Friday, December 20

India III

A few days ago, a team from a local news magazine came over to talk to me and another writer about an upcoming literary festival where we'll be reading. It was giddy seeing the writer-photographer tandem, mostly because they reminded me so much of, well, me.

Selfish remembrances aside, the past three weeks (unreported, my apologies) had passed with something that resembles calm and regularity. Another trip to the city (where I got myself a kurta), to our beloved bar at Hessaraghatta, a reading, another performance by the dancers, and the usual blur of people coming and going. I've been here for five weeks, and while I could be (rightly) chastised for not doing enough work, there is no way to adequately ascertain the impact of my stay so far on the way I have come to appreciate the depth and profundity of this civilization.

Weeks ago, the dancers performed for a group of tourists, and we were allowed to watch. The sheer beauty of the choreography; the ancient, divine origin; and the devotion of the dancers to their craft--I cannot help but be reminded of the common narratives of India and the Philippines. The thriving "indigenous" way of life, the colonial interruption, the confusion and the struggle in the aftermath. When one of the dancers were explaining to the (white) crowd that the movements of the dance were based on 2,000-year-old scriptures, in my mind I hastened to add, and this is what your forefathers had dismissed and endeavoured to erase.

Perhaps more work is needed on the serenity front. Elsewhere, progress: (1) a new story, (2) two finished overhauls, and (3) reinvigorated drive thanks to offer by a literary agent to take a look at the manuscript once it's done. "Don't show it to anyone else before me," she had said, quite needlessly.

Tuesday, December 3

India II

The initial euphoria gone, have settled into routines, always the life jacket to which we cling on when flung toward uncharted waters. Here, it is waking up at around 9 or 10 (depending on previous night's alcohol intake), breakfast of either toast or scrambled eggs (as can't cook anything fancier), lunch with the dancers at 2 (if Anand isn't cooking), and dinner at 9 or so (plus rhum and a beedi with Venkat). In between, lots of tea and long walks, watching downloaded shows and looking out the window for hours.

I still think it is a gift--all this time to write, the (largely unfounded) belief that the project is worth investing on--but the faces are now familiar; the cold, tolerable; the silence, no longer an oppression. The profound exhilaration that I had felt at the prospect of being away from Things, I had been constantly revisting it. Had it been an exaggeration? Overcompensation? The facile way to put this turnaround is simple homesickness, which is not wholly untrue, although it ignores the additional isolation of being so far away from the city, with its noise and energy, the comforting warmth of multitudes.

Am I getting a lot of writing done? I am inclined to think that that is beside the point (cover your ears, dear sponsors). The conversations with the other residents--on caste, on regionalism, on popular literature, on this absurd thing we all love called writing--there is no ascertaining its value. The primacy of experience: how can it be so simple but also so multifarious? The heartbreaking thing about a tragedy like Yolanda, on whose heels I left the Philippines, is that the cold, hungry victims in her aftermath watch the same noontime show as me, laugh at the same crude jokes, and go to an SM mall to eat the same Jolly Spaghetti. Is it a paltry claim at solidarity? Perhaps. But such is never more clear to me as when you interact with foreigners.

Which is not to say I am not taking advantage of it. From my little desk, I can see an ampitheatre and, every now and then, passing tourists and goats and sheep. Progress, then, apart from the growing comfort: (1) further revisions on a really complicated story, (2) learning how to make masala chai, and (3) a confirmed lunch date in Delhi two months from now with the author of this little book called The God of Small Things.

Sunday, November 24


Some days before I left, in the whirlwind of trying to say goodbye to as many people, I noticed that my movements had been accompanied by a nervous twitch, a stutter that was more pronounced than usual and which visited even if I was talking to the usual suspects. I had belatedly discovered it to be giddiness.

I learned of the news of the residency a year ago--a Hong Kong number calling my phone and, when I picked up, a posh voice offering her profuse congratulations--and the long delay sort of bridled any meaningful form of excitement. And so when it arrived, slowly then quickly in which all dearly awaited things did, it materialized as a weight, which burdened my chest and manifested through awkwardness and unease.

I've been here for eight days, and of course I always go back: mostly to the untold number of hours spent poring over drafts and reading and sleeping surrounded by books. When in Bangalore I found myself on the receiving end of incredulous questioning by Indian immigration officials, writing fiction became most material to me, as if it booked the flights and arranged for the three months of hopefully productive toil, which it did, essentially. Isn't that numinous? For some time now, I had derived all manner of livelihood from writing, but never fiction, never this thing that I love and sometimes, in this one grand display as an instance, loved me back.

Afflicted with change and so far unable to write a word, I have resorted to taking long walks and deliriously formatting my manuscript, so that more and more I am seeing its shape, and it is becoming real and true. While the mornings here are unreal in their crisp, twittering perfection, the work that is being done, I feel, is pure, safe from the madding outside.

