Author Archives: Sharanya Manivannan

The Venus Flytrap: A Neem Tree For A Neighbour

Standard

My closest neighbour is a neem tree, and she rests her lovely-leafed branches on the glass of the window by my reading nook. This is not a forever home, but for the little while that I’m here, it’s where I plan to spend many hours. Sun slanting on the greenery, on my skin, on the pages I’m holding. This, to me, is luxury. And have you noticed over the past year or so how kuyil songs are more frequently heard around the city centre? I hear them all day now. Something is shifting towards kindness and vitality, in a way that maybe will touch us too in our conurbations, our attempted civilisations, our many cages. I hope it touches me in mine, and I strive to reach for it every day – something resembling belonging. Here in this nook, I watch as squirrels run up the branches and along the windowsill. Ours is, I think, an undemanding co-existence.

Of course, I know they are rodents. And certainly, I know that prettiness alone shouldn’t be trusted. After all, one of the most famous squirrels ever (not counting the sabre-toothed Scrat in the Ice Age films) is the vicious Ratatosk, who scampers up and down the span of the great world tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil. He tells the dragon chewing at the roots what the eagle in the high branches allegedly said; and then passes another falsehood to the eagle.

But I am lucky: I speak to my neighbour the neem tree directly. And sometimes in the evenings I go downstairs and circle her, caressing low-hanging leaves with my fingertips. I have a feeling that she is a tree who is good at absorbing tears.

I don’t need a squirrel messenger. In fact, I don’t need anything from the squirrels, and so I prefer another tale about them: about how the Indian palm squirrel got its stripes after being gently stroked by Rama in a gesture of gratitude. It’s a small story about tenderness within a large story mostly about the ego, and more than the story itself, it’s the memory of my father’s narration of it in my childhood that I cherish.

I was intrigued to learn that North American cookbooks, including the iconic Joy of Cooking, featured squirrel meat even up to the cusp of the millennium, with dishes such as Brunswick stew and fricassee. As recently as a decade ago, the UK’s The Guardiancalled it the “ultimate ethical” meat, as a free-range, low-fat, locally-sourced and apparently quite tasty alternate to other kinds. Locavores in the West aside, species of squirrels both small (such as the orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel) and large (such as the Malayan giant squirrel) are traditionally eaten in different parts of India. Perhaps this mix of inspirations was what made London-based chef Rakesh Nair come up with a “Rajasthani spiced grey squirrel” for Jamie Oliver.

I’m never eating these squirrels at my window, of course. They give me so much more food for thought than they could give my stomach nourishment. “Hello Aniloo,” I coo (this is my name for all squirrels). “Are you visiting me – or am I visiting you?”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Packing A Pestle

Standard

I was meant to travel so much this year. I was supposed to see many vistas, bring back myriad stories, and have at least a few experiences that would make me suddenly smile at their memory. Instead, I’ve been rendered out of commission with a string of demands, reversals and blockages on the personal front. So when something turned up in my inbox to which I didn’t have to say No, I think I’d gotten so used to hearing or saying the word that I reached for an excuse. And then, the deeper part of me – the one that is frustrated and yearns – told me not to be silly. I could just pack a mortar and pestle into my luggage, and go.

I’m on a course of traditional medicine that requires me to pulverize fresh herbs every day, hence this unusual travel need. The ferocious Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore did the same: using the kitchen appliance as her flying vehicle, in fact. I could picture myself sitting in a mortar like it was a boat, rowing with the pestle and arriving very late to my appointments but pleasingly dramatically. It would give my broomstick a rest, too.

We take objects of the everyday for granted until we’re at a loss. The most obvious of these is the toilet, the #1 impediment for women travelers. Somewhat less indispensably: scissors, tampons, charger cords, a sharpener for your kohl – you’ve probably been in a situation in which you’re positively desperate for something you barely glance at in your cabinets at home. Why, even the lack of saline solution can prevent a short-sighted person from being spontaneous sometimes. On a long trip once, I had been so moody while packing that I hadn’t bother to bring shampoo; and found myself not only at hotels that mysteriously had no such mini-bottles, but also with an unexpectedly charming travel companion and profound regret that my hair smelled more like grease than like Sri Lankan ginger.

