26 July 2017

Those Who Dream In Daylight


Under the easy symbolism of burkhas, lipsticks and cigarettes, Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film that’s urgently needed, astutely told and deeply felt.



If you ask anyone who's grown up watching popular Hindi cinema, they would probably agree that its most important preoccupation is love. No matter what other themes a film might take up -- the decline of Indian family values or the reiteration of their longevity, urban crime, the crisis of corruption, relations between communities, war, sports, patriotism -- there is invariably a romantic relationship at the centre of the plot. Often more than one.

In a country in which arranged marriages remain very much the norm, romantic love is the fantasy for which real people go to the cinema. Love is our grand narrative of choice, even when the romance is not epic but everyday. And yet, these depictions of love -- invariably heterosexual, almost always battling social obstacles to get to the end-point of marriage -- are too coy to speak of physical desire. If the sexual self is allowed to exist, it must be folded into the romantic, and ideally subsumed by it. You can want love, but to want sex is taboo. This is true even for male protagonists, but it is most certainly true for women, who must remain objects of desire rather than desiring subjects.


Of course, things are changing, slowly but surely: in recent years, we have glimpsed desiring women on screen in the most male-centric narratives, like Anurag Kashyap’s DevD; in films seeking to radically alter our perspective on sex, like Margarita With a Straw or Haraamkhor or Anarkali of Aarah; or character-driven dramas with other social concerns, like Masaan. But Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha still feels astonishing.


Perhaps it is the fact that her women characters are, none of them, aiming for marriage as the happy-ever-after. If one is pre-marriage, another is post-marriage; one has a marriage that offers her only humiliation, and the last doesn't want the right marriage. The 55-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has long been husband-less and has no desire to be controlled by a man again. The teenage Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) wants a hundred things that she feels life behind a burkha can't give her -- and marriage isn't yet one of them. 
Shirin (Konkona Sensharma) already has a marriage, complete with three children and a sexually exploitative husband who refuses even to use contraception -- it is one she would quite happily do without. Even Leela (Aahana Kumra), on the verge of a marriage that would secure her family’s future, cannot make herself see in it the shape of her present.

Perhaps it is that these women do not circumscribe their desires by what is expected of them; they do not want what they are supposed to want. Or perhaps it is just the frankness with which Shrivastava's characters experience sex and sexuality -- even when they are not speaking of it. One of the useful devices Lipstick's script uses in this regard is to bookend the tales of these 'real’ women with the voice of a properly fictional one called Rosie, who lends her purple prose to each narrative in turn. While she remains trapped between the covers of a steamy Hindi paperback, the unexpurgated quality of Rosie's desires forces us to contend with our squeamishness.



We are so unused to women speaking of sex (or even being acknowledged as wanting it) that sexlessness is the norm -- except within the approved bounds of grihasthashram, when it is duty rather than pleasure. And so whether it is Leela’s ravenous lust for her scruffy photographer boyfriend (the gorgeous Vikrant Massey, last seen in A Death in the Gunj), or the long-celibate Usha's fierce attraction to a man much younger than herself, these are not just unsuitable boys but unsuitable desires. I found particularly moving Shrivastava's telling of Usha's tale: how the physical proximity of a physically fit male body mingles with the giddy excitement of being reminded that she needn't be Buaji to everyone -- the evocative power of merely using her name makes one realise how women are boxed into their relationships, literally losing themselves.

But as the film makes clear, in a country where a widowed old man is generous when he 'considers’ a 40-year-old as a second wife -- and where we have been brought up to giggle at the merest thought of a spinsterish Lalita Pawar believing herself wooed, even by a man of her own age -- what hope can we hold out for Buaji?


Rehana and Shirin's desires are less obviously couched as sexual -- freedom to dress as they please, drink, smoke, work, wander the world, and be treated as an equal. But the sex scenes between Shirin and her husband (Sushant Singh) are the film's most horrifying -- because that stifling experience, of being reduced to being a forced provider of sexual services, is likely the norm for more Indian wives than not.


Given the depressing realities with which Lipstick deals, I am glad to be able to report that it is not itself depressing. The right to pleasure is serious business --but what is serious can also be pleasurable. The film ends with one final nod to romantic fantasy, which I loved. We might have picked the wrong man to be our sapnon ka raajkumar, suggests Shrivastava, but isn't the dreaming what keeps us alive?


