Tet @ the Coffee Shop by Tini Ngatini

Traversing Narrow Margins
PrayerThig

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Viet Nam has changed my relationship with coffee shops. They used to be a space where I worked and entertained my friends. Then, recently, they became a sort of anthropological space where I encountered a religious event which brought me to another level of appreciation and respect for local culture.

That local culture is called Tet. The Coffee shop where I encountered is called ABC.

The ABC coffee shop in Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a fusion of Asian and Western atmosphere. It has some Western characteristics like those found in Starbucks and some that might only be found in Viet Nam. By the former I mean comfy-soft seats, satisfying internet connection, people sitting by themselves with eyes fixated on a laptop or book with earphones on, casual outfits of course. Meanwhile, the latter characteristics are that the majority customers [mostly female] are wearing nice clothes, nice shoes and makeup on. Also, 90% of the Vietnamese customers are in a group with friends or family. The activity they engage in the coffee shop itself ranges from chatting, playing board games, holding a meeting, chilling with their lovers, napping, or eating sunflower seeds, or even just playing with their phones and smoking.

Such contrasting coffee shop features exist side by side at the ABC coffee shop. From my usual seat in the corner I can see a few European-looking customers in casual outfits. They sit quietly by themselves with eyes glued on their laptop or book and earphones on. And on the left side, just a few steps away, there are groups of three to six Vietnamese customers in lovely outfits gathered around a rather large table, lavishly chatting and laughing, or watching something on YouTube without earphones attached. You are most likely familiar with the kind of scene on the right. But, the one on left could elicit a glance or two out of curiosity. Or, it could be out of slight irritation that makes the glance more a “can you please tone it down” gesture. But, if you have been living in Viet Nam long enough, you might just be okay with it.

At lunchtimes, the whole of Viet Nam goes quiet. Between 12 and 2 pm, it’s nap time for the Vietnamese in general. Vietnamese customers who come during these hours are often by themselves, popping in to take a rest on the comfy sofa areas; or, if they don’t fancy a nap, they take a moment to rest, munching on sunflower seeds, eating food they brought or ordered from outside.

Such are the common views to be found at the ABC Coffee.  These scenes have been on my mind a lot recently, and have made me see coffee shops in a completely different light. Indeed, it all changed on the second day of Tet when, coincidently, I was at the ABC. That day not only upgraded my relationship with cafes to another level; it also helped me see the beauty inherent in the local tradition called Tet.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Da, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival.  It is usually celebrated either in January or February, depending on when the first day of New Year in Lunar Calendar arrives. During Tet, all businesses are closed for seven to ten days, which makes it near impossible to hunt down open restaurants and coffee shops. My landlord even advised me to ‘stock up’’ on supplies before the festival began, such is the extremity of the situation!  Here in Ha Noi, People get busy preparing for Tet about a week before the actual holiday. At this time, found ubiquitously across the city are ‘new year gates’. These are banners exclaiming  the new year greeting “Chuc mung Nam Moi,” reminding locals and visitors alike that Tet is just around the corner.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Inside the cities, pavements are transformed into temporary marketplaces, selling flowers and plants associated with Tet celebration such as Cherry Blossom, Apricots, and oranges.  Shopping malls are flooded with people hunting for new clothes to be worn on the new year, ornaments to decorate their houses, and foods for Tet. It is also one of the best times for shopping, as every store offers discounts of up to 70%. With all these activities going on, the traffic becomes even more chaotic than usual. Vehicles move at a snail’s pace, Tet plants and decorations balancing precariously atop wobbling motorbikes. Take a gander around the streets during Tet and, you will spot houses, offices and other public spaces decorated with red and yellow ornaments such as lampion, flower, plants, small flags and, of course, the Viet Nam flag.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Meanwhile, inside people’s houses, families become preoccupied with cleaning the house and ancestor altars, and preparing continual offerings for the ancestors’ spirits from the last day of the year to the third day of the new year. The offerings they prepare during these times of the year are more special than the usual type of offerings people do twice a month. The offering during Tet has more flowers and fresh food every day. The women of the house are expert at preparing both these offerings and the special Tet dishes such as Bánh chưng.  Most often, the whole family also go on visits to the family members’ and ancestor’s graveyards before Tet. They go to clean the graveyard, to pour some water over it, to spread flower petals over the graveyard, or leave flowers at the feet of the tomb. And, of course they pray for them.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

