Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On the possible link between Ginsberg's Howl and Aimé Césaire's long-ass poem

So 'Cahier d'un retour au pays natal' was published in 1939, and Howl in 1956. Similar treatments and themes throughout: exploitation, surreal imagery, the use of lists, choruses, invocations. 

Then there's that line from Isidore-Lucien Ducasse-- "a howling of fists against the barrier of the sky"-- that André Breton quotes in his intro to the edition of Césaire's work that we're using in class, and his claim that Césaire thought highly of Ducasse and once published him in 'Tropiques'-- Possible that Ginsberg read the same edition?

According to Wiki, Ducasse was a major influence on Césaire as well as the surrealists... and there's Ducasse's  'Maldoror' to Ginsberg's 'Moloch': Mark Spitzer recounts an anecdote shared by one Steve Collins, who claims Ginsberg shared Ducasse's 'Les Chants de Maldoror' with Bob Dylan, who was then inspired to create 'Taratula' (

So, perhaps Ducasse's large prose poem inspired Césaire's long poem and possibly separately, Ginsberg's long poem? 'Les Chants de Maldoror' is available in an English (painful) translation on Gbooks, as a preview. So, Ducasse as some sort of grandfather of transgressive literature to both Césaire (at least in that one poem) and Ginsberg?

[Does Jeremy Reed's book on Ducasse and Burroughs, titled 'Isidore', shed any light on any of this?]

Wondering how much more is owed to Ducasse than is popularly acknowledged.

Also, image search the Ducasse title: wonderful stuff.

Only other link that seemed of deep interest, and speaks to this process of inspiration across all sorts of lines: this wonderful entry on 'Tarpeian Rock', a blog I'm tucking away in my bookmarks with a very real glee-- 

N.B: The image accompanying this post is available via the wonderful National Library of the Netherlands-- fantastic entry here on Ducasse and the 1927 imprint of Les Chants de Maldoror

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thoughts After Petri's Piece on the Post-ness of Poetry

Nota Bene: John Deming at Coldfront has more than sufficiently responded to Petri's post here. Folk far more skilled and driven than I will continue to say what must be said; consider this a collection of annotations on what poetry means to one simple little MFA student and her (me) alone.

 Nota Bene, duo: Hilarious that the same paper which published Petri's chatty little condemnation of poetry only last year featured a video interview with a poet, who made a strong case for why poetry is alive and relevant, contexting its role in DC! Vae victis. Full disclosure: signed up for my first class ever with said poet, which began last week.

WHEN Blanco began reading the inaugural poem, I swear I held my breath and waited for that moment when the words being spoken would cause a visceral reaction-- a catch in my throat, sudden pin-pricking tears, that weird warm ache in my chest I get every time I'm at the start of a really good hockey game and whoever's singing the Star Spangled Banner does a good job because fuck you, this is not about loyalty, I love my country but I personally have never heard an anthem responded to THIS strongly, this genuinely every time.

 But I digress.

 Point being, I waited the entire length of Blanco's reading, waited for something. And that something did not affect me in the deeply personal way I was hoping for. No offence to Blanco-- it can only mean great honor and inconceivable pressure to read at state events, and this particular piece was chosen by whoever was in charge of planning the festivities, who evidently deemed it appropriate enough for the moment. Twitter showed Blanco much love, and rightly so. Some said it happily reminded them of Whitman, others of Frank O' Hara. Please find the full text of Blanco's piece here, as well as a discussion of its value and Blanco's own, as a poet.

 Today, Alexandra Petri swaggered up to the community blog section of the WaPo and asked ye olde brazen question brazenly, titling her post 'Is poetry dead?'

 She isn't the first. However, poetry (and Poetry) has been succinctly (as with Deming's post earlier today) and successfully defended through the ages. Shelley famously did it, and before him Sir Philip Sidney in his 'Apologie', and since the latter suffered no compunction to adhere to even a ballpark New Yorker page length, here is an overview and outline of said Apologie (he really meant defence, as opposed to defense, the way Shelley did).

