Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year and Zumba

According to my stars, I bring good luck. I don't know how true this is, but since it's a good thing, I'd like to believe in it. Here's wishing everyone a very Happy New Year.

I made a resolution to go for zumba at least twice a week. Memorial Athletic Club is only minutes away from where I live, but I always find excuses to not go. Of course when I eventually haul myself to the gym, I enjoy myself, especially the zumba class. We have a great instructor whose body is made of rubber, whereas mine is more like rusted metal. Imagine me doing the samba, the chachacha, the mambo, salsa. I'm sure I dance like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz.

OK, this New Year, I shall also begin my new novel. Soon after the launch of The Finger Puppet, I started on a sequel and I was quarter way into it and then decided not to write anymore because my husband wanted me to paint. To please him, I disappeared into my garage-studio and stayed there all day painting on a great big canvas, but by evening, I started undoing it, the way Penelope wove her tapestry all day and unwove it by night.

'Perhaps you should spend at least an hour each day writing,' my much disheartened husband said.

It's impossible for me to do just one hour of writing. He knows that and I know that. 'The new novel is going to be all sunshine,' I said, seeing the fear in his eyes, that I might start to crumble the way I did when I was writing The Finger Puppet.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cordelia ah Cordelia!

Who art thou?

Adulthood, wifehood, motherhood did not diminish the playful Cordelia in me. The Finger Puppet did. As the youngest of three sisters, I have escaped many a beating. But I have always wondered what it must have been like for my mother, for my siblings. And so, I would pretend to be them and that is why, perhaps, I would be the one to tell the story, which broke me completely. I'm still in the process of putting myself together again.

Four years into the novel, I made a trip to Tiruchirapalli, which I had never seen before. Originally, I set the story in Chennai and then transplanted it in Tiruchirapalli because I wasn't sure if my sisters, or even I, would be OK with revealing that I have borrowed liberally from our lives. Gandhigram and I are well acquainted. It was goosepimply to sit on the very slab of stone I sat upon as a child and bathed out in the open fields. Now the stone had grass and weeds twisting over it and the water tank stood dry, but the image of sari-clad women planting rice would come away with me, and would be the first of a series of paintings I am working on currently.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tara and Yatri?

Also named after the wife of a sage, my sister, Vasuki, chose to go with Yashodhra, her second name, when she was just a little girl. To this day, I'm amazed at the way she said, From now on I'm going to be Yashodhra. Yashodhra is only 11 months older than I am, and be it quarrel or play, we were as close as twins and spent a great deal of time with imaginary friends in imaginary worlds. Our hand-drawn finger puppets looked frighteningly real. Tara and Yatri are, perhaps, a bit of both of us. From a young age, Yashodhra cared for stray dogs and cats with no concern for personal injury. She's now India's top dog breeder and the owner of Yashbans Kennels.

When my boy, Sirocco, died, I fled to India and stayed some months in Yashbans, Bangalore, amidst wagging tails and licking tongues and with my sister and my nieces, Rishya and Radhya.

Sukanya as Padmini

I was in San Diego, in October, visiting my sister, Raviji, and their designer dog (maltese + poodle), Suki. Anoushka was touring but she returned two days before my departure and we all had a great time. My last trip to California was in 2006 when Raviji had caught double-pneumonia. It's a miracle that he's alive and performing. All credit should go to my sister's love and care and healthy foods...and singing. Sukanya is a trained musician and sings beautifully though I bet my unschooled voice and totally off-key songs, in butchered Bengali, were a lot more entertaining :)

We were looking at some old pictures and I thought I'd post the ones (all pictures posted here are copyright Ravi Shankar Foundation) that I especially liked of Sukanya and Raviji.

'Are you going to marry that old man?’ I asked my sister in horror. I was very young then. But when I met the charismatic sitar maestro I could see why my sister had fallen in love with him so completely. I almost did myself! What began as a love affair with his music when Sukanya was a teenager grew to become a long and passionate relationship.

I have always been in awe of my sister’s beauty, her painting and her singing and her dancing. She is my heroine. And she would be Padmini in The Finger Puppet. At five, she gave a concert. And so many years ago, when I saw her lying broken on the hospital bed with a fractured spine, I knew I would never again see her dance the way she used to. Sukanya, too, was named after the wife of a sage.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

From Desktop To Launch

Those who knew the way I breeze through books, thought it foolhardy for me to be writing. But write, I did. However, many years of drivel later, I would find that my runaway eyes were not suited for editing. They were perfect for driving, sweeping like searchlights over road and land and horizon. But when it came to the printed page, my eyes waged war with the words.

As it happened, in 2006, a writer friend – unknowingly – taught me to read properly. Through text messaging. A word or sentence resting like a butterfly on the illuminated screen. Magical. I would flip open my cell-phone and read the words again and again, drawing my eyes together, forcing them to focus. This was about the time I drove friends and family up the wall with my incessant text-messaging.

Then it struck me to cut-out a horizontal window in a sheet of paper and trap sentences inside the rectangular opening. Hard work going over the pages in this manner, but my eyes felt less intimidated by the imprisoned words and swiftly brought to my attention any deviant behavior. Still, when it came time for meeting with my editor at HarperCollins India, I was unprepared for the extent of revising I was expected to do.

I can’t do it. I text messaged the writer friend.
Get on with it, was the reply.

