Category Archives: the venus flytrap

A Little News About The Venus Flytrap

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Those of you who read The New Indian Express would have realised by now that the Zeitgeist supplement, in which my column (“The Venus Flytrap”) ran continuously for almost three years, has come to its end.

At the moment, I don’t know what the future of “The Venus Flytrap” might be. I’m very attached to the column and I’m hopeful that this is not the end of the road. This is just a note to thank all of you wonderful people who have read it, shared it, commented, or otherwise been a part of it. I hope you’ll continue to share my journey as I wait to see what’s around the next corner.

The Venus Flytrap: Doing The Sari

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Dresses may come and dresses may go, but there’s nothing like a sari.

This isn’t the story of how I fell in love with a difficult garment. I’ve never struggled with the sari, not the way I struggled with the bindi (which you can see I’ve fully appropriated), not the way I struggled with dark skin or with dark moods, or anything else with a similar gravity, the congenital weight of things beyond one’s choice. No, there was never a time when I thought that the sari was anything but prime plumage. Watching women wind lengths of cloth around themselves was where I learnt the meaning of the word “covet”, the floreo of pleating fingers the thing that must have mesmerized me into dance. There is a photograph of me at about three years old, wearing a miniature approximation in yellow and green, a fake nose-ring, my grandmother’s wig and an aigrette of pink flowers. I am not cute, I am coy, guilefully aware; at this age more so than at any other, the sari’s magical transformative effects on my demeanour are evident. The image is nearly prophetic. Somewhere in my baby brain I had set my sights on what I would grow up to look like, and through tube tops and sundresses, through denim and leather, that was exactly where I wound up arriving. And I was born knowing the sari signified, above all else, arrival.

I fought to wear saris long before anyone thought I was ready for them, just as I had glued a faux diamond to my nostril for a whole year until I was allowed to pierce it at fourteen. In both cases, the redemption was instant: it was plain to see that my vanity did not dwarf me. Vindicated though I was, for a decade, I saved the sari for “special occasions”, motivated in most part by the time it took to drape one, and in some part by wiles: the knowledge that the garment conferred on me what I call deadliness – it (or I) could stop both hearts and traffic. I’m still careful about when I take it out of my arsenal, if only because in love and in war timing is everything, but I’ve also stopped treating it as sacrosanct. I suppose that happens once you discover how much more interesting it is to keep it on, while doing the thing that usually requires taking it all off.

Today I deal with my wardrobe, and by extension the world, with the maxim, “when in doubt, go with the sari”. There are sequin-strapped blouses for when upstaging the bride is the order of the day and demure, high-backed handloom weaves for when a disingenuous innocence needs to be affected. There are gloriously unaffordable inheritance silks, but these come with taboos: call me prudish, but there will be no kinky romps in anything that used to belong to my grandmother. For that: frivolous synthetics that fall easily, cling flirtatiously.

I know for some the sari connotes respect or codes of restriction. But more and more, this is what I suspect about the true nature of the sari’s timelessness. It has survived the ages because depending on the wearer, it may murmur or it may sing, but it always says the same thing: ravish me.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Unsentimental Fool

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Sometime last year, after a lifetime of oversensitivity and a positively medieval sense of the tragic, I thought I had finally become unsentimental. Which meant, in optimistic terms, that my days of weeping in restaurants might finally have been put behind me. I was quite relieved about this. I had spoiled a lot of mascara crying over spilt milk.

I thought I had become unsentimental about, for instance, Leonard Cohen, the artist formerly known as my downfall. So what was I doing at four in the morning, at the end of December, riffling through page after page of Agha Shahid Ali’s collected works to correctly source the poem from which the line that had haunted me all that day had come from – just so I could put it in a letter? And not even a real letter, the kind that sensible people write in order to communicate, but one of those hopelessly twee things I’ve called a postcard: a poem not even sent to its intended, but left in the open (because actual communication would be, you know, too much for the nervous system).

