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Malini Roy

A Self-Portrait

Malini's hand-writing: 'If I had the talent, I would make this self-portrait a multimedia experience. I'd put in sound bites, animated snippets, and pictures of a past I like to define myself by. In the process, I'd shear away the fragments that would break down the illusion of a story'

But I prefer not to. Apart from the fact that I’m quite a tech ignoramus, I’d rather stick to the orthodox god of writing. That’s because I don’t want to usurp that which is writing’s forte…the ability to evoke, through a language of signs that bears little sensory resemblance to the chimeras it conjures up. I arrived in Oxford last fall, and this is partly why I like the city, its capacity to suggest. Oxford strikes me as a city of oxymoron, a cosmopolitan small town, a brambly forest of spires that pierces the eye through context, not design. Certain college hallways make me feel like I were living out an arty Mexican film – and others as though I had walked into the heart of a gargoyle, sinuous and gymnastic. A denizen of the tropics, I just spent my first winter here – my first snowy one in a long, long time. To my alien vision, the sparse sprigs of cherry blossom in a graveyard dreamt into glistening clarity the plays of Anton Chekhov.

My name in Bengali, my native language, means “one who weaves garlands”. I don’t think that’s a very apt description of me, because I’m a rather untidy person who’d rather disperse than gather. Which is why my room is always in a mess, and it just helps that the cornucopia that emerges therein lets me hunt up all possible philosophical reasons to justify myself…one of my favourite quotations is by the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin: “For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

Frankly speaking, I like anything that suggests there is more to come, a prism of hints that asks you to go beyond, either from within or without. That is why I’m here to work on Romantic poetry, to look at those unfinished, magniloquent shadows of Platonic perfection that weld promise into a god of beginning. Not surprisingly, what interests me specifically is how the Romantics viewed the child – yet another symbol of beginning, a witch’s cauldron of promise that can go hopelessly wrong…

I come from India, a country characterised by chaos, like many others in the postcolonial developing world. There are busybody streets and tropical languor; in the bigger cities glassy Microsoft skyscrapers stand cold and erect, and should you lend an ear you will hear surrealistic cries from young wives in nearby alleyways. Wrapped in silken sarees, they are being set alight by in-laws hungry for dowry…till high school, to get trained in nationhood we used to have programmes labelled “Unity in diversity”. They had the prettiest mishmash of the cultures of different Indian states – highlighted by psychedelic streamers of crêpe paper, bevies of bony adolescent girls legged in the bhangra, the robust, traditionally male dance of the Punjab. This orgy would then morph into another tableau, a folk-dance of the southern state Kerala, while north Indian lips lisped the accompanying syllables with difficulty.

For essays in exams we had to write on topics like “Should India ape the West?” collapsing, in the process, the whole of the Occident as well as our perception of a wildly conflicting modern India into two finely etched diamonds of characteristics…it was okay to stare at violet banners celebrating diversity, but if you spoke about that kind of diversity you were a heretic. Even now, against my will, I keep getting asked all the time about Bollywood. It’s as though one had to prove one’s patriotism by a cinematic medium that, more often than not, portrays one’s nation as a mindless swirl of colour, without thought, without self-reflexivity. You’d think that the last book we wrote was the Bhagvad Gita, the holy book of the Hindus – as though there were no angry graffiti to deck the hot, dusty bus-stations of today’s Bombay.

That’s why now, in my mid-twenties, I have very little sentiment about childhood, or at least that part of my childhood which involved school life. I rarely got ticked off in class; I usually did my homework on time; and I’ve had a hard time explaining since that I have no nostalgia for the straight queues, and the way they made you pray nine times a day without faith.

Probably, I will not come across as a nice person were I to wish that all children (not necessarily Indian children!) wouldn’t go mushy over what doesn’t respect them. After I’ve finished my degree here, I’d like to get involved in children’s publishing, and there’s a conscious intention behind that. Have a look at Toni and Slade Morrison’s innocuous little kids’ books and you’ll know what I mean.

I spent the last two years of my life in Florida, in a small, sad, forgotten town down south. It was dignified as an oasis by the presence of the university. A landscape far, far away from Disney World or Miami – cute little homesteads, rows of whitewashed churches, a lake on campus where tourists photographed alligators on a distant, marshy island. Our weekends were spent in cozy trips to WalMart, in a supermarket just about the right size, where you could get everything from washing liquid to cordless phones without too staggering a display of the consumer’s utopia. Like Steve Martin in Novocaine you could say to yourself that this was your boring, perfect little world. By the end of my second year there, Agatha Christie-like, there erupted two independent Vesuviuses in my immediate circle. The first one was a death by water, another a murder and an arrest – both of which shook our faith in self-recognition. It is a terrifying thought, to have to rewrite systematically whatever one has perceived through life. Living now in a city where my greatest worry is often just how armoured I must be to step outdoors, it’s easy to forget. But there’s a sleeping Greek god at University College here who once wrote: “The curse of this life is that what we have once known, we cannot cease to know.” Personally, I think he ought to be freed from his gleaming cage, and his words graven in things more solid than the gleaming bronze plaques of quotations that surround him.