 Both white men, writing in English, belonging to England. Okay yes, now that's a problem. I've been in writing and literature classes since I was 16, and I was never directed to read a defense of poetry written by anyone other than these two gents, which meant I never got to hear from different genders, identities or ethnicities on why poetry is important, and in fact, should be defended. This of course means that I'm beyond glad Blanco was chosen, for both where he comes from, the struggle he discusses, and what he stands by in his inaugural poem, for as pointed out in the Daily Beast article,

 “While Blanco is careful not to turn the poem into a confessional act, since its purpose is largely civic, he makes it true to his own experience in referring to his mother’s sacrifices as a cashier and his father’s as a cane cutter,” said Jahan Ramazani, an editor of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. “In doing so, he makes vivid for us the specific sacrifices that make possible his act of writing the poem as well as the multitudinous sacrifices that stand behind the shared poetry of our daily experience. We are often reminded at such public ceremonies of the hardship of previous generations, but Blanco found a way to make it real in the immediacy of his example. 

 Tangent: not that women have been absent at all from making spaces for, and thereby defending poetry-- here's a wonderful narrative of the amazing ladies behind the founding and defining of Poetry magazine's aesthetic, appropriately titled '100 Years of Poetry: 'In the Middle of Major Men'. In addition, here is a pithy statement by Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of Poetry magazine, on their/her editorial 'open door' policy-- What she has to say sheds important light on the subject of "major" and "minor" poets, and the role of popularity. 

 It is indeed impossible to dismiss the popular (possibly) perspective that Petri appears to be vocalizing: 

 But after the inaugural, after Richard Blanco’s almost seventy lines of self-reflection and the use of phrases like “plum blush” — which sounded like exactly what the phrase “poem” denotes to us now — I wonder what will become of it. 

 There are several variables at work here: poetry hasn't been televised since what, Def Jam on HBO? In fact, when was the last time a poem was given major airtime, forcing "non-MFA" folk (going by Petri's reasoning) to consider what intent its words were communicating? 

 Petri references poetry taught in high school, and in a paragraph dismisses the entire process of digesting a poem in one's teenage years. She uses the word "quaint"-- this makes me sad to think of the banal poetry sessions she must have been exposed to, and yet reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for: 

  • The first time we discussed David Diop's 'Africa': still get goosebumps thinking of the power with which he dismissed those white, fading flowers at the base of the towering, terrifying tree of Africa's future, and the "bitter taste of liberty".  
  • The time we studied Dante, contrasting how he referenced the viewing of stars at the end of the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradisio, and how it affected a much younger, far more ardently religious me with how it echoed the bits from St. Matthews gospel as I had come to know them in the protestant communion liturgy: "... that even in the mud, we are haunted by the stars" 
  • The first time we read Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The first time I heard Iron Maiden's rendition of the same, on the Powerslave album. The time we performed it for an awed group of school children (sorry, first-n-last self-aggrandizing link here, promise). 
Prosaic truth: when poetry, like all art forms, doesn't emotionally affect listeners or readers at large, it doesn't work at large. The point Petri seems to be making is much the same point made by the disaffected urban youth portrayed in 'Dangerous Minds', viz. WTF poetry?? WHY? Aside: Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise is often discussed utilizing New and Sociological Criticism, made famous by Michelle Pfeiffer's character in aforementioned movie as well as in many poetry classes across the world. Petri states, 

 All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better. But naturally we still have government-subsidized poets. Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service. 

 First, for shame, taking down the Postal Service! Are we then to do away with grandmothers, meals made from scratch, the radio and public tv as well? #postaloutrage! (Here's the Mother Jones discussion of the same) 

Deming brings up a brilliant point when he addresses the way in which Petri loosely associates the role of poetry with revolution and political change: please read his entire response twice and share widely, because he is absofuckingutely right in quoting Vonnegut on Vietnam, Tarkovsky on art and social change, and referencing what Robert Frost said at the inauguration that he was invited to read at. 

 But did Petri truly get her idea about the role of poetry from pop culture references like 'Dangerous Minds'? She refers to the role of news agencies and media, claiming that the original role of poetry has been overtaken by these more prosaic and relevant (?) venues. Aside: totally stoked someone took the trouble to correct her on misappropriating the William Carlos Williams reference to the news. What is hilarious is that the poets Petri gives a shout out to weren't the most PC or Washington-friendly folk around: Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams were and forever will be Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, giants of self-expression and torch bearers of speaking what no one else had the balls to vocalize. 

