Somewhere on the road between Thanjavur and Thiruvarur, on the scorching afternoon of the last day of February, I see them. The women among the rice crops. They are bent over, their fingers among the wet and the growing, only their lower halves visible from behind. The van passes them for only a moment but it is enough. I think about them for days. When a reporter calls shortly after to ask which female personality I would like to be for a day, I think only of them.
Where was it written that I could be this person – an artist, a traveller, a young woman fortunate enough to number among her graces the ability to chronicle her own life?
A guest of the Prakriti Foundation, I’m on a hegira from the city, heavy with sadnesses I can’t quite shake off even for the weekend. But what privilege to be among a small group of erudite aesthetes. To see Darasuram not as a mere tourist collecting photographic evidence of having been there, but with the luck to be with those who look upon every tiny carving with love, see the story in every stone, connect mythology, history, postmodern theory and the practical. To participate in a beautiful private puja in the home of the Senior Prince of Tanjore. To sit down on the dry Cauvery riverbed as someone explains the constellations above, illuminating the links between Orion and Nataraja, between the Southern Cross and Trishanku.
Where was it written that I could have this? Where was it written that I would not be one of them, a woman living somewhere on a sacred trail, tending to rice crops under a merciless sun?
What would my life mean if I had no language for it, if my interior world was the only one I could experience, let alone create? How much richer would it be, stripped of the filter of observation, the casual voraciousness with which I regard my experiences, knowing I can alchemize them into art? There is a point at which you become mercenary about the things you do, the ways you let the damage be done, because it’s inspiring. There is a point at which you justify anything because of the knowledge that you’re Rumpelstiltskin, and your life just straw ripe for the spinning.
I want to know it for a day, yes. A life exposed to the elements, so close to the earth, so far from mine. And on that day I want to forget myself, forget there was ever another way of seeing or being, forget that whatever happens, I possess the power of baptism. I want to know an interior life that cannot be absolved or celebrated in art. I think that, upon return, that day would devastate me. I think it would teach me things I do not have the language to imagine.
Later that evening, after a kutcheri during which the women I’d seen earlier continued to scatter seeds in the arable of my heart, we assembled for dinner under the stars at an old house in Thiruvayarur. We took the opportunity to share simple, impromptu performances. The Dutch musicologist recited what he called a poem for “adult children”.
“I saw two bears smearing honey on bread”, it went. “What a miracle! Ha ha ha he he ho! I saw two bears smearing honey on bread. What a miracle. I was watching them.”
The last line was the cinch, he said. The most magnificent miracle of all was not so much that it happened, but having been able to be there, witnessing it.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.