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 July 2017.

Revenge, Served Cold


Sridevi's return to the screen as an avenging mother offers us a chance to think about the female vigilante film in Hindi cinema.


The 1970s in Hollywood inaugurated the era of the female vigilante film, in which the rape-revenge narrative was the most powerfully recurring one. Films like Abel Ferrara's Ms 45 (1981), the Sondra Lock-Clint Eastwood film Sudden Impact (1983), the Farrah Fawcett starrer Extremities (1986), among many others, were about a woman protagonist avenging a sexual crime whose perpetrators both society and the law had failed to punish.
A particular subset of this genre centres on an older woman who steps in to mete out vigilante justice on behalf of a younger or defenceless victim. An early Hollywood film in this genre, involving an elder sister and a teenaged younger sister -- Lipstick (1976) -- inspired BR Chopra's Insaaf ka Taraazu (1980), which cast Zeenat Aman and a childlike Padmini Kolhapure as a pair of stereotypically 'modern' sisters who find the world ranged against them -- and on the side of Raj Babbar's skin-crawlingly creepy admirer-rapist. Ravi Udyawar's Mom is the latest film in this sub-genre.

The last few years have seen Bollywood return to the avenging woman protagonist. In the wake of the widespread protests after the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, mainstream film producers seem to have finally decided this was a theme whose resonance they could monetise. Industry writers also clearly find the female vigilante slot useful, especially when tossing up comeback vehicles for heroines whose formidable acting chops aren't enough to keep them in male-dominated Bollywood.

So in August 2014, we got Pradip Sarkar's Mardaani, marking the return of Rani Mukherjee as a cop named Shivani Shivaji Roy who is provoked to violence by the abduction of an orphaned girl she has semi-adopted. In April 2017, we got Ashtar Syed's Maatr, with Raveena Tandon turning bloodthirsty avenger after her daughter is sexually assaulted and dies. And now, in July, we have Mom, in which Sridevi returns to the Hindi screen for the first time since English Vinglish (2012), again with a plot driven by an ungrateful daughter.


In a non-coincidence of the Bollywood kind, Sridevi's Devaki Sabarwal is an ethical schoolteacher pitted against Delhi's 'Pata hai mera baap kaun hai' louts - just like Raveena's Vidya in Maatr. Given the ubiquitousness of sexual violence in India across class, caste and region, it is remarkable how limited the Hindi film imagination of it is (barring notable exceptions like the superb Anaarkali of Aarah, or the more uneven Parched). One fixed node in that imagination is the youthful upper middle class victim; another is Delhi. Within Delhi, too, there are two points upon which Bollywood scriptwriters seem to converge: the farmhouse and the car.


The first imagined location for male predators in Mom is a farmhouse, as it was in Maatr and in another recent film about sexual assault in Delhi: Shoojit Sarkar's Pink (2016). But it is the car with windows rolled up, circling the streets of the capital, that offers a bone-chilling depiction of how sexual violence takes place, in plain sight. In Pink, as well as in Nicholas Kharkongor's Delhi-set drama Mantra (2016), we are allowed into the car; in Mom, we are kept terrifyingly out. Of course the car is not just a site of violence but also a mode of escape and an instrument of revenge: think of Navdeep Singh's NH10, in which the car amplifies Anushka Sharma's sense of siege - but can also conquer it.


Mom
ticks off a host of other predictable Delhi types: men with no redeeming qualities like the spoilt schoolboy rapist, his drug-taking playboy cousin, a security guard who's a Bihari or Eastern UP migrant (the talented Pitobash Tripath, wasted here). Sridevi's husband Anand (Adnan Siddiqui) and daughter Arya (a Kareena Kapoor-lookalike called Sajal Ali) are pretty but merely decorative. The only pleasurable character is a Daryaganj detective, and this is because Nawazuddin Siddiqui sinks his teeth into a slim role to prove he can still surprise us with unheroicness. Udyawar tries with his locations, filming on the Delhi Metro, in a Mehrauli stepwell and a suitably upscale art gallery, but the Sabarwals' home has an unlived servantless poshness that simply doesn't cut it, especially for a family in which the woman works and is a hands-on mother of two.