 Tangent: who really are our Ginsbergs and Williams today? Or do we see in poetry today more room for contemplation than provocation? 

 Petri makes an interesting point when she discusses what I can only assume she means is ivory tower poetry, saying 

 The kind of poetry they read to you at poetry readings and ladle in your direction at the Inaugural is — well, it’s all very nice, and sounds a lot like a Poem, but — it has changed nothing. No truly radical art form has such a well-established grant process. 

 Ah. Okay. Is accessibility the issue then? But what would be more accessible at the inaugural then, Kendrick Lamar? Possibly, yes, but that takes us back to political protocol and red tape and appropriateness. Would a more visceral poem, one that appealed more to my (inconsequential) instincts and those of Petri herself, have been allowed at the inaugural? What would this poem have said? Would it have made unfortunate mention of wars, economic woes, drought and the quiet terror of living in a post-hegemonic Capitalist America? 

 Maybe. And maybe it would have also viscerally discussed what is beautiful and gritty about this country I have come to know slowly, firsthand. Would it have gone down well with everyone watching and supporting this President? Does poetry ever have to go down well, or does it ever have a role as specific as what Petri seems to suggest? 

 The truth is that poetry is all pervasive, and has moved on to arenas as varied as bathroom stalls, support groups, cathartic House Music vocals, tumblrs and twitter feeds. I want to humbly suggest here that the inherent value of poetry (everything that has caused it to survive till date, its ability to be the vehicle for what would otherwise be impossible to say out loud) has proven to be so significant that popular culture itself constantly aims to achieve what successful poetry achieves, in an attempt to lay claim to authenticity, even if this claim is only fleeting. A quick sample follows--

RivesRakim. The voice of Mary J. Blige. The grace of the pied piperesque Dancing Guy, at the 2009 Sasquatch Festival. The Dylan song you remember most. What the folk behind One Giant Leap achieved. So many incredible moments of current events (the news that Petri is obsessed with) captured in photography. Something about the crowd participation at Coldplay's Glastonbury show, during the finale of Viva La Vida (hover for link). 

Here's where I feel Petri missed the point: it isn't that poetry and poems have been upstaged by the news (also since when did epic tradition = news? Even for a cheeky blog post, a stretch). The more primal function of poems has always been something more than simply recounting a story (see her examples of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, even). This "more than simply recounting" has been elbowed aside by our public, enhanced access to streaming media, which allows us to share a complex emotion or thought now via a share button or link, instead of pouring over a page or reading (out loud?) a troubling-in-its-intensity line. 

 Doesn't help either that it's incredibly hard to always know how to talk about poetry. And here perhaps there's a kernel of truth to Petri's sly challenges to Poetry, and all types of MFA and grant-funded poetry activities-- have we made it uncool, unmanly, un-PC, un-hip to talk poetry in public? Is talking or sharing poetry considered presumptuous? Too high-brow for Joe Shmoe? And when did this happen, considering (accessible!) poetry everywhere in the world (except from pre-WWI Empire-minded nations) has most always come from working men and women? 

 John Deming has it on the nose, I believe-- there's something that smacks of smugness in Petri's post. Yes, it is a BLOGpost, as this is, but it is about POETRY, which is kinda like a stranger coming into your home and poking fun at all the albums you inherited from your mother, hence it is not, at the same time, JUST a blog post. Aside: One hopes WaPo's SEO folk are happy with their cups that are verily running over. This was solid, mid-level case of trolling. 

 There is poetry everywhere today, on the insides of buses in this country, shared at popular public events back home in mine-- I hope you all at some point in your life attend an evening of ghazals or Qawalli where it isn't seen as esoteric entertainment. Why? Jeff Buckley on the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, here

 Look, I wish Blanco's poem turned up the heat even more than it did. I wish it issued more of a gentle challenge than give thanks and speak of hope the way it did. But this was a DC event, ladies and gents! And in the teeth of the remaining guff Petri seems to have leveled at poetry, all I can say is this-- 

 A) A poem "should not mean, but be". 

