The Six Poisons
by Dani Shapiro
Issue #69 • January 30, 2006•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Emma is on her third chaturanga dandasana of the morning, hovering in push-up position an inch off the floor, when Guruji and Sanjiv enter the shala. It must be about five-thirty, judging from the thin, gray light seeping through the curtains that separate the shala from the waiting area. It’s already uncomfortably hot. Didn’t the guidebooks say that February in Mysore is usually mild—even chilly? A heat wave has been hanging around for weeks. Just standing in tadasana, sweat pours down the sides of her face, drips off her chin, pools between her breasts.
“Chanting now,” says Guruji. The ten students in the shala stop what they’re doing and come to sit on their mats. Guruji tucks his tree trunk legs into lotus position. His brown belly puffs out, as hard as a turtle’s shell, above his black Calvin Klein briefs. His grandson, Sanjiv, settles next to him and closes his eyes.
“Om astoma sadgamaya,” begins Guruji. Emma knows this chant from her classes in New York. Lead me from the unreal to the real. “Tamasoma jyotirgamaya,” the whole room fills with the sound of the Sanskrit words. From the darkness to the light. The skinny guy next to Emma with the rust-colored dreds rolls his r’s perfectly. He’s a rolfer from Salt Lake City—this, she discovered last night, when a group from yoga student housing went to dinner at Auntie’s.
Dani Shapiro, along with Antonio Sersale and One Story Magazine, started the Sirenland Writers Conference. Her most recent books include Family History (Knopf, 2003) and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion, for which she co-wrote the screenplay, along with her husband, screenwriter Michael Maren, for Sony/Phoenix Pictures and Reese Witherspoon. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. Her books have been translated into seven languages. She lives with her husband and young son in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Her new novel, Black & White, will be published by Knopf in 2007. For more information visit www.danishapiro.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
DS: Two summers ago, my family rented a house in Sag Harbor for a few weeks. On our first day there, I went to a local yoga studio. I was tired, burnt-out—looking to start off my vacation on the right note. And just as I was about to enter class, I ran into someone I really didn’t want to see—someone to whom I hadn’t spoken in a long time. And even as it was happening, I was aware that we were together in this place—with all our roiling emotions-that was supposed to be about peace and healing and non-judgment. The idea for the story began to form there, in that kernel of a moment.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
DS: Finding the voice. I first wrote “The Six Poisons” in the first person, and it didn’t work—Emma came off as surprisingly unsympathetic when the story was in her voice. So I then wrote a draft in the third person, but the whole story felt distanced and cold. It had lost its reason for being. Here is where I would have put it in a drawer for a while so that perhaps I could gain some perspective, but instead I got the flu and was in a delirious, feverish state for several days. It was during those days that the story came together for me. It was as if my illness had allowed me to cut through whatever writerly self-consciousness I had been experiencing and forced me directly to the center of the story.
HT: Do you practice yoga? And have you ever been to Mysore?
DS: I do practice yoga. The time I spent on “The Six Poisons” probably deepened my yoga practice because I unrolled my mat frequently while working on the story to push myself into the pace and mind-set of an intense yogi. I have not been to Mysore, though I know quite a few people—teachers mostly—who have spent time there. I did a lot of research, really immersed myself in the blogs of students and teachers who had written of their experiences there in great detail. I surrounded myself with the atmosphere until I felt confident that I could write from inside of it.
HT: Why did you choose to set the conflict between these two sisters-over, ostensibly, material things-in such a spiritual place?
DS: I was very interested in the idea of seekers—and why they seek. What are they looking for? What are they avoiding? What are they trying to overcome? In all pursuits spiritual or psychological there are, it seems to me, all sorts of paradoxes. These sisters have both been damaged by their family and by the various inequities between the two of them—and while the unfairness of the way the money was left is real, it’s also, at its core, simply the most tangible symbol of that unfairness. Given that they are both seekers, I wanted to put them in an atmosphere so foreign to them in every way—sight, smell, taste, sound—that if ever it would be possible to come to some sort of awareness, it would be there. But it isn’t possible. Mysore can’t help them, yoga can’t help them.
HT: There is an element of falseness woven throughout this story. Guruji wearing Calvin Klein briefs, the tattooed girl with her fake yoga name. Do you think that yoga has been corrupted by commercialism? And why do you think so many people in the West are drawn to it?
DS: I don’t think yoga can be corrupted, though certainly it has been commercialized. Again, I was interested in pardoxes. Guruji may be an esteemed teacher but he’s also a human being who likes nice underwear and who has an ego—as when he gets pissed off that Emma and Rebecca are arguing in the shala. And the girl with the fake yoga name is just trying to carve out an identity for herself. The world of the yoga shala is a world like any other, full of ego and posturing (so to speak) and human frailty. It’s only unique in that we think it shouldn’t be so.
HT: Is the answer to Emma’s search, to find peace within herself, ultimately disengagement? As when she unhooks her chair?
DS: I always had that final image in my head as I was working on the story—the unhooking of the chair. So yes—disengagement. Central to the story is the idea that there are times in life when disengagement isn’t a cop-out, but in fact, is the only reasonable option.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
DS: Four or five months, working on it full-time. As a novelist, it’s the only way I know how to work. To push and push until I find the answers. But if I hadn’t gotten the flu that week, when it finally all came together, it might still be sitting in a drawer. It was a complicated excavation.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
DS: All the advice that I find most useful has to do with process. With maintaining courage and connection to the work in the face of the impossibility of actually ever getting it right. A beloved teacher of mine once said that every novel is a failure—it’s simply a question of how nobly, how beautifully, how well you fail. I try to keep that in mind. John Gregory Dunne once said that there is no such thing as writer’s block—only failure of nerve. I try to keep that in mind as well.
HT: What are you working on now?
DS: I recently finished a first draft of my new novel and am working on revisions. It’s spread out chapter by chapter all over my office floor.