Motherhood is the film's titular theme. As with Maatr and Mardaani (and Drishyam, in which Tabu is the cop-mother engineering violence), it is maternal protective instinct that is churned into cold-blooded revenge. Here all the strict biology teacher wants is to have her brattish stepdaughter call her 'Mom' rather than Ma'am. Of course we know of Sridevi's personal status as real-life stepmother to Boney Kapoor's children. And Udyawar doesn't spare the mythic references: naming her Devaki after Krishna's loving mother, or citing Draupadi as the original Indian avenger.


Mom does offer glimpses of fun on the femininity front: a criminal who makes her own poison from something ostensibly healthful; men obsessing over other men while a woman drives off under their noses. But the film is weighed down by a trite, obvious sense of righteousness.


Vigilante politics aside, it left me longing for a little of the legendary Sridevi lightness.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 July 2017.

10 July 2017

Bombay Confidential


In a murder mystery set in the film industry 40 years ago, the crime writer HRF Keating tapped into our preoccupation with tinsel town.



Fiction writers are strange creatures. The British crime writer HRF Keating famously did not visit India until he had written nine books featuring the Maharashtrian policeman Ganesh Ghote. Keating didn’t originally intend to stay with Ghote longer than a a couple of books. His first Ghote mystery, The Perfect Murder (1964), won him a gold dagger for fiction from the Crime Writers' Association and commercial success (especially in America). In response to readers’ demands, he obliged, writing nine Ghote novels by 1974, becoming anointed India expert of sorts. 

In 1976, with his tenth book featuring the Bombay-based detective, Keating finally took the plunge into what might be the city's most obvious real-life locale for intrigue – the film industry. Forty years down, Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote's take on Bombay's commercial cinema in the 1970s is perhaps more interesting for Indian readers than it was then. Especially if we treat it not as some sort of documentary evidence of what the industry was like, but of what about this world -- and our relationship with it – seems to have struck a Western outsider.

Keating won points from me with his very first paragraph: “The Deputy Commissioner was reading a filmi magazine. There was no mistaking it. Inspector Ghote had come hurrying into his big airy office in response to a crisp summons on the intercom and he had caught him in the act.”


The scene is set consummately, establishing Ghote's position in the Crime Branch bureaucracy – as well as Hindi cinema's position in the Indian cultural universe. I gesture to the crucial fact that Hindi cinema was, for the ’70s Indian elite, still very much a guilty pleasure — a low-brow taste that many partook of, but that anyone in any position of seriousness preferred not to be seen indulging in publicly. (For years, even filmmakers working on the edges of commercial Hindi cinema made such tongue-in-cheek references to its popularity – Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi, which cast Jaya Bhaduri as a teenager besotted with the iconic Dharmendra (playing himself), was a dissection of the Indian public's besottedness with popular cinema. A film like Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor parodied Hindi movie romance both in letter and spirit. Guddi, if I remember right, also actually begins by gently mocking a figure of authority – a school teacher – for being immersed in a film magazine.)


The book's plot has Ghote called in to investigate the mysterious death of an ace actor during the shooting of a Hindi film adaptation of Macbeth (something that took another thirty years to happen in reality: Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool). Ghote's character may be a bit off sociologically, but in his disavowal of any knowledge of Hindi cinema and his simultaneous desire to claim familiarity with Macbeth, I think Keating cottons onto something about the split cultural self of the Indian elite. Popular Bombay cinema in the '70s – and its most famous denizens – had a great deal of money and influence and a hold on millions of people, but our Anglophone elite only thirty years after independence was reluctant to grant it any cultural capital.


The book is also interesting as a portrait of a pre-liberalisation economy, in which of course the film world is a shaping influence and participant. We hear of the parallel black money economy in which everyone receives shadow payments, we hear familiar terms like Dearness Allowance and Vigilance and we also hear of how the secret desires of a pre-liberalisation elite are catered to — the importing of cosmetics, “foreign television sets and watches with digital face”, the making of blue films on the sly in Bombay, the smuggling out of the films and the smuggling in of the girls in them.