The message on the screen had a mesmerizing effect on me. I shut up and got on with it, doing my final rewrite at the Ravi Shankar Center in Delhi and then a sentence-by- sentence polish upon my return to Houston. In the first sentence alone, I changed the verb from put, to applied, to touched, to pressed, to smeared and eventually to stabbed, Tara stabbed a dot of red to her forehead. There were only a few thousand more sentences to cut or clean up. If my manuscript had not been snatched out of my hands and sent to the press, I’m sure I’d still be working on it :)

"If you don't wear a sari, there will be no launch today," my sister said when I laid out my black T-shirt and black trousers to wear for my book launch in the Rock Garden, at the India International Center, Delhi. It had been so long since I wore a sari and hence the gracelessness -- I'm the one in the black sari, oh at least I got to wear black! I'm laughing so hard at this picture.

Monday, December 8, 2008

High Security Alert

I was reading of the high security alert in Mumbai airport and thinking back of the time when security was not quite so alert, when I walked in and out of Bush Continental with a butcher knife in my handbag.

No, it was not for carving meat, animal or human. My visiting niece, staying with family at a hotel, wanted sugarcane and my husband immediately got her one. And a heavy duty knife to cut it with. Later, as we were leaving, I put the knife, hilt down, in my handbag and capped the tip of the blade with a lemon. But we were not heading home, we were going to the airport to see off my family. Those days, we could go right up to the gates. Only when I was in front of the security guard, did I remember the knife. I pulled it out of my handbag and gave it to him and said, ‘Would you keep it for me, please? I’ll pick it up on my way out.’ He waved me off, chuckling. Three times, that day, I walked in and out of security with the knife on me.

That was not all. Post 9/11, when I got to the head of the queue in Bush Continental Airport, I realized that my flight was from Hobby Airport, about an hour's drive in the opposite direction. Oh please, could you not put me on any flight to Atlanta from here? (I was using my frequent flyer miles and so it was a bit of a roundabout route to India; I had to catch a connecting flight in Atlanta). Even cargo would be fine, I said. The airline put me on the next flight for Atlanta. And security was a breeze. In Atlanta, I got on the plane, sat down, buckled myself and watched the others stash their carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment.

I had a carry-on myself. Once upon a time my checked-in luggage got routed to another country, so I always pack at least three or four days' wear in my carry on, complete with formal shoes. Even now, when everything is available in India. I wouldn't want to have to shop the moment I land. And besides, I'm extremely finicky about what I wear. Even though my wardrobe is simple enough, blackish black, grayish black, brownish black, bluish black, reddish black, whitish black. A friend peering into my closet, said, ‘Anu it's like I'm falling into a black hole.’ Lately, I have tossed in some colors. See? I’m getting bolder. Anyways, back to the carry-on. Where was my carry-on? I hadn’t brought it on board. I knew I had it on me when I was in Atlanta. I must have left it at the help desk (whenever possible, I avoid reading signs and prefer asking).

My bag! My bag! I jumped out of my seat and ran out of the plane with two flight attendants chasing after me, M’am you’re not to step off the plane once you get on board (until destination, of course). Their voices flew over my head (I heard some clicks and buzz on their radios) as I ran out the gates and to the desk where a group of airport officials were perhaps on the point of calling a bomb squad. 'That’s mine, that’s mine, that’s mine!' I cried out. ‘I knew it had to be you,’ spoke someone, on seeing me come charging out.

Do I really look so completely out of sync with the world? This October, when I went to San Diego, I forgot to take my jacket off and place it in the basket along with my shoes and handbag, and my dear carry-on. When I stepped through the metal detector, the guard looked at me and said, ‘You have your coat on.’ I took a step back saying, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ He dropped his head sideways on his right shoulder and appraised me -- the way parrot astrologers in India cock their heads. ‘Nah, you’re OK,’ he said. I was a trifle miffed that I wasn’t asked to step out and leave my jacket in the basket.

Next time, perhaps.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

I'm Not The Only Anu Jayanth

I googled Anu Jayanth - perhaps to confirm that I exist - and it seems that I'm not the only Anu Jayanth.

There's also another Anu Jayanth, in Facebook. In a quick email exchange I learnt that her name is indeed Anu Jayanth and she has more right to the name, Anu, than I do. Anu is her name in full. Mine is short for Anusuya, the first four letters of which have often caused me some embarrassment. I was named after the mythological Anusuya, wife of the sage, Atri.

And then there is Anu Jayanth who "by God's grace reached Auckland safely". I happen to live in the US. Safely or unsafely, I dont know. One has to only read the news to learn that there's just so much grace a God can give and the rest is all really up to man.

And then there is Anu Jayant. Note, this one spells her last name ending with a 't'. And she has written something to Hrithik Roshan on his Bollywood wallpaper. Good grief! That, most emphatically, is not me.

Incidentally, Jayanth should not even be my last name. It's actually my husband's first name. As it was in many parts of South India (is it still?), we didn't have such a thing as a last name...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Do I Blog?

Lately, the days have been growing shorter and although I left very early in the evening for Austin, it was quite dark when I got off the I-10 and onto the 71 heading west. I enjoy driving though not at night. What if a deer or raccoon dashed across? After the tense two and a half hour drive, my shoulders were all bunched up and my neck had stiffened. I unpacked and went straight to bed, but woke up well before dawn and reached out in the darkness for my laptop. Out of habit I punched in my email ID. There was something from Stratfor in my mailbox. On the urging of a friend whose passion is geopolitics, I had signed up for Stratfor’s email delivery. I flagged the article for later reading.