I had envisioned some sort of a weekly accomplishment report: to keep me working and to also record this part of my life that just might be crucial.  This week, there is nothing except (1) the revision of several stories, (2) a provisional title that one fellow resident said she liked, and (3) being mistaken for a local twice. Nothing more: my first thought in the morning is still perplexed amazement. Here's hoping clarity will never (fully) arrive.

Monday, July 29

Allies II

After a long silence in the car, Ma'am C stirred and said, "Your sensibility, not typical CW, 'no?" I chuckled because it was familiar territory. After another long silence, she observed, "Lots of fat characters in your story. Noticed that?"

Because we are both so murderously busy (right), during the past couple of weeks, we could only squeeze consultation into her Saturday commute between Manila and Angeles, where she has a weekly errand to attend to. Which means, when my shift ends at 1 AM on Saturday morning, I sleep for a couple of hours, head to Philcoa where she picks me up at 6, then try not to doze off in the two-hour trip. She does what she needs to do and we leave at 4 PM, again consulting in the longer ride back to the city.

The week I started my day job, I received a couple of acceptance emails. The stories/chapters had been slaughtered by Ma'am C, and I am thankful. I would like to think we deeply share something in common--aside from an insatiable dependence on coffee and anti-social tendencies--if only because once or twice a silence would pervade in the car and when she opened her mouth, the thing she'd say was exactly what I had been thinking.

In between literary gossip and writerly -- brr -- wisdom, there were silences, and more and more I am inclined to share, well, more, like the template story I wrote which was received spectacularly well in Silliman, the novel excerpt the folks at Iligan told me to bury underground, and my great, great need for validation.

The lessons in craft were too many to enumerate; I will be hardpressed to remember them, except intuitively, but many years from now I know I will go back to this routine, this magical time: to every Thursday, when I would check the envelop outside her room in FC and find my drafts and a new Booksale find ("You can have this" written on a post-it), inside the envelop I would put a new set of drafts and something from my own book collection, my humble contribution to this exchange, which she would retrieve on Friday.

In Angeles, there is a restaurant where we would end the day. She with her palabok and coffee, me with my mami and tsokolate. How else could I persist without this.

Wednesday, May 1


Aboard a cab on the way to a nice inuman place in Bacolod called Garaje in Art District, C remarked that in this life we naturally gravitate toward allies, and there is relief in the certainty that we would find them, sooner or later. He actually said "friends" but now I think that is simplistic, for we have friends, who laugh and cry with us, and we have allies -- kins -- who understand what we want to do in this world, and often it is more than eating in all the right places and taking photos of our impressive meals.

I was telling him that Ma'am Chari and I were texting the entire day while we were touring Bacolod and some neighboring cities (which she had called "the tour of fake history"). And so I agreed with C, because whenever Ma'am C and I talk -- or "consult" -- for hours, it would always leave me breathless, not only because she is brilliant but because she understood my project so well and shared it, and I only need to show her a story and she knows exactly what I am trying to do (unsuccessfully, most of the time). Often, I am tempted to record our sessions because of all the precious things she says, and I would look at her gray-specked hair and be depressed that I hadn't met her sooner, or that I wasn't born 30 years earlier so we could have been, truly, friends.

Last night, in the middle of waiting out a delayed flight, I got another text from her about her most recent Booksale finds, and would I want them? I have recently stopped telling her my own lucky discoveries because most of the time she would just insult them, call the authors "panderers" or the fiction "that which gets high praises in workshops -- for all the wrong reasons." ("Pandering" had been a germane accusation at the criticism workshop, for which I went to Bacolod, for the gatekeeper-plebeian schema that informs such activity certainly left a lot of room for the massive amount of pandering that took place; we have, in fact, taken to calling one particular fellow "panderer;" another, noise pollution, and I couldn't decide now which is worse.)

A few days back, uninformed of my itinerary, Ma'am C asked me if I wanted to discuss a revision of a story of mine, which I had left, out of habit, in the envelop outside her FC office. She was in Via Mare, she said, reading it. There had been scarcely enough cakes and treats in Bacolod to stop me from taking the next flight out so I could sit across her and alternately smile and cringe at the preposterous things she would say. Things that would be off-putting. Things that, to me, would immediately make sense. Once, complaining about a workshop that had scheduled way too many dinners and out sessions, she said she wanted to ask everyone, "Manunulat tayo, 'di ba? Bakit tayo nag-aaksaya ng panahon?" Indeed.

Tuesday, April 16


I was taking my early morning walk* today amid piles of unearthed ... earth cordoned off by useless sagging yellow tapes, and newly bathed people off to work,** and vegetable and Yakult carts, when the sense of - brr, home - got me thinking about the upcoming trips I have/want to make. I've gotten my official dates and plane tickets for the India residency in November (and succeeding one-month trip around the subcontinent with P), and next week is Kritika workshop in Bacolod, after which will go around Visayas (hopefully including Igbaras in Iloilo, site of much-documented water torture by American soldiers in the early 1900s).

