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