Sunday, February 16, 2014

On When Gareth Armstrong and John Griffiths Read from Dylan Thomas

I am not a fan of Dylan Thomas, in fact, I hadn't even read much of him until two days recently that I spent listening to his BBC recordings and reading everything I could find online. Rarely before, if ever, have I felt so tortured writing an article. But if ever I needed any more proof how much I loved writing, the rush at the end of this was it. There are a reading of his works recently, and this is what I wrote about that mid-morning:

Is it easy to love a mad genius, forgive him and her for their digressions from accepted norms of morality and social behavior because of what they are and what they create? Literature and art and music are replete with raucous, loveable creativists who were a tad off the rocker most of their lives, but they left behind and/or continue to create that which beautifies this world every day. And so their un-conventions are tolerated. Dylan Thomas was known to be a roistering, drunken and doomed poet; it was a reputation he actively encouraged and did everything he could and more to keep up with. Like many other mad geniuses, he did not live long, all the ‘living’ he did sent him to an early grave, at just 39.

The Welsh poet was born a hundred years ago in Wales, in Swansea “…an ugly, lovely town…sprawling, unplanned, smug-suburbed…” He did not speak Welsh, he did not see himself as a Welsh poet and he did not seem to like being Welsh much either. His poems though, rolled over the tongue, his own on BBC recordings, or those of actors or readers reading aloud, taste mightily of the Welsh air, smelling of mountains and the headlands of Mumbles along Swansea Bay.

A little of the imagery that was so much a part of his poems, radio dramas and short stories seeped into Bangalore’s Rangashankara recently, when the actors Gareth Armstrong and John Griffiths read out from Thomas’ body of work. The two, blessed with the gift of golden voices, rich and sonorous, sang traditional drinking songs, brought alive eccentric old uncles and gave a peek into Welsh life in the post-World War II years. To old fans, the Sunday morning reading allowed them an hour to dust off and revisit old favourites. To those unfamiliar with Thomas’ works, it was just the right introduction, the two actors having chosen some of his most accessible stories and poems.

How apt that this comes at the beginning of Thomas’ centenary birth year. Different parts of the world are planning many events, readings and plays. How apt too that the reading is by two Welsh men, both old enough to have known the Wales Thomas wrote about, one, Armstrong, even having being taught by some of Thomas’ old teachers. You know they are personal fans of Thomas’ works, it shows in their rendering. They must have been boys like the boys Thomas writes about in ‘Reminiscences of Childhood’. The memories of childhood have no order, Thomas writes, oscillating between describing people in his town to talking of his firm and kind school behind which was a narrow lane, the lane was always the place to tell your secrets; if you did not have any, you invented them. When Armstrong and Griffiths read, they become those boys, boasting, making up secrets to tell in the lane of confidences.

The reading, which will, by the end of it, turn out to be a delightful potpourri of Thomas’ stories, verses and plays, is interspersed with the actors’ insights into the poet's life and those old times. They tell of how Thomas’ parents probably spoke Welsh themselves, but the children were resolutely brought up to speak and write English. As a result, Thomas only ever wrote in English. His style though is said to have been heavily influenced by and adheres extensively to the rules and metrics of Welsh poetry, however unwittingly on his part.

Thomas’ Wales was an era where holidays meant being sent off to stay with relatives who might have no children of their own or ‘A Visit to Grandpa’s.’ Griffiths and Armstrong become the grandpa and the boy. The anecdotal story takes the reader into villages like Llansteffan and Llangadock where the eccentric grandpa would rather be buried while he was alive, for the ground is comfy and you can twitch your legs without putting them in the sea.

The little nooks of Wales are ever present in Thomas’ stories. He is as much of his geography as his country claims him as its own. Mumbles, a headland off Swansea Bay, is the venue for ‘Holiday Memory’. The train that took Thomas and his family there used to be the oldest passenger train in the world, Griffiths lets in, right before belting out a Welsh song for while waiting for the train. It used to be a journey three miles long, to Mumbles, for August Bank Holiday. The holiday is full of a slap of sea and a tickle of sand and Thomas remembers the sea telling lies in a shell, held to my ear for a whole harmonious, hollow minute by a small, wet girl in an enormous bathing suit marked Corporation Property.