True to Stratfor’s claim that they do not simply publish news but deliver in-depth intelligent analysis, the lonely news article in my email inbox drew comparisons between the New York Landmarks plot and the Mumbai attack. This was the sort of intelligent, relevant to the times stuff that the geopolitics geek expected me to spout on my blog? Waaah! To add to my anguish, the words, Identity Crisis, that my eyes had grabbed from another blogger's had me going through an identity crisis myself. I pulled out all my posts and by midday my blog was blank. I did not feel any better.

What was the purpose of my blogging?

To write freely.

Does it matter what other people thought of it?

No. Well, actually, yes it does, but I have to get over that. This is about the rebuilding of me.

Fortunately, I had moved all my posts to the draft folder and not deleted them. I brought them all out again. Without audacity, the artist in me might just as well remain dead. At the moment, I honestly cannot deal with the kind of crazy things that's happening in the world. When I’m troubled, words start to leap about, as if a million millipedes were dancing all over my computer screen. I have to, have to, have to hold beautiful thoughts in my mind. Like the time when my painting was turning black because I was mulling over the past and I began to despair, a dragonfly flew into my garage-studio, hovered in front of the thickly layered painting that had a tar-like stickiness to it. Oh please don’t get stuck in the paints! I waved my arms, I waved my brush. The dragonfly turned toward me like a fighter plane and then took off into the sun, its wings shimmering with color, bringing back the radiance in me, in my painting.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Am I a Hindu?

Are you a Hindu? I'm often asked that question. And I say, We-ll, I was raised a Hindu at home and a Christian at school and I have been curious and excited about all other religions on the bus ride home. My mother was all accepting and my father was all denying, and for a child you can imagine how bewildering it must have all been. It was up to me to be whatever I wanted to be.

Words my mother said kept coming back to me over the years. Hinduism, my mother said, was structured on tat tvam asi and she would translate the Sanskrit words to English, Thou Art That.

My mother said that as thattu. Whereas, when my father said, that, there was not even a hiss of breath after the letter t. Since he was the one who had studied in Cambridge, I naturally admired his that and not my mother's thattu. I found my mother's thattu very funny and every time she said, thou art thattu, all I could do was burst into laughter. It would take many years for me to fully understand what she was saying.

To even say, I am a Hindu, would be to separate oneself from another and therefore that person would no longer be a Hindu. Such was the great wisdom behind those words, tat tvam asi, my mother would say. It was like the way Krishna disappears from a gopi the moment she believes that he is hers. I never understood anything she said back then.

But I would later understand.

So when someone asks me if I am a Hindu, I say, We-ll, I was raised a Hindu at home and a Christian at school and I have been curious and excited about all other religions on the bus ride home.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I Don't Know What To Say...

I have zero opinions on most things. Or perhaps too many and they cancel each other out. I honestly tried very hard to give a correspondent my take on voice theft and voicelessness and then gave up.

I think it must have something to do with the way I was brought up. Aye, fear is a killer of the mind. Oh, but we survived, because we knew how to make light of things. Which is why it's very difficult for me to think too hard, unless I can spin my thoughts into a novel and see through many eyes :)

But before I write my next novel, I want to gather some boldness, which is why I'm here. Previously I wrote to Mailclan, an email network of my in-laws. Just to, yes, just to get my voice going. But now I want to keep a larger audience in mind and a spoonful of sugar is all I need to have me feeling less inhibited.

Someone asked me recently, Are you vegetarian? That word always causes in me a moment of hesitation. Back where I come from, in the neighborhood where I lived, we didn't use the word vegetarian because we were all vegetarians. It was the Non-vegetarian that needed any special tag. And then, when I'm asked about my take on vegetarianism, I don't know what to say. Is it all right for me to not to eat meat but enjoy all other material things which cause big forests and entire eco-systems to be destroyed? A book, a computer, a car, a plane ride would not be there for my taking if it weren't for the loss of many a beautiful creature. So I don't have any opinions on vegetarianism either.

Turkeys must be taking refuge in your house for Thanksgiving, someone remarks.

And I don't know what to say.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Gay Correspondent

Anu Jayanth: I have Lynn's permission to post this.

Lynn McJohn: This isn't always a consideration, and may have no bearing on your decision to bloggify, but it occurs to me that I haven't told you one thing that might influence your decision: I'm a gay woman, and you are a female author with an up-and-coming novel in a traditional, conservative environment. In the interests of full disclosure, so you can decide on the basis of career advancement and all like that... I'd love to see your take on the topic of voicelessness, or voice theft, but if you wanted to get real vague with the description of your correspondent, or leave that part out entirely, it would be very much your choice to make, with no assumptions either way.

Anu Jayanth: I'm straight -- this said very boringly, matter-of-factly. Also, I'm so far removed from India, geographically, and I don't quite know what it's like there. But tell me, you folks in India, is it really such a traditional, conservative environment as Lynn believes it is? Incidentally, I steeped my mind in Tarun Tejpal's, Alchemy of Desire, and Siddharth Dhanvant's, The Last Song of Dusk, to introduce a bit of sex in my novel :)

Lynn McJohn's first email:

Good Evening!

We haven't met, but you met a lady I work with, Rhonda, at the post office last weekend. She recommended your site as one I might enjoy. I'm awfully glad she did; I've just finished the first chapter of The Finger Puppet and am very impressed with the power of the story and the quality of the storytelling.