But I’ve never had to carry a mortar and pestle anywhere before, and my new need made me consider the familiar implement, and its relations, with a fresh regard. Culturally speaking, these appliances have always been known to be worth their (quite literal) weight. The Mesoamerican molcajete was a part of the burials of people of elite status. A related kitchen implement, the larger two-part stone grinder known in Tamil as the ammi kal and in Odia as the sila puua, is used in wedding and other festive ceremonies. It has such an intuitive design and function that people as far away as the Andes have also used it for centuries, where it is known as the batán and uña. Quern-stones have also been admired for their beauty, as in ceremonial metates of Costa Rica which had elegant bird and animal shapes, or were associated with legends, such as in the British isles, where mill-stones were repurposed as tombstones.

The sensible thing to do, though, is to just pack a plastic juicer instead. It would weigh so much less and make my medicine just fine. But it wouldn’t be quite so evocative, would it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: I Want To See People Kissing On The Streets

Standard

I want to see people kissing in the streets.

Impulsively. Without stopping to check all sides for traffic. Without waiting for the light to change. Without nervousness. Without fear.

I want to see people kissing in the streets, kissing as slowly as dust motes in a slab of sunlight. As slowly as water leaking from an air-conditioner into a bucket on the side of a building with balconies on which other people also kiss (and kiss) – as though kisses, like plants, need bright light and open air and time to grow.

Languidly. Without wanting to be invisible. Kissing instead of speaking with the eyes.  Kissing without having to keep it briefer than a blink, so infinitesimal that even the kissers can’t be sure it happened later, licking their lips to try and remember. Kissing and disappearing into pedestrian crowds, only to turn around and come back for another one, to linger sweetly on the lips in a smile for the separate journeys home.

Kissing even though the breeze is immodest with their dresses, because no one will break stride to shame them, or stare too long, or try to destroy them. Kissing with their eyes closed tight, because there is no need to be vigilant. Kissing with their eyes wide open to the possibilities of a better world.

Kissing passionately. Or tenderly.

Kissing because they want to. Kissing because they can. Kissing because they forgot – even if only in the way that a kiss can contain and keep out the world at once – a time when they could not. When kisses had to be acts of subterfuge, when moments had to be stolen, when whole lives had to be operations of secrets and silences, and sometimes even lies.

There are rainbows everywhere – have you seen them? And we’ve no need to speak in codes anymore, but what would rambling through these streets be if we couldn’t pause to enjoy a metaphor? (And a kiss fills a pause like no words can).

There are still so many who cannot cross that street – let alone kiss there – without danger, even loss of life. Still so many loves that are not equal. Still so many who must draw the curtains, even though the walls are always thin – except when someone being battered is screaming. Still so many violations, upheld by the bed of the law or protected by the umbrella of society.

But let’s begin. I want to see them – whoever they are – be who they are. Kissing, with abandon, in the streets. I hope that one day we won’t be voyeurs anymore, won’t be stunned (even with joy) at the sight. Because love will be something we take pride in, and we’ll celebrate it by simply letting it be.

Because the human heart, homed in the hot-blooded human body, is ancient and dependable. The law, in comparison, is capricious. It speaks, sometimes poorly, only for a time. I want to see people kissing in the streets now, because here we are in an era – and may it last forever – when the language of the law has finally begun to speak with love’s own mouth, love’s own tongue.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 13th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

 

The Venus Flytrap: Losing A Museum

Standard

Brazil’s national museum was only 200 years old, but contained within it were artifacts aged millennia, like the 11,500 year old female skull nicknamed Luzia. Or even millions of years: like the fossils of a maxakalisaurus, a vegetarian dinosaur. The base on which its reconstructed skeleton stood had been termite-ridden. The under-resourced museum had been forced to crowdfund the repair, reopening the exhibit only in July. But now the entire museum has gone up in flames, along with most of its 20 million artifacts. Some mollusk specimens were saved; the fireproof Bendegó meteorite is intact (perhaps other salvages will be revealed in the coming days) – but what of the frescoes from Pompeii (which survived that inferno, 20 centuries ago)? In the aftermath of the fire, the blame is squarely being pointed on the lack of governmental funding.

Neglect is one way to erase, equally tragic as when the erasure is intentional. The destroying of heritage objects and institutions is a tactic of both power and terror. History is a long list of such acts of cultural genocide, through the annihilation of libraries, museums and monuments. To erase record is to first muddy then suppress memory.

And then there is pillage, which is unquestionably wrong, but sometimes reveals itself retrospectively as fortunate. The entirety of the British Museum, for instance. The first time I went, I fell in love. The last time, I made it minutes before closing time, wanting only to see again the Mesopotamian terracotta relief called The Queen of the Night.

