What goes into a love story? Why is it important to write about love? Can writing about love be an act of dissent?
Well, agents, that’s what we wanted to know when we spoke to writer and filmmaker Annie Zaidi during the AOI Conversation this Month at Kala Studio in Mumbai. Zaidi, who is the author of Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, Love Stories # 1 to 14, The Good Indian Girl, editor of Unbound: 2000 Years of Women’s Writing, and director of In Her Words, was in conversation with Agent of Ishq Umang Sabarwal about love, its many meanings and implications, and women writing about love and desire.
In Kala’s cozy room with a small group of enthusiastic listeners (who were bursting with questions by the end), we talked about Zaidi’s work, particularly about Love Stories, Known Turf, and Unbound.
Because we never, ever get tired of talking about all things ishq, the conversation soon turned to – what else – relationships, loneliness and the idea of love itself. Love in its myriad forms, including the lack of it, often finds its way into stories, and we asked Zaidi about it greedily. She told us about how she wasn’t excited by generic romantic stories – what really drove her writing was conflict in love.
We also read passages from some of Zaidi’s work (including from Known Turf, in which she compares one’s relationship with tea to one’s relationship with other people!) and discussed what it meant to write without judgement and with fairness towards one’s own characters.
What about dissent, we asked. Can simply the act of writing about love be an act of dissent? She told us about the famous Ghalib sher, “Ishq par zor nahi”, in which he says
Ishq par zor nahi hai yeh woh aatish ghalib
Jo lagaye na lage aur bujhaye na bujhe.
She said that since ishq or love is something that cannot be contained or controlled, it is feared. People have tried to control who we love and how we love, so of course writing about love, and especially of love that isn’t permitted, is an act of dissent.
Zaidi also pointed out that the view that erotic writing isn’t part of Indian culture is only a myth. We read out a passage from Unbound from a poem by Muddupalani, an 18th century courtesan, poet and scholar living in the court of the Maratha king of Tanjore. Muddupalani, who wrote in Telugu, is particularly known for her erotic epic Radhika-santvanam (Appeasing Radha), which faced censorship after the arrival of the British.
The film In Her Words, which Zaidi worked on after Unbound, was a way for her to tie things together in terms of interpreting the history of women’s writing in India. Getting glimpses of this history and talking about the rich culture of women’s writing in India animated the people in the audience, who seemed to love the readings of poetry by women writers. When we read out a passage by contemporary Malayalam poet Rose Mary in which the speaker talks about their powerful, fierce love and exhorts their lover not to be overwhelmed by it, there was a thick silence in which it seemed like everyone had had the wind knocked out of them. When a rather raunchy passage from Muddupalani’s work was read out, one person remarked that the room seemed to have gotten hotter!
Later the listeners asked Zaidi questions ranging from what it’s like being a writer from a small town, to whether online dating meant that romance had changed. To this last question, although some members in the audience expressed their skepticism towards romance found online, others jumped in with the idea that while mediums may change, the emotions and love remain as complex and deep as ever before. Rather a lovely way to end a discussion on talking about love and desire!
If you missed this event and would like to be a part of the next one, come along on June 10 to Kala Studio, where we’ll be talking about body positivity with comedian Supriya Joshi aka Supaarwoman. See you there!