Keating gets many details right – some extras are described as Ghati women, there is a “tall Pathan chowkidar”. Still he falters often when it comes to words and names. The murdered actor is called Dhartiraj, a rendition of Prithviraj that feels terribly unidiomatic; the Macbeth film, in a rather obvious inspiration from
Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, is titled ‘Khoon ka Gaddi’ when it should grammatically be ‘Khoon ki Gaddi’; his use of phrases like “Choop chaap” and “Ek dum” can seem colonial and bizarrely dated. But Keating is clearly interested in linguistic specificity – from the very first paragraph he refers often and without annotation to the “filmi duniya”; he revels in using Indian words like raddiwallah and crorepati; he devotes a section to explaining “chumchas”. And all through, he renders dialogue in an excessive but heartfelt Indian English: “Wining and dining, booted and suited,” “Madam, if you are wanting to see me, I am altogether at your...”, or “But, excuse me, to make a film in bits and pieces only, is that truly possible?”


But to return, in conclusion, to Ghote: whether he is meeting Seth Chagan Lal, the beady-eyed moneybags with threats as cold as his cash, the swaggering Ravi Kumar or the almond-eyed screen goddess Nilima, Ghote finds himself unable to behave authoritatively. It is as if, in his unbidden transformation from stern law enforcer to obliging supplicant, he embodies our relationship to the filmi duniya. However much we might scorn the silver screen, it taps into some part of us that's secretly helpless.


6 July 2017

Will it dawn on us?

My Mirror column:

Watching a 1950s film with Sahir Ludhianvi’s utopian lyrics involves mapping the grave distance we have travelled away from that utopia.



Last week, feeling utterly saddened by the state of the nation – recurring incidents of mob violence against Dalits and Muslims in the name of defending the cow, and a jingoistic nationalism that treats any criticism of the government or of India as an unpalatable betrayal – I found myself humming the words of a Sahir Ludhianvi song: “Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi, woh subah kabhi toh aayegi; In kaali sadiyon ke sar se, jab raat ka aanchal dhalkega; Jab dukh ke baadal pighlenge, jab sukh ka saagar chhalkega...” [In my tragically inadequate translation: ‘That dawn will come someday, that dawn will come someday; When these dark ages will shrug off the veil of night; When these clouds of sorrow will melt, and the ocean of joy brim over...’].

I remembered the song being from a Raj Kapoor film called Phir Subah Hogi, but I hadn’t watched it since my childhood. So I found myself on YouTube, discovering that it was a film directed in 1958 by Ramesh Saigal, with a plot based very loosely on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Kapoor plays Ram Mehra, a penniless law student in love with a poor girl called Sohni (Mala Sinha) who, in a bid to redeem a watch he has pawned, ends up unintentionally murdering the villainous pawnbroker.

Kapoor’s Ram is a dreamy-eyed do-gooder who wanders the streets of Bombay dressed in the classic blazer-and-trousers uniform of the 1950s Hindi film hero, coming to the aid of exhausted cart-pullers and injured children alike. The film contains many of the tropes of the 1950s film: the poor but khuddaar hero, his mother (here an unseen figure in the village) who does all she can to support his education, a city full of cold, calculating rich men without a conscience in sight.

Another familiar 1950s trope is that of the hero’s best friend, provider of companionship and comic relief. That figure here is the impeccable Rehman, who in one of those effortless nods to Hindu-Muslim friendship that characterised so many films of that era, plays a Muslim by the name of Rehman.

The film is full of soulful socialist angst, and nothing embodies it more than Ludhianvi’s lyrics. Among the finest Progressive poets to have ever composed for Hindi cinema, Ludhianvi outdoes himself here. Apart from the melancholic-utopian title song, the film offers two stellar examples of his style of critique – pointed, but with an undercurrent of humour.

In the first, Ram, ejected from his tenement for non-payment of rent, tries to find a place for the night. His journey from park bench to pavement is accompanied by a sardonic take on a nation that boasts of inroads into China and the Arab world while its educated youth – and its labourers – are homeless: “Chino-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara/Rehne ko ghar nahi hai, saara jahan hamara.”