I thought I was over Cohen, but he was in my subliminal impulses, as every thing that ever crosses one’s way becomes. And there I was, having perfectly internalized his mythology, playing it out without a thought.

In any case, I could not find the line anywhere in the book. “I’ve seen how things/ that seek their way find their void instead”. I fell asleep to the realization it wasn’t at all from Ali, but from Federico Garcia Lorca, a hero both of mine and – incidentally – Cohen’s. Fitting, considering that my new year’s resolution is to fully inculcate my complete demonic self, demonic the way Lorca meant it, which is to say – not so much to consume with a mad passion, but to once again also let myself be consumed, be possessed, to stop standing in the way of life, and love, and ferocious intensity.

Which, as you might correctly surmise, might just be a noble way of saying “start crying again in restaurants, if you like”. But it goes a little further than that. What I’ve learnt from my period of emotional austerity is that yes, unsentimentality is a survival mechanism and its opposite (intensity) is a choice – but to choose to live deeply doesn’t mean to choose to live without discretion. Too much contrived emotion only results in not knowing the difference between god and chemical – every sensation inducible, and hence inauthentic.

Maybe you’ll find what I say next more diffident than demonic, but I’ll say it anyway. Today I bought a gramophone, an impulse acquisition, right off the side of a street. An unthinkably romantic purchase if there ever was one, and one I would never have made ever before. I have neither vinyl nor space for décor – and for the longest time, too much drama about anything resembling a symbolic commitment. I have, however, finally found the space in my life again for a little tenderness, a little twinkling; and enough lines in my head, and enough groove in my body, to provide the music and lyrics – but only the kind that comes of its own volition, not the kind that’s just blank noise interfering in a dense, deliciously loaded silence.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Winter

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For one month every year, the city becomes “elsewhere”, which is to say, anywhere but here.

Its famously sweltering conditions become chilly enough to bring out the cashmere shawls, the ponchos, all the warmer selections of one’s collection of clothes for eventual migration (am I the only one who makes no secret of mine?). The fans are voluntarily turned off all day, and particularly at night. Wooden doors swell with rain, refuse to shut, and compromise one’s privacy in a place in which one has very little already. Cyclonic winds waltz with treetops, twirling and twirling, raising goosebumps as if they were fingertips circling on skin. The sun, when we see it, we greet like family.

We put on our sturdiest rubber chappals and pay the monsoon price for autorickshaws, because for once Chennai is too exciting to miss, its excess of activity dismantling every stereotype we know of its lassitude. Once a year, there is everything to do, and too few days to do it in. It’s the season of being spoilt for choice, of shows and showing off, of cultural pursuit becoming a matter of daily routine. You can almost hear the crackle of newspapers dating to February being removed from those sarees, starched and saved for the season. Time compresses: we who are so used to a city that never wakes up find that there aren’t enough hours in the day to rest. It expands too: we drink our fill of lectures and performances, the classic, the avant-garde, the homegrown and the foreign – like students who only crack their textbooks open just before a final exam, we absorb in weeks what could have been spread over a year. And most elegantly, time stands still – every sabha in the city thronging with that generation of women who wear a floret of diamonds in each nostril, and a pavé of roses coiled into white hair.

All this romance, sprung entirely from this decidedly tender climate. “Baby-making weather,” a friend winks. It must be true. One of the sharpest images this city has seared in my mind is of the man and the woman I saw one night as I walked a bridge across the Cooum. They were under a piece of cloth, which he was gently tucking over her with one hand, stroking her cheek with the other.