Anu Jayanth: Thank you :)

Lynn McJohn: Of particular interest is Tara's speech impediment. Are you familiar with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior? In the book, Kingston's mother says she cut Kingston's frenum shortly after she was born, a traditional Chinese act intended to assert control over a female voice early (as circumcision both marks and warns a male child as to what's expected of him). Kingston's mother explains it to her as having quite a different purpose, however: "Your tongue would be able to move in any language. You'll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another. You'll be able to pronounce anything."

Anu Jayanth: No, I havent read Kingston's, The Woman Warrior, but I'm aware of the Chinese practice. Tara's speech impediment was purely accidental. I wasnt thinking of voicelessness or women's issues. The story was sort of dwelling in me and it had to come out, that's all :)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Of The Mouth Is Brahman Born

During the dark period after Sirocco's death, many were persuading me to go on anti-depressants. I stubbornly refused. I have never taken any sort of medication -- other than the rare tylenol -- and I was not going to weaken and grow dependant on anti-depressants.

Chocolates work great for me :)

And mouthwash.

Yes, mouthwash. Impossible to feel down and out when my mouth is tingly, pepperminty fresh. These days, I see more and more ads focusing on oral hygiene. And then I think of our forefathers and the wealth of knowledge they packaged in that one line, Of the Mouth is Brahman born, which would get me to play with some ideas and begin writing.

Some books that I found particularly useful.
On Becoming A Novelist -- John Gardner
Writer's Idea Book - Jack Heffron
DK's Visual Dictionary
Spunk & Bite -- Arthur Plotnik

Cheers :)

Anu and Decorum

And someone said to me, Anu you're a published author, you have to act with some decorum.

Oh help. I'm enjoying being ME again and not that Tara character who completely took over my sunshine personality. One of my readers emailed me saying how much she empathized with me...with my speech problems. I'm glad I was able to portray Tara's tongue-tie realistically, but I personally have a very nimble tongue.

This morning I woke up bubbling with laughter. I was soooooo high. No, I don't do drugs. No, I don't drink alcohol (my niece can tell you of the hilarious time everyone had when I took a few sips of champagne some Thanksgivings ago). Oh, but I do, do, do binge on chocolates. Though today's high is not sugar or cocoa induced. It's just pure me.

Built for fun.

A priceless trait that we three sisters possess is this ability to laugh. For a while -- after Sirocco died -- I thought I had lost it. It's two years now and I'm finally coming out of the sorrow I sank into. I had to keep telling myself, Anu you have another son that you have to care of. But in that dark period in 2006, there were many times when I felt I had no right to live. You have to stop blaming yourself, everyone said. Sirocco could have picked up the corn cob from anywhere. But I knew, oh well I knew, that I have now and then given him corn cobs. He enjoyed playing with them. An autopsy showed a piece of corn cob – smaller than a bottle cork – stuck in his intestine. Will I ever forget my boy stretched out on the vet’s table? Oh I was there, watching the scalpel split open his belly.

How could I live?

I thought of many ways to die.

Sirocco was a chocolate lab. Big, beautiful. Majestic. And I lay my head on his body that had now turned to rock. Sirocco was gone. When he threw up that day, I thought nothing of it. Like all labs, he gobbles up food and then throws up. He’d be fine. The feeling that he would be fine strengthened when my neighbor said that his dog throws up all the time. Nothing to worry. I decided to take Sirocco to the vet the next morning. Just to be sure. But the next morning Sirocco was dead. He had gone to the vet only the week before, for his shots and his annual check-up. And there was nothing wrong with him. Then, how?

No, I must not invite such thoughts again. For then I'll start running away from this house. As if it were the house's fault. And i'll start staring at the kitchen tiles and wonder why I had made such a fuss about the width of the grout line. Why had I not allowed the tile-setter to stay with the original 3/8 inch? As if it had anything to do with the grout thickness. No, I must not head in that direction for I'll surely go mad again.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Relax - Goes To Hollywood

I like switching to various radio stations to listen to the language of the hosts. For example, you're not likely to hear expressions like 'kick ass' in NPR. And I like to know the various Englishes out there because I sound mostly as though I have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.

While I was listening to a station that was playing some 80's music, I heard a song that my body responded to wildy. Sometimes when I am writing, I become so still and this song was so energetic that I had to jump up and dance. What song was it?

I immediately called a Know All in-law on speaker-phone and said, 'Hey listen to this music and tell me what song it is.'

'That's Relax, Anu,' she said. 'I could make out from the opening chords. It was a big hit in India during my college days. Do you know it's an M song?' The M represented self-stimulation (I have to be careful about the words I toss in here. Earlier I was cautioned by a family member not to fashion provocative subject titles as I had previously for the one about flesh).

'Listen to the lyrics properly,' she said.

And I listened to the lyrics properly. Not that I'm particularly good at catching words especially because I have this marvelous quality of mishearing lyrics. For example, when I first heard Sledgehammer a long time ago when I was in Chennai, it sounded like SnakeCharmer to my Indian born ears. And to this day, when I hear that song, it continues to sound like Snake Charmer. Anyways, I tried my best to listen to the lyrics and then gave up. The good thing was that now I had a title I could search on the web.