If I take a step back, these things delight me. That matters, because I always pendulum between kicking myself for slacking off and comforting myself that I have time, for whatever it is that I need to be doing. There is always anxiety in this department. Tangentially connected to this is the realization that I hate change, which leads me to:

Two nights ago, I finally visited the days-old firstborn of a couple of friends from college.*** Hours earlier, I was showering when I remembered how I met them. The girl was present during my section interview for Kule, to which the boy applied around a year later. I will be very vague and trite and say that I have been with this couple through thick and thin**** and saw them through every critical prism. Seeing them with the baby was a douse of cold water, despite the nine-month preview and verbal agreement to bring the girl to the hospital in case she went into labor while the boy was away.

The world, I felt, took an extra revolution. But no matter. We trudge on. If remember anything from EDFD 116, it is that adjustment is foremost sign of maturity. Also, ballooning waistline and sudden, inexplicable liking to ube.

*fuma-flaneur -- to the bank for some errands
**also realized, yikes, been unemployed for two and a half years now, kind of missing the I'm-important vibe of working people
***C and I were ninong at the wedding last year so I am doctrinally mandated to go
****I was all but 130 lbs when I joined Kule, now I weigh... more

Friday, March 29


The morning she’d decided to escape 20 years ago, the train that she had taken stopped as it hovered above the Pasig River. The engine died, suddenly, and every passenger had a good view of the water, a fabric of dark silver that gleamed here and there under the 10 o’clock sun. On the horizon was Escolta Street, once the most fashionable in the country and home to its first movie house. On the foreground was the Manila Central Post Office, the most imposing in the string of neoclassical structures that dot this part of the city, one of the lucky few that survived the rain of World War II bombs.
From outside the train, she and the other passengers looked like assorted mannequins trapped in a display window. This one, lean and statuesque. That one, frail and stooping, a little plump. A middle-aged man wearing a denim jacket scratched his thick sideburns, the left one, from which a tiny bead of sweat glided. This rustling of pubic-like hair, back and forth, was followed by a far-flung sneeze. A teenage girl grumbled about the delay, panning slightly toward her direction in search of acquiescence. A man in a suit loudly unfurled a day-old newspaper. A huge woman wearing powder blue scrubs let out a hyena laugh at what her companion, a tiny man in a nursing uniform, said.
She decided, right there and then, that she was tired of this place; tired of these people she didn’t even know, but whose trifling lives she was forced, in the meanwhile and maybe ever, to intimately overhear.
When soon the lights came back on and the air-conditioning resumed its thin whizzing, she and her fellow passengers breathed a sigh of relief. But when the doors, dangerously, slid open, to remove what separated them from the wide bright panorama of river and skyline, a silent panic crawled inside the still-motionless train. Everyone looked for something to hold. It was unclear which they feared more: a sudden hand pushing them to the murk of Pasig or a vigorous urge, from no one but themselves, to jump.
It took a few moments for anyone—student and janitor, construction worker and executive, market-bound housewife and lost tourist—to notice the strange rain that was falling, ever so slowly, solidly, from above. In seconds, the sun was all but blocked out. Inexplicably, dusk had arrived eight hours ahead of schedule, just when that day – a Saturday – was settling into its familiar groove.
In her coach, the last one, it was her flat, tiny nose that twitched first, visited by a flicker of rogue ash, part of the near-invisible legions that 55 miles away, in the vicinity of Pinatubo, were murderously pressing unto tin roofs and thatched huts, uprooting trees and power lines, suffocating babies and cattle. Here, in the city, the ash that arrived swirled almost tenderly, laying atop heads and treetops, car hoods and pavement, evoking nonexistent memories of snow in a populace that watched too many Hollywood movies, that sang along with too many American Christmas songs.
Later that day, a woman would jump in front of the trains, an act silently attributed by many to the harbinger of doomsday that some had mistaken the ash fall for.

Sunday, February 3


If you were, for one reason or another, driving along the national road in Isabela two nights ago, and you chanced upon a tiny motorcycle carrying three guys, trust that they got safely to their destination, which was a garage room in a drive-by motel, and that they had fun, and even made plans, when the Manileño - by far the biggest among the three - offered to host the other two in the event that they find themselves, for work or leisure both, in Manila in the future.

Tuesday, January 1


All things given, and factoring in self-awareness and remorse, how much forgiveness are we allowed to exercise on ourselves? This morning: an idleness that is not connected to New Year's Day and its parade of self-same illusions. Have stumbled upon old email of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-old self and came upon pages upon pages of sobering correspondes, both personal and professional; sobering because have never realized until today full extent of one's (1) neediness, (2) dismissiveness, (3) pretentiousness, (4) sense of entitlement, (5) penchant for inappropriate smileys, and (6) horribly florid prose (some things never change).

I am a horrible person. I'm now inclined to think that all of the disappointments in my life - rejections, failures, the occasionally impossible luck - had been just and fair - deserved - not so much as punishment but as a pull on the reins to a different (not necessarily better) direction. Would wish to forgive younger self. Badly. Really badly. Would like to offer excuses: youth, a desire to fit in, a creeping suspicion that one was not special. But things had been said. Already. Apologies could console no one but oneself, and that, have long figured out, is meaningless comfort.