Monica Mody - an allegorical screenplay that's both playful and terrifying. KALA PANI begins in a familiar, stripped down setting: a stage, actors, a Godotian tree as prop. But soon the Beckett allusions fray into the Boschian as the play embarks on a hallucinatory, postcolonial and tech-riven romp into the deprived lives of World Travelers.

Monica Mody, Kala Pani, 1913 Press, 2013.

Read excerpts from Kala Pani in 1913 a journal of forms, Boston Review, LIES/ISLEThe Volta, and on Truck.

Monica Mody's KALA PANI is an allegorical screenplay that's both playful and terrifying. KALA PANI begins in a familiar, stripped down setting: a stage, actors, a Godotian tree as prop. But soon the Beckett allusions fray into the Boschian as the play embarks on a hallucinatory, postcolonial and tech-riven romp into the deprived lives of World Travelers. These world travelers (aka, Migrants? Writers? Revolutionaries? Insurgents?) are marooned on a colony island and spin tales such as the story of two sisters, Othershape, and Sameshape. KALA PANI is packed with stories-within-stories and voices that range from officialese to rebellious neologistic song: 'the blubs squeezed themselves into a phalanx of pulped fury.' With each scene, you descend into stranger circles of hell and hope. KALA PANI encompasses plenitude; it is uncomfortable, startling, timeless, and ultimately original."
--Cathy Park Hong

 "Monica Mody is a poet of sacrifice: Writing to us from the space behind the sun. “Elemental and artificial,” the world traveller licks the map. The word traveller lies down on her back beneath the “life-sized fabric” of the sky. This is a sky that surveils recumbent forms, agitated consumers and the person who wants to be “in a relationship” with the polyvalent neutrality of “a connoisseur.” Meanwhile, the narrator “is asleep.” Black water starts to seep up through an architecture that’s ruined, like a leg that’s been soaking too long in the bath. Architecture is pink, fleshy and ridged in Mody’s spectacular work on Empire. The poet-citizen is nauseous. “Stomachs” are heaving; “bibs” are in place. And at the heart of this death-star society, “funeral pyres” are burning at the edge of a dirty lake. Mody puts this ash into the mouth of the reader. This is the black water. This is the ritual that precedes whatever it is it will take – threads of wool? – to lead a person “back to us.” This is never, exactly, the same thing as home – the “ground” that Mody complicates, again and again, in the rupturing vortex of KALA PANI, a book without “remorse.”"--Bhanu Kapil

 "I keep handy a short list of writers who teach you that dreaming of a new politics is never enough. A new politics always needs a new language. That is the lesson offered by Arundhati Roy and Tony Kushner. After reading KALA PANI, my list also includes Monica Mody."--Amitava Kumar

"Six World Travellers, bereft of visas, gather beneath a tree to tell the story of Sameshape and Othershape — lovers, sisters, coconspirators, antagonists, doubles? — while the new Administration looks on, both feeding the informants and censoring their live-feed. The resulting contortions, stutters, hallucinations, fight scenes, sex scenes, mise-en-scènes, warblings and appendages, jerk and brim with jouissance and glitter with the self-discovery of a true bricoleuse. Gender, genre, national identity, multiple languages, and the body’s “natural” borders are all debased and reworked in this queer, unstable mix, which releases energy as it forms and breaks down and forms again. Welcome to the world of KALA PANI. Drink this smoking stuff and live forever."--Joyelle McSweeney

"...a series of fractured tales crowded into a awkwardly beautiful postmodern dastan, or a long narrative poem—the likes of which you might get if you locked Dr. Strangelove, Scheherazade, and Seuss’ Onceler in a room and told them they couldn’t come out until they’d written an allegory for our times."--Michael Creighton

