My awesome image caption
  • 19

    Now I know this might seem sacrilegious coming from a writer, but I often don’t love libraries. I love the idea of libraries, sure, but not the way most of them are structured, not the imposing shhhhh that makes me feel too on-edge for any pleasure, not the shelves upon shelves of books someone decided are the most important of any given field. I feel small in those spaces devoid of whimsy, as if I can’t quite match up to the seriousness being asked of my presence there. In general, I am much more at home in used bookstores or pavement stalls or busy cafes with well thumbed bookshelves.

    This week, though, I found at the Akademie Schloss Solitude a library I immediately fell head over heels in love with. This library is a small room on the top floor of the building in which I live, and all the residents have a key. In one corner there is a computer where you can look for particular titles, but the pleasure here is in browsing. You see, this library has been lovingly put together over nearly three decades by over 1300 minds: Each fellow who stays at the Akademie is asked to recommend two books the library must own, and the books are then categorised broadly and arranged alphabetically, a mix of languages and genres and the most eclectic tastes. Inside each book is a little card with the name of the fellow who recommended the book and the year in which they did so. That’s it, no authority deciding the most important books for one to read, just hundreds of artists over the years saying “ooh, I loved this one!” There are no elaborate systems for borrowing either; you simply fill out a card with the details of the book and your town details and leave it on the shelf where the book was. That way, if any other fellow is looking for it, they know know which door to come knocking at.

    Earlier in the week, I picked up Susan Sontag’s early diaries, a book of poems, a  gorgeous Palestinian novella called “touch” and a whimsical illustrated book called “Ants have sex in your beer.” I also browsed trough Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and a thick book on the history of rape, but I decided to keep the heavier reading for another day.

    Over the last couple of days, I was struggling with feeling out of place amongst much of the artistic conversation here, feeling like I was back in graduate school in an all-white classroom, reading and writing within a cultural context that felt unfamiliar at best and overpowering at worst. Here, at the Academy, although fellows come from many different countries, the bent of the current cohort is certainly mostly European and very white. In the midst of the alienation that can create, Adiana Shilbi’s Touch created for me a deep sense of warmth and fellowship, an unspoken camaraderie not just because of the author’s nationality and concerns but also for the way that book itself so beautifully captures the experience of being alone while surrounded by people, of sounds and smells and touch, of a world that is so intimate and so far away at the same time.

    As I head back to return this lovely little book to its place on the shelf today, I am reminded of the way books can give me that company, that window into the world I have come here seeking, just as much as my peers can… and how much more so for the books recommended by peers across the decades! In this small rooftop room with gorgeous windows and the silence of solitude rather than authority, I feel more at home with books than I have felt in a while.

  • 16

    Last week, I began what promises to be one of my most interesting artistic adventures yet — a writing residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. The Akademie is located in an 18th century hunting castle on the outskirts of Stuttgart, and I am here alongside artists from around the world — writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, performing artists, web-based artists, architects, and more — for 6 months of silence, community, conversation, and hopefully lots of new writing. I have never before taken 6 months, or anything more than a month, really, to just focus on being an artist, so this prospect is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. But mostly, very exciting.

    One of my goals during this period is to maintain a weekly blog to reflect on my artistic process as well as my time in this campus/ city/ country/ continent. In the past, I have often wished I had documented some of my journeys better, because even though I keep up my daily journaling and my nightly gratitude log while I’m away from home, those tend to reflect mostly my inner neuroses, dreams, and joys, and very little of the externals worlds I pass through. I am hoping that the public-private nature of a blog will allow me to do a little of the latter. It is also, of course, just a great way for me to stay in touch with folks in faraway homes who might want glimpses into my life here.

    So, I completed my first week at Solitude yesterday, and I am finally settled in to my studio apartment here. I grew up with an architect mother, and I inherited some of her passions about space and how one shapes it. While a lot of kids dream of the big mansions that they will one day live in, twelve-year-old me wanted nothing more than to one day have a studio apartment. There was something about the particular challenges of one large space that needed to br broken up into sleep/ work/ hang out/ cook spaces without any walls that particularly interested me. I had forgotten this part of myself until I landed here into what initially felt like a too-large, too-grey room for cosiness.

