Writing About Writing

To you,

If you and I have made plans at any point in time you’ve probably heard the refrain “I have some writing to finish” or “I have a deadline” multiple times. You’re also probably tired of hearing it.

These days, life revolves around stringing words to make coherent sentences.

Every other day, I fall into research rabbit holes, wrangling with academicspeak for my studies, emerging with garbled theories and thick footnotes. I barter words for a pay check (and not always the fat kind. The kind that you look at, sigh and wonder if you should just listen to your dad and get a proper job instead). At night, you’ll find me in rumpled pyjamas, swatting mosquitoes and squinting at hieroglyphic handwriting while transcribing interviews. Or tiredly trying to sidestep words like ‘game-changer’, ‘number one’ and ‘unique’ in adjective-padded press releases.

Often, I switch from corporatespeak, newspaperspeak and academicspeak while grappling with deadlines. Most days, I enjoy it. On other days, I wage wars in my head.

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There’s a kind of false grandiosity perceived about writing. There’s also this myth that writing is easy and that anyone can write. Both myths are irksome in equal proportions.

The myth that anyone can write? Well, of course, everyone can write but there’s a vast difference between writing and writing well. Writing well requires a fistful of  talent and a truck load of hard work and is refined over time – much like any other skill.

Perhaps there is a fortunate breed of writers who have a muse they can summon on command and produce a cascade of beautifully crafted sentences. Perhaps writing really is an effortless activity for some people or a form of catharsis and joy to others. For some of us, writing isn’t easy

I have a pleasure/pain relationship with writing – I enjoy writing but I also struggle with it. My undergrad years left me with a voice constantly self-criticizing and scrutinizing my writing. Often, a certain percentage of the work I do is paid per word. When the rates are low there’s a tendency to fall into the dreaded freelance trap – when you spray your writing with needless adjectives and adverbs just to fill up the word count (…perhaps I shouldn’t be confessing to this). On these days, I have to chloroform my self-critic or I’d never get any work done. I’m not proud of this and the opportunity cost is terrible because either way, your writing suffers or your back balance suffers. When the voice of reason which dictates my finances takes precedence, my writing pays the price. Sometimes to my utter dismay, I find myself wading miserably in bloated, voluble paragraphs when something half its size would have sufficed.

But the self-editing and criticism prevail on most days. Often I delete more words than I type and during a deadline crunch, exacerbated by stress, my productivity is 10 words per biscuit. There are times when all I have to show for hours of work is a frail paragraph which sways, sighs and dramatically collapses after the third read. The perfected procrastinating also doesn’t help things, but that’s another malaise altogether.

And the perceived glamour associated with writing? What most people see is the manicured finished product – not the work in progress. Not the frustration of multiple dead ends or the back-and-forth editing loops with clients, monosyllabic interviewees and the inability to find the right hook. It’s easy to take a finished piece of work at face value and to forget what goes on behind the scenes before the curtain call. We’re all guilty of doing it.

I can assure you there’s very little glamourous about transcribing interviews at 2 in the morning, being forced to hear your nasal voice and polite laugh slowed down,  while stress-eating your way through a 1000 word article, knowing that you also have an early meeting the next day.

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In the middle of all the work-writing, I soon realized that I had gradually forgotten how to write for the sake of writing. Little bits of solipsistic prose which only I would read. To selfishly write, not for an audience or for client approval, but for myself – for the sheer love of it. To remind myself why I started writing in the first place.

Like all unhealthy relationships, it was easy to ignore my own imperfections and evade responsibility for my dearth of non-work writing. One self-perpetuated myth was that it was hard to get any writing done at home and so I began making my way through coffee shops in Colombo in search of The Perfect Writing Spot. I’m not sure what I was expecting – multiple epiphanies? A muse who would magically appear and dictate my swan song? Shockingly, I didn’t find what I was looking for.