There is little of his poetry except for the more popular ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘The Hunchback in the Park.’ Perhaps it is because the hour is short, or maybe it is that Dylan Thomas isn’t always for digested reading. The two actors regale instead with another story, that of a young Thomas being taken along by an uncle on an outing to Porthcawl with a motley bunch of friends. Riding on a charabanc, a motor coach, the old men stop for “refreshments”, little Thomas left to guard the chara for 45 minutes (that) passed like a very slow cloud. He passes time looking at the cows opposite, and they look at him, there was nothing else for us to do. The public house (pub) crawl that follows leaves the men drunk and in changed colours, beetroot and rhubarb and pius. They holler, blow the bugle and rollick like enormous ancient bad boys. Much later, just as Thomas drifts off to sleep against his uncle’s mountainous waistcoat, “who goes there?” cries out Will Sentry, to the flying moon.

The idyllic stories and the large bulk of his poetry weren’t enough to feed Thomas’ growing family. Then came the BBC years, where to supplement his paltry income from writing, he wrote scripts and went on to record poetry readings, short stories and participate in discussions and critiques. Thomas’ readings now make his work a little more approachable. In those years, his deep voice made him popular across the pond in the US, where, on one of several reading tours, he finished ‘Under Milk Wood’, a part of which Gareth Armstrong and John Griffiths read and conclude with. The full radio play wasn’t broadcast until after his death in New York in 1953.

Thomas, ravaged already by years of alcoholism by then, stayed at Chelsea Hotel on that last trip to America. Befitting perhaps for the doomed poet to have ended up there, in that mecca for mad geniuses of that age. Its hallowed hallways were witness to many a madness, inspiring many a masterpiece. Chelsea Hotel added to its roster Thomas’ story too, his famous boast of having downed “18 straight whiskies” after a bottle of Old Grandad on his last night feeding into the Hotel’s legend.

Just as the whiskies and the women and the unpredictabilities fed into Thomas’ image of himself and what the world had come to expect of him. It would be easy to let his reputation take precedence over his words – a riotous youth squandered away is more amusing a story than how he strung his words, like some medieval bard who roamed the Welsh highlands. He went with a rage, rage against the dying of the light. And it is for words such as these that another mad genius’ debauchery becomes forgiven.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Much as I couldn't be bothered to acknowledge the circus that goes around, it being V-Day (V-Day...I always think that sounds like a disease if you say it fast enough), something I read here in The Guardian today struck me as lines I'd want to read again, years from now. So it goes here.

It's romantic to attribute love to serendipity rather than effort, but I think enduring love is something we have to make rather than discover. The most engaging, uplifting and comedic stories come from our efforts to create and sustain love in difficult circumstances with imperfect human materials. Graeme Simsion

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

On the Kannadiga Stereotype: Filter Coffee Column This Month

Stereotypes and identities currently fascinate me. It found its way into February's Filter Coffee column in Kindle magazine. As always, it is a gorgeous issue, all black and white this time. I love the conceptual element in every issue. Read it here or see below.


There is a Malayali joke, that even the Malayalis like telling. That of how, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there was a cheta in a mundu who welcomed him with kattan chaya in a steel cup. Malayalis are everywhere; there are a lot of them in Kerala too. Along with some other communities, they take the open road often, and earnestly, in pursuit of what the traditional seekers sought: fortune, newness, adventure or the more prosaic livelihood.

Then there is the Punjabi aunty in the house two doors down. You can still hear her all day though, insisting that Bunty have another half litre glass of lassi, talking to Pammy about the scandal at Shukla saab’s, her fingers coated with the smell of warm rajma.

On College Street the bhadraloks will hunt for books from fifty and five years ago, stop for coffee at ICH and pick up some rosogollas for dessert later. The wives will be out buying fish.

Then the Bihari babu will…

The Tamil maamis, in nine-yard sarees, listening to M S Subbulakshmi…

And then the Kannadiga couple….