On the first day of the New Year itself, people gather with their family to exchange “lucky envelopes (money?)”—a Tet themed envelope with paper money in it, starting from 10,000 dong to any number you want to put.  This exchange is viewed as the most important Tet ritual because the lucky envelope represents the wish for a prosperous and lucky year ahead . A native Hanoian told me about it at length:

“That envelope represent for lucky money means you will have more money, Successful, basically it’s the same as wealth. It based on unreal story from China. Like Chinese they have a story about it, mainly to put a ring of coin to the children during new year so evil may not touch them. If you tell this original story from Chinese to any Vietnamese, they will refuse, and say that they never heard of it. And not many Vietnamese ever heard of it. [It’s] Vietnamese culture but not many people thinking as it was in Chinese in the past. We turned into our own way long time ago Vietnamese understanding. They [Vietnamese] give envelope, not because of reasons as they did in china. They [Vietnamese] give envelope to all age Not only children….”

“…. But in the past [in Viet Nam], it supposed to be coin, not paper money like nowadays Envelope. We switched to paper money 100 years ago. may be. Since I was small we did not use coin. Until I was 13, 2003 or 2004. But, they switched back to coin again. They did 1 time, but it last 2 years, people don’t like to keep it cause it heavy and not convenient. So they switch back to paper. May be 14 years ago. They produce coins for 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, but it lasted for 1-2 years. [because] at the same time we still had 1000, 2000 paper money. People rarely use coin. So, 2 years after, government took coins back and never used them again.   The main thing about [lucky] envelope is the way Vietnamese use it is different from Chinese one [that Vietnamese give envelope not only to children]. Even now, Chinese also give envelope to all age.”

She explained that older members of the family give lucky envelopes to younger members. For instance, “my grandpa will give lucky envelopes to my mom and me and my brother. Then my mom will also give envelopes to my grandpa.” The exchange moves downward: her mom then will give lucky envelopes to their children. Similarly, older siblings in the family often the same to their young ones. This ritual also extends toward children in their neighborhood who may visit during this period.

Another important ritual people engage in the first day of Tet is buying salt. It symbolizes a hope for prosperous year ahead. “Why salt?”, I asked a Vietnamese friend of mine.

“…You know in Viet Nam we have this saying đu năm mua mui, cui năm mua vôi meaning buy salt in the beginning of the year, buy lime at the end. Vôi is lime. Like cacao, they usually use to paint the wall..it will help to erase bad things, bad spirit they believe, that’s why usually bought at the end of the year, aiming to let go all the bad things. Buying salt at the beginning of the year will bring luck to the house and help family members to be more connected, to live in harmony. and we also use it in rituals in Pagoda, salt is something you can never live without.”

On the second and third days, people put on their new clothes and go to the Pagodas to pray for a lucky year. Another Vietnamese friend of mine says, “people start going to the Pagodas to pray on the New Year Eve, usually after watching the firework displays.”   During these days people also visit friends, usually already having met their relatives at the grandparents’ house on the first day., So if you happen to be in Viet Nam on these Tet days, you would see many people in their nice clothes on the streets,  or you would see houses widely opened, showing scenes of  families chatting and enjoying the delicious Tet delicacies.

It was on the second day of Tet, at the ABC coffee shop, that I accidentally participated in such a special moment. I came there with my usual intention to grab a coffee and get some work done. As it was still Tet celebration, they opened only the first floor.

I sat at the very end of the room. There was not much going on in the coffee shop; a few customers sat at the other end of the room, playing with their phones. After a while, the owner of the ABC came in with two men. They sat at the table two chairs away from me. I saw them talk with one another; I didn’t take too much notice.  Then my eyes stumbled upon the cookies and cakes on their table. Wait a minute, I thought to myself; they are not customers. I took my eyes off my book and subtly threw intermittent glances at their direction.  The two guests spoke to the ABC owner respectfully, making a slightly bowing head movements as they talked. Finally, they shook his hands, stood up, and left. They must be either friends or relatives of the ABC owner, I concluded. And those cakes, cookies, and beverages on the table are amongst Tet food I have read online.  It then clicked in my head: This place, after all, is also where the ABC owner and his family live. And today is the second day of Tet. People are supposed to visit their relatives or friends.