Chennai in the winter becomes a city whose exits shift into sight: its weather and its bustle both insinuate other places, windows into other worlds. But there are those who have neither doors nor windows, whose city it is much more than yours or mine, and for whom its year-end guise is not the same one we experience. I’ve spent a lot of time this winter wondering and worrying about them, those who make their homes on the pavements and the beach. My bad throat and muddy shoes are bourgeois trifles beside their concerns. So this year, some items of that pile of clothing for eventual migration have found their use. As have curtains and blankets in surplus in my household. In giving them away to assuage the coldness in someone else’s bones, I’ve found that, in my comforters and comforts, the thing that lets me sleep soundest is the sense of having done something useful. It keeps me as warm as a hug.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Forbidden Fruit

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This morning, I woke up humming, absolutely arbitrarily, the refrain “movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches; movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches”. It took a few moments to remember that this is the opening lyric of a song from the mid-90’s – and when I recalled that it was by a band named PUSA (Presidents of the USA) and made the obvious phonetic association, my day began in an auspiciously giggly mood.

If you miss my gist entirely, I can only direct you to T.S. Eliot, whose existentially-ailing J. Alfred Prufrock rued his lack of luck with women and pondered, “Do I dare eat a peach?” Though of course, peaches aren’t for all of us. This brings to mind the cat’s pyjamas of suburban legends I’ve heard about people who really, really love their fruits and veggies (and this is a genre in itself – let’s call it pulp fiction). This one’s set in one of those histrionically chauvinistic universities, in which male and female students are segregated to a degree that suggests that whatever’s in the water in those campuses must be so lushly virile that even the boys risk pregnancy.

That the young woman in this apocryphal tale took a liking to bananas will sound just like any hostel story you might already know involving carrots, cucumbers or – I wince at the thought – corn on the cob (of the venerable and trusty lady’s finger, one never hears). That a banana took too much of a liking to her, became stuck, and went rotten over the course of several days will also remind you of all the wickedly hilarious medical emergencies these stories always seem to end up in. But the really juicy part? It seems that ever since this unfortunate incident, bananas in the women’s canteen of this institution are only served chopped. The men’s canteen continues to serve them whole. Boys, apparently, don’t like bananas. No word, however, on how apple pies are served.

I mean, you’ve got to wonder: why are all these sex-crazed orchard-marauders always girls?

If these stories have any truth in them, I think it’s fantastic that these girls have sexual agency even within such repressed environments (though the effects on their physical and emotional health are a concern). I don’t see a cause for shame in the least. In fact, I feel a little sorry for the boys who are expected to be ripe with lust, and whose escapades lack the extra succulence that all fruit that is forbidden has.

And there isn’t that much that is forbidden to the heterosexual male in our society, or for which he is judged.

I hope this isn’t going to influence anyone impressionable into expressing his raw longing with pineapples, mingling seed with melons, or channeling his desperation into dates with dates. Though if it does, and a proctologist and an institutional policy change get involved, I’d hope it makes its way into the rich archive of similar rumoured romances.

Still, I’ll say this: if raiding (or raping) the grocery store is only a temporary means, there is one thing in particular one can practice on. It’s the straight man’s (and zigzaggy lady’s) only known permanent cure for desperation. The question is: do you dare eat a peach?

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.

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard, For You

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When was the last time that the most urgent of my hopes was only that there will be bitter gourd for lunch? Because I am eating alone today, the meal is slow to come, and so I sit on the porch and look at the pepper-vined trees and ponder this until it does. There was no rain in the morning, and so the shrine visit – my most urgent hope otherwise – has been completed. It will be days before I have to think of anything else. It has been years since I have thought of nothing at all.

The food is ready. I’m disappointed – no batter-fried bitter gourd, my favourite, but there are long beans, to which I am allergic. Still, when I’m serving myself in the thatch-roofed hall, a downpour begins, and so I eat as slowly as I can, watching the earth become muddy, knowing that the sunken courtyard in the red house will fill a few inches, but dissipate by the time I return. I am here to fill my own well – but more than that, just to cleanse it, wash away all that was accumulated from everywhere but here.

So this is where I come to escape. At night, owls cry and a mad rooster from the poultry farm next door raises a ruckus. During the day, sunlight laces through leaves susurrous in the wind, and because the eight dogs know me well, I walk without fear. I find starfruit and mangosteen on the ground: echoes of my South East Asian childhood in the soil of South India. Corn grows nearby: a new experiment. There is a pool, another new thing, in which my friend threatens to skinnydip. I have a view from my window.

