans for the next few years: we were a team. I started the first match in the tournament with the brand new soccer boots I paid for myself. At half time, the referee — his name was Mr Azman — said I couldn’t play, ever again. Even though this was an informal tournament in school, with no rulebook or precedents, he said that’s just the way it is: no girls allowed.

By the time I was 18, I thought I already had a pretty good grip on the “girl” issue. During one class debate, a member of the opposition made a disparaging remark about how sometimes rape victims “were just asking for it”. Livid, I made a comment which led him to say: “Let’s go outside, I’ll show you how good it is to be raped.” This same person is on his way to becoming a lawyer, and I fear.

I’m turning 21 this year and while I don’t play soccer anymore, as a photographer I’m told “they want guys, because they look more like photographers”, as a Mac Evangelist in retail I’m told they “want to consult the guys”, even though I know as much. Guys still hit on my girlfriend in front of me because I evidently don’t count and I’m not the real thing; if I’m opinionated, I’m being either aggressive or emotional, and if I’m stoic, I’m heartless.

As a member of the majority race and male, you may not believe it when I say that sexism is alive and well, because you have never encountered it. You see female managers and female CEOs, females in positions above you, and you fear for your male superiority. What you don’t see is the sacrifice only women are made to make when they choose career, how they could be similarly qualified and similarly excellent or better leaders, yet climb slower and earn less, how if they are assertive they are aggressive female bosses, how if they are not then they are ineffectual leaders and submissive. What you don’t see is how she had to fight hard for most things that come easily to you.

As a member of the majority race and male, you sat next to me in school today at the library cafe, talking about how your girlfriend is not as loud as pornstars when you “fuck her”, wondering if that’s because “she doesn’t know how to express her pleasure”, then your friends all started talking about blowjobs and said in no unclear terms, that the world revolves around “your cocks”.

I will continue to be a feminist until the day my classmates are not seen as objects, whose pleasure is necessarily held up against porn industry ideals, until the day their pleasure is not dictated by the selfish dicks they date.

As a member of the majority race and male, you fathered one of my closest friends. When your daughter complained to you that she used to be touched inappropriately by your friend’s son, when your daughter discussed with you the topic of male infidelity, you laughed and said, “We’re men, we’re like that.”

I will continue to be a feminist until the day every father stands up for their daughter’s rights, the way my father does.

As a member of the majority race and male, everything you might be culpable for is “because she asked for it.” Can’t have children? She must be infertile. Want to use condoms? Only if she pays for it. She doesn’t seem to like sex with you? There must be something wrong with her. Pregnant? She sleeps around. Sex video spreads on the internet? It’s her morals. Lesbian? They haven’t met the right man, and you just might be the one.

I will continue to be a feminist until the day my friends’ fathers stop explaining away their affairs based upon what their wives supposedly lack.

So when you say, those feminists, in the same breath as those nazis, those communists, those crazy bra burning women, you need to know that the object of our hatred is never men — it is what some men do to us.

I will continue to be a feminist until the day my uncle in the flesh and blood stops being an asshole, and his immigrant wife is not afraid to divorce him and press charges.

I will continue to be a feminist until it is realized that while it is best for every child to have his mother and father, if the father is a dangerous man he has to be kept away from her beautiful young children before he does any permanent damage.

I will continue to be a feminist until it is realized the existence of many good men does not mean it is irrelevant to be a feminist. They are our fathers, our boyfriends and husbands, our sons. All it takes is just one man, that isn’t good, to destroy the lives of too many women around the world, and among us now.

This is why I will remain a feminist, I’m not apologetic for it, I won’t burn my bra, I don’t hate you, and no, you can’t watch either.

Other Mornings in Other Places

2 minute read

What I have noticed about being away, and still can’t shake off, is how mornings in each foreign place are so strikingly different from what one is used to; how different they are from each other — how foreign the word foreign sounds after a while. I like to believe it never hits you you are away until you wake up feeling displaced. Or that you haven’t really made a place your home until waking up comes so naturally and matter-of-factly there is nothing to it; until what was not your bed now feels like yours, and is even adorned with your peculiar smell.

It is brighter, earlier, in some places. Your mind races to make all the connections — back home, comparing, you might have been (1) preparing for school (2) relishing a particularly delicious dream (3) kissing your lover at the crack of dawn. And you think of how, back home, it is similarly bright only at seven. Exactly twenty minutes before flagraising.

Instead of being awoken by an alarm, Vanna’s motorcycle pulling into the front porch, does. He brings with him a motorcycle trailer to ferry us and all our bags to the bus terminal. There was no time to lose. We left Phnom Penh on our third morning, scarcely enough to have completed the tourist circuit in and around the capital — much less enough time to have stocked up on the US$9 cartons of Davidoff cigarettes. There was no time for contraband cigarettes for the Angkor Wat beckoned.

The Mekong Express ambled out of the city, and in the vicinity — as far as the eyes could see — mornings here, meant, baguettes; streets full of them. The more cynical among us say baguettes are only the good that French rule had left to Indochina. Well before noon we are midway there, when I notice for the first time on the road in Southeast and South Asia, that I have not given any thought to the condition of the road I am travelling on; either because the roads have improved, or I am used to them by this time. Instead, I happily recline ten degrees, smash into my neighbour’s lunch, and attempt to enjoy the on-board Khmer “comedy”.

