Unruly Relatives, Many Times Removed

Sreedhevi Iyer
Sep 13th, 2014


I was brought up to always follow the rules. It’s the curse of the only child. Rules made the world clear.


Then I wanted to write. I found the rules for that. I followed them. For the first time, rules didn’t work. Or rather, I didn’t work. Going by the rules meant too much fell through cracks, and they fell into places too remote for anyone to care. I followed the rules anyway but it caused me pain, as if I were taking a tiny blade and cutting myself with it.



Alor Setar, my Malaysian hometown, did not fit the general rules of where writers in English should come from. It is too remote even for tourist guidebooks. In Australia, I thought, I would not have this problem – it was a vast land filled with people who dealt in proper English, although some Australian writers I knew disagreed on the word ‘proper’. No, they felt, we are Aussie, not proper. We aren’t in the global village, but the little outlier existing outside the order of East and West, placing ourselves Down Under in a slightly erotic position. And as Queenslanders, we are the forgotten state, even by Australian standards.


So I’d travelled far and been orphaned again.


Sardinia could be cousin to Australia – a place of banishment. There will of course be a yearning for memory in these forgotten spaces. It is an essential ingredient when your habitat is a repository for the unwanted.



Grazia Deledda might have understood Flannery O’Connor’s statement in Mystery and Manners if she were alive today, that ‘to know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.’ She very firmly believed in writing about Sardinia and Sardinian identity, to make visible so much that remained its secret. Grazia’s exile, ironically, was that she had to cut herself to follow the rules, too – she had to go according to Italian, rather than Sardinian linguistic norms. Her pinpricks of pain could have been like mine.


And so remoteness of place is also remoteness of language, and when you leave one, you also leave its rules.



I think, speak and dream in English, but my psyche – what Dinty Moore in The Mindful Writer calls “your specificity” – is Tamil. It is a unique Tamil, the kind Brahmins speak – a sub-regional dialect full of anachronistic peculiarities, like ‘zha’, a retroflex approximant. Words like ‘mazhai’ for rain, or ‘pazham’ for fruit – they move inside in curious ways. They displace me, or perhaps, really, re-place me.


And these sounds, these words – when writing in them, it’s not according to the rules I learnt in English. Ambai, a Tamil fiction writer who became best known for her short story, Veettin Oru Moolaiyil Samayalarai (The Kitchen at the Corner of the House), speaks of the building of a kitchen in a row of houses, as an afterthought. The story circles, digressive and long-winded, like a neighbourly conversation, observing random events and arriving at philosophical stances instead of the Aristotelian idea of cause and effect.


‘The kitchen was not only a place. It was a concept, a principle. They wouldn’t bother themselves over it – they would act as if all this delicious, tongue-enslaving food had arrived from a magic carpet,’ she writes. The kitchen owns itself in a place of remoteness in the house, the place everyone forgets to show the guests, but the place where their daily sustenance comes from.


Kurt Vonnegut famously said writers should cut out parts that readers might skip – and he might have been talking about novels with paragraphs of pure description.

And yet Ambai’s Samaiyalarai is another cousin of Deledda’s opening passage in Cosima – a beautiful but passive description of a kitchen, complete with its layout, utensils and crockery arrangements. These are not the expected crackling openings, full of action and suspense, with a protagonist waiting to embark on adventure. What would these kitchens be – and more interestingly – where would these kitchens be placed in the narrative – if they had originally been written in English?



I want to gather these disparate orphans of place and history and language, and create a tribe. Because I am removed from myself – spatially, temporally, linguistically, I also know how to build bridges that will hold together.


We must let ourselves disobey. We must be comfortable with truancy if we are to play without cutting ourselves. And in the playing, maybe we will remember the forgotten and its relatives, like the two kitchens in different parts of the globe, unseen and unread, but necessary, still, for sustenance. 


Sreedhevi Iyer
Last blog date: Oct 4th, 2014


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