Panting, rushing through those majestic halls, refusing all other possibilities of beauty that might distract, I arrived before that taloned one, who may be Inanna or her shadow, Erishkigal, or the Semitic Lilitu. I briefly touched my palms to the glass. Menstruating, heart pounding, desperately grateful, what came to me in that intense moment was a Durga mantra. A Tamil woman intoning Sanskrit syllables inside her heart, gazing at an Iraqi goddess, in a monument that is at once a paean to human experience and itself a dark remnant of human cruelty. I was there because I had the paperwork that allowed the visit. I was also there because, remarkably, I existed still.

No, it is incomplete to say that it was only paperwork that had given me passage. I had come at the invitation of a body connected to the same monarchy that enacted on the world a colonisation it cannot recover from, can only incorporate into its being. I stood there in England and said grace, this is true, but it’s also true that arriving and departing contained more complicated thoughts. The great Gloria Anzaldúa describes a similar moment in one of her essays: “What does it mean to me esta jotita, this queer Chicana, this mexicatejana to enter a museum and look at indigenous objects that were once used by my ancestors? Will I find my historical Indian identity here, along with its mestisaje lineage?”

To lose is a tragedy, to steal is a travesty, to survive is bittersweet. A museum can contain the world. And each visitor carries her own: ashes, remnants, inheritances, loans, and certain indestructible materials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 6th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Depression-Curing Boyfriends On Hire

Standard

On Independence Day, Mumbai-based entrepreneur Kaushall Prakash launched an app called Rent A Boy|Friend, through which one can employ male company for brief periods. The line in their name between Boy and Friend is deliberate, suggesting the demarcation between physical engagement and what the app’s Instagram bio calls “Pure Friendship”. Physical intimacy and meeting in private locations are supposed to be prohibited on it. Intriguingly, the app states that its aim is to “eradicate depression”. The men whose company can be hired are expected to provide emotional support, not just attend functions or share meals with the customer.

Understandably but unfairly, this aim has been met with mockery in certain sections of the media. Reactions often fixate, in typically classist and conservative ways, on how the educational prerequisite for the gentlemen one can meet through the app is 10thor 12thstandard graduation. As though PhD holders are more likely to be thoughtful, sympathetic or have good listening and guidance skills (tell that to the erudite men on The List of Sexual Harassers in Academia).

While I’m in no hurry to give Rent A Boy|Friend a certificate of good intentions, there’s definitely something being added here to the conversation on depression, loneliness and the need for companionship. For the first time in India, an app connecting people on a personal level explicitly forefronts these issues instead of using oblique terminology about marriage or relationships. The app’s concept is not new abroad: in China, hundreds of services provide “fake boyfriends” whose time can be bought to take home to meet the family on holidays, or even for just a couple of hours to hang out with at the mall; a website called Invisible Boyfriend lets you co-create text message conversations as though you’re in a relationship; Japan’s kyabakura culture offers non-sexual, romantic company at clubs.

Rent A Boy|Friend only provides the company of men (for men and women alike). While the founder’s reason for this – “Rent-a-girlfriend sounds weird in India but it’s okay abroad.” – is a bit insubstantial, if the service’s condition that sexual contact is not allowed is true, it doesn’t in itself sound sexist to me. There’s an argument to be made that neither dating nor sex work are guaranteed to be safe or respectful for women in India at this time. As one of many women who downloaded then deleted Tinder, an app meant unambiguously for dating and hookups, I can only imagine how much worse the harassment, entitlement and abuse would be when the power dynamic involves a financial transaction.

As gimmicky or even shady as it may seem at first glance, tell any honest person who dates men in India about such an app and she’ll be curious – not interested enough to try it, probably, but certainly interested in the concept. Obviously, a “rented” boyfriend isn’t going to fix one’s mental health or loneliness. But naming the issues puts emotions, not only life goals or sexual availability, at the centre. No matter what our gender or orientation, and regardless of whether we think an app can fulfil our longings, that’s a change in perspective that would benefit us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 30th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Goddess Menstruates

Standard

While so many are galvanizing resources for flood-wrecked Kerala, Kodagu and other parts of South India, a leisurely lot have been spending time and energy spreading the information that the natural disaster (even if not, technically speaking, a national disaster) has been because of the wrath of God. Specifically, that the Supreme Court case on permitting women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats of Kerala has invited the deluge.

For some reason, this often gets conflated into “menstruating women”, as though the Supreme Court has specifically opened the temple to women who are literally having their periods. It’s worth remembering that the exclusion of women was brought into law by the Kerala High Court only in 1991. Prior to that, women generally did not participate due to tradition, enforced by conditioning but not by law.

