Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I wrote this several years ago, and decided to revive it for this spot. My opinions on literature and books and writers has changed since then, but that's a part of what makes this so delightful to me. Yes, I'm being self-indulgent. Allow me that.

Also, most of the references in this poem are very specific, and if you haven't read the books I read as a teenager, you might be completely unfamiliar with them. This poem was written as a conversation with my close friends, but I'm hoping it's possible for other people to find ways of enjoying it too.

May 29, 2006

I am asked my favourite writers and works
I accept the self-indulgence; for there are no other perks
And contemplate on how best to pay tribute
To the pilgrimage to libraries, to bring home the loot
To revel in its brilliance, and smile at its quirks.

Rushdie, here, I will not mention
Seth though, will get an extension.
Repute evades his Two Lives ploy
But An Equal Music and A Suitable Boy
Pre-empt all possible bones of contention.

The Golden Gate carried me away
(My first encounter with verse was way
back when I was a mere seven years old
with the Beastly Tales crocodile – “Go away!”, he’d been told.)
“Talk to us, John”, he says – “we will all die someday.”

Hanif Kureishi is a new-found treasure,
Loved and loathed in equal measure.
For this I thank my dear friend’s love
With years of cajoling (and sometimes a shove)
I found not the bloodstream, but in it the pleasure.

Roy merits not a stanza but two
Dizygotic, though, and quite different too.
The first, for Rahel and Estha I write
With them I have lived; in them I delight
‘Naaley’, she says – a haunting, painful adieu.

The second – please see this from where I am –
- For damning the bomb and blasting the dam
For speaking, for seeking to question malpractice,
With words to do it Infinite Justice
For being human, yes – but the best she can.

And him – the Cinnamon Peeler, should I say?
Or simply (in reverence) Michael Ondaatje?
Of Colombo, of Toronto, of Anuradhapura
Of Count Almasy searching for the Zerzura
And the pain in the paintings on walls of clay.

Poetry is in his every word, they tell me
How he loves, and how much, compel me
He speaks of letters like the bones of a lover’s spine
Of scurrying in the ceiling, or a scar’s strange design
“I am the cinnamon peeler’s wife,” he writes, “Smell me.”

There is, then, the ancient Graham Greene
He took me to places where I have been
In the ageless nights and the dying mornings
of A Quiet American; or just the life dawning
on A Burnt Out Case; I have felt it all - I have seen.

Dancing in Cambodia I have been for a while
Saloth Sar’s life, and that of the king, beguile.
With The Imam and the Indian, Malaria in the Bay
And all the wonder of Mandalay
Amitav Ghosh is ahead of many by a mile.

And him, mailing manuscripts to Ezra Pound
Oh, what treasures in Wastelands I have found!
Thomas Stearns: A magician? Well, yet –
There is some magic in the verse of Eliot
With Prufrock on winter mornings, or Macavity gone underground!

Coming to the part where I must close this door
“Another line”, I think, or “Just a few more”
To Haroun I must acknowledge my debt
To those not mentioned – there will be verses yet
(Though Priestly might say “I Have Been Here Before”!)

Some works, of course, are bigger than their makers
Some I could mention, but they would find no takers.
In writing, I have suffered the reader’s curse
Not knowing how to end this tortuous verse
“A dozen stanzas”, I had thought – but make it a baker’s!

Monday, August 8, 2011

I see a ghost!

Are ghosts always scary?

In the last five years of reasonably vigorous theatre-watching, I've only watched two horror* stage productions, the first in London last summer, and the second in San Francisco this week. Now, I love a creepy, scary story, especially when it comes to films, I'll admit that. I'll also admit, that as rational and non-believing (in all thing unseeable, godly or otherwise) as I like to think of myself as being, watching horror films scares the living daylights out of me. I chatter incessantly and giggle nervously throughout the film, so as to not be visibly startled, or have my heart thud so hard I can feel it in my mouth, or seem to the people around me like a whimpering little girl who can't handle a couple of ghosts. Furthermore, after having watched a horror film, I usually wake up to every sound during the night, and am a wee bit afraid (this is the part that embarrasses me most) that when I get in the bathroom and shut the door, I will find there, standing behind me, reflected in the mirror, the particular ghoul that stalked the scenery in the film I watched that day. Such completely unnecessary trauma notwithstanding, I am constantly dragging friends along to watch horror films, and my Netflix queue of "recommendations for you" is often dominated by this genre.

However, I've seldom watched theatre productions of horror, and watching The Woman in Black in London last year absolutely thrilled me. I was a homestay guest in London, living with a family in Acton, and as I walked home that night from the North Acton Underground, the blood-thickening scream from the play, and the sudden appearances of the spectre were all I could think of. Abigail Dreary, at the Boxcar Theatre last week, scarcely even made me twitch. Of course, there were some very obvious differences between the two productions. The mis-en-scene, acting and production values were all as different as, well, London and San Francisco.