My favourite coffee shop is great but is so small that everyone can hear everyone’s conversations. I would rearrange my features into an expression which befitted a person who is working on important things, order an iced coffee, type a few throwaway sentences and then promptly (and unintentionally) drift into other people’s conversations. I would listen to earnest visiting scholars use words like ‘impuissant’ and solve the world’s problems, armed with theories and linen pants. Aunties would come and gently grumble about their children over plates of butter cake while nervous entrepreneurs pitched investors (“This is an idea for a start-up… ”). Disappointed, I traipsed in and out of more coffee shops in search of the elusive, perfect location.

I didn’t get much writing done but my foray into all of Colombo’s coffee shops taught me three things:

1.       I’m not a very sophisticated coffee drinker

 2.        I’m definitely a tea person

 3.       Drinking tea in a coffee shop is a terrible idea. Have you tried it? Who spends Rs. 300 for a tea bag floating half-heartedly in a mug of hot water?

 Determined, I briefly expanded my scope for the perfect location. The beach was also futile – the notebook was pushed away, a bag of manioc chips were devoured and I proceeded to have a nap instead. Then, I flirted with pen and paper in place of the laptop (rationale – let’s go old school, back to the roots) but that was also just a fling. After developing a dull neck ache from lugging my laptop everywhere, I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a shiny, sleek Macbook – because when have you ever seen TV shows where the earnest writer character slaves over a bulky HP Compaq?

 *

Today, I am in one of my more unconventional locations – a lopsided bench in a mall, waiting for a cab. Every time someone sits on the other end, the bench seesaws upwards and we exchange awkward smiles.

Here’s the thing. It’s just so easy not to write. It’s easy to be paralyzed with disillusionment and lapse into long periods of stasis in the fear that what you are writing is absolute rubbish. There is no editor or client on the other end, awaiting your writing and no deadlines. There is no sense of urgency that what you are producing is needed out there in the world (is it ever?). There will always be a vortex of excuses. The weather will never be right, you will never have enough time or the right tools. There will always be distractions and you will never, ever have your mojo.

I wish I could tell you that by now, I have neatly packaged answers for this dilemma. I don’t, but I’m always trying. So here I am, sitting in a crowded mall, on a broken bench, writing about writing.

– Me

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On a Street Art Trail in Colombo

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A man (Gihan, he tells me his name later) catches sight of me surveying a stencil of a smiling child sandwiched between a photocopy shop and a dilapidated building on Dawson Street, and signals from across the road: “There’s more over here”. Cheerfully appointing himself as my guide and with a number of wide eyed, bashful children in tow, we weave our way through a path punctuated with bird droppings, ceramic bathroom fittings, criss-crossing clothes lines, concrete debris, drains and enter the unlikeliest of art spaces.

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Lately, I’ve been juggling multiple lives. I secretly revel in the bustle that working divergent jobs bring. One line of work brings in a hint of order and solidity. The other brings in an element of uncertainty and creativity — never know if I’ll land up at a fish market, a five star hotel or as in this instance, alleys in Slave Island.

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Occasionally during my moonlighting work, there’s a story which lingers long after I’ve transcribed the interview, wrestled with the deadline and then laid the article to rest. An interview with French artist C215, who was in Colombo recently, was one of those which stubbornly persisted. I’d mentally dog-eared his work when I had come across one of his graffiti stencils in Delhi years ago and was pleasantly surprised when I saw his cube shaped signature in Colombo. After our conversation, I found myself returning twice to Slave Island on a graffiti hunt, retracing the artist’s path, in search of pockets of colourful graffiti tucked away in unexpected nooks and crannies.

If you’re a fan of street art, C215’s work abroad is worth browsing. Favourites include the Caravaggio series, the stained glass series, this one of a couple (she has such an interesting face) and a recent tribute to Robin Williams. Christian Guémy’s technique is a head-on collision between the scrupulous detail of the classical and the unaffected spontaneity of street art (“You plan nothing and begin something – things happen with interaction”). There’s a gentle hijacking of standard, flat stencil art with layers of colours and minute details giving his work an unexpected depth.

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind”

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

His choice of locations in Colombo were especially intriguing. I liked that he deliberately stepped out of Colombo’s rarefied art bubble and transformed non-spaces into visual poetry — all with polite permission from the residents and owners, mind. “I’ve always been interested in exploring the world. This kind of painting is a kind of exploration,” he shrugged. During our conversation, Christian pointed out that he liked people to follow his path, to wander down a street where they have nothing to do or no reason to go. “I think that the little street I have been painting in are not the streets you put on the tourist guides,” he remarked wryly, “but maybe rich people are making the right Colombo”.