As I held my gaze, observing this interaction, a palpable and yet unnamable feeling seeped in. I am participating in Tet ritual, I thought to myself. I somehow did not feel like a customer at that very moment. The fact that ABC is also the residential place for its owner suddenly became interesting to me. I think it was the familiar living room format of the coffee shop which facilitated me to have such an insider experience of that Tet’s ritual: the living room has no partition whatsoever. It put me in the same space with the guests. The proximity made the experience intimate, as if in some way I was part of the family.

Later that day, on my way home, I had a similar feeling when I saw a father and a son in their suits riding bicycles (presumably to visit their relatives or friends).  There was a certain kind of beauty that emanates from the two men in suits on their bicycles; it was a precious moment to witness I felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time just by seeing their dedication to their cultures. In the past, I’ve personally done anything I can to escape participating in similar social conventions involving family visits. I was leaning toward some of my Vietnamese friends who see Tet rituals as unpractical considering the money you spent on flowers and food, especially for offerings, that will end up at the dumpster next day.

But in this moment, I could see the social power and functions of local culture such as Tet for people who hold on to it.  In the case of Tet, its significance lies in its religious element. The religious aspect of Tet is encapsulated in the activities of praying and giving donations to the temple some people engage in, in the offerings to the ancestors’ spirits in the house, in the visits to the ancestors’ graves, and in other forms of reverence one pays to the elderly.  These are religious activities as far as they centered around the idea of Divine other in the form of spirit and its celestial virtues. One may argue that these religious gestures are what Pure Land Buddhist Shinran and Honen referred to as the ‘miscellaneous acts’. Majority Buddhists in Viet Nam are Pure Land Buddhist, after all. Within this view, the religious gestures themselves are meant to evoke good karma. They are activities which are believed to bring one closer to and/or to enter divine realm [the Pure Land]. Yet, not the one which result in the rebirth in the Pure Land.

The offerings, the flowers, foods, and money sacrifices and other forms of reverence appear to be a simple way to pray to god. It is so simple that it often deceives us into thinking of it as unintelligible, superstitious, or even devoid of reason. So, it is no surprise if some people may suggest an abandonment of traditional religious practices on this basis. This simple way to salvation seems similar to the bhakti yoga [devotion]. It exists presumably to accommodate to followers who, for one reason or another, have no access to the other two means to salvation which are claimed to be more sophisticated. The first is what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as jnana yoga, the way to know God through knowledge [philosophy in Platonic sense]. And the other is karma yoga, the knowing god through work.

I think it is safe to say that local cultures such as Tet have a certain degree of intelligibility and practicality. They may be simple and repetitive, and yet they are not devoid of reason. On the contrary, local cultures can be important assets for countries which are on the journey to become “modern”:  they can offer something that might complement modern values and other forms of progress they wish to adopt. That is so, especially because modernity may come with unexpected results such as social or spiritual alienation. It is these possible alienations which the continuing practice of local cultures might be able to answer. Last but not least, their simplicities fit modern people who have limited time for more sophisticated and intellective practices, such as meditation and philosophy related practices.

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I Burned You a CD {Part ONE}: Growing by M. Perle

permanent fugue

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CD Cover

Insert I

Insert II

Que seguimos rompiendo aquí
Esta fiesta no tiene fin
Botellas para arriba, si
Los tengo bailando, rompiendo y yo sigo aquí

Insert III

Insert IV

 

I’m in the first row on your show, in the first row👊

 

On the First Floor Power show

🎶
Your vibrato’s like vulnerable leaves,

🎶
You do it crazy, that’s how you talk to me

Insert V

Insert VI

 

Insert IX

The only living proof I got

                                                                                       Is just the sand that I was made of

Got tired building it up

                              I found the quiet place I lost, it’s just a cell upon the river

 

Insert VII

Insert VIII: smrt fašizmu

Insert X

 

Insert XI

♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ ♭ ♮ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ ♭ ♮ ♩ ♪ ♫