 B) If you think Poetry cannot say anything that (journalistic or otherwise) prose can, I offer the following poem by Lyubomir Levchev as proof:


Once I reproached my son
because he did not know
where to buy bread.
And now...
now he is selling bread
in America.
In Washington.
In his daytime routine
he teaches at the university.
At night he writes poetry.
But on Saturdays and Sundays
he sells bread
on the corner of Nebraska and Connecticut.

The fields of Bulgaria are empty.
Those women of the earth who used to
reap the crops to feed the generations,
are fading away like the notes of a dying song.
Politicians set up the melodrama:
“Who filched the wheat of the motherland?!”
But what lies between bread and man remains
hidden behind the several names,
different in taste and different in price.

My son sells bread for sandwiches,
rosemary buns, olive rolls,
“Zaatar” loaves, Spanish sesame “Semolina,”
walnut bread, wheat bread, sprinkled with raisins,
Italian “Pane Bello.”
“Palladin,” kneaded with olive oil, with yeast and milk,
corn bread, pumpkin seed bread,
Turkish bread, bread made of clouds…
Only Bulgarian bread is not available,
nor the leftover bread from yesterday!

“Some bread remains unsold
every day,” my son says.
“We are given a loaf for dinner.
The rest is wrapped in plastic bags
and dumped…”

Weariness weighs on my son.
The bread has handed him an American dream
(And this, too, means The American Dream)
Oh God, don’t you hear? My son is praying for something!
Danger encircles him like an aura.

Give me the answer, Lord, to one single prayer—
to one last wish,
then do, please, whatever my son asks of you.
And sure, you might as well adopt him!

In Sofia
the shades of old women
scour the dark.
Ransacking the rubbish bins they collect bread.
Pointing at one of them, a teacher
of history and Bulgarian language, they say:

“Don’t jump to conclusions, take it easy!
She’s not taking the bread for herself. She feeds
stray dogs
and birds.”

And my words too are food for dogs
and birds.

Oh God!
Why am I alive?
Why do I wander alone in the Rhodopes?
Why do I gaze down abandoned wells?
Why do I dig into caves where people lie?
And pass the night in sacred places, renounced by you?

I am seeking the way
to the last magician’s hideout,
he who forgot to die
but has not forgotten the secret of bread.
Not today’s bread, which is for sale,
not yesterday’s bread which has been dumped…
I must know the secret of tomorrow’s bread.
The bread our lips will touch in awe.
The bread that takes our children by the hand
and leads them all back home.
Translated into English by Jack Harte

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Work in Progress: Dopamine Dali

Aight. The goal of writing all this down is to make sure
  1. I remind myself to see this project through till it's done.
  2. This idea (all mine, ALL MINE, Y'HEAR??) is book-marked on this blog for posterity.
I've been meaning to start work on Dopamine Dali for about 7 months now, and an ART 131 class assignment finally gave me the space to start a process book for it.

The finished version will play with some found text, but will certainly contain far more original artwork and a singular recurring motif. Maybe those famous whiskers. Maybe.

More on why and how once it's actually done.

For a fantastic piece on Dali and his fascination with bread, please read this fantastic study by one Julia Pine. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dead egg-heads, or Priyanka's Art Project for this year's Dia de los Muertos

What you may not know about me is that I'm a closet crafter (less Myers-Briggs, more xacto knives and gorilla glue).

As a kid, I revelled in making Plasticine figures, random collages and dolls out of shells, petals, sticks & bits of rag. Stopped when I hit my teens because muddling about making tiny things gave way to writing, and I began to believe it was what the grown-up me preferred doing.

It took me a little over a decade to realize that I've been missing out on loads of fun all these years. So here, presented for your pleasure, are the egg-shell calaveras I've been working on for this year's dia de los muertos.

I'll keep making calaveras as long as we plan on eating omelettes, quiches and sunny-sides all the way up to Halloween. Got any ideas? I'm thinking of personalizing a few-- For instance, the last black and white one is made for Sharanya, as a love and good health protection skull.