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Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall

Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall

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Man with pigeon who wanted his picture taken

Christian’s stencils painted in Sri Lanka varied between those from his existing library of stencils from his work around the world to site-specific ones of the people of Slave Island themselves. Creating site-specific stencils is laboriously meticulous work and is a back and forth looping between the virtual and the real. It entails multiple visits to the same location, photographing people, printing the pictures out, carving out the stencils by hand from the printed portraits and then finally returning to paint. Once the painting is complete it is again documented and distributed online – almost a tango of sorts between multiple layers of the virtual and the real.

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

Pasindu with his portrait

Pasindu with his portrait

Some of the kids in Slave Island

Some of the kids in Slave Island

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Street art has a short lifespan. While the rest of the art world battles time and decay in the fight for preservation, street art is resolutely temporal with an oddly poignant acceptance of the inevitability of aging, decay and deterioration. “Nothing is permanent, everything is ephemeral. And this is something that I believe deeply […] In some way, creating art outside in a public space is also a kind of comment or a meditation about giving up with yourself, with your ego, with what you are — because it is something you leave behind you — you know you have to abandon it every day. And every day when you pass by, you have to abandon it [the art] for a new one,” voiced Christian, referring to the natural decay wrought on street art.

“You cannot look for being permanent by yourself as a human being — it’s the same with art. When I paint, I know it has a birth and it has a death. And that’s interesting because it (I speak for myself) helps me to accept that I am alive and I will die”.

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Public art can heavily impact a city’s visual culture and there’s a lot of potential for street art in Colombo – hence my enthusiasm for the manner in which artists like Christian have employed the medium.

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Martin Irvine sums it up eloquently in the Handbook of Visual Culture: “Whether the street works seem utopian or anarchic, aggressive or sympathetic, stunningly well-executed or juvenile, original or derivative, most street artists seriously working in the genre begin with a deep identification and empathy with the city: they are compelled to state something in and with the city, whether as forms of protest, critique, irony, humor, beauty, subversion, clever prank or all of the above. The pieces can be ephemeral, gratuitous acts of beauty or forms of counter-iconography, inhabiting spaces of abandonment and decay, or signal jams in a zone of hyper-commercial messaging. A well-placed street piece will reveal the meaning of its material context, making the invisible visible again, a city re-imaged and re-imagined”.

For the most part, graffiti in Colombo have been school boy scrawls (RC ROX 2 DA MAXX) of neither literary nor artistic merit and is understandably linked with vandalism. In terms of street art, the only public murals — as far as I know — are ones on school walls (which are tediously didactic in nature), a rather gruesome mural on Baseline Road and a few works here and there. I remember Artists Collectives like CoCA having plans for public art projects and it would be great to see more around Colombo.

One work of street art which is almost indelibly imprinted on my mind is this simple black and white line drawing which was done in 2006 in Kollupitiya during the war- I wish I knew who painted it. Days after an attack was carried out in Colombo, it popped up on the shrapnel pocked wall (remnants of the attack), only to be speedily taken down afterwards.

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Ps: Shout-out to T for the early morning company on the second leg of the photo-jaunt.

Update: Hat tip to Janith for linking to more street art in Colombo.

Memory, History

(Written a few months ago, posting now. Fervently hoping this has lost its relevance.)

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New Delhi,

June 2013.

 To you,

I’m not sure when it happened but Running in the Family has become one of my favourite books. I’d read it years ago and I stumbled across a battered copy at a Sunday book bazaar last year and pocketed it (50 Rs!) with little hesitation. Over the months, I would head for it almost instinctively whenever I needed a pick-me-up or a reminder of home and my already worn copy now bears the brunt of public transport, marginalia and dog-eared pages.

