9780547519272_hresPart One

These then are some of my first memories. But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.

Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being

I was standing when I came to. Not lying down. And it wasn’t a gradual waking process. It was darkness darkness darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake.

It was hot. My thin shirt clung to my back and shoulders, and my underwear was bunched into a sweaty wad. The heat left the ground in wavy lines, and the air was tinged blue with diesel exhaust. A woman in a burqa pushed past me. A small man in a ragged red vest ducked around me. He was hunched under the massive steel trunk on his back; the corner of the trunk nicked my shoulder as he maneuvered by. I was in the center of a crowd, half surging for the train, half surging for the exits. I stood still. I had no idea who I was. This fact didn’t panic me at first. I didn’t know enough to panic.

David MacLean

Your book The Answer to the Riddle is Me is subtitled “A Memoir of Amnesia.” Isn’t that a contradiction?

Yes and no. On the surface, it has the pleasing allure of an oxymoron. But deeper in, one of the things I remember best in my life is the time when I had no memory. My brain was stripped and open to sensory data. I think most of my life I treat life like triage as I move from errand to errand, chore to chore. These errands and chores create in my brain a hierarchy of the data I take in, things that aren’t associated with whatever task at hand get winnowed out of my consciousness. When I woke up on the train platform in India, I had no narrative, no chore, no task at hand, and so the sensory data I was receiving wasn’t ranked by any hierarchy. It flattened the world so that all data was of similar importance. The birds in the rafters were as important as the train in front of me. This feeling haunts me. It has made me aware of how much of the world I miss on a daily basis. In some ways I remember the feeling of no memory better than I remember anything else.

On the night of our mother’s first seizure, the one that leaves her on the living room floor with her right leg flopping like a fish out of water, my sister shows up to the ER with a newborn mouse in a pouch around her neck.

“We found it today,” her husband says to me. “Underneath my car, next to its brother or sister, who was smashed dead. She’s trying to save it.” It is just the two of us standing in the orange and blue hospital waiting area. I stare at him. “I’m not sure anyone is supposed to know, though. So maybe don’t say anything.”

I have known you for more than a decade as a writer of sensitive fiction mostly centered around your Indian roots.  But you are also a journalist who has many in-depth articles on nature and religion under your belt.  Now you have taken on the role of filmmaker. Specifically as writer and Associate Producer.  How did this new project come about?

A good friend of mine in the US, Ribbel Josha Dhason, happened to read one of my stories online and got in touch with me. “How about making this into a movie?” he said, ever so deceptively casual. Equally casual I replied, “Why not? How do you want to go about it?”

First step, turn it into a script, he said. Could I do it?

There is no better time for an epiphany than the holiday season, and this year mine was about how the world is divided into those who ‘do’ pastry and those who don’t. By doing I mean making their own. And by making your own pastry, I mean I don’t. These polarities abound. Those who beep at traffic lights and those who don’t. You either eat before noon or you gag at the thought. There is never a sometimes. You run, or you Zumba (fool!). Succulents. Love them or hate them. There is no in between. I’m not one of those moms who sits in the sandbox with her kids. But there they are, and here I am. It’s not the kids who put me off, it’s the other parents in there, and nothing short of a miracle can move me.

Which of your current poetry projects—you have two manuscripts in progress—is the poem “Secret Theatres” from?

It’s from Bulletproof Offering, which is the manuscript that exists on a mythical plane (whereas the manuscript Cadaver Exquisito exists on the reality of the city of Chennai). It’s one of the poems in which the two mythological figures I’m working with in this book—Sita and Lucifer—come together in their own internal logic. The devil/angel imagery, the stars—that’s all obviously Lucifer. But these performances I’d been watching, the context in which I watched them, most of that was from the Ramayana and other Hindu mythology. There’s also the reference to Inanna (the line about the will to be reborn is from Diane Wolkstein’s book about her) whom I feel is the conduit between Sita and Lucifer. They all go into the underworld: Lucifer falls from grace from the heavens, Sita prays to be returned to the bosom of the earth after having endured exile thrice, and Inanna (the original hellraiser) demands to be let in, stripped of all she possesses, threatening to destroy the cosmic order if she isn’t. That choice interests me. The choice to perform that excavation, that initiation, the voluntary dismemberment of the self so a stronger one can emerge. Demanding passage, and paying the price. Here is more about the two manuscripts I’m working on.


