I once met a friend of my Uncle Roshan’s who lived, with pristine order, in the mouth of a cave above Rishikesh. Every morning he swept any loose dirt to the perimeter of the dusty, red-brown semi-circle in front of the cave itself. There was, as I recall, a rickety fence made from driftwood collected on the banks of the Ganges below. This friend, a man in his sixties who had dyed what remained of his hair (and also his eyebrows) a livid henna-pink, had been, for most of his life, a bank manager in Ludhiana before chucking it all in for a life of solitude, scholarship and ecstatic communion with the valuable Gods. At the age of seventeen, I waited politely on a nearby boulder, waiting for my uncle and his friend to finish catching up, eavesdropping on their clack-clack-clack Punjabi. I recall the tin-can crackle of the transistor radio, set to Mukesh and Lata circa 1953, and also the buttery, metallic smell of the tiny paraffin stove, on which intensely sweet chai was promptly boiled then poured into glass cups as thick as bottle stops. Biscuits in a tin, or toffees from a newspaper cone. Come on, have another one. Even as a teenager who had aspirations of following in the footsteps of Jean Genet (how?) or Christopher Marlowe (ditto), I knew that this ex-bank manager was onto something. A yellowing copy of a Graham Greene paperback flopped its ears in the breeze coming down from the cedar forest. This is the life, I thought. When I grow up, I too will abandon my family and write novels on the verge of a forest and/or a balcony in Montparnasse.
Two things: 1. I falsely assumed that someone who reads novels might also want to write one. 2. Didn’t exactly make it to Paris or abandon my family.
How do you make peace with your life as it is lived now, rather than the approximate or stringent balcony life you assumed you would? Is the life you are living now a match to the one you dreamed of, when poetry or something that resembled poetry pressed itself outwards, through your skin, and into the world, making a monster out of you, gesture after gesture out of you?
Three things: 1. I am, with my younger sibling, a carer for my parent, who is declining in the way that flowers or trees dissolve and clarify, seasonally. Maybe I am declining! Who knows. This is not what I expected. I did not expect that my character as a practical, reliable and quiet oldest daughter would be the strongest feature of my personal or domestic life. Indeed, I thought by now I would be married to the Count of Monte Cristo, someone who would bring me coffee in bed early on winter mornings. This was not to be. Sometimes I think I have the romantic prospects of a warthog, or a tree, who probably have a lot of offers, come to think of it. 2. Cesar Aira, last year, in the Paris Review, wrote or said these words about writing: “The novel requires an accumulation of time, a succession of different days: without that, it isn’t a novel.” I almost wept when I read those words, noting (in my intestines, I suppose, or somewhere else in the middle of what a body is) that no such “accumulation of time” had every been a feature of my life, which (since my twenties) has been a blur of the one or two or three jobs that I have always taken to supplement the low-paying, untenured full-time teaching job I already had. 3. A monster is expressive, non-conforming. A monster is not a beast. A monstrous life is one in which the desire for a life that is different to the one you are living now exceeds your capacity to tolerate the one you are already in. I think of the man in Rilke’s poem who gets up from the dinner table and starts walking, in the translation by Robert Bly, who I cannot believe I am quoting in this blog post, “towards a church in the East.” No, at the last moment, he pauses and goes back inside, having heard someone cry out from inside the house. That’s the kind of monster I am. What kind of monster are you?
What I am trying to say is this: sometimes, stunningly, you become a writer in the life you are actually living, and its ordinary routines and obligations are the reeds that you weave into a basket. Into the basket you toss a succession of notes and fragments, carrying them to market, where you tuck them into brown paper bags of sweet pomegranates, courgettes, local carrots. I come from a lineage of basket-weavers, but that is as far as the analogy goes. Sometimes a lineage doesn’t translate, in the diasporic multiverse, into an actual skill. Even I knew that not learning how to crochet a shawl or embroider tablecloths would ensure that I was less marketable, at sixteen, twenty, then twenty-three, as a bride.
No, perhaps that’s not what I am saying. If I am to approach Aira’s multitude of hours through another lens, then perhaps I’d have something to say about who, in this society, gets to compete with time itself. Is the MFA in Creative Writing a cave? Is it a balcony? Perhaps it’s simply that, the thing that allows you to write, as per Aira’s spectacular method, “forward.” Every day he goes to the cafe and writes long hand on creamy white paper, the sort with weight and grain, then goes back home and types up what he spent the morning writing. Then he burns the hand-written version, and gets on with his business. Forward. No, let’s not destroy the becomings, the drafts, the gestures or versions just yet. There’s something about a two or three year process that allows, I sometimes think, all these versions of what it could be to come into contact with themselves, which is to say: each other.
In Boulder, Colorado, I once had the good fortune to be on a panel, at a literary conference, with Samuel Delany, who responded, when someone in the audience asked him what made for good writing: “I want a writing that touches itself everywhere at once.” Were those his exact words? It’s what I scrawled down in my notebook, with the word FOLD next to the quote. At the end of the panel, Samuel Delany (and Rebecca Brown, as I recall) helped me to fold then re-fold the saris I’d brought to the panel, opening a suitcase on the stage and drawing out the shimmering, volatile silks and satins and taffetas in all the colors of the rainbow and the sky behind that rainbow and the earth below that. My mother’s saris, her mother’s saris, and now mine. I’d wanted to say something, in that setting, about migration and memory, about writing, and what it feels like to write, always, so far from the places in which the stories were born, exploded or resumed, each morning, like one unbroken story that keeps being told at all hours and in all times. I don’t remember much about what I said, but I do remember what it felt like to share the precise art of sari-folding with Chip, as Samuel Delany is also known, and Rebecca. Light, communal touch has great power. Imagine that your job in the temple is to wash the copper bowls and cups that pilgrims have brought their offerings in. That’s it. You hand the bowl or cup back, and it’s over. You touch everyone that day, and they touch you, fleetingly, and without asking for anything in return. That day on the stage, after the panel had ended, and the two writers helped me to pack up, has stayed with me for many years. Maybe being a writer was a lot like this in the end. It was about caring about other people, and letting some of that care, and love, right in.
Whoever you are, I hope that this year, you are able to write in your life as it is and to tell the truth about what it has been to live that life, and that the forest beings and the city beings meet in your imagination, and that there on the balcony your oranges and coffee are waiting for you and that they are not facts but rather vectors, and that what you do end up writing has so much vitality, so much life, that it ends up melting the golden frame, and that if writing is impossible, if life does not feel possible, as it sometimes does not, that then, or even then, you can allow yourself to touch the edges of what is not you.
That would be a start.
Latest posts by Bhanu Kapil (see all)
- What Kind of Monster Are You? - January 27, 2020
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- Note on the Last Day - January 2, 2017
- Bhanu Kapil’s Goddard College MFAW Commencement Speech - August 15, 2016
- “As I write these words”: An Experiment in Recursion* - April 18, 2016