This was also the first time I've ever tried putting a watermark on an image, so um... forgive the lame text. PicMarkr's an easy, free watermarking tool so I have to give them props.

[Pulls a broom and a foam cactus out of the Whose Line Is It Anyway prop box]

Be well, beautiful.

Monday, August 01, 2011

On the need for good scotch

Tonight I miss my father most, and his collection of scotch.

You're lucky if you live far away from home and on the night before one of your many transatlantic journeys, you get to speak to your father and say--"I'd like to keep that bottle of Caol Ila." You're luckier still if he looks at you, nods, and helps you roll it into two scarves and one college sweatshirt.

No more is said, but there's a lifetime of words communicated in that simple act of a bottle being passed from father to daughter.

One glass baton filled with pale gold. Always poured into lead crystal, over two cubes of ice. It's my father saying- here, take. Your next few years will be some fantastic mixed with guttural lows. You will embarrass yourself. You will say the wrong thing and miss opportunities. You will get robbed. You will choose the wrong people, the wrong situation, the wrong underwear for the wrong job interview. There is no fairy godmother, no charm to place under your pillow at night. Your mother will be upset, and there will a birthday, maybe several, when she will not call.

He never had what I have now. Never had, at the age of twenty-six, the luxury of sitting on a quiet summer night out on a dark balcony, sipping his parent's twelve year old single malt out of a scotch glass cut in Czechoslovakia.

My father is a great man, and a self-made one. Everything he is now, he chose to be-- Picking and choosing from observations and conversations. His longest running teachings are as follows: King makers are more important than kings. Sometimes you have to push, sometimes you have to pull. Carry people with you. Sip your scotch. Respect is earned the longer you make a bottle last.

My father never had the patience to type luxury of typing out his thoughts either. Has a lovely block script he uses in all official letters and forms though. But he depends on oral tradition when it comes to my brother and I, and though I've stopped faking exams to get out of these phone conversations with my father, they still play a poor second fiddle to actually sitting and talking with him.

I delete forwards from him everyday. He's in the smallest of G+ circles, and used to leave comments on my facebook pictures when I was still on there, but I miss experiencing conversation with him so goddamn much. I imagine the talks we'd have in person now, him a little more mellow, me just a little older. I recall all his ticks, all his mannerisms: the way he starts to cough if he gets into a really hearty, good laugh. The way he closes his eyes if he's listening to Floyd, Elvis or Zeppelin. The way I can always tell when he's too busy planning a response to listen to me. The way he reads my sins without hearing a single confession, and humbles me with his companionable silence instead of calling me out.

He's no saint, my father. He picked up cheap luggage from a relative who bought them at Moore Market in Madras for my first flight into the US post 9/11, despite my protests. He reacted badly to every boyfriend I've ever told them about. He insists women cannot have successful families and careers, and once advised me to become a dentist because it meant good money. But he's my old man. The one who taught me how to hustle. Close to seven years have passed since I last lived at home, and time seems to be passing faster than ever before.

It's incredibly presumptuous, and maybe a little conceited to speak of mortality where I am right now. I've been relatively lucky in death. The ones I have lost have come back to me some other way. I've no debilitating drug habit, or illness. I don't drive. I'm on the wrong end of my mid-twenties, and I have yet to do my Big Thing. My parents are getting older, but then again whose aren't?

I miss him everyday. A two year whimsical study scholarship has turned into too long. I miss his smell, that father smell, Old Spice and sweat and on some evenings, good whiskey. I miss the sound his chappals make. The way he ties his lungi effortlessly. The way he cools his tea.
I miss my mother too, but my mother does not drink. This changes things, slightly.

These things this scotch brings up.
Two doubles are enough.
Salt doesn't hurt an Islay whiskey. The current distillery, built between 1972 and 1974 in the same location as the original, overlooks the sea.
I'll need a new bottle by the year's end, at which time
I think I'll go home.

This piece was the prototype of *this* piece, which was published by Bluestem Magazine for their September 2011 Quarterly. It's much, much better. Trust me.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

'Outsourced': this currycature aint funny no more, mama.

An edited version of this piece appeared in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 47, Dated November 27, 2010. Please visit that link for the stripped-down version of this ramble.