Monica Mody’s Kala Pani brings together theater, folklore, faux-journalism, the suspending enjambments of poetry, and the disruptions and connections of electronic media in a fascinating formal pastiche that creates an environment of “mythic static.” Titled ostensibly after a British colonial prison to which Indian political prisoners were exiled, this book stages “a remarkable feat of intervention” into our assumptions about self and other, the private and the public, narrative linearity and associational scope. Kala Pani also applies pressure on our assumptions about the “elemental & artificial.” The reader revolves antically between these as opposing modes of agency, struggling for balance as disingenuous narratives multiply.
Mody demonstrates how narrative patterning can confine and overdetermine meaning. Tellingly, the book begins with a frame that stumbles, trying to get its “vision straight.” The frame itself is located on a stage, and this is a central conceit of the book: our realities are staged and restaged. One layer further, Kala Pani presents six world travelers who strive to travel within story, but who suffer under the constraints of rational presidents, rigorous training, and official narratologists (“These stories offspun by our most popular minds that were certain, certain that you would have no better story to tell”). With great inventiveness, Mody wends narrative around and within narrative, as though the bonds and bounds of story could twist, Houdini-like, to effect their own escape.
Her featured players, narrated with brilliant inconsistency by the world travelers, are “Sameshape” and “Othershape.” Any account of the relation of these two (sisters? lovers? performers in a Bollywood production?) is likely to unfurl into blatant contradiction. Is Sameshape a baseline by which any difference in Othershape can be manifested? It’s impossible to say. In any case, Sameshape and Othershape eventually become part of the audience. A long sequence that has the two reciting names and nouns back and forth to each other devolves into a kind of burlesque nonsense: the would-be protagonists tease the audience with names that don’t attach to any identity.
As witty and lightfooted as this book is, the shapeshifting characters function in an admonitory way, for no one ever truly gets away. The official news organ posts a headline that promises to explain “Why Freedom of Expression Will Prove To Be An Ordeal for You.” As the book comes to a close, the stage seems to dissolve as the “curtain falls apart, having nothing else to live for.” Thus, one framing narrative after another collapses. Mody erects this endlessly recursive line-of-dominoes structure and then topples it.
Having navigated this wild ride of a text, however, discouragement is the last thing that the reader feels. Rather, one emerges with a feeling of glee. Every moment of this book is a testament to resourcefulness and insubordination. The detours and proliferations of Kala Pani, along with its embrace of absurdity, become a means of survival that jumps over the limitations of the rational. There’s a sense of suspension, of process—“cursor in internal disorder”—that beguiles the intrepid reader to follow chaos into constellations that make order as we know it irrelevant. - Elizabeth Robinson