The song’s gentle delivery belies its sarcasm: “Patla hai haal apna, lekin lahu hai gaadha; Faulaad se bana hai, har naujawan hamara; Miljul ke is vatan ko, aisa sajayenge hum, Hairat se munh takega, Sara jahan hamara [Our state is pretty thin, but our blood is thick; Each of our young people is made of iron; Together we will decorate the country, so much that the whole world will look on in amazement.’]”

Later, as Ram’s romantic and other desires are crushed by a cruel world, he half-stumbles into a posh party – another classic Hindi film trope – and begins to sing “Aasmaan pe hai khuda, aur zameen pe hum; Aajkal woh is taraf dekhta hai kam. Aajkal kisi ko woh tokta nahi, chahe kucch bhi keejiye, rokta nahin; Ho rahi hai lootmaar, phat rahein hain bam... Zindagi hai apne apne bazuon ke dum. [God is up in the sky, we’re on the ground; These days, he doesn’t look this way much. He doesn’t interfere with anyone these days, you can do anything, he won’t stop you; There’s looting and bombs exploding... Life is a matter of might is right.]”

Call me a sad-eyed left-liberal, but I was comforted by the film’s secular-socialist vision – and struck by how much Ludhianvi’s words resonated with my present-day political desires. He bursts the balloon of an inflated nationalism, and offers a language in which to mourn an India in which packs of Hindutvavadi goons roam free, picking on defenceless Dalits and Muslims.

Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that LK Advani and AB Vajpayee went to watch this film at Imperial Cinema after the Jan Sangh had received a particularly bad drubbing in the 1958 Delhi municipal elections – and that Advani often reminisces about how they returned certain that their political fortunes would also see a new dawn.

It is possible that good fiction and poetry is simply so capacious that we can all find our desires echoed in them. But given the BJP’s talent for appropriating, misreading and parodying our finest nationalist symbols – from Gandhi to Ambedkar to Nehru’s tryst with destiny speech – it feels like the truth lies elsewhere.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 July 2017.

28 June 2017

Cinema in the City

My Mirror column:

Watching films in the theatre used to be a sensory experience that extended beyond the screen, tied to rituals of urban life. Now the screen floats free, and so do we.



I made my acquaintance with Trivandrum’s single screen theatres during my first visit to the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in 2011. In Godard’s Own Country (2012), a longform Caravan essay on the IFFK and Kerala’s love of world cinema, I described some of them: “There is Ajanta, dense with the smell of rose petals, and with a pedestal fan that whirrs incessantly; Sreekumar, with a treacherous set of stairs in its balcony; the twinned Dhanya (big) and Remya (small); and Sree Padmanabha, for whom becoming an IFFK venue has been crucial in regaining the respectability it had lost as a softporn theatre in the ’90s. (Sree Padmanabha went all out in 2011, creating a two-minute laser display that played before each festival screening. The effort won it the ‘Best Theatre’ award.).”

I didn’t mention in the 2012 essay why I gravitated to Sree Padmanabha: in the dense warren of streets behind it was the finest, most well-priced Malayali lunch joint in the city, the inimitable Mubarak, serving up unlimited mounds of piping hot rice, veggies and moru curry — to which, with the merest incline of the head, one could add a steady chain of seafood accompaniments: perfectly crisp matthi, spicy squid fry, or the most delectable mussels. By not being held in a private enclosed space like INOX in Panjim, or a government-created auditorium complex like Siri Fort in Delhi, IFFK allowed visiting viewers, like myself, to explore the city through its cinemas, discovering not just their characterful architecture but also eateries near them, just by following my nose — and the crowd.

I also didn’t mention how I first learnt about Sree Padmanabha’s pornographic past. A few days after IFFK, chatting with my Kollam homestay host, I discovered he had actually worked as its manager for several years, helping end its seedy phase! His father’s connection with it was older — he had watched films there his entire childhood, and even now no expedition to Trivandrum was complete without a solo visit to Sree Padmanabha, including a snack and a soft drink.

I haven’t been back to Sree Padmanabha since 2013, but think of it fondly. So I was delighted, on opening Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow, a newly released book by the late film archivist PK Nair, to discover its prehistory. “It was in the early 1940s, the height of the War period. I must have been hardly eight years old,” writes Nair. “The venue: a tent cinema in Trivandrum’s Putharikandam Maidan, almost the same location as the present Sree Padmanabha theatre. Nearly half the hall was filled with immaculate shining white sand, probably got from the local beach. This was the lowest priced seating, classified as ‘floor’. Just behind was the ‘bench’ class packed with wooden benches, and further behind was the highest class with folding wooden chairs.”