♬ ♭ ♮ ♩ ♪ ♫

♬ ♭ ♮

Insert XII

Insert XIV

Insert XIII

You’re hard on yourself
Well you can’t always be right
All those little things that keep you up at night
You should take some time to figure out your life
But you’re stuck indoors and thinking poorly

You’ll find in time
All the answers that you seek
Have been sitting there just waiting to be seen
Take away your pride and take away your grief
And you’ll finally be right where you need to be

Take all of it, take everything you’re owed
‘Til you finally feel okay being alone
Yeah it’s different now
Yeah it’s different now, you’re old

And you try and you try and you try and you try

 

Insert XV: Growing

Playing ‘Exquisite Corpse’ By Myself by M. Perle

permanent fugue
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Photo by author

    “And it kills me, the word sorry. As if something like music

 

should be forgiven. He nuzzles into the wood like a lover,

  inhales, and at the first slow stroke, the crescendo

     seeps through our skin like warm water, we

 

who have nothing but destinations, who dream of light

   but descend into the mouths of tunnels, searching.”

from Ocean Vuong’s “Song on the Subway”

 

“I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of a greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.”

Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

 

“Well let’s think for a moment. What type of orange are you?” Our professor asks us.

On a Thursday night we discuss how to teach metaphor in our Poetry and Pedagogy class. We are reading Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions translated by William O’Daly. Dr. Berlin has asked us what it feels like to be an orange.

“I’m a blood orange,” my classmate responded. We all laughed. “I’m red and juicy on the inside.”

“Who gets the most sun and who decides on these matters?” someone wondered.

“I would think the biggest oranges would get the most sun,” another classmate said.

“What if the bigger oranges are bigger because they get the most sun?” I posed.

“This is not a Marxist tree!” the Blood Orange shouts. People laugh, I audibly eye roll.

People began calling out, “Everyone gets equal sun!”

“Where are these oranges growing? Is this a private farm or someone’s garden?”

“Did you hear about the peach tree they cut down on campus and replaced with Dogwood. That’s nice for about one month of the year, but I want peaches!”

“Now,” I start in, “what if everyone thinks I’m an orange but I’m really a grapefruit?”

As people laugh someone says something about me being bitter.

“What if,” I begin, “we are all those genetically modified mini-oranges engineered for children under 5 and we just think we are real oranges? We’re all in a crate together being shipped to the supermarket. We’re derivative oranges,” now I’m being a bit of an ass.

“Are we the types of oranges used in perfumery?” Someone starts looking up what type of oranges those are on their phone.

One classmate says they are a Florida-hating, navel gazing navel orange from Florida.

We discuss zen koans now:

Can a koan change a life?

My professor asks if we all remember the Marx Brothers. She wonders if people growing up today have sufficient exposure to absurdity; she comes from the era of Vaudeville.

I would think it’s clear absurdity is palpable now. Especially politically.

“Do people today have something like ‘The Shirt Song’? It’s just a guy talking about how he wants his shirt,” Dr. Berlin starts singing it.

He wants his shirt!

                                                                       I want my shirt! 

He won’t be happy without his shirt!

 

I think about when I used to do prank calls as a teenager with my friends Danny and Anthony.

An answering machine beeps (Danny, barely disguising voice trailing off laughing): “HELLO DERE! Come on down to Wal’er’s Park this weekend for some hotdooogs and sode-y!” 

Videos exist of Anthony on the couch in a friend’s basement:

“Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of MAURY where today we will be discussing: ‘Help, My Daughter is Having Sex with…Pilot Lights.’”

There’s a clip on that video tape of a high school acquaintance laying sideways and rubbing his body atop a cafeteria table saying “Lemon Curry,” in a sensual way. Quickly: a cut to my friend Danielle in art class sharing her series of “feeling papers”: about 40 papers of possible human feelings. She reads each of them to me in discordant voices, pointing at all of the papers which are decorated with a hodge podge of art supplies, peaking slightly over the top of the papers and giggling after each one.