Kala Pani: opening shot, the audience & we are immediately, irreversibly accessories to its crime-en-scène, the impossible play of its cruel theatre. We are offered a shot of its sugar butter cocktail, drunk to see “what the world is doing right now”:
The world is, like the conversations detailed by its six marooned world travelers, “in tatters.” These travelers, arrested in time/space by the new world government, unravel their mise en abîme of the fungible Sameshape & Othershape, a bracing litany of ducks, and a slut-shamed lentil bean in their broken dialogue, broadcast over webcam and radio, the stream of their exchange tapped and disrupted by memes of gossip rag tell-alls, the Rational President’s empty PSA’s, and a rabid Ideologue’s perestroika.
Their stories intersect, merging narratives and enjambing over prosey stanza breaks:
…That wears the crown rests easy. Therefore the tree,
having learnt its lesson well, found itself in this
strange condition while
Writhed and moaned inside the car, and
Secretly felt something wet rushing in its veins
something like a sponge something swelling as it spied
on them, Something turned loose. O N E moment. O N E
hair stuck to its scalp. The tree, aroused, touched
Mouths on each other, did not [sense the danger]
So rest and writhe these characters and stories ‘neath the Tumtum tree, [a Banyan tree, a Nimtree, a Poetry], tongues and tales wagging in double-time. Mody deftly unpacks these narratives with a traveler’s resourcefulness, using up every item in the utilitarian sponge bag of formal devices and turning well-groomed stories out its plastic edges. Her stories bleed through the dialogue tags of a shifting cast, interrupting (and simultaneously permitting) a fluid reading experience, for the convulsing, contracting text constantly demands our vigilance as it indulges our fleeting attentions, ever-broadening to accommodate its myriad/polyvocal forms. These characters and tales exist, ostensibly, as an array of amuse-bouches to stave off the hunger of prying eyes and wagging tongues—and for the reader, this raison d’être unfolds as their in[ter]ventions in language—the stunning beauty of their fantastic creations, the deftness of their phrasal turns, as in the Fourth World Traveler’s account of the lentil bean,
…A3. There was nothing in its pheromone hamper. Out of deep shame and anxiety, it decided to wear only t-shirts and pajamas for an entire month/year. It turned up wearing increasingly sexless t-shirts and pajamas. Its favourite, a poplin forest green pair with embroidered elephants and a drawstring waist. The elephant, humbled, wandered off. Tusk, tusk. The lentil bean woke up sweating in them and also spent the day in them. Thrifty-eyed, its mother scolded, but the lentil bean was growing up fast.
…KX. It was the year of benign fashion. Husks gloriously covered with tan fibre, a group of giggling food legumes cavorted on public promenades. Chickpeas looked up the splits of moong, and moong looked up the splits of fava beans.
or the stripped-down Steinian syntax of the Fifth World Traveler’s meditation on ducks:
A duck wants to know errors. A duck wants to know, er. A duck is in the know. A duck is in error. A duck is in, er. A knowing duck is a wanting duck…I pitch my duckness at you. Catch it, it is slippery. It is velvety smooth. I want to transmit my tasty duckness because it is too hard to be a duck alone.
The gestalt of Kala Pani’s characters lies in this work, of art, of a gendered racialized geo-graphic and identitied—simultaneously, flatly localized and unlocatable—performance, of translated and nontransferrable narration, a work that systematically and rhizomatically deflowers language hierarchies and codes of conduct. It’s been “more than [two] years since six clients were chosen as part of the new government’s plan to reappraise its official position on the borders of the world,” the Culture & Society Special Report informs, and their work “is far from over.” The work Kala Pani’s characters perform on language rips open its seams and strips it down/up to code; in Sameshape & Othershape’s (now Sameshape Jaan and Othershape Jaan, a Punjabi and Hindi term denoting the dearest and closest of lovers) closing act, their frantic love-declarations are encrypted in seemingly nonsensical strings of Anglo names:
                                              OTHERSHAPE JAAN
Lincoln Ida Mary Edward Robert Edward Nora Charlie
Love in Mother Edward Roger/Robert In Charlie King
{blind}                                                                                  {spot}
 The expression of obsessive desire (limerence) dissolves into the fodder of poetic canons (limerick), actions colliding in the stage directions and utterances finally transforming into, “MARY UNION TOM UNION ADAM LINCOLN FRANK EDWARD ADAM ROBERT” and an incanted, “PETER APPLE NUTS IN CHARLIE.” Semantic meaning has disappeared completely behind artifice.
Our undaunted six and the “contorted face of the revolution” flagging, they too, like the world they quintessentialize, dematerialize in a last show of artifice, sent to a funeral pyre, to be dis-armisticed and leaked out/in history’s annals. The film concludes with a beauty shot of the giving tree felled to a ground that “grew movie star sunglasses.” The final scene turns its camera on us, the audience:
Apperceptive shot. The epilogue looks around from the toaster, ready for butter…Who is this movie about? How long ago was longing seized? Did it sneeze? Am I truthful, or are you? Add up I+you? 1+2?
and Mody interrogates our mercurial affections and the anonymous collective schadenfreude of our surveillance society. Language, attention, and [in]actions are put on trial a final time, sweetly interrogating our convictions and sentencing us—“The ease with which the pipeline is buried here? Pipe it, sweet youth.” If Kala Pani be the film of langue, pipe on! - Jacqueline Kari

In the Canterbury Tales, some travelers meet by chance at an inn. They tell each other stories to pass the time, and the stories reveal their world—its hypocrisies, its ideals and bad deals, its deflations and delectations. The people in them undergo suffering, humiliation, glory and pleasure, but the major relish is in the recounting itself. In Kala Pani, Monica Mody’s strange new text, six world travelers—travelers from the First through Sixth Worlds—are becalmed in their travels by the new government, who’s withholding their visas and planning to chop down the tree they lean against. They, too, tell stories that reveal their feverish, gaudy and hamstrung worlds, painting the insides of their cages with every available secretion.
Kala Pani draws some of its black water from the same mutated gene pool as the work of Joyelle McSweeney, Lara Glenum and Feng Sun Chen: monstrous porous bodies, profit and lust, e-surveillance, and the sores kept open by attempts at control. It draws on the recent past’s most marketable stories and categories, and shares with McSweeney in particular its filmic stutter; the audience is also a character, and not a harmless one, within the queasy frame. “Contradictory structures had left the audience breathing hard. Were they expected to play? If so, what was their role, and how much sugar?”
Later, as “CERTAIN CORPSES FLOAT ASHORE”, the Fifth World Traveler intones, “You, too, are guilty. What can you remember? What do you miss the most? Here are the rules of the game,” and adds in a footnote, “Go on, play it. In fact, I insist you must.” There is no escape. Like the lentil bean character, who starts its story in a literal cage, we may dress in “increasingly sexless t-shirts and pajamas” or “plus-sized earrings, hooped neckties, rogue haircuts, flannel gadgets, caramelized chains …” and a page more’s worth of costume, but we will end up in the soup.
Kala Pani fits the loose editorial definition of a hybrid text: it combines the intense play of poetry, language as live field (“Baby raked the smell of mothermilk into a cracked balloon bag and wiped her feet on it”) with structures of screenplay, newsfeed and public relations statement (“They looked for clients who offered super graphics and stunning sound”) as well as narrative threads and characters who keep the same names throughout the book. Hybrid also refers to mingling and impurity, the creation of “new” and “mixed” organisms, a hint of praise mixed in with a hint of condescension, as if from the assumption that the speaker, of course, is not a hybrid. Is pure. Kala Pani is a degustatory, disgusticulously impure text; it makes use of forms, like stories, that it also mistrusts:
Spending the days delirious, so happy to be loved, so happy to be in this blank
bliss, so happy in this story this truth never before, biting from the inside out …

