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The Venus Flytrap: Carrying

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In her natural habitat of the Pacific Northwest, an orca that whale researchers have named Tahlequah swims, carrying the corpse of her newborn with her. The calf died shortly after birth, but its mother has carried it with her for over ten days. She keeps it afloat on her nose, pushes it with her head. Tahlequah’s family, her pod, take turns to carry the calf when she cannot. The lost baby was their first birth in three years, rare and precious among their disappearing species. They are grieving. Tahlequah would have gestated the calf for seventeen months.

I lost my grandmother one October, and the month ever since has had a pall around it. One year as the anniversary approached, I made vague plans to tattoo the opening lines of an e.e. cummings poem I connect to her on my forearm: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in/ my heart)”. Commitment is not something I’m careless with, so I cautiously decided that I’d wait and see if I still wanted it the following year. But that month has often been precipitated by other difficult events, landing in my calendar the way one always seems to fall on one’s bad knee. And so it was that when the next October came my heart was something that seeped. Like a sieve, it could not hold much at all, even if it still carried my grandmother in its shards.

I’ve begun the hard work of putting that heart back together, because it never quite recovered from that particular devastation. A part of this work is dialogue. There were three people, other than me, involved in that fall. I met the only one of them I think I can still trust, and we wept and exchanged notes. We’d carried different stories with us during the interim years. But more love than the other knew, too. She said: “I’d wondered if you’d ever write about me”. I said: “It would have been something horrible.” Tell me, teach me, how to live with all the love and loss in the answer that came: “But I’d have known you were thinking of me.”

The word “carrying” evokes a very specific memory for me. A couple of years ago, I hailed an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic, and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle of the seat so the ride would be less bumpy. He said he thought that I was “carrying”. I was not – not carrying a baby, that is. But I carried other knowledges, memories, and the longing for a lover who would understand with kind eyes and hands how I hold my pain as flesh in my lower belly. I sat in traffic, struggling not to cry, counting backwards at the end of a bloodline, carrying the face of my mother and her mother before her and the shock of how my soft and fallow body had become a mirage of motherhood. Why would I need that poem tattooed? I already carry everything – dead, alive and never-born – and where I cannot, there is a love or many that carries it for me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 9th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: On Romantic Nemeses

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I was telling a friend about how I’m likely to encounter a romantic nemesis of mine in the coming weeks, when he asked me to explain the term. Was it just a fancy way of saying “ex”? Haha. No.

You see, in order to become an ex, one first has to have been acknowledged as a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner or bae. There are whole swathes of our pasts that have no such acknowledgment, yet somehow we’d been pulping tamarind in their kitchen at 9pm, or been bubble-wrapping something that made us think of them for a long-distance care package, or been the one they texted through their father’s surgery instead of talking to their fiancée. Only you were not, you were never, “the one”. No – you were “a friend”. Or worse, “just a friend”.

The past tense of “romantic nemesis” is usually “lover” – a word I like very much but which makes a lot of people queasy. Is it because it’s associated with illicit affairs? Ahem, well… Of course, it might also make any said romantic nemeses queasy, because it contains the word “love”. This activates their allergies.

Having left my uninhibited 20s behind a few years ago, I now find there’s an entire category of could-have-beens who, without having gone through the lover phase, plonk right into the romantic nemeses gang like they bribed their way to graduation. Before, the shift from lover to romantic nemesis seemed awful but logical. Now, I belong among the wizened elder millennials who’ve conducted entire non-relationships on the basis of cautious approaches, boundaries, and (gasp) conversations. Sadly, the ghosting, cowardice, non-communicativeness and general bad behaviour that necessitates the nemesis tag still happen, eventually. Just without the passion that’s supposed to precede them. It’s terrible, I tell you. It’s basically like they’ve seen you naked even though you’ve never slept with them. How could “ex” suffice?

It’s difficult to explain this romantic nemeses thing without being told that one is too dramatic or sensitive. But what I’m describing is far more common than not, a kind of duplicity that we don’t question. There are so many lingering non-relationships, with all the emotional demands of full-fledged ones and some but usually not enough of the fulfilment. And even though our attention spans are but the length of one finger’s scroll, even brief interactions leave a lasting, often silenced, impact. We haven’t and shouldn’t evolve out of the longing to connect deeply. Sometimes, the heart is wounded not because you loved someone, but just because you trusted them enough to think they may not play to pattern. And then there’s the wounding that does come with love, only it’s never named.

I could dismiss someone a friend was briefly involved with as a “player” or a “dudebro”, angry at how he wasted the privilege of having known her, but if I put myself in her shoes honestly – if I truly consider how all pain is a palimpsest and that heartbreak of this nature is also historical – “romantic nemesis” is a far better description. Nemeses, that is. It’s funny how many there are, no, the ones who aren’t even supposed to count?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 2nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Nest-Breaking, Nest-Building

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Vacating a house that one made into a home is a painful thing. In the weeks before this happens, I leave my space in disarray on purpose. It’s as if I can’t bear for it to be perfect – a space so imbued with my energy, my signature, that an intuitive friend who visited a couple of months after I moved in said it was like I’d already lived here for years. Such perfection is futile, for it is finite. I don’t know yet where I will next roost, only that there is a deadline by which to find it.