As sitcom viewers, we hold some truths to be self-evident. For instance: a majority of American sitcoms are made for easy caricature, with the rare exception focused on social commentary—Salutations, Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds and Alan Alda: M*A*S*H changed the lives of everyone who plugged into the Star TV episode re-runs in the early 1990s, then rediscovered it online a few years later. Corollary to this truth: American sitcoms made for easy caricature either provide a generation with popular catch-phrases, or catches flack from a key demographic of the same generation for hackneyed writing.

Image courtesy

American television channel NBC’s Outsourced, which premiered on September 23, 2010 and was picked up for a full season a few weeks ago, has been rousing mixed reactions from just such a key demographic: 20-30 something American viewers, including Indian Americans and Indians currently residing in the United States. Most viewers have sounded off on their dislike of the show’s lack of timeliness, and some of its casting decisions. Others have commented on the refreshing presence of Indians and Indian themes, however dated, playing a main role in an American prime time show.

The movie this series is based on was a perfect little fairytale. Much like Mississippi Masala did in its own time, 2006’s Outsourced captured a certain piece of the Indian/American reality in our recent history with sweet detail. An eventful year, 2006 contained the death of Syd Barrett, Bismillah Khan and Pramod Mahajan. Several members of the Viriginia Tech campus were killed in a tragic homicidal shooting incident. Movie releases included Borat, Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest, Rang De Basanti, Krrish and Lage Raho Munnabhai. The July Mumbai train bombings happened, as did Hurricane Katrina, and the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The one thread that strung 2006 through in the United States was talk of American jobs being shipped abroad. And call centers was as far as American pop culture got in 2006 with Indian references, apart from quaint films like the Guru (2002).

2010 is a very different time. The past few years have brought us Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali and his non-Orientalist, Indian-grad-at-Caltech set of Indian cultural references. The entire cast eats Indian take-out once a week except for him (he detests Indian food), and throughout the series the viewer is aware that the other characters are well educated about Koothrappali’s manners and mores as well as a range of realties regarding India and the US-Indian diaspora. Russell Peters is now very old hat, except for those of us whose parents are just discovering Facebook. There is or was, the guy from Lost. Sanjaya, his hair and their combined appearance on American Idol. Slumdog Millionnaire. Bollywood Dance work-out classes. Bikram Yoga. MetroPCS’s Tech and Talk ad campaign. Harvard’s professional Bhangra team. Adiga and Lahiri are only some of the more recent additions to a plethora of Indian authors making a name for themselves internationally. And most importantly, no self-respecting pop culture pulse checker has mentioned call centers in about three years.

Quick overview of the Outsourced series plot: An American Novelties Company fires all their American staff, and then outsources the sales over to an artistic postcard representation of “Mumbai”, together with a young, snotty white American manager named Todd Dempsey (Ben Rappaport). Cue the Mumbai employee list: Rajiv, the Machiavellian manager, one beautiful young thing in love with her traditions (Rebecca Hazlewood’s complicated British accent attempting an Indian accent attempting an American accent), one sexually repressed bumpkin (Anisha Nagarajan, one of the happy surprises of the show), one Romeo with a heart of gold (Sacha Dhawan), one socially inept outcast (Parvesh Cheena, who plays his part brilliantly and together with Nagarajan, is responsible for some of the only nuanced characterization in this series.) Todd is quick to realize he needs to pick up on Indian cultural realities: from navigating personal space to understanding gender roles to realising that there is no such holiday as ‘Jolly Vindaloo Day’.

Still awake? The high yawn quotient of this tired, done to death plot is to an extent because Todd Dempsey is unlikeable from the get-go, portrayed as he is, as a close-minded white boy who’s terrified of losing his job security. But the show’s major flaws lie less in racism and more in lazy writing. Outsourced’s pilot took hesitant, baby steps, as if the cast and crew were constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure they hadn’t stepped on several million brown toes across the world. Can this be put down to all the backlash that followed Joel Stein’s unintentionally incendiary piece for TIME? Or do we place the script in the context of some of the reactions Mr. Boyle’s Oscar winning production garnered for itself?

