The smashing spectacle of Bollywood, the feminine grotesque of Gurlesque mashed with the colors and sounds of sci-fi and fantasy comics—all these obsessions assemble in Vidhu Aggarwal’s electric debut poetry collection, The Trouble with Humpadori (The Great Indian Poetry Collective Press, 2016). Aggarwal’s poetic range includes text art, sound, video and live performance. Aggarwal, both an artist and Professor of Postcolonial/Transnational Studies, surely embodies a new kind of artist-scholar. In her book, Aggarwal creates the interstellar character Humapadori (“Hump” for short) who acts as a messenger for extraterrestrial beings, a medium sent down from the cosmos. Move over Ziggy Stardust. It’s time for Humpadori’s time to occupy the international stage.
Aggarwal’s poetic music is sonic heavy with wide visual caesuras, highlighting both the severity and elongation of sound that neither leans towards consonance or dissonance. It celebrates hard and soft volumes juxtaposed by long dense lines and spontaneous breaks, giving way for the submersion of the “primal emollient” which she dubs Humpadori. Through the orgasmic enigma of Hump, Aggarwal pries open a portal’s tight lid with a post-colonial feminist voice infused in intergalactic jargon and fantastical description. Hump emerges regaled in high-flash-drama, oozing otherworldly gestures. Hump is lead spectacle, a performer by birth, a deity of post-colonial theatre, yet also seemingly terrestrial. As seen in “Umbilical Cord Friend,” Aggarwal expresses Hump’s existence within the metaphysical coil of our deepest desires and repulsions:
“peep and spore. A door opens—
Hottentot, Venus with fur. It’s almost
You can always be more than you are—
since you’re more
than you want to be.”
In the book’s introduction, we immediately encounter clues to Hump’s complicated make-up (i.e., “definition of humpadori: a performing cosmic deformity, singular/and or plural, male and/or female, taking on the shape of damaged icons and global commodities.”) With unapologetic performativity, The Trouble with Humpadori confronts the traumas of colonialism, imperialism, classism, sexism and fetishization, excavating these powers specifically on and through South Asian/South Asian American cultures, identities and bodies. In tandem, Aggarwal fiercely resists these forces, transforming pain into a boisterous phoenix of agency, liberation, and non-conforming beauty. She wields this sort of intransigence through the satirical voice and style of Humpadori, who straddles between worldly and heavenly spaces with a body that possesses high fluidity and non-complying attributes toward class, gender or sexual expression, such as in the poem “Soap Friend”:
Remember: the emulsion of alienation is luxurious, friend. I feel it all the time.
I am painful:
.0004 percent parts unknown—
one hundred percent glide. I’m so over myself
as a form of spiritual butter
violent and intentional,
an a-ok style hurricane force,
fomenting at the mouth of the host.
Thus, Hump—who is both gender non-conforming and diasporic—embodies that range of undefined qualities, switching at any instant between the powerful or the submissive, the handsome or the disfigured. Indeed, Hump cleverly inhabits the realm of contradiction, knows how to perform the ubiquitous role of trickster, soothsayer, whore, or any being on societal fringes enlightened by the struggle of oppression.
In poems like “White Tail,” Aggarwal shows how these tropes specialize in the survival mechanisms of disguise and code-switching that exists within the tangles of class and culture.
white tail joining black tongue.
An ouroboros gizmo, our HUMP
levitating, humiliated like some ancient temple of doom.
Crowds wonder: will he talk of the revolution? Berate us? Be our robo-
HUMP speaks white
out of politeness—channeling the guru
all crystal and
but the under-soma creeps out of him
a vindictive, jubilant, gyre-crazy fuse.
Hump proves that the elusive body is also the queer body, the brown body, the feminine body, the poor body, the Third World body materializing into a transnational hybrid of the conqueror and the resistance. Take the broken-but-unbreakable mixtape of “Psychoanalyst’s Couch”:
My symptom is history. If I dig
far enough into myself, I can sniff out 1842, like an old shoe—a giant
plum in my pudding. And now you’ve sunk
in, too, a moldy odalisque,
yet another voluptuous stain!
But I am a beast more comfortable with millennia, a time before and after
I can get there,
I can get through
my gutless air and ancestry
However, Aggarwal’s most impressive and distinctive use of irony in performance is when poems unpeel the tender intersectionality between India’s famed Bollywood and North America’s Black Minstrel shows. These strategic moves reveal how burlesque pantomime and exaggerated cinema glamour can flat-line and blur dimensions of race and ethnicity, bringing into focus racial/cultural caricatures based on harsh stereotypes, and exposing the rigid taxonomy of colonization and dominance of the white gaze in the arts. In “Lion Tamer,” Hump states:
I’ve forgone the white and hat—mere circus accouterments
a stripped down version of you:
a naked junglee girl, another jungle head
guiding a drugged up beast…
See my darling leap
into a fiery ring!
Take your place
in the circle
of our imperfect Jungle Book.
Hump’s performance does the political labor of embodying and reclaiming the junglee girl (junglee, Hindi slang, Sanskrit and English hybrid) as well as referencing Rudyard Kipling, author of The White Man’s Burden and the famed Jungle Book. The unpinnable Hump does not stop there. They transform to Raj Kapoor in “Hump Enters the World of Spectacle,” and in “Tar Baby” describes themselves as:
tacky mixture of
of black wool and molasses.
Always willing to lump himself in with you.
He’s a natural lumper.
He’s had tons of practice.
Just as the racist caricatures Brother Tambo and Brother Bones sat on the fringes of a stage waiting for the master of ceremonies in minstrelsy, Mr. Interlocutor, to signal commencement, so does The Trouble with Humpadori as Hump reappears in intermission. Like the candy butcher in a vaudeville show, Hump makes a stage appearance within each new section, in dialogue with the Interlocutor. Hump relocates and retransmits us to an old scenario inside a new monstrous body, to a queered diasporic dreamscape with bedazzled migratory footprints, to a parallel universe already existing in the nodes of our historical nooks. You’ll want Hump on your side too—wingman, dance partner, goddess, savior, soldier, pop star, best friend, healer, holy wafer…
Angela Peñaredondo is a Pilipinx/Pin@y poet, artist and author of the book, All Things Lose Thousands of Times (Inlandia Institute, winner of the Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize) and the chapbook, Maroon (Jamii Publications). Peñaredondo’s