And listen to it...and dance :)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Taking the ouch out of mammograms

In 2005, my husband noticed a bruise on my upper arm. Had I bumped into something somewhere?, I said, slowly, trying to remember my activities during the week. A colleague of his who had developed strange bruises on his upper arm had been diagnosed with leukemia. The chilling thought that I might have cancer crossed both our minds and off I went the next morning for a much overdue check-up. Some finger probing later, my physician said that I ought to have a mammogram, guiding my hand to the small lump on my left breast. While I waited for the big M-day, I gathered as much information I could about mammograms though I could have done without some of the stories I heard. My dentist spoke of a woman who had died a year after being diagnosed. The dental assistant said that her neighbor, too, had had a similar bruise as mine and she died within two years of being diagnosed with cancer.


About this time I was still rewriting and rewriting The Finger Puppet (I must have written the first chapter at least a million times over and then struck it out completely in my final edit). Convinced that I was going to die in two years, I decided to wrap up the novel and send my manuscript to Ann McCutchan (to learn more about Ann McCutchan please go to 'links' on my website for her feedback before sending to literary agents/publishers.

What were we going to tell our son? In the next few days, I kept myself busy by doing a massive clean-up of all my things. A friend of mine had found a stash of Playboy magazines in her late husband's closet and had felt terribly betrayed. No porno magazines or old love letters in mine but I certainly didn't want my husband going through all my stuff.

As it happened, the lump was just dense tissue which showed signs of calcification a year later, soon after our dog, Sirocco, died. In a stereotactic biopsy, the technician drilled out seven pink worm-like pieces of my flesh which had little white eyes (calcified spots) and then left a pinhead bit of stainless steel in that area. Anyways, I had a mammogram last week. Oh what torture! Looking at the digital images of my breasts on her computer, breast surgeon, Arlene Ricardo said, Wonderful. All was well. That certainly took the ouch out of mammograms.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Day After America's Election of Obama

I was leaving for Austin the day after the Election. At the gas station, while my husband was checking the tire pressure of my Acura, I looked around me. There was an African American at the telephone booth, his face and voice exhibiting the excitement of the Obama win. Then a SUV pulled up and parked alongside our car. The driver of the SUV -- another African American -- smiled at me. I smiled back. I have exchanged many a smile with many a stranger before. But this was different. This smile was not simply that of a polite stranger. This was a smile that would have been reserved perhaps for his wife, or sister, or daughter, or mother, or a very dear friend. And his eyes seemed to say, yes we did it! I didn't want to spoil the moment by blurting out the truth, that I am just a green card holder and I played no part in the voting -- as most minorities had -- except perhaps to wish mightily for Obama to win. And whoop and cheer when Obama and his family made their appearance.

On reaching Austin, I quickly got on my laptop to record the solidarity I shared with the stranger. And then I saw an email from a long ago friend. It brought back a lot of memories -- good and bad. Of another period in my life that I had swiftly blanked out. It was the first few years of my marriage. My husband and I were young and so terribly immature and we made a complete mess of our lives. But we held on, even though we were so totally incompatible. And when Yadav, our son, came along, driven by the responsibility of providing a secure home for him, Jay and I worked hard on rebuilding our marriage. We continue to have our disagreements but I know that he is just the right person for me. And I for him. I keep insisting though that he got a better deal because I have so many different personalities and so, for him it's like having a harem of women :)

-Anu Jayanth

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rima Kaur

Imagine how thrilling it must be for me to hear from my readers -- especially because you, Rima, were the very first to write me directly! Of course, I had to publish your comment along with my reply in the hope that it would catch your attention someday :) It worked.

I have always wanted to blog but I lacked the courage. Soon after launching The Finger Puppet, I felt emboldened to go naked, write about the real me. The thing is, because I looked back into the past, into a childhood life and world I had blanked out, I was now flooded with long ago images of India. I had to pick up my paintbrush again. Blogging will have to wait...


Blogger versatile.frost said...

Hi Anu!
Rima again! I just typed my name in google to see where in this web-world I have left my footprints, and I came across your blog. Surprise Surprise! You actually replied to my comment! And not only that, you converted it into a post! Wow this is so special for me, I cannot thank you enough! I have actually saved that particular page. I'll have some serious showing off to do in front of my friends now! And now I'll go through your website too.

Thank You ever so much. I never ever expected a reply!

October 31, 2008 6:10 AM

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Self-Therapy Through Writing

Prior to writing The Finger Puppet, I have never really had any insane desire of becoming a writer. That sort of sneaked up on me. In its origins, the book was about youth and longevity and all things bright and beautiful. But in the many years it would take me to write, I discovered that the quickest way to aging was to become a novelist. I wish John Gardner had warned me of this in his fine book, On Becoming A Novelist!

Going back into the past and reliving our lives in Horror House where I was no longer a writer but a helpless child watching, watching, watching - all the things I didn't want to see or remember - had to have some impact on my mind. In person I was fine, playing wife, mother and the good friend. But when I sat at the computer I was not sure who I was anymore. There have been moments when I was terrified that I might walk up to someone and say, Oh please may I borrow your head? Alas, that is the charmed existence of a writer! Thankfully the loopiness did not extend beyond the computer screen :)

The writing of the book was certainly a healing play, a leela as Vasantha Surya writes in her Dialogues with Daemons. Immediately afterward, of course, I found it very hard to step back into the present. But as the months pass, I am so happy I wrote -- crazy though the novel is. The idea for the thumb as the main protagonist came out of the blue. In a summer workshop with Farnoosh, one of my fellow writers was working on a short story about a size 6 shoe model whose big toe gets chopped off by a dog's leash. As I imagined the big toe flying in the air, I found myself drawing features on it, remembering my finger puppet playing days with my sisters.