But the statue of Shelley exists – and that’s why I’m glad I grew up with microphones blaring Bollywood music from every nook and cranny of my neighbourhood – Oxford and Bollywood do have certain qualities in common. My present dreamscape of medieval spires and chapels with stained glass windows leads me often to my department in the St Cross Building. This structure is a modern labyrinth, with stairwells tossed off for every excuse. Cynics would say that’s because the building houses the faculties of English and Law.

Modern spires or medieval, it’s nice to live in a place where nearly everyone you meet has something adventurous to say, like when you talk Buddhism and the Fibonacci sequence at dinner-parties. Decadent? Who knows? Every time I look up at the imposing portraits and busts in the college classrooms and hallways – I think, “I don’t belong here.” I grew up in different places, without the consoling uniformity of a single social milieu. Nearly all of the portraits in the corridors exhibit qualities that are not me – I’m not white, I’m not upper-class, I’m not a man, I don’t possess a forehead whence shineth forth the beacon of my intellectual powers…I belong to a country that was injured by the sitters of these portraits, who decided they would be the ones defining what was important to know. The injury could have rankled, and yet, strangely enough, it doesn’t. Because, even as these portraits stare at us, there are plenty of us “uses” to return the favour. I’ve realised now that to gaze back is to steal power. And yet, it is also to divest oneself, and the other, of power – to understand one’s frangibility, to recognise that one will be taken over, inevitably.

Doctoral work is lonely, as any grad student knows. I read a list once of the quirks of the grad student – you know, one of those catalogues you run off all the time to escape your existential confusion, at the same time wearing the same on your sleeve, to make yourself believe that what you’re doing really matters…well, one of the items on the list said: “Guilt is another form of relaxation.” If there’s a self that defines me right now I guess it would be that – unlike good academics I can never really figure out the right, disciplined cycles of work and break that produce a refined essence…when Yahoo Messenger and phone calls become will-o’-the-wisps, then I walk out into the streets just to view the human physiognomy. Groceries are a good excuse, and more often than not my walks (or “peripatetic expeditions”, according to the language I’m trying to adopt) lead to the city centre, where my guilt is replaced by the curse of this life. The bagpipes and percussion beats that make me grateful for my existence at that spot, at that moment, are born of someone’s homeless night – and maybe, someday, it’s these “uses” who will stare back when people like us, then poor, lonely and obscure, hang up a poster of the Duke Humfrey’s reading room to show off to our grandchildren…oddly – and that I think is one of the beauties of Oxford – it doesn’t make me sad.

At the moment I’m exploring Buddhism, Nietzsche and rap (well, not quite gangster rap!) – all three with equal eagerness. Thankfully, the city of spires has space for each of them. It is odd that I started this portrait by talking about myself, and instead, I’ve related at greater length my impressions of Oxford. I guess it just can’t be helped, because instead of perceiving one’s life in terms of crests and troughs, I’ve learnt over the years to see the rare islands when one finds oneself. One of my favourite poems is Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, which I first read as an undergrad. Let me quote a few lines from the poem:

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.

Dying isn’t an art I do exceptionally well – in fact there isn’t a single art I do exceptionally well. Like most students of literature who never quite made the grade, I aspire to be a writer someday – but the will and the deed! Besides, from the number of  quotations in this short essay, you will have seen how I express myself most comfortably. But to go back to Lady Lazarus: if I have a sixth sense, I think it is this: to know when I, and those I feel for, experience their honesty to themselves. For myself, I felt it once in sixth grade at school, when we organised debates in our class between the theists and the atheists, and the next time, sometime midway through my college years in Calcutta. For a nanosecond I laved myself in it again on a visit to New York. I have lived through it once more over the past few months in Oxford, which have not been all happy – I have been a stranger in an alien land, and have had to be a miser such as I have not been in a while (like the harried grad student, however, I like to call it “plain living, high thinking”). Yet, true to my magpie interior, I think the city of suggestion has been home to me. It must have been so too to millions of lazari through the nine centuries of its erstwhile being.

March 2005