Nair’s nostalgia is jocular and precise, listing the “half-wall” against which floor-sitters vied to rest their backs, the “women's barricades” for “your wife and kids” (the assumed viewer and reader is a man, of course), and the “hawker boys” who roamed freely through the hall, “canvassing aggressively” to sell their beedis and cigarettes, soda or peanuts during the many short intervals (A single projector necessitated five or six breaks between reels).

Given his father’s certified disapproval of cinema (typical of that generation of educated nationalists), Nair took to sneaking out when the family was asleep, begging the doorman at Sree Padmanabha or Chitra to let him in to the last hour of the late night show. “[L]ater I would catch up with what I had missed at a matinee show on the weekend.” “Perhaps such lopsided viewings in repetition enabled me to look at films more objectively and sharpened my critical faculties even as a school kid,” he muses.

Nair’s spare reminiscences reminded me of a more extravagant account of childhood film viewing: the late theatre doyen Habib Tanvir on Raipur’s Big Top theatre. Tanvir, like Nair, watched many films for free; he and his friends would slash the tent with a razor blade and sneak into shows where half the audience’s enjoyment came from the vulgar, funny running commentary provided by the co-owner, Chunnilal: “Oye, what are you standing around for, motherfucker, the villain will kill your heroine. Bastard, make the horse go faster, faster, you idiot!”

Nair and Tanvir’s memoirs reveal how inexorably film-watching was once tied to places and people — the physical experience of the theatre, the particular doorman or commentator, the food you ate after. Now a film can play anytime we want it to, often opening up on a screen that we carry around with us. Watching a film this way no longer leads us into the city; just back into ourselves.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 June 2017.

24 June 2017

Urban Legend: Paul Beatty Interview

Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning novel is a sublime, savage satire about modern-day racism in America. The author tells Trisha Gupta why no one—not even him—should be off the table to poke fun at.

Photo credit: Outlook India
In 2016, Paul Beatty became the first American writer to win the Man Booker prize. The surreal tale of an urban farmer who re-institutes segregation and slavery in his corner of Los Angeles, The Sellout was rejected by 18 UK publishers before an independent press called Oneworld took it on. The book’s whiplash wit slices through the smug fog of political correctness surrounding race, class and just about everything in America. Yet, there’s an inspired everyday lyricism to the writing, which owes something to Beatty’s past as a poet. Nothing is sacred in this book, yet everything he touches in it—from the LA public bus system to old-school Hollywood racism—feels almost spiritual.

We met Beatty at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), in January 2017, and talked about watermelons, stereotypes, life after the Booker, and why ‘intellectual’ isn’t a label he minds…

ELLE: I thought The Sellout was more brutal, much angrier, than the reviews let on. 
Paul Beatty: I don’t think of it as angry. Sad, sometimes. But it’s interesting how people read things. During the Man Booker event, the moderator said, “Paul, your book is so angry!” There was a book there about a guy serial-killing people, another about a woman who plots this murder. How come those [books] aren’t angry and mine is? I’m not saying it’s not angry...

ELLE: ...but other things are angry too. Yes, I see. A different question: what does fictionalising real stuff do for you? 
PB: In terms of its emotive present, [my book] might be authentic—the anger, the frustration, humour. But I’m not trying to duplicate reality... The thing is the imagining. I write about things I don’t know anything about. That’s the fun part: to make it seem like this person exists. I have some sense of the psychological stuff in the book. But I don’t know anything about this neighbourhood I’ve written. Or surfing. Or gardening. At the [JLF] session, a woman asked me, “Is there a question that no one asks you?” I thought, no one ever asks me about the fruit.

ELLE: You mean the watermelons your protagonist grows?
PB:
Yes, and the satsuma oranges, the peaches...

ELLE: There’s also the stunning moment when the protagonist, Bonbon, asks his dad if slavery might have been less psychologically damaging if it was called ‘gardening’. Was there something you wanted to say, about gardening?
PB: [Laughs] No, not really. I don’t garden. My mum gardens, or she used to. The fruit is an important part of my memory of California, of how I grew up, with a lemon tree in the backyard, a peach tree... For me, the book is about those details as much as the larger stuff.

