It’s surreal to watch your favourite writer on stage. It’s like watching your favourite actor off stage. Or like watching your cat on a hot tin roof: he’s afraid to jump because he doesn’t know where he’s going to land. On my last day at the Jaipur Literary Festival when everyone was pissed off (the Muslims were still fuming because Salman Rushdie was invited last year, the Hindus were irate because Pakistani writers were invited this year, and the Chinese, well the Chinese were pissed about the Dalai Lama), and I was adequately hungover and sleep deprived, I sat in the scintillating sunshine of the festival lawns with my sunglasses and hat, to listen to Howard Jacobson. His wry sense of humour that had me in splits through every page of The Finkler Question was everywhere –in his coat, in his fuzzy brown hair and salt and pepper beard, in his eyes that cackled with the spectators. He said something that morning I could identify with. He said that years before he became a writer, he dressed like a writer. That’s what I’ve been doing. Before I even knew I wanted to be a writer, I was dressing like one. I was like the heroine in a Mills & Boon novel who doesn’t know that she’s in love with the hero, but she is.
When Stephan King wrote Carrie, he intended to take the Cinderella story and twist it by its tail. He was even going to have Carrie leave one of her dancing shoes at the prom. He wrote it on a portable typewriter when he was living in a trailer and working as a janitor. Thinking he had written what was the beginning of the world’s all-time loser, he threw the first few pages of his draft into the bin, and Carrie might have never seen the light of day, had it not been for his wife, Tabby, who found it while emptying the trash. When she blew the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, ironed them out with her hands and read the first few sentences, she realised that he had something there. “Tabby somehow knew it,” King said, and by the time he had piled up 50 single-spaced pages, he knew it too. But he still didn’t expect much of Carrie. He didn’t think anyone would want to read a book about a poor little girl with menstrual problems. Little did he know that she would win our hearts for being just that: a poor little girl who wants to fit in just like us.
Straddling a midnight blue ball under her crotch and cupping her breasts against a collage of Botticelli’s’ The Birth of Venus, the diva of pop emerges in yet another avatar on her new album cover. But in spite of all the fuss and fanfare, the flamboyant launch party among Jeff Koons sculptures and Maria Abramovic videos, Artpop has plummeted the Billboard charts. While critics have all but trashed the lead single, and The Guardian went as far as to call it a ridiculous glam-rock song given a techno makeover, I love Applause because I love Lady Gaga. I love the multiple personas, the outlandish hair and freakish eyeliner, the burlesque wardrobe and surreal shoes. But I have to admit, it’s her that I love, not so much her music. To me, she is the quintessential avant-gardist, the ultimate satirist, a walking performance artist, a drag queen and a drama queen. But most of all, it’s her humanity that I love, her oddity, her fragility and her cry for unconditional acceptance. That’s what I applaud.
Yesterday Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash – a 8 by 13-foot piece of a mangled body inside a wrecked car – sold for a record $105 Million at a NYC auction. When I saw photos of the silkscreen splashed all over the web, it conjured up images of the scandalous studio where it was made. But The Factory not only churned out the silkscreens and lithographs that made Warhol the iconic pop artist that he is, it also hosted the most sensational parties of its time and was home to artists, musicians, writers and amphetamine users. Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Salvador Dali, Allan Ginsberg and William S Burroughs have all crashed on its notorious red couch that Warhol discovered on a sidewalk. It was the place where he redefined cinema. Where pretty boys in tight leather jeans shared the screen with drag queens and superstars of his own making. “Our movies may have looked like home movies,” said Warhol, “but then our home wasn’t like anybody else’s.”
If politics is the last resort of a scoundrel, writing is the first resort of a masochist. Pain can deliver instant gratification – without leaving your pupils dilated – if you sit banging at the keyboard in the interim. I discovered my first words after a broken ankle, but I recommend a broken heart. You’ll stir up a novel in a couple of years and send it out into the world, and then it’ll come, bigger than the swollen ankle: the harrowing wait to find a publisher. One day, the much-awaited mail will pop up in your inbox and you’ll jump for joy. You’ll sign on the dotted line and tell your friends. But remember, you’ll have to keep waiting while it metamorphoses, ever so slowly, into a book with hands and feet and a little dust jacket.
Filmed by Preetha Jayaraman.
It’s good to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end. Ernest Hemingway said it eloquently, but this is a common belief. It’s the quintessence of Hindu philosophy. It’s the very foundation of performance art. And what is performance art? It’s whatever the artist calls art. You could stand naked in a museum, motionless, and it could be art. There are definitions and there are definitions. But it all comes down to one principle. That of time. It is a piece of art that must be centered on an action orchestrated by an artist. It has a beginning and an end, and it exists only within the time it is created.
“I don’t want an audience to spend time with me looking at my work,” says Marina Abromovic. “I want them to be with me and forget about time.” Abramovic has done it all. She has sat motionless in a wooden chair at The MOMA eight hours a day for three months straight without food or pee breaks. She has stood with 72 objects on a table – among them a rose, a feather, a whip, a knife and a gun – and asked the audience to use them on her however they wished. (She was carried around, caressed, pricked, cut, scalded, nearly raped and almost shot in the head.)
I went to her lecture at the Université d’Avignon, and she said something that day I can’t quite remember, but I can’t quite forget. When she was little and she announced that she wanted to become an artist, her dad asked his friend to take her to the art store to buy art supplies and teach her art. He bought loads of paints and canvasses, and when they came back home, he threw them into a pile and set them on fire. Then he pointed to the psychedelic blaze before them and said, “this is art.”
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. George Orwell, 1984. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. In the film The Hours, a full-nosed, tight-lipped Nicole Kidman à la Virginia Woolf puffs away at her cheroot, dips her pen into ink and writes those famous first words with a vigor that foretells a masterpiece. But I didn’t write my first line first. I threw it in when I was thirty pages down like salt into a pan of soup, and now I don’t have a first line. I have some soup.