Now I must focus on my body -- exercise/dance off the extra pounds, get rid of the horrible slouch, and step out in the sun.

Dialogues with daemons


This novel affirms that being authentically creative with one’s own emotions and thoughts is a healing play, a leela.

Filthy rich and clean broke!” — that’s the situation of a dysfunctional family sitting on a gold mine of stolen antiques and prime real estate in Tiruchirapalli, and are reduced to eating rancid curd rice with mango pickle to disguise the taste. Thanks to a megalomaniac pater familias, who fancies himself to be a rationalist and a “modern”.

Set in the mid 1960s, with a speechless 12-year-old’s thumb as the protagonist, Anu Jayanth’s debut novel is about many things Indian. Put together in the eclectic fashion of a Navaratri Golu, she holds together the whole show with some startling insights into the nature and function of language.

Restoring faith

The book’s much- more-than-whimsical illuminations have proved wrong my distrust of a whole genre of Indian English writing, sparked long ago by Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. My reasoning then went thus: Here I am, drenched and gasping in this torrent of ‘India’ — what can a diaspora writer have to tell me about it, from that abstracting distance? This story of a deceptively phlegmatic maami and her three daughters who subvert feminist stereotypes and intelligently resist patriarchy without detesting their yajamaan, has taken the sting out of my defeat. Now, after all these years, I shall accept that for many outside India, as much if not more than for those who are here, India is not a geographical expression but an area of consciousness which can accommodate and sometimes ingeniously reconcile opposites. Its darkest patches have a way of suddenly lighting up.

Tara has been silenced by the experience of domestic violence. Unwilling to burden her beloved co-sufferers with her own struggle to cope with a seething welter of contradictory messages and feelings, she takes to talking with her own thumb. A common enough childhood daydream, you think. We remember whispering to invisible companions, and not just long ago. But when it’s the coping technique of a victim of abuse, unsettling questions can surface: is this child “disturbed”, or “depressed”? Does she have behavioural problems?

Changing conceptions

Our guesses on what constitute sanity and insanity have been changing, as we strive constantly to align received wisdom and apparent commonsense with what is currently seen as politically correct. Discoveries in neuroscience tempt us to speculate on the role of will and consciousness in human systems ruled by self-propelled neural impulses. The sense of losing ground and authenticity in a world of fragmenting identities has driven us to look anew at old ideas about the mind.

Lest you should think Tara’s is a case of what goes by the name of schizophrenia, or the now-discredited diagnosis of “dissociative identity disorder” or multiple personality, hers is a instance which does not fit into that model of mutually exclusive or antagonistic selves. Tara’s is a personality which grapples with but also celebrates and embraces its own “split”, to use a phrase no longer fashionable in psychiatry. It divides itself not to escape from its daemons, but to have a dialogue with them from two standpoints. To remain integrated — and sane — without erasing the line of division, she plays … and how she plays! Her daemons, once confronted, turn into curiously endearing presences…

Serving a purpose

Like the many swamis and devis in the puja room, each of them a loving concatenation of human aspirations, Tara’s daemons are there for a purpose: to guide her to solutions not available through the usual avenues of logical analysis. Tara and her sisters discover that being authentically creative with one’s own emotions, observations, and thoughts is a healing play, a leela. What saves their flights of fantasy from turning into pathological delusions is the sense of fun that flutters around that house, under the indulgent eye of the “shock absorber” mother steeped in Vedas, ayurveda, ahimsa, and Carnatic music. The father who insists that it is just a figment of his silly womenfolk’s imagination slowly sickens, while his wife heals herself of all her deepest griefs with her customised version of occupational therapy. She assures her children that their crazy father loves them all “in his own way”. Positive reinforcement? Or just self-defense? The family breaks away at one point for sheer survival’s sake but returns to care for him till the end. For, he is one of them, a pitiable fragment who has “lost it”.

As Anu Jayanth weaves together the fabric of life in Tiruchi with the khadi values of Gandhigram, the motif of the finger puppet pops in and out. A strange kind of sutradhar, the finger puppet somehow manages to tassel together the many loose ends in this perceptive tale.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ann Weisgarber and I and The Other Workshop

Soon after hurricane Ike stormed through Houston, we were left without power and water. We were well prepared though. Canned foods in the pantry, storage bins full of water, and, of course, candles, flashlights and butane lighters. No, we don't have a generator. All day my husband and I read and read and read. One of the books I finished reading was Ann Weisgarber's, The Personal History of Rachel Duprey, a story set in the Badlands. I recognized many sections in the novel. It was so thrilling.

I met Ann Weisgarber in the fall of 1999 in an Inprint workshop with Farnoosh Moshiri. Ann was easily the best writer there. I had not even a story then (it would take all of Farnoosh's persistence and patience to extract the story within me). Coming back to Ann...her story was already well-developed and I was filled with awe.

Farnoosh did not have a workshop the following winter and so Ann and I joined The Other Workshop. As in Farnoosh's workshop, we had to turn in our first 25 pages. And when my turn came, this time I handed out my print-out with great pride. The focus in the The Other Workshop was on language. It was all about the elegant variation of which I knew nothing. I had just begun to make small trips into my past for a story and I came back each time gasping for words. And when words came, they rushed out of me like diarrhea. And my mind was no more than an eight-year old's.