‘You know, I honestly haven’t been homesick in months’, I muse to my mother the other day. 1506 miles away I can almost hear her bristling over the phone and I hurriedly repair my tactlessness. Tonight though, I’m overcome with a wave of melancholy and I push away my mini mountain of readings and reach out for the book. An exercise in nostalgia, I think one of the many reasons I love it is because Ondaatje manages to combine just the right eccentricities of Sri Lanka with his perfectly imperfect family, reminding me so much of my own.

While reading, I suddenly remember an incident—I think it was during the late nineties when the terror was slowly reaching its zenith and Colombo’s comfortable little bubble was in danger of being punctured. It was around this time that security was drastically increased and warning posters about unknown parcels containing bombs dotted bus interiors. Emergency training was conducted in schools. All I remember was that we were told to put a pencil between our teeth and scramble under a desk in case of an explosion which, between you and me, seemed quite pointless.

My cousin sister was a member of the national netball team and had been out of the country for a tournament. The entire team had arrived back to Sri Lanka earlier than planned and there had been little or no time to make arrangements for accommodation. Most of the girls hailed from far flung parts of the island and so the entire team and coach apologetically arrived on our doorstep with nowhere else to go. The army had suddenly started doing spot checks around this time, and just after we had settled into bed that night, the doorbell rang.

Awakened by the voices, I crept halfway downstairs and sleepily observed the motley crew assembled in my living room—My mother in her pastel housecoat; four perplexed army personnel unsure of what to do; a dozen girls rudely interrupted from their sleep, scrambling from their makeshift beds, and my father unsuccessfully trying to explain in fragmented Sinhala why there were a dozen unknown girls asleep in our living room. I think my parents managed to convince the army personnel that their house wasn’t a front for nefarious night time activities and the army personnel saw the humour of the situation. They finished their security check, patted my head awkwardly, as adults usually do with children, and with a few parting quips, headed out.

Lately, in light of the recent events unfolding in Sri Lanka, I’ve been trying to reconcile three ideas of home. One is the sanitized, selective history propounded by the state. The other is a far more sinister side siphoned off information sources on the internet and international news. The final one is the version of home in my mind and the limited geographical space I grew up in. All three meet rather jarringly. There’s a quote by Julian Barnes which seems apt as I attempt to untangle my own notions of personal identity and geographical space; ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’.

It’s been years and I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in school our text books conveniently trailed off after 1948. We would spend months memorizing kings, cataloguing their bloodthirstiness and making lists of their achievements. We dutifully memorized the advent of the Portuguese (1505), the Dutch (17th century. My social studies teacher should be proud of me) and the British. More names were memorized—colonial governors, freedom fighters, dates of quelled rebellions. Certain changes in the constitution after Independence and elements of parliament were included in the syllabus like an afterthought and then it conveniently trailed off into ellipses. Like a person hurriedly using a napkin to blot stray specks of sauce before it congeals on his shirt, insurgencies, political parties, uprisings, tensions were blurred away.

While living away from home brings an enviable sense of detachment, it also brings about an augmented anxiety in times of crisis. The recent wave of violence in Sri Lanka has left me in a state of agitation. I’m writing to you because I’m scared and sad and I’m struggling to make sense of this madness.

News alerts, snippets from blog posts, articles from dubious sites with even more dubious grammar, racist rhetoric in the guise of opinion columns, information compressed into 140 characters, grainy videos of mobs led by monks storming commercial establishments and places of religious worship, pictures of torn Qurans on Facebook—I devour all of it in an attempt to wrap my mind around what is taking place at home.

All the information I siphon is second-hand and I don’t know enough to differentiate if this recent eruption of violence is a result of professional agitators and higher political powers staging a decoy or if this will snowball into a repetition of the conflict we have only just emerged from. I’m sad that selective amnesia was and still is the norm. That memory and an acknowledgement of the past are dismissed as irrelevant and that our country seems to be approaching the future with all the arrogance and brash indifference of an adolescent teenager.

I feel helpless because I’ve seen enough of the world today to know that violence is now the first impulse and not a last resort. Everything I’ve read about the riots in the eighties suddenly come to mind—the betrayal of neighbours, mobs drunk on power, men stripped naked and burned on the streets, houses looted and families forced to flee. I’m scared because my Muslim family lives in a staunchly Buddhist neighbourhood and while this never seemed important all these years, I’m suddenly acutely aware of it.