    Over my first three days here, I did not unpack my suitcase because i wanted the furniture to remain light enough to move around over and over. Despite a significant limp thanks to a corn that has been bothering me for months now, I managed to move all my furniture around, closets and bookshelves included, three times before i found the version I was satisfied with — a small table by a window in one corner for work, a larger architect-style table by my bed that doubles up as a nightstand and a space to sketch or do other larger work, another single bed dragged across the room under another window and covered with a colourful bedspread to create a home-like divan, a lovely armchair pulled next to it for a seating L, a third desk dragged into my kitchenette for counter space, and closets and bookshelves sitting around it. Then, the colour: little colourful postcards to brighten up overwhelmingly grey closets, a tiny rug to tie the seating L into one space, a collage of photos from home to brighten up the wall near my bed, fairy lights over one window, lovely little ceramic ware from the local flea market, and a bright red dupatta over one window to soften the grey light of German winters. Finally putting up binder clips on the wall with adhesive putty so that i can clip papers up as needed without worrying about bulletin boards, and then two large sheets of chart paper on the wall next to it because i brainstorm better standing up than sitting down. A little plushie of my favourite cartoon character, handmade mugs I brought from my studio in India, and a colourful Rajasthani mobile later, this room finally feels like me. Now I can get to work here!

    I think this sounds like an excessive amount of time and energy spent decorating to some people, but I am becoming more and more aware that this is part of my artistic process — creating spaces that welcome me, that reassure me, that encourage me. Add in the soft strains of Shiv Kumar Sharma playing on my portable speakers and lavender-grapefruit oil burning in the ceramic essential oil burner i found at the flea market, and I am immediately more energetic, more present, more able to create. Here’s to the next twenty three weeks of creating now 🙂

  • 08

    Brown Paper Bag thinks I’m “cool people”.

    For this honor, I will forgive them little slip-ups, but just for the record, I do not live in Green Park, my dog is not white, and I fell in love with Delhi years ago, well before I met Akhil or roamed these streets with him!

    It’s still a fun little read, and a sneak peak into my life as a potter-poet. Here you go!

  • 02

    This April, I did that thing that makes most non-poets (and, to be fair, many poets too) roll their eyes: I took on 30/30, that challenge where a bunch of poets around the world commit to writing a new, complete poem everyday for 30 days. A lot of people are confused by 30/30, ask if poetry can — or should — work like that, if mass production isn’t the antithesis of poetry. Put like that,I understand their concerns, but for me, this year above all years, 30/30 has been a revelation of the opposite sort, something between meditation and therapy.

    This year, 30/30 has, for me, meant a deep, sustained, careful attention to my inner world— an attention that was, in moments, completely exhausting. April was a difficult month, personally and professionally, and doing 30/30 this month has meant a refusal to avert my eyes from any of my feelings and insecurities. It has meant an insistence on sitting with deep pain and deep love, of noticing each caving of chest, each hollowness in stomach, each fear in throat — of learning how to say “I see you, and I am present for this,” over and over, to all sorts of emotions. It has meant sitting across from friends in cafes, writing through tears, refusing to hide. It has meant writing on the toy train, between Marie biscuits and mountain views; it has meant finding poems on Mall Road, and in my grandmother’s stories, and in response to the news. It has meant making poems out of other people’s words, questions, betrayals. It has meant the kind of self-discovery that makes me print poems out and take them to my therapist saying “look! I just explained me to myself!”. It has meant poems that almost broke important relationships and poems that created new relationships, poems that taught me to honor my anger or hurt, and poems that taught me to forgive. At some point, this poem-a-day exercise became an exercise in mindfulness, an insistence on getting through things rather than simply getting over them.

    30/30 has been about the ability to nod at a feeling without immediately trying to change it. 30/30 has been about learning to wrap words around hurts, but also about learning that sometimes I need not bandage, sometimes the wound must ooze before it dries. 30/30 has been the ability to look without fear at a moment/ relationship/ feeling, distilled down to its absolute essence, and somehow, this looking is itself a kind of gaining of power.

    Over the same month, I have been reading The Body Keeps the Score, a fantastic book about trauma and healing, which was recommended to me for the work I do with young people, but which has been just as meaningful at a personal level. In one section, the author, a psychiatrist, writes about how relearning how to name our emotions is intrinsic to healing from trauma— about how being able to locate emotions in one’s body is a big step in reconnecting with the parts of ourselves we shut down when we were in survival mode. Without getting into too much detail, I too have spent the last year or two recovering from a point where I had forgotten how to identify my own feelings, how to trust my own gut. The attention to inner landscape demanded by 30/30 pushed me to redevelop that vocabulary, and in naming those emotions accurately, I was able to regain a sense of autonomy and agency. This, for me, is poetry doing its best work, making me more whole, more present, more resilient. Everything else is a bonus.