"It must be hard for you to write in English considering that it's your second language,' said one kindly gentleman.

"Do you know what that means? It means ignorant,' said another, when I used the word, Agnostic.

"You should write non-fiction. That's so much easier to write. Other people can help you put it together,' said yet another. They were all very kind and generous hearted people.

If they had been racists, that would have been OK. If they had hated me personally, that would have been OK. But I clearly did not belong in their writing group. And that hurt like hell. Especially because the moderator was drooling over Ann's manuscript. I was so envious of Ann. I wanted to be that moment. Oh how I longed for all that praise!

I felt like crawling under the table and not coming out. I didn't want to continue the workshop.

And then I got a call at home. From Ann. She had noticed how my face had crumpled and she was calling me to cheer me up, urging me to get back to the workshop. She would sit beside me and give me that moral support. Of course, everyone was full of smiles and encouragement when I returned, which made me feel even worse.

I was determined to write well. I forced myself to read on a sentence by sentence level and write on a sentence by sentence level (which was even more difficult). I have amblyopia; my brain has adjusted to the lazy eye but I have always read speedily, grabbing words here and there, without really seeing or appreciating the beauty and structure of language. Eight years later, in 2007, when I was doing my final edit, I would pretend that I was in The Other Workshop, and write. I have to admit that it was a great workshop. Today, when I read some of the reviews of The Finger Puppet, I smile. I did it -- thanks to Ann and a lot of beautiful people in my life! And, of course, The Other Workshop.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

About Me -- Anu Jayanth

I was born in Chennai, India, in a house filled with music, literature, and art. I wrote poetry and I loved to paint and draw. What I enjoyed most was to stare at white walls until my mind became blank. Previously, I used to stare at the sun but upon reading a story of sun worshippers losing their sight, I switched to wall staring. Snuggled against a mountain of blankets and pillows on one end of the bed, I stared at the tranquilizing wall in front of me, transferred on to it all the bad things I didn't want to remember till all I saw was white, white, white.

My name, Anusuya, meant clean and pure, devoid of jealousy or any other bad qualities, my mother would keep reminding me because I was a horror as a child. Expletives spewed out of my mouth if a teacher dared write on the pure white pages of my notebook. I was a voracious reader though, reading everything speedily. All of my father's books, especially those pages he bookmarked, trying to guess his thoughts. I could read a lot about his moods from the way he snapped his book shut, or placed it carefully or left it somewhere absentmindedly.

Before age nine, I was reading Bronte, Dickens, G K Chesterton, John Creasey, Edgar Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, and more. Whatever my father read, I read, whether or not I understood it. I was absorbing rather than actually reading because no one had taught me to read. I read intuitively, sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. I could never tell the difference. I enjoyed going to school because I could wander from classroom to classroom at will. Or I played all day in the schoolyard with the school dog. Anyone seeing us chase each other would have thought there were two mongrels (one wearing a white shirt and a pink pleated skirt). Or I flounced about with the nuns in their white habits and sang angelically in the chapel in St. Thomas Convent.

My two sisters were model students. Whereas I sat in a corner and studied everyone through a large blood-red glass pendant I wore on a chain around my neck. Over the years opticians used words like astigmatism, myopia, dyslexia, amblyopia and fitted my eyes with glasses. But my eyes continued to escape from reality and sought refuge in imagined worlds. This girl has no vision at all, one eye specialist said. The calm and peace and the vast stretches of green in the orphanage of Gandhigram would have a lasting and beautiful influence on my mind. Until we went to Gandhigram, I was mostly like Caruso, our dog. I ate heartily, I played joyously, I barked at strangers, yelped when I got hurt and crept away to a corner to lick my wounds.

In my teens in Bangalore, I worked as an inshop-sales-promotionist for Maggi soup. A 'helper' would fill a paper cup with steaming tomato soup from a stainless steel urn and hand it to me. Talking, laughing, and enjoying every minute of it, I offered the soup sample to all the shoppers. To sip, to slurp, to smack their lips and smile. There were only about five or six of us 'Maggi girls' and the soup was a big hit. And I loved being noticed. I had stiff, ironed out hair that looked like a wig, thinly plucked eyebrows and I wore pancake makeup, shimmering lipsticks and blush-on, and imported saris – curtain material, actually -- that my sister Sukanya brought us from UK. And I had a huge crush on all army men, cycling all the way to Yelahanka – I had just begun to wear jeans -- for a glimpse of uniform and crewcut hair. Then the next two years I curbed my venturesome spirit and worked as a secretary until I met my husband in Met-Chem Canada. After we married, Jay and I left for Canada. I threw away the sari and slipped into slacks. India began to fade.

I was fascinated by the eye, hair and skin color in multicultural Montreal. I stared and stared at people shamelessly. Later I gave up the idiot gape for a more sophisticated corner-of-the-eye observation. People watching became my full-time pursuit. Once my eyes were drawn to a young woman with enviably straight hair (I had resigned myself to mine, a mess of frizzy curls and as coarse as coconut fiber) and the most luminous skin I had ever seen. Unaware that I was watching, the woman yawned, opening her mouth wide, wide, wide. Out came her tongue like a pink snake; the redpink muscle leaped in all directions and then withdrew in a slurp. Her throat rippled and a small round lump rolled magically under her facial skin near her eyes, toward her ear, jaw-line and chin. It all happened in a few seconds and I was too stunned to summon help. Her face relaxed and she regained her tranquil beauty. A question mark formed in my head and stayed there for the next twenty years.