So you’re working on two very different collections of poetry at the moment, and you’ve had a novel in the works for many years. But you also have a couple of projects that you haven’t spoken of much—an art installation and a collection of short stories among them. Can you say more about these?

Well, my novel is a prolonged love. Of all the things I’m doing, I think that might be the last to be completed. But I don’t know.

The art installation deals with my leaving Malaysia (where I grew up) a few years ago under very traumatic circumstances—which included getting into trouble with their government. I was quite consumed by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present—it led me to think about absence, the intangibles, the ghosts of things. My friends are haunted to this day by my not being there—they keep telling me of how they entered some gallery and almost heard me laughing, almost caught sight of the flowers in my hair. I am haunted to this day by the circumstances of my departure. I’m still developing this project, which is currently called “The Country of Intangibles”, and it’s an entirely new genre to explore—above all because the installation pivots on my not being there, which is new territory for me, considering how much I love performance and bringing my aura and energy to a scene. So there isn’t a time-frame in which it might happen. As with all my many projects and passions, I’m doing it because I want to, and I haven’t a clue when or if the world will ever see it.

The collection of stories is tentatively titled Always The Bond Girl; the initial seed for it came out of the same period that the poems in my Chennai manuscript started emerging from. The idea of, you know, being always the Bond girl and never Bond—always the one left behind while the hero jets out of town. I would blanche if anyone said it was chick lit, but I’m definitely writing from a female perspective, the perspective of what it means to be a certain kind of woman in a certain kind of city.


And what does it mean to be a certain kind of woman in a certain kind of city?

I feel as though, in both life and art, I have to invent my own paradigm. The role models are insufficient. The coded and conditioned ideas about sex and relationships haven’t worked for me, but at the same time I’m not above them, I’m not above feeling battered and beautified and destroyed and validated by them. I do live in a misogynistic society, but it goes beyond that: the scenario seems little different for my friends, other complicated women, in other parts of the world. The challenge is to learn to be a person who loves deeply, but whose crux of power is not derived from an institution, a social standing, a marriage, a man. Which is to say—how can one love deeply, and not get swallowed within these institutions, these obligations, and either be able to co-exist with them or say fuck you to them and mean it? So you question the equations: you question commitment, but you also you question polyamory, you renegotiate what betrayal and belonging mean. The heart becomes this precious loot: you have to guard it with your life, but you have to let it breathe, it must constantly recalibrate to its own flights and whims. You can’t withhold it from the world. So that’s what I’m working on. Turning the house of the heart into something so strong and self-contained that it is enriched, and not vitiated, by its many transient guests.


How does this also hold true in art?

The currently available trajectories for a poet or for a writer in the South Asian Anglophone world don’t interest me. I’m not good at playing certain games, which would allow me success within the existing system. A large part of me is quite happy being on the fringes, being a cult artist. But it’s also hard—how do you keep perspective? What is your context? How do you stay true to your art in an inauthentic system, when the rewards of that system seem so alluring? So in my work I’m also trying to find a paradigm that feels honest, that accepts neither mediocrity nor manipulation, and which not only rejects but reinvents. My role models, if any, mostly come from outside the literary culture as well. So I guess I’d like to live in the countryside like Tori Amos, engage with life voraciously like Frida Kahlo and be badass like Mae West.


Is it true that you are a dangerous woman?

It’s true. And I am most dangerous of all to myself.


What’s your favorite joke?

A bus conductor notices a ridiculously sexy nun on the bus one day, and when she gets to her stop, he starts telling the bus driver how much he wants her.

The driver says, “Oh you could get her easily. Every night she goes to the graveyard to pay her respects at the tomb of a saint. Just find her there, and tell her you’re Jesus.”

So this is exactly what the conductor does. He goes to the graveyard, and indeed, in the darkness, is the nun is at the tomb.

“Behold! I am Jesus,” he announces. “And I want you to have sex with me.”

“Okay,” says the nun. “But I’m preserving my (problematic patriarchal definition of) virginity. So we can only have anal sex.”

And they do.

When they’re done, the conductor throws off his costumery and declares diabolically, “Ha ha ha ha! I’m actually the bus conductor from this morning!”