*Danielle in a shrieky voice* “Hopefulllll:” as in are youuu hopefulllll? I hope you’reee hopefulllll *laughter*

We used to laugh at anything when we were that age. In a high school play we performed, And Then There Was One, there was a line I said in the role of Detective Horatio Miles: “What does anyone do in the pantry?” It was tech rehearsal and someone in the audience yelled “Masturbate!” We laughed so hard and our teacher made us this t-shirt.

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Photo and food(?)/paint(?) stain by author

 

Last week I try to make feeling flashcards:
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They are terrible and not like Danielle’s.

I made “privacy” an emotion, too, so if you want to be technical they are no longer feeling flashcards, now they are just cards with words on them.

“Should I watch the videos again,” I wonder now, “or just remember them?”

 

**********

 

On a Thursday night in 2017 we continue discussing metaphor. My professor says: “What if I say: the universe is the smell of pee?” I got lost somewhere and now we’re here and “the universe is the smell of pee.”

Can a metaphor change a life? A law? An economy?

John Tarrant, in Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life, says asking questions, specifically in the form of koans will encourage doubt and curiosity, lead you to see life as funny rather than tragic, and change the idea of who you are. He thinks at the bottom of people’s motives is love.

I ask myself if this can be true.

To prepare for class we read Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Neruda references Nixon, lemons, roses, and Rimbaud. 

In “Night in Hell” Rimbaud says:

But I am still alive! – Suppose damnation is eternal! A man who wants to mutilate himself is certainly damned, isn’t he? I believe I am in Hell, therefore I am.

Shams Tabrizi said this much earlier:

Don’t search for heaven and hell in the future. Both are now present. Whenever we manage to love without expectations, calculations, negotiations, we are indeed in heaven. Whenever we fight, hate, we are in hell.

I try reading Neruda in the style of Jerry Seinfeld:

Ya knowww…

“With the virtues that I forgot

Could I sew a new suit?”

 

I meannnn…

 

“Why did the best rivers

leave to flow to France?”

 

“And why is the sun such a bad companion

To the traveler in the desert?”

 

Can a question change a life?

 

*********

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Photo by author

“Hello, Love!” Katrina, the barista at Java City, says when a customer walks in, sometimes alternated with, “Hello, sweetie!”

As someone who enjoys observational research, I listen to the way Katrina talks to other customers. “Hello, Love!” “Hello, sweetie!” would ring out from the cafe as I did some reading in the nearby library study area. “It’s so good to see you today!”

I feel as a cynical academic I could have just said “she is infantalizing me,” but I think that’s also bullshit, she wasn’t, this can’t be academonized. 

One day Katrina and I talk about the power of being happy. I think about this a lot. 

Katrina treats everyone with the same happiness. I believe she is happy. We talk about smiling. She says she is 53 and decided she didn’t ever want to be unhappy again. I wonder how this works, not in a shitty sarcastic way, I actually wonder.

Emotional labor debates are not because we don’t want to ever do emotional labor–they are so people recognize the labor we perform. No one has to be good to anyone. All emotions are labor. But what would be the point if no one ever did emotional labor? Should we all stop emoting? I don’t want to stop emoting. 

I don’t think that’s the point.

There are “occupational hazard” emotions to some identities.

Calling someone “angry” can be a way to immediately shut down discourse. Telling someone to smile or be happy is intrusive. These can be ways of policing behavior when it’s threatening to power. But in terms of survival and on a more personal level–what does it do to someone’s health when they are angry a good deal of the time?

In Jessi Gan’s “Still at the Back of the Bus” (an essay from Are All the Women Still White?) Gan brings out that anger as a tool  for social equity is an essential yet alienating reality. She mentions the story of Silvia Rivera: marginalization even on the margins.

“I just want to be who I am. I am living in the way Silvia wants to live. I’m not living in the straight world; I’m not living in the gay world; I’m just living in my own world with Julia and my friends.”

Rivera, along with Marsha P. Johnson, founded “Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries.” Even in queer communities, people told Rivera she wasn’t welcome, beating her up, telling her she was an affront to “real” womanhood, making fun of her language abilities, telling her sex workers did not have a place in the movement. “Progressive” queer people ignored Rivera’s plee to financially help homeless queer youth, so she did it herself.

Queer people, especially of color, gender non-conforming and gender nonbinary are consistently barraged with demands on their identity and forced outings:

          “But who are you?”