After the deadly dull pilot, things did mildly improve with the first few episodes. The writers didn’t descend to easy tropes like spontaneous Bollywood dance/item number inclusions, even when it may have spiked their ratings. Arranged marriage references only began in episode three. But Outsourced’s Todd Dempsey continued to interact with a Mumbai that only exists in his imagination: there are no “decent burgers” to be had, no one has ever heard of Halloween (yet everyone seems to take to Halloween costuming in episode six like kitty party aunties to an Avon demonstration) and Rajiv is terrified of a tiger in episode four. As Madhuri Shekar, MFA student of Dramatic Writing, freelance writer & blogger for Reality Rocks and a Marketing and Communications Assistant at the University of Southern California said “… it’s set in an India that is unrecognizable… The thing that most offends me is the fact that they're trying so hard not to offend. It's just not funny most of the time, and there's nothing edgy, raw, or chaotic about a sitcom that's set in India. You'd have to really work hard to sanitize India”

Do we blame the inability of an American creative team to engage with the at times sordid and wholly hilarious realities in India, and a contemporary juxtaposition of American and Indian socio-cultural realities? Or do we blame ourselves, for having portrayed to the world that as one entire nation, Indians cannot take jokes made at our expense well? Can we laugh at ourselves as we are now, or can we only laugh at the happy two dimensional clichés of ourselves that we agreed to endorse over a decade ago? Or is it that we are so out of touch with what it truly takes to live in urban India today that we have to wait for a book like Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ or any movie that Anurag Kashyap is behind to feel comfortable commenting on all that is real and “gritty” about us? Where are the jokes about recreational drug use, alcohol binges, relationship hypocrisy, urban angst, adult boredom, economic woes and general twisted humor, or do we pretend that none of this exists at home? India, us who are privileged enough to spend time having this conversation, are we so uptight that we cannot even reckon with these realities?

Let it be said there is some fun in the Outsourced scripts. Some winning touches include the A-team call center workers who return to India after gaining US degrees to work BPO gigs for Apple and Microsoft, who have mastered various American dialects and cult slang phrases and use them against the American manager’s loyal tribe of plastic vomit pushers. Dempsey and a fellow expatriate Charlie Davis (Diedrich Bader) dancing in an Indian disco for the first time, Davis discussing access to Yankee doodle American food like Smuckers Jam and Jiffy Peanut Butter, and the Indian manager Rajiv’s desperately passive aggressive comebacks are all LOL-worthy. The writers are beginning to push the envelope, using the same Sunny treatment that Lee and Walsh have perfected in other scripts: characters that don’t excuse or explain themselves, their awkward situations or their dystopian behavior. One only hopes that the writers continue to push the limit so as to explore ideas of Indian comedy that go beyond spoofs, stereotypes and slapstick.

What is particularly upsetting about Outsourced is that it could have been brilliant. It could have been a moment for keen social commentary on all us everyday people, both in the US and in India—us still living with our parents people, us saving money on rent by living with strangers people, us refusing to get into the family business people, us still repaying student loans people, us still single “because seriously, are you kidding?” people. Outsourced could have been a moment for writers and audience to have the gumption and the guts to look at Indians for the first time not through the lens of stereotypes but to be honest with Indian idiosyncrasies, whether they be Indians in the United States or in India. It could have finally been that big cross-over moment, where we all acknowledge that with torrents, travel between the two countries, cable TV and the internet in general, the supposed distance between America and India has moved on beyond Delhi belly and tech support. Outsourced could have been a place on TV we could finally go for gritty, realistic commentary on what it takes to earn and keep a job, pay bills and stay relevant to our peers in an urban Indian social circle. Perhaps authentic storytelling can only happen when writers in India participate in the production and scripting of such shows. Perhaps it is finally the time for stories about contemporary India that are told internationally to be crafted, produced and invested in locally. There is a market—We are all already here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

S.K when he's frunk and no one's listening.

Don't give them a name. Don't associate a song with them, especially the classics- Not The Who, not that one Mother Love Bone song, not Joplin. Don't leave them voicemail. Don't take souvenirs. Do not dream. Do not dream. Do not dream. And if you must write at all, write words filled with bone shards, so they'll be looking over their shoulder forever.