Does Ayyappan forbid the presence of fertile women? That isn’t for me to decide. But the misnomer “menstruating women” calls to mind exactly that image, and myths around the same. We could begin with Parvati of Chengannur in Alappuzha district, one of the worst hit in these floods. Originally built in 300 AD, the clothes of the goddess here are checked every morning for blood stains. When they are found, the idol is shifted to private quarters for the duration of her period, during which the temple also remains closed. Menstrual seclusion is a part of this temple’s ethos, as it is in most (but not all, though of this I will not speak indiscreetly). Can ritual observation be read as honouring the feminine body, or only as disdain?

Cultures around the world have traditionally regarded menstrual blood as either polluting, or possessing a power that can be used for any means and therefore best avoided, an idea so nuanced that it unfortunately creates taboos. The elaborate and beautiful, though equally violent, Mayan myth of the lunar goddess Po is one example: discovered by her father to have taken a lover, Po is killed, her menstrual blood stored in thirteen jars that contain both evil and healing. The last one contains her essence, and she is reborn.

Myths of unequivocal celebration are rare, like the one about the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, who created humankind through loam and her own menses. Surely, in the rich folklores of the world, far more tales have been created: whispered in menstrual huts, at the thresholds of forbidden kitchens, in factories where women without union benefits pack unaffordable hygiene products for other women. There are no experiences that don’t find themselves woven into stories.

Which brings us finally to the most legendary of them all: the temple in Guwahati where Kamakhya is worshipped in the form of a stone yoni that is kept perennially moistened by a natural spring. Each year, she is said to menstruate during the Ambubachi Mela, coinciding with the June monsoon. Is this celebration? Of the feminine principle, certainly. But I’ve still not heard even one menstruation story that’s simply about normalization. “And then the goddess paused for a while, and drank some tea, and pondered the merits of banana fibre pads over moon cups…”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 23rd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: An Honest And Heartfelt Feast

Standard

If I’m going to give you a recipe that contains this much love, then I must also tell you the truth about why I learned it. On a rainy day in Colombo once, someone reached across a table and tore my heart up – with visible pleasure, and very little thought. Like a piece of tissue paper. I picked up the shreds and took them back home with me, or more accurately, to the flat in that city in which no one lives except a caretaker who is, in all senses but one, family. The caretaker, my Rasi Maama, had already made lunch.

It waited, simmering within clay pots on a stove that’s too low for him, but perfect for me. It had been my grandmother’s kitchen, made to her height, which is exactly how small I stand. I sat down to eat, but became overwhelmed by sobs because of the bruising that morning had contained. I couldn’t tell any of them why I was so uncontrollably crying, and so I settled for a loving lie: that Rasi Maama’s raal vullakari tasted exactly like Ammamma’s, and it had been so many years since I had eaten hers.

Say it with me, in my dialect: raal, not yeraal. Prawns. Vulla, not vela. White. Kari, you know. Prawns in a coconut milk curry, with eggplant cooked until softened to a tender green colour. There was nothing else to do that day, having wept and having eaten, than to learn how to cook it from him. My uncle-if-not-by-blood who had learned how to cook from my grandmother, beloved.

Dice two eggplants, and soak the slices in water with rock salt. Remember what is said about rock salt: that it contains the cure for everything from over-empathy to the evil eye. More importantly, in vegetables at least, it removes bitterness and germs. Rinse the slices and put them into the pot they will be cooked in. Clay pots make everything taste better, and remind you of the earth, of the grounding you need. Add to the pot: a sliced onion, four small green chillies, turmeric and salt. Keep the stove unlit.

Milk the flesh of one coconut. Keep the first, full milk aside (it will be added last), and milk it again once or twice. Add this milk to the pot. Clean and de-shell the prawns, and put them in too.

Cover the pot. Let it cook now for twenty minutes. Check the texture of the eggplant. It will have softened, and turned green. The prawns will have shrunk to half their size. When the liquid in the pot has reduced, add the coconut’s first milk, set aside earlier. Bring this to a boil too. Switch off the stove.

Cover the pot, and then wait for someone to come home with whom you can share it. Make rice as you wait. If there is no one to wait for – but you find yourself always waiting, somehow, don’t you? – then wait until the tears stop. Never cry as you eat, for you will choke. (Yes, that’s in the recipe). I give it to you, this inheritance, this honest and heartfelt feast.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 16th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.