So, I’m about half-way through this residency.  It’s reached the stage now where I oscillate between blase and alienated.  A bit like rowing across a huge lake – you get used to the strain and rhythm of rowing, but now and then you look up and realise how big the journey is.  And you run the risk of becoming overly conscious of the task at hand.  Because in my experience, poetry is shy – it comes most often when you’re not approaching it head-on but sideways.  I can’t help now but wonder how much more progress I’ll make.

Anyway, stocktaking is boring.  So, what’s been happening?  I spent a week out of Chennai at Mamallapuram and Pondicherry, both gorgeous, charismatic and laid-back towns in their own way.











Mamallapuram is about 2 hours south of Chennai, on the coast – a small little fishing village that is surrounded by 6th century temples carved out of solid rock and by 21st century tourists.  Which means almost everyone is a stone carver and will offer to sell you something.  It also means there are lots of Ayurvedic businesses.  I had a chat with a practitioner, who told me 99% of his work is with foreigners, and most just come for massage.  A few seek out the more intense and in-depth treatments, but even then he finds that health success varies greatly with “Europeans”.  Apparently, since they’re on holidays, they don’t want to give up things like drinking and smoking (which kind of goes against the whole point of panchakarma…).  He also read my pulse – a fascinating process which felt both highly ephemeral and a little mechanical.  For the record, I am currently predominantly “vata”.











Pondicherry, being a French territory until the 1950s, and currently a Union Territory, means it’s oddly un-Tamil Nadu in many ways.  Apart from the obvious French architectural flourishes, the infrastructure (roads, drains, etc) are a little less ramshackle.  The city itself is noticeably more diverse than Chennai, in terms of culture, religion and cultural background.

On a less picturesque note, I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by Dilip Menon called “The Blindness of Insight”.  Basically, it’s a series of four essays about the central, though often ignored or elided, role of caste in Indian society and literature.

there appears to have been [in the 19th century] an intimate connection between the social criticism of subordinated groups and an anguished and persistent engagement with the emancipatory potential of religious conversion (eg Ambedkar).  Elite groups too turned to a refashioning of tradition (eg Vivekananda), but for them it was easier to find a habitation within the resources of Hinduism…

Menon, to me, reminds us that caste shapes not only social interactions, but is a crucial element in how people experience religion, family, social support structures and health.  There is no monolithic, static experience of these ideas and institutions.  He also implies that marginal people, when they manage to find the resources to seek change, look instinctively to revolution rather than to recuperation.  This has been an illuminating element in my slow, long education in the complexity of this place.

Next week, I hope to meet a doctor who works at a Medical Tourism Agency.  Should be fascinating.  But I’ll leave you with this thought…

“how can you write poetry about medicine?”

A few days ago, I met Dr Rajan from Dr Smilez, a dental clinic in Chennai.  There was a brief article in the Times of India about a happy UK man who’d travelled to India to get some work done on his teeth.  So, how could I not call?  They agreed to meet me, even though the receptionist and the doctor both seemed a little perplexed at my explanation – that I was writing poetry about people who travel for medical treatment.  “How can you write poetry with a medical theme?”, he asked.  Fair question really.

We chatted for a while, and they both laughed and relaxed when I told them how shocked I was at my hotel the first night.  The good people at Dr Smilez try to convince patients to not cut any corners financially, to stay at the best hotels, ideally allowing the clinic to facilitate their travel while here, too.  I, of course, was not staying at the Park or the Hyatt.

Of the many fascinating things that came out of our chat, I just want to mull over this one – there seems to be a peculiar paradox going on with overseas patients when they come to India.  I keep reading and hearing that they want the absolute best treatment, which I’m sure is true – we all want to save money, but not of course at the cost of our health.  Still, the other theme that keeps coming up is how anxious non-Indians are about hygiene, how when they see the overflowing rubbish bins, the plastic and sewerage in the streets, these images risk spilling over into and upsetting their faith in the medical profession here.  As Dr Rajan said, the clinics are sterile and clean.  But it seems some kind of fear haunts them or their experience.

I’m keen, of course, to talk about this with a real live patient, but all things take time, especially here.

view of campus and beach from my university room

Over the weekend, I also attended some of The Hindu newspaper’s “Lit for Life” festival – a weekend of literary talks and interviews.  The Hyatt’s function room was absolutely overflowing for the session with Bollywood star Shabana Azmi talking about the translation of her mother’s memoir (Shaukat Azmi writes in “Kaifi and I” about her partnership with the famous Urdu poet, about activism, art & poetry in 20th century India).  The organisers chalked it up to Chennai’s literary enthusiasm, but I could cynically say it would have something to do also with their love of film and fame.  Looks like a fascinating book, though.  Anyway, the highlight for me was the session with Karukku Bama, K Sivakami and Susie Tharu.  The former two are Dalit writers, poets and activists.  There is much for me to learn about India, a lot of which I feel has to do with caste and its power and persistence.  I know very little.  But what blew me away was the strength, insight and courage of these writers.   Bama at one point said “who decides how human I can be? who says, this far, no further?!”.  In a more gentle tone, Sivakami said something to the effect of “I follow my words and they take me to interesting places”.   Interesting indeed.

What’s interesting too is the response.  One audience member asked why they have to keep writing about the negatives, why can’t they write about all the good things that are happening to Dalits?  Hmmm.  Questions like this are often thrown at many oppressed people, variations of a desire for silence, to not be reminded of ongoing suffering and inequality.  It also reminds me of the backlash against “Slumdog Millionaire” in India…  As we were often reminded in this session, society needs the broken perspective, the outrage, and militancy is a healing movement.

Speaking of pleasant surprises, I also found Oasis books – 29 Kutchery Rd Mylapore, run by the gentle, informed VRJ Prabalan.  Oasis stocks some fascinating political books, left-wing philosophy, books on caste, feminism, ecology, organics, poetry, and a lot more.  It’s not a huge store, but it’s very rich, and to me an affirmation that there is counter-cultural thinking going on.  If you’re thinking of dropping in, best to call in advance – it’s not always open (ph 044 2461 3445).

local train station

ambulance and shrine, both essential

It hasn’t all been wondrous though – I’ve been sick, bored, frustrated, sweaty, drenched with rain, and homesick.  Reliably, India, in all its enigma, contradicts me as soon as I think I know it, infuriates me as soon as I’m getting comfortable, and embraces me just when I’m about ready to run away.