..will wrinkle creased brows wondering how this writer will draw out their stereotype. I try. Oh so hard. And I fail to. Which is upsetting because I am a Kannadiga. I am the insider who should know all the insider details to make jokes with. You aren’t racist if you laugh at your own, not here in these parts at least. An accent while speaking the Queen’s language, a state quirk, one food, one something that would allow the others to point the pointer finger in our faces and laugh, then muffle it insufficiently. One thing would have done. But apparently we don’t have any such. Even Chennai Express, in its terrible portrayal of South Indian stereotypes, spared us not a mention. I feel ignored.

If stereotypes were applied to Kannadigas, the rebellious contrarian in me would probably turn this essay on its head. That’s for another time. Let’s talk stereotypes now. These stereotypes, like in the manner of stereotypes, may be partially true in some cases but overall, they serve to place a person within a certain framework and lend a derived identity. Not to say that it facilitates harmless ribbing in social situations, highlighting these very stereotypes. These exaggerated caricatures have a thin line separating the comical from the rude, the racist.

A marker of identity is more than just a piece of government paper, it is to me how I see myself in a group of others and how the group sees me, within mine and their histories, learned memories, contexts and assumptions. Stereotypes derived off such identities loosen the restrictions of mere tags and identity markers, making us more human, closer. Within certain boundaries of propriety and politeness, of course, disclaimers in place.

We talk these stereotypes, my friends and I. They tell me it is perhaps because we haven’t migrated much, like the Malayalis, the trading Marwaris, and others. Even when we have, we have integrated quietly, in those adopted lands. Never stood out, learnt new ways, kept our food at home, our tongues indoors. That is what they tell me. Though I would partly agree, I am not ready to give up. There has to be at least one thing.

The way we tie the saree perhaps? That one thing has potential. But then that isn’t strictly just our way. Maybe puliyogre and Mysore Paak then? But then the northerners in the state eat jowar, their sweetmeats are nothing like those of us southerners. Nothing unifies us as a state, not even Kannada. Or maybe the language just a little. The older ones in the cities might attach an ‘oo’ to Anglo words; the bus is thus the bussu, the hotel, the hotlu, the car, the caru. Not much so, this, in the hinterlands though. Those along the Konkan speak bookish, formal, with what the rest might say a stiff upper lip. So there, not even our different Kannadas are apparently good enough.

If I hoped to cleverly arrive at a stereotype, however poorly etched, at the end of this, I hoped too much. Like gently pulling out a strand of hair from a ball of freshly made butter, my grandmother used to say, carefully, without stirring the rest of the ambiance. Treating the matter such hasn’t given me the answers I seek.

The Sardars, undoubtedly exasperated with the lame Sardarji jokes and Rajnikanth, for similar reasons, might perhaps envy us. For me, I would prefer outrage. I would want to listen and retell a Kannada joke, you know? I really would. I would want to get mildly irritated at being shoved into a narrow box, forced to grudgingly acknowledge a few things and dismiss outright the others. Perhaps it is a case of feeling left out, from the national psyche, from the domestic racism.

Even Lonely Planet largely ignores us, come to think of it. While there are a scant few pages saying the perfunctory things about Karnataka, there is sparse, when there is at all, mention of its many foods and its different peoples. I want to think it is because those few pages couldn’t possibly hope to contain all the diversity that we enjoy here. How do you brand in just mere words the many worlds that there are? The state tourism department’s marketing line, ‘One State. Many Worlds’ seems just about right, for once.

Endnote: Cheta is older brother in Malayalam; mundu is a printed sarong/dhoti/tropical dress; kattan chaya is tea with sugar, without milk; lassi is yoghurt with embellishments; rajma is beans with tomatoes and salt and lot else; bhadralok is a gentle, intelligent gentleman; rosogollos aren’t as good anywhere else but in West Bengal; maamis wear diamond nose pins and like all aunties, can be nosy; puliyogre is spicy rice that tastes better the day after you make it; and Mysore Paak was not created in Mysore.