A story’s hand curled around their neck, rubbed their earlobe of silk and they
moaned and their vagina soaked and they shut the door on questions. The story
ordered a huge feast that night, all its friends came over, and the world travelers
danced and danced and felt quite stormy.

As they finished their training, a small part of them realized that the story stirred
into them was darkended, but they were too afraid to dwell on it further.

Lovers kiss in the moonlight, but lovers and moonlight are both in a junkyard of capitalism, and their raconteur claims not to have the language to reveal herself or them—“these immortal lovers,” “these important lovers,” whose importance and immortality are adulterated, mined, commodified by the other elements of their story. “I turned them into media sensations,” recounts that chronicler, who with the other World Travelers is stalled, surveilled and eventually burned on a pyre at the greedy behest of the new government, into which everything in the world of this text seems to play—including us, whoever we are, as we read, by reading, not only by reading.
In a 1986 interview, playwright Maria Irene Fornes said, “[In Waiting for Godot] Pozzo beats on Lucky and at the end Lucky doesn’t get free, but it doesn’t matter because I do!” Reading, I felt played by Kala Pani; I wanted the way out of the cage to be in the book. I wanted to see someone get free, or go home. But if there’s pleasure here it’s in the telling—the flock of ducks in seven pages of gleeful linguistic permutations is just one example—and if there’s freedom to be made here it’s in what a reader, a listener, does when the stories are over and the audience pours out blinking into the street. - Kate Schapira

Coming at you in vatic stereo, a screenplay live from Radio Delhi, Monica Mody’s “Kala Pani” is a work of words almost beyond description, full of rapturous code, ensnaring tendrils, choral voices, double-exposures, wondrous bad synching, and spectral and degrading film. Here the oral storytelling techniques and film-fed mythic motifs of urban India go viral, weird and wired, saturated with media though beset with traditional revolutionary impulses. Six World Travellers, bereft of visas, gather beneath a tree to tell the story of Sameshape and Othershape—lovers, sisters, coconspirators, antagonists, doubles?—while the new Administration looks on, both feeding the informants and censoring their live feed. The resulting contortions, stutters, hallucinations, fight scenes, sex scenes, mise-en-scènes, warblings and appendages, jerk and brim with juissance and glitter with the self-discovery of a true bricoleuse. Gender, genre, national identity, multiple languages, and the body’s “natural” borders are all debased and reworked in this queer, unstable mix, which releases energy as it forms and breaks down and forms again. Welcome to the world of “Kala Pani.” Drink this smoking stuff and live forever. —Joyelle McSweeney 

At the time, of course, I turned them into media sensations. Sameshape & Othershape were unaware of it, but they became ethnic, geographic, and social curiosities for an entire nation. I had just joined a gang of bloggers. We prowled streets and slums, technical handbooks and audience pages, artists’ studios and alternative film clubs, buses and body doubles, city squares and the Commonwealth Games Village, dance shows and the Department of Atomic Energy, environmental groups and the east side of the river, town halls and martyrs’ statues, looking

For signs of urban dystopia. We were rough and restless with cannon and sought relationships that would, historically and comparatively, challenge us. The junkyard was the perfect setting. Ext. Junkyard—Full Moon. Sameshape & Othershape notice the moon. Sameshape tracks how long Othershape stares at the moon. 