Silvia was a founding member of Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and was shit on by her own “group” so she left.

The answer “I’m me” is not good enough and “who are you as it applies to what serves me?” seems to be the real question when people deny identities.

This should be cause for anger. With this anger can come alienation–the angered pick up the tab for this. They are blamed for the symptom, the anger, when the anger had a causal relationship to something else.

Calling out anger can be a form of shutting down discourse, but the anger that is dwelling inside comes at a cost to the angered, not just the receiver of the anger.

Anger can poison your organs. Anger can kill you.

*Someone in the back of the room says “everything kills you someday” and they are being an ass.*

Practitioners of allopathic as well as hollistic medicine believe anger is stored in the liver. People use alcohol and drugs to cope with anger, too, which further impacts the liver. Silvia Rivera died of liver cancer.

What are the ways people kill people?

No Answer Barthes

from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse

 

 

*********

“Sodom-y and Gonorrhea” and “Minced Oathe” were stories I wrote about breaking faith and questioning the ego when I was 19. I wonder if we are born with more wisdom than we gain and if we lose it over time; I’d write based on dreams I had.

My Grandmother was a Bible school teacher. Everything is apocalyptic revelation.

In “Sodom-y and Gonorrhea” the subject of the dream lays naked in the desert sipping a White Russian reading magazines. Most of the people are naked and imbibing, white metal bunk beds are placed all over in the sand. A natural disaster rips through the place and everyone dies except the subject of the dream.

“You killed some people who didn’t deserve it.”

They look for clothes to cover themself and only find some on a person who has been decapitated. They put the clothes on as a figure on a Hummer*** drives through.

*On a Hummer not in a Hummer because it’s a dream and: dream logic.

*

*It’s a dream, shut up.

 

Though this character is just introduced, and this seems like the beginning of the story, it’s like we know them already. They go off together through a bar where Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” plays. Jesus is the bartender’s name. Jesus knows what you want before you even ask.

The characters talk for a bit and the subject says:

“Whenever I am hating you I am only hating myself.”

 

                                                                                      Jesus swept.

 

 

 

 

Auxochrome-Chromophore by Anindita Bhattacharya

moltenclocks

Do you believe in a love that informs, enriches, and encourages creativity? What is the purpose of love, if not to uplift us, becalm us, and embalm our broken spirits? We do not want to be crippled and asphyxiated in love, we must be able to soar; our spirits must be free.

Two women, two artists, and two lovers from two disparate corners of the world decided to redefine love. Their love for their respective partners was so great that they were ready to efface themselves. What is so uncanny is that they lived, loved, and worked in two very different time periods. One was born in the 19th century and the other in the 20th. One in England, the other in Mexico. Despite their different births, different cultures, and different sensibilities,  their lives followed quite identical trajectories.

Born as the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Liverpool, Dora Carrington, was essentially a free spirit. She always felt stifled at home, owing to the domineering nature of her mother. Her father was old and passive and completely at her mother’s mercy. The motherly lessons of morality and propriety were too much for Dora to bear. So when she earned herself a scholarship at the prestigious Slade School of Art at University College, London, she happily set foot on a journey that would change her life forever. Her decision to break away from the bourgeois roots and strike new ones into the fertile expanses of the creative and intellectual bohemia of the 20th century London helped her realize what she truly wanted: Lytton Strachey. Lytton was thirteen years her senior and a homosexual. But that never deterred Dora from loving him more than anything or anyone, even herself. So great was her love for Lytton that she even married his lover Ralph Partridge to enjoy the sustained proximity of her beloved. The three of them, Dora, Lytton, and Ralph lived together in the same house, and Dora continued to devote all her love and attention to Lytton. He was a key member of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group of London that constituted of such luminaries as E.M.Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf etc. He was a man of letters, and his brilliance and erudition so awed Dora that she could hardly ever speak in his presence. Even though she was in her own right and by her own merit a painter par brilliance, she chose to carry on with her life as Lytton’s shadow; a mere sidekick or not even that. Many of her artwork bear testimony to this facet of her psyche, because she too was an autobiographical painter just like my next artist, Frida Kahlo.It is strange that these two women would live such identical lives.

