Once when I was still intrepid in the ways in which I ventured in the world, I sat on the leaf-carpeted floor of a forest at sunfall and ate a piece of honeycomb. It had been cut fresh from a hive I had watched drop from the overhang of a cliff, unstuck by a spear held by a traditional honeygatherer swinging on a rope ladder. I lifted the leaf on which this piece of honeycomb was given to me and tasted it. And, with surprise, I learnt that wild honey from the flower of the jamun plant is bitter.
Medicinal bitterness, the healing bitterness of herbs. We eat them because we trust that there would be no other reason to. Not taste, not pleasure. The human heart – though often identified by its virtues first, of sweetness and strength – is capable of a kind of bitterness that consumes itself. I have pondered this bitterness of late, because is it also the thing I most fear, the thing I recognised very early in others as something I should guard for in myself. And these days, I look at my face in the mirror and I see a hardness that would not be there were it not for things I can name precisely. And it’s in that naming that my bitterness is rooted, but in naming this I hope to avert its hold.
I asked a counsellor I know, outside of her office hours, what she would tell a person who feared bitterness in themselves. No – I used more dramatic terms – “What is the cure for bitterness?” I asked, because what she said was, “There’s no such thing as a cure for bitterness.”
And then I said – “Maybe not enough people name it in themselves. They call it unhappiness or disappointment or rage. But imagine if we saw it as something we too are prone to, capable of, and addressed it as we would any other toxic feeling?”
She told me she would have to consider it. I did too. I went back to Rumi in prayer: “Make me sweet again, fragrant and fresh and wild, and thankful for any small gesture.”
Could the remedy for bitterness be in thankfulness? I reach hungrily for that possibility then realise immediately that it is not in the kind of comparative gratitude many practise in lieu of the real thing. The comparative gratitude that teaches children to be appreciative they have food when others don’t, and adults to be appreciative that they are privileged without allowing the playing field to be equalised. That’s not being grateful for having what you have; it’s being grateful for having what another doesn’t, which makes it a kind of greed. Vigilance to avert loss can lead to bitterness too.
I have kept vigil against bitterness and that vigil itself has exhausted me, drained me of both love and sorrow and left only an amaroidal aftertaste. I remember jamun-flower honey and turn it over in my mind: how its essence, although so deeply tinged, was sweet. Healing bitterness. Perhaps the cure for I seek is ironic: not in letting go, but in holding true, never forgetting.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 22nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.