I studied commercial art at Dawson College. Only to give it up. For a baby boy growing in my belly. Soon I was so caught up learning to play mother that I was quite happy watching Star Trek, Doctor Who, Sesame Street, with my son, Yadav. And the years slipped by. From Montreal, we moved up further north, to Kapuskasing, where I taught art, designed a logo for the town's 75th anniversary. I was totally in love with the town and the people there. But the long winters were dunking my mind in darkness.

So we came to sunshine Texas. Briefly I volunteered at the Houston Public Library at their Westchase branch, teaching English as a Second Language to various immigrants before I took on a part-time position at Heyes Learning Center.

'An Indian teaching Mexicans English…how funny!' said a neighbor.

My students were mostly from Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, and sometimes from Korea, Vietnam, or China. Since I never really learnt grammar, I would study before each class and then teach it to the students. Visually. Through quick sketches and drawings.

With my son away at school for long hours and my husband on assignment in Algeria, I had plenty of time to chew on the mouth and the tongue. In the evenings, my son would be my sounding board. He began to be involved in all that I was researching. Because I believed the tongue tossing woman to be Chinese, I turned to Tai-chi little knowing at that time that a more ancient philosophy from back home was the fountainhead of all Eastern Thought. Now only months before I would commence writing, if anyone had remarked that the underlying theme in the novel would be about the Vedas, I would have laughed and laughed. No way. I had long ago abandoned all that was Indian and blindly embraced all that was foreign.

Meena, the sister of the Mumbai based writer Dilip D'Souza, got me to lay the plans for a book. In a month, I had a staggering table of contents. How was I going to write all this myself? I am mostly self-taught, with only a modicum of schooling. I have had no experience in putting together such vast and complex material. As these doubts blistered in my mind, one night or perhaps it was close to dawn, a bearded, long-haired and oldish looking man -- a sage of sorts -- visited me in my dreams. The moment I woke up, I sprang out of my bed and headed straight for my computer. I quickly typed out the dialogue I had with the ascetic.

In the winter of 1999, I took my two-page dialogue to Inprint Writer's Workshop in Houston where I lived. In Inprint house was a big rectangular table around which everyone sat and discussed each other's manuscripts. I tried to fit into this group. At home, I would pretend that my fellow writers were with me seated around my dining table the same way we were in the workshop. And in the beginning I wrote chiefly for their approval, adding to my dialogue small details, which included a desk, bookshelves and a frog chanting outside my window. Not good enough for the workshop. They wanted to hear more of my life in India, my childhood. But each time I looked back into my past I was staring into empty space. As though the moment I took a step forward the previous day disappeared. Week after week I went to the workshop with no story to share while my fellow writers wrote so beautifully. My mind was a blank.

'Don't come to my class if you don't have a story next week,' Farnoosh Moshiri would say with a smile.

Still no story.

Farnoosh did not give up. She slowly pulled the story out of me like a dentist extracting an embedded wisdom tooth. Of course with it came a lot of blood and gore, all the horrors I had seen as a child and effectively blanked out of my mind until everything was white, white, white. The frequent forays into the past had me growing incoherent, sometimes tongue-tied. About this time, I was also splitting into two people. She of the past and I of the present. Tara and Yatri. I lost myself completely to fiction.

-Anu Jayanth

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Me and My Mechanics

And so our good old mechanic said that the Solara needed the front brake pads to be changed. 180 dollars. What? We are spending too much money on that car, Jay said. That's way too much, way too much. I think our mechanic is beginning to get the impression that we pay for any job without even a murmur. Well, you talk to him, I said. Jay called Mark and went into the details of what had to be done. The brakes were worn down to about 85%. If we don't change the pads soon, chances are that the rotors would have to be replaced too and that's going to cost more. We'll save ourselves a few bucks by fixing the brakes now.
Jay was not convinced. So he took the car to another mechanic who quoted him 260 dollars. And Jay decided to have the job done there. What? I said. You thought 180 was way too much and now you are OK with 260? Well, this guy said that rotors are very cheap these days, and he would simply change them, instead of machining them, and he was going to put the best brake pads, not just any brake pad as other mechanics would. Jay seemed to have been hypnotized by Jeff.
I picked up the phone and called the new mechanic, Jeff. I wanted to hear this guy, this guy who managed to make it seem that he was doing Jay a favor. At the end of the conversation with Jeff, I realized that it was impossible to say no to Jeff. He had me hypnotized too.
Anyway, when we went to pick up our car. The total price was 375. Jeff said he had changed the brake fluid as well. But not the rotors. He did give a bouquet of a rose and some carnations.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rima Kaur said...
dear anu,

i recently purchased your book after reading about it in the times of india. i was drawn to it immediately.

i must admit that i was initially confused as to who was being talked about in certain sections of the book, tara or yatri. but with a little more concentration i was able to tell the difference.

i felt as if i was right there. witnessing everything right in front of my own eyes. you have written beautifully.

do visit the world book fair at delhi. that is where i stay, and hopefully, i will meet you!

May 31, 2008 6:40 AM

Anu Jayanth said...
Thanks so much Rima!
I'd love to meet you. I do plan on going to India this fall/winter...

August 3, 2008 11:55 AM