And the nun turns around with a big grin and says, “Ha ha ha ha! I’m actually the driver.”



Mumbai may be the chosen city of India World, where everyone of every stripe, caste and origin in the country comes to live, but the lingua franca is possibly not the one you’d expect it to be, 64 years after the British left the place. It certainly ain’t Hindi.

One of the first ‘greetings’ I received when I first moved into the area I am staying in in Chuim village in the Khar Danda area of the city was, “Welcome to India,” immediately followed up with, “Get back to England.”

With the folk memory of the dark, rascist days of Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s hard-wired in from before I was born, my brain said, “How dare you!?”, immediately followed up with, “You little bastard”. But at the same time, my heart said, “Absolutely goddamn right.”

Typically, one or two people an hour will stop to say hello and find out what your good name is and where you do come from, and it may be too early to say, but so far, the reaction to my answer of, “England” seems to have been exclusively either a grimace and/or a swift exit.

(Of course it’s too early to say, it’s a blog – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?)

And let’s get this right, it is England. ’None of this Impero-peak, ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Queendom’ ; ’none of that bollocks. It’s England. You know? Fish, chips, cup’o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary F-ing Poppins – England.

And yes, it was us, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, I really am.

We belong in India about as much as America belonged in Vietnam; just as we don’t belong in Ireland; just as we didn’t belong in the West Indies. The paucity of imagination in presuming that the ‘West Indies’ was just another India, West of the ‘first’ one, is a perfect example of the kind of horrible homogenisation that runs all the way through the imperial enterprise—or, as it has now been rebranded, globalisation—whether it’s the Shemites, the Romans, the East India Company or the Americans with their names on the handle of the poker.

We didn’t belong in Indonesia, just as we didn’t belong anywhere in the Caribbean or the Pacific. We didn’t belong in America, so the French made us have it. We didn’t belong in Surinam or Tangier or Oman. We didn’t belong in Australia. We didn’t belong in Senegal, just as we don’t belong in Canada, Singapore, Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Madeira, Gibraltar, Afghanistan, Iraq…

“Absolutely goddamn right. Never get out of the boat.”

I felt some of the sting that is presumably absent from the life of the average old colonial in fixing on a name for an individual I enlisted as a contributor to a documentary I was making about hip hop in South Wales in 2002. Having not heard his name spoken properly, and too scared to ask the rest of his crew what it was, I began calling this immense, menacing West African drug dealer, ‘Donny’. If I’d gone for ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Dastardly’ or ‘Dangerous’ it might have been alright but ‘Donny’!? Is there a stiffer, whiter, squarer name in the English language than ‘Donny’? I was relieved when Diamond decided not to crush my head between his hands.

I felt the same way moving in to this family’s home in Mumbai when I misheard the name of the man of the house and scrabbled around at a couple of ‘T’ names before settling on ‘Trevor’. This huge, alcoholic Goan who nicks 5 rupees from me every time we go and fill up my water bottle at his mate’s overpriced shack round the corner is as Indian as Ghandi, but thanks to a bunch of diseased, dick-swinging Portugese egotists his ‘real’ name is ‘Tyronne Mendes’.

As I have found in many situations in Asia, I cannot explain my own apparently bizarre behaviour in any adequate way. I thought in a majority Hindu country I would be bang on masquerding as a de facto vegetarian for a few months, but sure enough, here in this Goan Catholic village, in this Goan Catholic household, with the indefatigable Goan Catholic, Trevor Mendes, I’m as much of an outcast as a vegetarian in Europe (at least in Southern Europe and the more working class parts of Northern Europe):

“You know, teek-hain? Prawns have got a type of iron in them that you’ll never get from spinach”.

Yeah, cheers Trev, normally I’d be trying to put you off yours so I could get more prawns in, but I’d rather not have amoebic dysentery until next week if that’s allright with you, cock. 5 rupees?…

V.S. Naipaul calls the embarrasment of colonial name-giving, “place names in the mouth of a conqueror”. Cassius Clay described ‘Muhammad Ali’ as, “a free name”.

“Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed, Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny”

–V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness, 1964

It was the same story in Hong Kong, and, to be fair it’s the same with lovely people from all over globalised Asia, from the thriving ‘Elvis Presli’ in Indonesia to the inumerable Chinese ‘Candy’s, ‘Pinky’s’, ‘Flower’s and ‘Josephine’s making moves and taking names all over the Pearl River Delta, to all the magnificent, firebrand Thai ‘Susan’s spinning Victorian notions of emancipation into candyfloss. The ubiquitous ‘English name’ is just a concession to Western ignorance, and god knows we need it.

What exactly are we producing at the moment other than over-specialised, lazy, drug-happy underachievers with an inflated sense of their own entitlement, like me?. We elbowed our way violently to that place in the sun, and now the sun has well-and-truly set.

The sun of the British Empire rose in the West and finally set in the East, in India. Not content with perverting the natural order of the world in geographical, political, economical, spiritual and psychological terms, we went for a little astrophysical perversion as well.

As far as India goes, we just simply didn’t belong there, just as we didn’t belong in the Phillipines or Nigeria or Uganda or Jordan or Zanzibar or Qatar or Malta or Lagos or Palestine or Fiji or Kenya or Kuwait. When we eventually realised that we only really belonged on a tiny, rainy island in the North Sea notable principally for its fishing, it was too late, so we had to invent globalisation to keep the dream alive, even when it was dead. And now we’re desperately trying to reanimate a corpse.

“…limited islanders, baptised with mist, narrowed by insularity, swollen with good
fortune and wealth.”

–R.B. Cunningham Graham, Bloody Niggers, in the Social Democrat, April, 1897

I should know, I am one, and yes, my little friend, I am going back to England. We had our chance and we Royally fucked it up, and you deserve all the opportunities available, and all the luck in the world.

It’s your world, mate. We just live in it.

From a certain perspective the human body is little more than a conduit or a tube, taking in and emitting in roughly equal measure.

It’s an elemental conception of human life that sees two reasonably balanced, opposite streams alternately feeding the organism essentials and sluicing away waste. It’s a perspective common to Chinese medicine and Hinduism (among other systems of esoteric thought), which makes it of heightened significance to the Indian city of Mumbai.

In Mumbai, the dividing line between the flow of ingress and egress is often so fine that the distinction is blurred. To a large extent, and for a large section of the population there is very little distinction at all.

People everywhere seem to be ingesting what has previously been passed and excreting almost to feed rather than to vent. The attitude to water supply and sewage in Mumbai has been so compromised by the demands of overpopulation and the environmental rigours of breakneck growth that its no wonder typhoid is rife in the slums. In a very real, and frightening sense, there’s a kind of Faustian toxic alchemy at work, switching the poles of ‘in’ and ‘out’, mixing the waters, crossing the streams.

A wet, vegetable smell, redolent of human vomit and loam wafts into the office. Workers immediately reach for the take-away menus. “Mmmm… Shall we order lunch, guys?” A sewage pipe is simply being de-blocked outisde the building. Reports abound of food poisoning from street food in the days when the sewers are exposed.

The bathroom I use in the home I recently rented a room in in Mumbai is separated from the kitchen of the family of four by a chipboard partition that doesn’t quite reach the outer wall. When I am sitting on the toilet and the lady of the house is frying, there’s the continual possibility of a fine mist of burning fat droplets fountaining over the wall to enliven early morning ablutions.

With a bit of effort, we could shake hands during our respective processes like the first excited penetrators of the Berlin wall. I wonder how the aromas emanating from my bathroom don’t enter the flavour of the delicious food she makes. If I leave a cut raw onion in a fridge with a pot of opened yoghurt, I can’t really complain if the stuff turns out tasting more like raitha than Müller Lite, now can I?

Years ago, a very dear friend of mine came up with an ingenious method of balancing the flows. He called it the ‘Shit/Weight Plan’.

According to this system, weight can be easily controlled, gained or lost through the judicious application of weighing scales at the two ends of the process. His theory was that if one only consumed an equal poundage to that amount dropped off, a steady weight would be maintained. If one troughed more than one sloughed, weight would be put on; if one dumped more than one scrumped then weight would be shed.

The domestic setup that my landlady and I have is ripe for a field test of the Shit/Weight Plan. If she pushes them far enough to her right, Sibyl and I could cut out the middle man and share the kitchen scales, one pan each; shouting the differentials to each other through the partition as we go.

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.