    This April has also been the first time I have shared early drafts of my work on social media: Almost a third of my poems made it onto Facebook, visible only to friends, but still, out of the private realm well before they were polished or otherwise shielded from their own vulnerability. When I wrote about a close friend’s engagement, he told me he couldn’t have captured the night as well. When I wrote a letter to a Kashmiri friend with my dreams for her son, we reconnected after months separated by the violence that my government has been perpetrating in her city. When I wrote a letter to my own six year old self preparing for her first surgery, several friends texted or called to offer love or support (which surprised me because I didn’t think the poem had any information they didn’t already know!). In many ways, the vulnerability of putting up fresh writing opened space for other conversations and other vulnerabilities to surface.

    Are all of those poems good? Of course not; that was never the point. Will they all be revised into pieces that go out into the wider world? Again, probably not. I do think I could get ten good poems out of these thirty (and that’s a lot of good poems for a month), but the real reason for 30/30 runs so much deeper.

    Overall, I am probably going to remain that person who is currently working on the ninth draft of her second manuscript, and who doesn’t put anything short of a fifth draft up anywhere, but who knows? Maybe this month of sharing will teach me that it is okay sometimes to let that guard down, to be unfinished, or messy. Maybe it’s okay for some poems to walk out into the world in their pajamas; maybe freshly combed hair is overrated. Maybe what counts is the courage to show up, see, and be seen.

  • 07

    For 5 years in a row, I did different memorial posts on 8th December, the day my friend Masako Delalieu, to whom my first book was dedicated, passed away in 2010. Today, in 2016, I decided to modify this a little: I decided it’s time to stop commemorating the day she died and to start commemorating 7th December, the last day that she lived. After all, everyone dies; what set her apart was how powerfully she lived, especially in that last crazy year of fighting cancer, being declared cancer free, and then fighting it all over again.

    I realise too that at this point, 6 years later, I am finally at a point where there are no more stories to tell about this woman I knew intimately for less than that length of time. That between my poems and my posts, I have by now put down on paper every last memory I have of her. And that the need to tell stories about her, to protect our time together by writing it all down, is fading. That she has finally settled into a crevice of memory, periodically awakened by a joke or a story or an activism or an accent, but otherwise content to lie there, content to be an important past without being an indispensable present.

    4 years ago, when I first started thinking of her in past tense, I felt guilty about doing so. In the poem “Letter Written at an Abandoned Amphitheatre,” which I wrote at Sangam House on 8th December 2012, I lamented that she was becoming “a story told so often it is fading.” I was afraid that forgetting any little detail made me a lesser friend somehow, a less conscientious keeper of dreams and imaginings that she had shared but never been able to realise. Today, I am no longer sure what I was holding on to so tightly, what I thought I was going to lose, why I was so afraid.

    As it turns out, I still remember the dreamed-of futures of the past: the cafe she would one day have started in Paris, the Guatemalan child she would have one day adopted, the cartoon piglets she would probably have painted in both, the cafe and the child’s bedroom. I still remember the petitions on Amnesty she would have been sharing, the doctoral work on the Guatemalan femicide that she would probably be pursuing, the man who took such good care of her in her final months whom she would probably still be loving. But i remember these things in a gentle sort of way, not with the clutch of panic associated with the early years of stockpiling memories after her death, more with a soft kind of wonder: Who knows if she would have been any of that? For that matter, who knows if we would still even have been as close as we once were? After all, there are enough other friends from that period of my life who were equally close, who are still alive, and whom I haven’t spoken to in years — who is to say she and I would necessarily have been different?

    And I guess that’s the magic of holding on to her in memory, the way in which she is now frozen in time for me, frozen young and playful and determined and dreamy. And while that doesn’t compare with the magic we lost — the possibility of growing old as friends, or getting annoyed with each other, or making each other laugh, or traveling the world together — it does have its own special magic too. And this year, on the sixth anniversary of the last day of her life, I’m going to bask in that– to allow myself the basking instead of the mourning, to acknowledge that the softening of grief is a gift, not a betrayal. I think she would have liked that.



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