The memory of this place takes me a long way. I contain it the way some creatures contain water, subsisting on their interior resources long after their landscape has betrayed them.

Nearly everything I have written in the two years since I first began coming here has been a postcard – meant for one person, but sealed from no one’s eyes. But, dear reader, this is my week without letters. It is only for you that I reconnect to civilization at all. I intend to write nothing else, although tonight, in the town, I will read my poems to a few people. When I read them to my friend on the roof of this house a few evenings ago, I had looked up to see a faint rainbow in the west. I who have been led so wary by omens accepted it without suspicion.

And because it is you who is my intended now, I have wondered for days what to say to you. What can I tell you of the beauty of these present things, for which no description suffices? Snippets of conversation, an understated happiness that cannot really be imparted, of what use is all of this to you? Here, where I do not have to be who I am supposed to be, because I can be who I am, think of me today not as a witness but a well-wisher: wishing for you the same, a place so generous with its grace you can carry it back to wherever it is you must be, a deep source, a sweet scar.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Flower Power Party Guide

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Everybody knows that spouses come to resemble each other, and if you’ve ever been bored on the Internet you’ve probably also seen that animals and the people who keep them share some similarities (or perhaps just a hairdresser). One expert usefully asserted that you could spot a hound owner from a mile away because they “look very doggy”.

But for company that neither vocalizes nor poops, you can’t go wrong with plants – and I have a feeling there’s a kind of foliage just for you. Recently, nodding obsequiously through a particularly boring conversation, I spaced out and thought of how the whiskers this woman was sprouting, elegant and sporadic as they were, were not unlike the bristles of a black bat flower.

Rewarded with a great solo party trick after years of deep poetic thoughts about trees and flowers, I suddenly enjoyed looking around the room. There were the clusters of weeds, the sycophants, all different variants: pretty and harmless dandelions, downright irksome poison ivy, and the honestly rather useful St. John’s wort and cannabis. The last one might have been more than a metaphorical sighting. Not that I could tell.

And that one over there – she surely grows bonsai; her soul itself seems corseted in a trellis. A little sad, a little less interesting than the bougainvillea and the pepper vines snaking their papery petals and heart-shaped leaves along the lengths of supportive spines. Not quite sycophants, those, just Sitas.

Hello, night-blooming cereus – why are you never as fun during the day? And over there’s a teetotaler, but you can’t be condescending to a Rose of Jericho, not when his sense of humour is even drier than his drought.

The cacti are actually a lot of fun: they’re a little prickly at first, but they really know how to hold their liquids. Anyone who vomits qualifies as a corpse flower, but only if they’re within smelling distance (otherwise, they may just be a different sort of plant entirely: the factory kind). Speaking of which – it’s also much easier to ignore the inebriated idiot taking off his shirt if you think of him as a deciduous tree.

Thankfully, though, there are other kinds: the banyan around whom the party inevitably congregates, the resilient olives (sometimes symbolically holding martinis) and maybe an ancient bristlecone pine or sequoia, still living it up and sharing everything they’ve seen along the way.

Including perhaps – through we’ll try not to stare – the cute little hothouse flower accidentally flashing her Georgia O’Keefe. A blush of shy mimosa pudicae, meanwhile, curl up and hide for shame.

I don’t know about you, but I always start the evening off as a narcissus. Vanity trumps misanthropy every time. Before the bloom wears off the rose, though, I’m preening with the lot of them. Sometimes I even get mistaken for celebrity flora, the kind mentioned in holy texts for example: sagacious bodhi trees and Lebanon cedars. I’m able to hang around only so long as they don’t realize that my own superstar qualities are fictional, and then I’m booted out along with the Faraway Tree and the Two Trees of Valinor.

And then there I’ll be, sulking and swilling something in the corner (and you know what my ultimate totem plant would have to be): trap-shut, thorny, digesting my findings.

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.