Prologue: "I wish I could get you a cup of coffee or something. I’m sorry I only brought my phone," she said. She pronounces the article ‘a’ like the alphabet. I wasn’t quite ready to leave just yet, and said, "How about I buy you a cappuccino instead?"
Neil Gaiman; ectoplasm of poetry; a waif; intimacy; mind-trip
I met Meena Kandasamy on a Sunday afternoon at IIT-Madras, where she lives with her parents and two dogs – one male, one female. I don’t know what the dogs are called, though I met them before I did Meena.
They barked dutifully when I approached the house. The female was sick. The male ambled towards where I was, barked again. I put my hand through the wire fence to him. He smelled, bared his fangs for a second, licked his chops, and walked away.
Meena’s father asked me if I’d wait for her at a Café Coffee Day, not far away. In the next three seconds, with pantomime alone, he conveyed to me that Meena had just woken up, that she needed time for a wash and cosmetic ablutions that were beyond his ken but nevertheless necessary. I’ll give you three seconds to imagine that. Then, with an indulgent shrug, he also told me he was profoundly happy she was home.
I waited at CCD; outside, because it seemed too crowded and I didn’t want to sit and chat inside anyway. I wanted to whisk the poetess away to a little corner and shoot her. I raised my eyebrows at myself after thinking that syntactically correct, completely wrong sentence. This is when a curious phrase popped into my head – “ectoplasm of poetry.”
I could put it down to conditioning, or the persona of who I’m going to meet. For the duration of our meeting, I found my thinking coloured by Meena’s poetry, by the semi-dreaminess she seemed to project. Consequently, every memory of that meeting is coloured by that same ectoplasm. Labyrinthine paths like the ones at IIT-M usually me make me nervous, but not on that day. For instance – I noticed deer, I listened to silence, I picked up snatches of conversation from the static of a walkie-talkie, I listened to a bike-geek defend a modification on his Yezdee to a sceptic.
As I picked at my phone, waiting for her, a waif of a woman glided in my direction. She was dressed in a black, combed-cotton T-shirt, jeans. She had massive multi-coloured earrings and a head of chunky black hair, all waving to their own rhythm.
I greeted her warmly; she sweetly apologised for making me wait and then launched into leisurely banter. She gave me a lot of information, but never seemed anxious or in a hurry to say anything. We talked about an upcoming workshop, where she’d have to recite poetry live, to an audience. She confessed being nervous about having to reading out poetry to so many people. “I’ve always read it out to just one person,” she said.
The shoot was near-perfect. The rudimentary equipment I had with me cooperated; things came on when I wanted them to, kept ticking when they had to, recorded refreshing pictures, clear sounds. We talked all along.
I told her I had really enjoyed some of her poetry. “Really? Not many men admit to liking my poems,” she said. “They usually tell me their girlfriends like me!” Idiots. So I said maybe it’s that old syndrome – like someone goes to a psychologist and tells him “my friend has this problem”.
She hadn’t had much sleep. She was packing to go to Sivakasi that night and then to Delhi for a spell. Her dog was sick and on tranquilisers. She was hooked to ‘The Mentalist’ and watched an entire season, all of last night. It didn’t show. I told her so. “I guess ‘beauty sleep’ really works, then. You look great.” She took that hammy compliment with perfect, self-conscious grace.
I realised I had crossed over from ‘making the subject comfortable’ to ‘flirting’ – of the full-on, unabashed, wife-alert sort. But it was nice. Here was someone obviously comfortable with herself – her sexuality, her intelligence, her preoccupations, even her faults – without the illogical terrors that hover over so many such conversations. That fear, of crossing a line or of assuming familiarity when it doesn’t exist, blinds us to opportunities of beautiful connect. Consequently, conversationalists slip into sparring when they could well be waltzing instead.
We were waltzing.
Do you try to stir the water on purpose, court controversy to maybe evoke a reaction? No, she says. “I just try to make a point. I’ve had trouble being taken seriously, though. Jeet Thayil told me I was too articulate, that I had to err, uhm, a little.” Ah, to make it seem like you were giving it some thought, I suggested. “Exactly. He said that after one particular panel discussion, when I told someone in the audience that I would strip my clothes off this minute if that’s what it took to make a point.”
I could vividly imagine the mass-squirming that statement must have evoked. I burst out laughing. Shrugs, tosses her mane about, smiling all the while.
We were now out of the stadium, on the road. One way leads to CCD, the other to her house. “Where’d you leave your bike?” she asked. At CCD, I said. But that’s ok, I’ll walk you home, I said. “No, I’m not in a hurry,” she said. Like spotted deer on III-M roads, we ambled around, disoriented for a few seconds. Then we headed for CCD.
End of part - 1
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at firstname.lastname@example.org)