When reading a wonderfully crafted story, we are sometimes tempted to say that the line between prose and poetry has been blurred. We don’t really mean it, of course. It is simply our hyperbolic way of acknowledging the writer’s stylistic gifts. We cannot read Michael Ondaajte, for example, without marveling at the precision and emotional fullness of his writing; but our brains do not really struggle to ascertain whether we are in the midst of his fiction or his poems. The confidence we bring to the distinction belies its arbitrariness – at least since poetry was liberated from its formal constraints at the opening of the twentieth century – but we are usually confident nonetheless.
This sure ground frequently threatens to fall away under the magical pen of Kuzhali Manickavel, whose new work of nearly intertwined short… ummm… pieces, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, has just been published by Blaft Publications in Chennai.
Kuzhali’s stories are like well-remembered dreams. They are frustratingly elliptical and playfully topsy-turvey in their abandonment of mundane reality, yet sufficiently vivid and subtle to provide that delicious moment of doubt about whether the experience was imagined or lived.
The book is so start-to-finish wonderful, it is hard to know from which story to give you a taste (or, really, just a nibble); so I’ll take it right off the top, from the opening “stanza” of the book’s first story, “The Godlet”:
The minute Malathi takes charge, the universe begins to sing her name like it is something holy. She cracks her knuckles and creates a new day that consists of Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon, and Thursday night. There will be no more Mondays. The universe applauds her decision.
Kuzhali’s is language in full play. It has the astonishing, unfettered, fantastical, pyrotechnic quality of a Stanly Elkin or a Tom Robbins. It succeeds so engrossingly because it is always deployed in the service of unerringly depicted and bitingly true vignettes and larger themes, not simply as a masturbatory exercise. Kuzhali’s stories depict the myriad of ways people communicate and miscommunicate with each other — one-on-one — verbally and through intuitive happenstance.
A recurring trope is what one of her characters calls “unphrases”, those magical bits of nonsense and almost-sense that so easily germinate in the mulch of our linguistic landscape. Though she writes from the South of India, Kuzhali does not rely exclusively, or even heavily, on the sometimes easy target of Indian English to harvest the ironically mangled expressions which crisscross the book like a convoy of purposeful ants (to use an insect metaphor). When she does explore the local idiom, she does so with the affection and warm humor of a Nizam Ezekiel. In both language and imagery, Kuzhali’s writing seems to pay tribute to Jean Paul Satre’s nearly-true aphorism that the more complicated the concept, the closer it is to its opposite. Only Kuzhali’s version would have it: the more confused the concept, the closer its misses are to their mark. Like the nutty college student in one of her stories – who reads the cursive inscription “I am that bread of life” beneath a cheesy picture of Jesus as the admonition: “Jam that bread of life!” – Kuzhali is constitutionally unable to render the world in the less joyful or less poignant of whatever might be the available interpretive options, even if it means fudging a little.
The endorsement blurb on the rear cover, by the California-based filmmaker, performance artist, and writer Miranda July, nicely sums up the fun and intimacy of Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings:
Not merely lyrical and strange, but also deadpan funny. I can’t shake the feeling that I know this woman, personally – like we hung out at a party or something. But I don’t, and we didn’t. She’s just that good.
She is, indeed, just-that-good. But unlike Ms. July, I do, and we did. Kuzhali and I first met in early 2005, at what I then-called a “Pondy poetry slam”, convened by the also-gifted writer, Pavithra Krishnan. Just two weeks ago, I had the chance spend a little time with Kuzhali at her sister’s wedding in Chidambaram. In between, she has written stories for Book Box, the wonderful literacy project of another mutual friend, Brij Kothari. She is one of those people who, after meeting, you tell yourself to keep a close eye on – even if from a distance – because the promise of greatness glows from them.
Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings is a magnificent literary party, and the rest of the world’s chance to hang-out with Kuzhali. Don’t miss it.