The tree, a lusty neem, tried very hard not to eavesdrop on the conversation but it had begun to ferment. Its risk period had ended and it was not going to stand upright anymore. Its leaves, laments, letters, festoons, flags, fingerprints, H1N1 viruses, needles, medicaments, and hair, almost shed. Safety latch, turned on. Though unmarried, the tree took great pride in its appearance. It was trying to safely evolve into another condition. Waiting

Period long. Kind of like a buzzard’s head. Only room for quite alone. A topknot, released in the middle of nowhere. Drunk on feathers & wind. Exhilarated! My tree was so soft it curled around the edges almost collapsing it was a trailing coughing spitting collapsing curling thing. The spittoon brimmed with tree hair & something

That ties us together. Eyes of a camera appeared everywhere. The tree did its best to be a tree fit for a socket or a natural crevice. Somewhere, a topiary for evenly colored birds. Meanwhile, the tree had grown up old listening to peoples’ tales of the young. This tree, this song, I’d first heard her sing. The tree squirmed her ear toward them.
(radio voice)
We have gathered today to celebrate trees with star billing. These trees represent five millennia of humankind’s collective aspirations, and it is but appropriate that we gift them to the museum of the new world. We will lovingly track and displace them and lovingly collect or moisten them. We will love the new world. It is due to the generosity of friends and benefactors that the new government could organize the bureaucracy, the complicity, the compromises, the ideological cooption, the cooperation, the rapacity, and the ethical rationalization necessary for this farsighted program, and to them we will confer appropriate rewards. Our desire is to keep everyone in the new world happy. 

The curators returned with summary catalogues describing 29 or 92 million bittersweet trees. Each catalogue provided not only a compact illustrated listing of the trees, but also brief comments by curators that explained how each tree was proposed to be collected or moistened. These catalogues were ceremonially handed over to the Society for Just Plunder, which launched systematic invasions in which bittersweet trees were hacked, stripped, and stifled. A few trees of monumental significance made it to the back of trucks, gagged and trussed, after the Department of Diplomacy intervened. The museum of the new government waited for the trucks, waist-deep in gelatinous expectation: its own secretions. 

Tree of numinous detail. The last tree in the war. Careworn and chrysanthemum motifs. Lush green panels. Loose-tipped design. In the grand tradition of great trees, this tree hosted a bird’s nest, a snake, and a moon. On the tree there also lived a delicate and rarefied vampire spirit, an expressive ant, and a retired hunter. They ate the elaborate fruit and lived, pretty much as other beings do.

Before long, they became aware of an unexpected kineme. The residents of the tree had not anticipated the possibility of such a kineme. A distance away, dust

Snarled at the feet of millions of squirrel-shaped blubs. Closer and closer, the blubs squeezed themselves into a phalanx of pulped fury. Gliggering eyes; there was not even negative space left.
The consensus of opinion was that the wrist would grow back again. Cynics were growing wary of this whole messy situation where over and over again they had to clean up somebody’s skin, somebody’s bones, somebody’s sleeves, somebody’s vomit, somebody’s tears, somebody’s rage, somebody’s blind spots, et cetera. They rolled away into the night, never to be heard from again. But since we cannot abandon our heroine, since we are in charge of her adventures, that moment of escape when she

Seal breaks. Sealed to a kiss, stolen seal from the medicine cabinet and taped to the inside of her razor. Cut /shield/ bitten /shield/ broken /shield/ trichotillomaniac /shield/ dermatillomaniac /scratch/ /shield/ /shield/. She grew salubrious. 

Othershape sprawled on the regular sofa, her legs spread out before her, love growing cotton in its ears. Mouth open. Really, now. Is that a ladder you are carrying? Climb in next to me. I can hear you hard. Brush-footed. Left with no dining companions, her thought bubbles settled over every

Thing regular. She wore the lentil bean on her head to sleep. When she woke up, the lentil bean was a dream suspended above her head.
(with great fondness)
Lentil bean, leave me with something that can disappear.
(doffing his hat)

Flattered you asked!
(lanky and ergonomic)

Glad to hear about it.
(walking off)

an interview at the Lantern Review Blog
Three Poems by Monica Mody

KALA PANI, published by 1913 Press, is Monica Mody's first book. Mody has published three chapbooks of poetry & cross-genre experiments, and her writing has appeared in The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Boston Review, The Volta, iARTistas, and Paragraphiti, among other places. Mody is a contributor to Montevidayo, and she is currently completing a PhD in East-West Psychology.