ELLE: The details are often a dense web of cultural references, from Mark Twain to BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre, Eva Braun to Nina Simone. Have you always done this?
PB:
Good question. I think so. My poetry wasn’t so different. It’s a line between me and the reader. It’s a test for me, almost—who are these cultural touchstones? Who’s the right person to insert?

ELLE: Sometimes a name is enough to open up a world.
PB:
And sometimes there’s the decision of whether the narrator needs to explain something or not. I’m writing for somebody who may not understand what I’m doing, but who’s open to hearing everything

ELLE: Has your style ever been called ‘too intellectual’?
PB:
Sometimes. One angry review went, “I didn’t like the book; I had to look up all these words.” But someone else said, “That made me want to buy the book!” So nothing’s for everyone. It’s how I write. I’m not going to change.

ELLE: Does such feedback ever influence how you think about what you’re doing?
PB:
Yeah, I think about this stuff. A book that helped me was Dante’s Inferno. Beautifully written. But full of references! He’s name-dropping—these popes from the 11th century, these bishops, archbishops, artists. No one can know all of these people. But you get the lay of the land. You get a sense of his anger, his judgementalism. It’s not important that everybody knows everything.

ELLE: A writer friend of mine is miffed about this ‘explaining’, about editors who tell her, “Not everybody knows this Delhi neighbourhood”. Would anyone say that if it were a New York neighbourhood, she asks.
PB:
Yeah, and there’s something to that. There are some advantages to being American—the culture is inundated with these references. But hopefully things will start going both ways, so people have a sense of India beyond Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

ELLE: You resist labelling, and yet you have these comic riffs: on black women teacher-poets, for instance, or women who love Nina Simone. It’s hard to get away from categories.
PB: That’s how we communicate. It’s mean. But I start with ridiculing my labels for myself. I once wrote this poem called ‘Stall Me Out’, making fun of things my friends said about me, and things I know about myself. It freed me up to not take myself so seriously.

ELLE: That’s very hard to do...
PB:
Yes, because you think: if I don’t take myself seriously, no one else will. But I learnt to use myself as a dartboard. Maybe I’m rationalising, but I think I really am making fun of things that matter to me.

ELLE: India, these days, specialises in taking offence. But I also worry about us left-liberal sorts, the ones giving offence in India—we rarely laugh at ourselves.
PB:
People are trying to protect ground they’ve had to earn. I had a student, a lesbian, who said, “I want to make fun of my community, but we’ve worked so hard to get here.” But this is how you broaden your horizons. The problem is when people feel they’re progressive, and therefore must be beyond reproach.

ELLE: Do you still write poems?
PB:
No. I haven’t written a poem in 15 years. As a poet, you have to be really public. I hate that.

ELLE: Do you mean the performative part, like when you were with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe?
PB:
Yes. There was this one time I was writing a poem, and in my head I went, “They’re going to like that.” And I caught myself...

ELLE: …imagining your audience?
PB:
Exactly. And I thought, I have to stop this. I was the intellectual New York poet, I was this, I was that. People can read you however they want. But how much do I want to participate in that?

ELLE: Did studying creative writing with Allen Ginsberg shape you?
PB:
Absolutely. I’d never written a thing before I showed up [at Brooklyn College]. Allen was a gracious guy, especially if he liked you. His speech and his writing style were very similar. He was an excellent storyteller; a very good editor. His graciousness, his insistence on clarity were important to me. And his precision.

ELLE: Your book is very much about urbanity. Do you have a favourite city?
PB:
In New York, I’ve encountered stuff, especially musically, that I wouldn’t have anywhere else. Now I live in California, too, since I’ve gotten married. When I first got to New York, I could be so anonymous; I loved that. Before I started teaching [creative writing at Columbia University], I would stay home all the time. I was invisible.

ELLE: Has the Booker changed that?
PB:
Here, at something like JLF, it has. But otherwise, people don’t read, so no one knows who I am. [Laughs] And someone’s going to win next year. I’ll get shunted to the side. Next up!

Published in ELLE India, June 2017.