Yours in anxiety,

Me.

Trishaw Evolution

The thing with three-wheelers in Delhi is that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. With green and yellow exteriors and plain interiors and sometimes a picture of their respective deity/religious leader or Salman Khan wedged between the frame of the three-wheeler and the tarpaulin, there’s very little distinguish one three wheeler from the other. Even the drivers are supposed to wear a standard uniform so there’s little room for individuality. This fantastic realization dawned on me a year or so ago when Indian A left her phone in a tuk-tuk and we had to do a mad dash around Central Delhi trying to find the right three-wheeler.

I’m not sure how it is in the rest of India but compared to Delhi, their Sri Lankan counterparts are definitely more personalized and have more character. Maybe it’s the lack of the fourth wheel and complete disregard for road rules, but for the longest time, I found it hard to take tuk-tuks as a serious form of transport but I’ve watched how the Lankan three-wheeler has come of age gradually and it’s pretty interesting.

Most drivers I’ve spoken to have their own three-wheelers while some of them are rented and a certain amount paid regularly to the owner. I’ve seen three-wheeler drivers back at home look after their vehicles with meticulous care and how at times, their vehicles are even an extension or representation of themselves (Ex: Bad ass tuk-tuk = heavily tattooed driver + super loud engine + heavy beats) Till a few years back, most three-wheelers were sparse and unembellished. Sometimes, there would be an androgynous baby poster on the inner sides or a token landscape poster with a random quote (home is where the heart is, smile and the world will smile with you, etc) but that was basically it.

It may have begun with the introduction of a stereo at the back (which took up almost all the storage space and gave way to after-hour three-wheeler parties on the side of the road) and more three-wheelers in varying colours. Snazzier interiors replaced the usual ones. The bars, handles or whatchamacallits were gradually revamped. Fancy, metallic work or padded frames replaced the plain frames, a light inside for the convenience of the passenger was introduced along with more storage space and bottle holders (for the driver).

Dashboards are now decorated with enthusiasm. There’s a curious tendency for flowers and plastic grapes dangling distractingly.

Or you know, hello kitty bobble heads.

Some tuk-tuks even come with skylights.

Sometimes, Bob Marley chills in three-wheelers

With leery babies and their austere mothers.

 

St. Fallen posted a picture yesterday of a trishaw with two fans – one for the driver and one for the passenger. How’s that for service?

Wearing your religion on your sleeve is another distinct feature of Sri Lankan three-wheelers.  Religious symbols are predominant while figurines, garlands and statues adorn the dashboard. If you hail a tuk early enough, you might see the traces of the morning incense and flowers strewn on the dashboard as well.  Sometimes, Buddhist and Quran verses are on the exterior or a short prayer asking to bless the respective vehicle.

And of course, the trishaw wisdom. Megs has done a fantastic job documenting quotes and general pearls of profoundness three wheelers in Sri Lanka dispense. Some of them are pure gold. I’ve popped in a few but I’d advise you to check the full collection out over here on Pinterest. (All pictures of trishaw quotes via Megs’ Pinterest page)

Living in SL, it was something I took for granted and it wasn’t until I noticed the homogeneity of the Delhi wheelers that I realized how Lankan three wheelers have morphed over the years. My favourite features would be the dashboard decorations and the quotes. I’m not sure about the functional aspects and engine enhancements, but if they’re jazzing up the rims I’m going to guess that they’ve made internal improvements as well, along the road.

It’ll be interesting to see what would be added on in the future. I’ve seen wheelers being used to advertise stuff and it’s only a matter of time before some genius decided to harness its full potential and go all out in a commercial frenzy like the buses of Colombo have been subjected to. Which although an eye sore, it would mean an additional source of income for the drivers and extra money is always welcome.

I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for trishaw-art or a Sri Lankan version of the London Underground (but instead of the subway, the tuk-tuk) with Sinhala and Tamil poetry. Not sure how feasible poetry would be as a mass communication tool but hey, this is just wishful thinking.