Frida Kahlo, born to Guillermo Kahlo, a Mexican of German origin and Matilde, of mixed Spanish and Mexican ancestry, in the outskirts of Mexico, was always a sickly child. Polio had rendered one of her legs thinner and shorter than the other, giving rise to her lifelong discomfort with her own physicality. Then at the age of eighteen, she suffered a terrible near death bus accident, leading to a broken spinal cord, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. In addition, an iron handrail from the bus had pierced her abdomen and her uterus, compromising her reproductive capabilities. Gerry Souter in his biography of Kahlo writes, “The scene of the accident was gruesome. Somehow the collision tore off Frida’s clothes, dumping her nude onto the shattered floor of the bus. Seated near Frida had been a painter or an artisan carrying a paper packet of gold gilt powder. It burst, showering her naked body.” She lay there like a vision in gold. That is how she continued to be, a striking beauty in the face of the most extreme affliction, anguish, and physical discomfiture. She was such a resolute and strong woman that she overcame her physical limitations; her broken body, her damaged leg, her degenerative neurological disease; getting back on her feet, doing what she loved best, paint, and love like no other women could have. She fell in love with the famous muralist, Diego Rivera, who had been commissioned to paint the walls in her school. Diego Rivera was a fubsy old man, much married, a communist, and a celebrated lady killer. Frida married him knowing well enough that this man would never be faithful to her. That it is his work and his perversions that were going to take precedence in their lives and she would have to be content with playing the part of the doting wife.

Both Dora and Frida were great artists, who lived a bohemian life. They were bisexual. They had innumerable affairs and liaisons with people of both the sexes. They were both critical of their own work and never believed in the value of their art. They were both bruised in love and yet their love was way beyond any form of self-love. They were happy with their place in the periphery, willingly pushing their more successful lovers into the center stage.  They both believed that their love for their partners was the source of all their creative energy, yet their partners hardly ever played such a motivational role in their lives.  Probably that is why these women are known to the world, more for their personalities, lifestyle, and love lives, than for the oeuvre of their artwork. Whereas Frida’s works were mainly canvas painting in the Retablo mold, Dora had dabbled in a lot of other forms of artwork, such as furniture painting, glass painting, woodwork and so on. Her trompe l’oeil artwork has been considered as some of her most masterful creations. Dora was very secretive about her work and never wanted to display it to the public. In that respect, after her divorce from Rivera, Frida had finally been able to overcome her fear of showing her work to the people. Before that, she would only circulate her stuff among friends just like Dora.

Frida and Dora were always in touch with their feminine as well as their masculine sides. They cut their hair short and experimented with androgynous dressing. The images below bear testimony to that:

 

 

 

The portraits of friends and acquaintances by Dora and Frida share a likelihood in terms of the honest depiction, sense of melancholia, and profundity of emotions depicted in the same.

 

Although Frida’s self-portraits are often allegorical and quite sinister unlike those of Dora’s, they are alike in their brilliant detailing and use of colors.

 

 

It is quite surprising that separated by a decade, in two different parts of the world, two women would think, feel, and paint so alike. That they would be riddled with the same questions of birth and identity, use their work as a personal blog, love someone with an ardor rare to find, happy to glow in the light of their more successful partners, and eventually die an unnatural death.

It is well known that Dora shot herself in the head following the untimely demise of Lytton Strachey. It is said Frida died of heart attack, but it is widely believed that she died of a self-induced overdose of drugs.

Both of them were also known for having written quite a number of letters in their lifetime. Letters that give us a glimpse into their complex psyche, their love, their pain, and their desires. Written in lucid words, overflowing with passion, and creativity (Dora used to doodle in her letters) these written testimonials are a mirror to their unique spirits.

In a letter, Frida writes:

“My Diego:

Mirror of the night

Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands.

All of you in a space full of sounds — in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME— the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE — the one who gives color.

You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement. You fulfill and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are [sic] my light.”

So much for love.

My love inspires me to speak my mind, to pen down all those words jostling in my head in search of an articulation. It is not just an Auxochrome, it is a Chromophore too. Shouldn’t love be a Chromophore too? I wish it were for Dora and Frida because they are way too close to my heart now that I have looked into their beautiful souls and realized how lucky I am.