My neighbour, a Khmer-Chinese man, laughs so hard at the ongoings onscreen, culminating into an already creaky seat rocking under his weight, when an effeminate man in the program is paired with a masculine woman. Then in a language I seemed to understand, he describes the hilarity of the situation to his wife, who is only marginally interested.

I shut my eyes and found myself at home in Indochina, somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (though before Kompong Thom). Where my mother tongue, Teochew, is widely spoken and even overheard in buses, when other mornings in other places see the same middle-aged men finding humour in the same bad jokes.

I recline another ten degrees, this time smashing into my neighbour’s lap. Curling my thigh around hers, I begin to think: I want every morning to be like this.

Art and Lies, And

4 minute read

Reposting stuff I like from the archives. This one’s from 2006.

1.

There is this picture of us back when we were even younger; snapshot circa 2004. 3 years after the start of our life together. If pictures could tell a tale this was the tale of us on the page just after ‘happy together’, though there you were, still assuring, still composed, still my best friend. Any casual observer might have waved it off as yet another happy boy and girl in love, as it was for a time, but by this time I had already gone. Walked out of that door to build a new life for myself, and pieces for you to pick upon.

2.

There is no picture of us, for you made me destroy them long ago. The digital equivalent of the primitive act of shredding, however, cannot possibly shred those which persist with no tangible traces. On that couch which wasn’t ours, in an apartment which wasn’t ours, in a time which never was ours, I had a smile which I don’t think could have ever been mine, and a lover who never was. Everyone’s a thief, so everything we had was stolen, though did you really have to take the heart, too? I watched you walk away, as you always do, with no tears but that scrap of paper in my pocket which read: I have always loved you. But.

3.

There is a recent picture I have with her. The sort which makes people cringe and squeal and avert their eyes: oh that’s too sweet. I don’t think I’d ever looked so radiant, or been as photogenic — she does bring out the best of me, it’s true. I’m usually smirking in photographs, never very confident about how I look. Yet in a moment without inhibitions, in a country which didn’t inhibit us, I actually beamed. You could even see the little dance in my eyes. I haven’t had the bad luck to have to do any walking, yet, except on and on.

4.

[..] but most pictures lie. The moment the shutter is released, so are such lies. Little ones and big ones; classmates you can’t stand wipe off the smiles for posterity and continue being pests. Words, however, are even more dangerous. There is no shutter to depress or release, only floodgates. No freeze frame, only continuously; everlasting and persisting long after the fact. Words just meander on and on like that, once released, there’s no undo, no file to destroy or photo paper to fade off. Margaret Atwood says the only truly honest writing is that which will never be read, not even by yourself — to be honest in writing would require the equivalent of writing with one’s left hand, correction fluid blotting out everything which has already been written, as you continue. Words, as we know, are fatal, which in turn rub off on the person who pens them, making her potentially fatal too. Art and Life may coexist, though if they also co-vary, correlate, and co-habitate then my god we are in trouble. Perhaps this is why, afraid of myself, I turn to other forms of art thinking they could perhaps be less dangerous in these hands, so I could feel as if I continue to operate heavy machinery though more forgivingly so. How was I to know that in a parallel life I could have such art director aspirations? I’m starting to believe I’m a movie. Which is potentially fatal.

5.

So in one movie there’s this scene with the three of you I love at a table, speaking with each other. I’m thinking my god let me out of here I can’t breathe. In another there’s a scene of a writer at her desk scribbling furiously in illegible longhand, haunted by the scrap of paper in her pocket; I have always… but. The camera pans, we’re at this cafe, more or less like one of the many other cafes we’ve had The Talk in. Bittersweet Comedy? you scribble. I want to reply: comedy only when there is an audience; bittersweet is quite enough for me. When people kiss in dark alleyways they are usually making promises. When we do, we break a thousand of them, including the ones we have been hanging on to for any semblance of survival.

6.

I can understand why writers may be attracted to each other — it must be wonderful to be written about. I have never been written about, though I have always been writing about. Then I think of Hughes and Plath and.. feel a little better about it. Writers are also a dramatic bunch, and I can’t even handle my own.

7.

As any good student of the social sciences might, I have fallen into the habit of diagramming and chart-drawing. Clearly labelled axes, arrows indicating strength and direction of relationships, establishing causal relations and so on. So in our chart of inclusionary and exclusionary love, i.e. Us and Them, we have 2 separate diagrams, each labelled family/ religion/ friends, other legitimate, Wanted Things like that. In one, the lines extend to touch every base, there exists the outward pull which initiates the relationship with Such Wanted Things; the area within which forming the total area of everything passionate like desire and sex and understanding, etc. In our chart, then, the axes are rarely ever touched; compared to the full circle/oval of the first, we have this malnourished figure which isn’t sure if it was a triangle or a skinny oval. Desire and sex, etc, The Things Wanted. Never once extending beyond its boundaries to touch the periphery of Everything Else and Ever After.

  1. Everything Else, Those Things Wanted, Tomorrows and our yesterdays. Full Circle.