The Woman in Black** has been playing in London since 1987, and at the Fortune Theatre since 1989 (legend has it the theatre has its very own ghost). This is mainstream English theatre at its middlebrow best, not the kind of piece performed in a little cubby at the end of an alley smelling of rancid piss, dotted with little groups of people quietly snorting stuff out of pieces of paper. There is money in this kind of theatre. The actors, the venue, the directors and the crew, all get paid. Ergo, the performance included expensive props, a venue large and versatile enough to explore the machinations of a supernatural being, and some very, very good acting. Abigail Dreary at the Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco, on the other hand, was a much smaller production, playing at a tiny venue, to a much smaller audience. (As I waited in the lobby, I realized that a number of people who came in were friends of the cast/crew/management). Of course, this is by no means an explanation of why I think Abigail Dreary paled in comparison to The Woman in Black. (Although since both titular characters are ghosts, it's tough to say who was paler. Ok, never mind that.) I love small scale, independent theatre as much as I do mainstream, canonical theatre. Besides, it is always more interesting to see the ways in which directors and set designers end up using smaller spaces, because it involves so much more thought and creativity. On this count, given the spatial limitations they were working with, the crew of Abigail Dreary actually did a fantastic job. The difference between the two plays did not lie in the story either - both, as ghost stories go, were as compelling as trite and predictable. We could argue about the degree of predictability, but honestly, once you've spent a childhood reading Bram Stoker,  R.L. Stine, and everything in between, it's not all that difficult being two steps ahead of most ghost stories. I would also not fault the acting - in contrast to the professional cast of The Woman in Black, Abigail Dreary was played almost entirely by very young actors who were either amateur, or were just starting out with their training. Jake Sigl as Nicky was a case in point. I do not know much about the actor, but I'm quite certain he is very young, and with very little training. He fit the role perfectly, except for the part that I kept getting the feeling he wasn't acting at all. Nicky is a slightly awkward, but very sweet and sensitive teenaged boy. I would venture, so is Jake Sigl. And I think one of the defining elements of theatre, as opposed to cinema, is the fact that the audience is always conscious of the performance. Not in a Brechtian manner, necessarily, but in a way that greatly contributes to theatre's biggest difference from cinema - its liveness.

A discussion of the difference in production values and acting styles between The Woman in Black and Abigail Dreary, however, would merely be a discussion of the degrees of variation. The real difference for me was a story element that I think is the key to making scary visual representations of ghost stories - the presence or absence of the ghost from the audience's field of vision. The Woman in Black is a mystery - she exists, yet not; we can see her, but we can't be sure. We hear her sometimes, but we don't know if that is the voice of a woman, or the screech of a hurt, wild creature. There she is, on the stage, for that brief moment when a flashlight was turned on her, until she is standing right amongst us, in the aisle between two columns of seats on the theatre floor, staring right through us. The Woman in Black had its audiences constantly on the edge - we sometimes caught a glimpse of the said woman in black, but we hardly ever saw her, took in her features, made a mental image of her. We wanted to, so that we could feel safer, more secure. We wanted to know what to expect when we saw her, and where to expect her, but we couldn't know that, because she wasn't in our control. And that's the kind of thing that scares the shit out of people.

Abigail Dreary, on the other hand, introduced the play before any of the other actors came on. She was wearing a white dress, her face was pale, her eyes were blackened, and she spoke to us with maliciousness dripping from her tongue. Ok, yeah, she's the ghost. Now let's sit back and relax. Abby, as she called herself, walked through the set like any of the other characters, and while it was a part of the story that she suddenly appeared and disappeared, it wasn't a part of the dramatic narration. Everytime she came in, she stayed and she talked and she touched. We saw her walk in, we saw her walk out. Abigail failed to scare because Abigail was familiar and in our control. She was malignant, yes, but not scary.   

To a great extent, the same rules apply to cinema too. The scariest films are those where we don't see the ghost, and therefore have no idea what or who it is. El Orfanato (2007) was scary, because we didn't know what the hell was going on, until the scene where Laura gets locked in the bathroom. Ringu (1998) was scary as hell, until the girl-ghost-creature-thingie started crawling out of the television. And I suspect that's the reason why Paranormal Activity (2007) scared people out of their skins. There is a ghost, you just know it. It's in the house, in their room, in their bed. You're dying for an explanation, but you never get one. You're dying to see it, even if that means you'll cover your eyes with your hand, and only peep through the gap between your fingers. But all you see is a set of non-human footsteps. You don't know who or what it is, but you can feel its presence. You can feel it through the screen. Holy shit.  

*By "horror," I specifically mean stories involving ghosts. Vampires, German Expressionism and Chan-wook Park are all separate categories. 
**The Woman in Black has a film adaptation releasing in 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe and CiarĂ¡n Hinds. Trailer here.