So there’s a ruthlessness in the way I look at my belongings, and in how I’ve decided to pare the contents of my wardrobe and my bookshelves down. Clearing of this nature has meaningful emotional ramifications. I will not do it sensibly, so I leave it for later. The weeks tick by, but I refuse to start packing until I know where I will unpack. Someone who has known me for a very long time links it to trauma during my teenage years when I repeatedly lived out of boxes. But that’s not why.

Now, it’s because when I place each thing into a carton, I want to hold the foreknowledge of how it will exist in the time to come. Of whether the window that this curtain will cover will bring in light from the west, for I love to read in such light in the late afternoon. Of whether this painting I made still feels true to who I want to be in that environment, and whether I will paint more in my new surroundings. Of whether I myself will move through that space with a sense of certainty, or only a sense of having borrowed something.

The knowledge of how it feels to feel at home is a luxury. I’ve lost so many homes in my life and not always known that’s what they were until after. But not this time.

A long time ago, I was a month-long guest in a community where the residents moved out of their rooms to make space for their visitors. I made friends with the person whose room I occupied, and he told me that he’d coped with his eviction because someone had told him to imagine that a magical person would come and fill his room with their energy, and it would linger after they left. My friend still uses that word for me: magical. Someone will live in this space I have lived in, and for a little while the love I put into it will brighten it like the scent of bergamot.

Before all that though, the pigeons I’ve struggled with for years, refusing to get the wire meshing that would keep them out but make me feel cooped in, will inherit my precious balcony. Alas, they win! But then, the landlord’s son will inherit them, and all their colonising crap. So I’ll win too. And I’ll move away with my magic, and my sparkle, and this new skill I didn’t learn from birds but taught myself somehow: how to build a nest.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 26th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Ondaatje’s Bibliography

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A few months before I finished school, due to a set of circumstances that don’t lend themselves to a brief explanation, my siblings and I stayed for several days at the home of a friend of our mother’s. I was 15. The house had what I recognise in retrospect was probably a mostly decorative library, but it contained real books, and I spent hours perusing them. Some lines from a novel I found then remain indelible to me, and they return now to describe my chance discovery of it: “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Toward a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams.” I don’t know what made me open Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, what tempted me toward what was an unusual choice for my reading tastes back then, but I do know that it permanently changed those tastes – and me. That was a book that raised me. I became an adult as I turned its pages, emerging in new skin, freshly initiated, as I closed it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly reading Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight. Like any Ondaatje after my first one, I came to it not with a sense of excitement but a sense of trust. Some books, and some bodies of work, are simply reliable that way. The time you spend with them is like seeing someone you share a long affinity with – sometimes you will speak of nothing special, but the point is that it is never transactional. Something caught my eye this time: on the page with the list of the author’s prior works, each title had a year in brackets after it. I’d read many of them, but what I’d never clocked was their chronology. Of Ondaatje’s 20 books, his first five – published between 1967 and 1976 – were obscure poetry collections. His life didn’t begin with his fame, and neither do decades of fame sum up his life.

Pondering that list gave me much for one of my current preoccupations: the deeply discursive questions of interior lives, and how, say, the volume of 20 books stands against every other method in which to measure 75 years of life. It reminded me of something my father innocently said when I signed a book contract once, for a work that wouldn’t be released for over a year later: “But what will the publishers do until then?” The same holds for what people imagine the author does, and this is true of everyone whose work requires a public presence. I nuzzle these contemplations often, applying them gently to everyone I encounter. This is bridge-work, for it helps me not only parse the lacuna between what is perceived of me and the true fabric of my days, but to also engage more meaningfully in those encounters.

These lines from Warlight say it all: “I could have entered and roamed within the story of their marriage as easily as I might have within the lives of others who had surrounded me in my youth, who were part of my self-portrait, composed from the way they had caught glimpses of me.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Poison In The Pages

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Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have found three books in its library, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, painted in poison. Bookbinders of that time often reinforced books by using manuscript fragments, and archivists over the years have discovered precious texts among the same. Unable to read the words therein due to a layer of green pigment, the researchers sent the books for micro-XRF analysis. The pigment contained arsenic.

But this will come as no surprise to history and trivia buffs. It was fashionable in Europe then to wear poison, use it in interior décor, and make art with it. The pigment Scheele’s Green, also known as Paris Green, contained arsenic. Its beautiful colour was found in the fabric of ball gowns and cravats, and the works of Cezanne and Monet, among other painters. It was commonly used in wallpaper, and not just in affluent homes; whole families often died mysteriously after a décor makeover, and one suspected reason for Napoleon’s demise was that the walls of his exile home contained it. And arsenic-laced pigment was used both for aestheticizing books, as well as an insecticide in the binding. This toxic substance was widely appreciated just because it could make things pretty.

Strangely enough, at around the same time, a concealed poison caused much alarm and was linked to hundreds of murders in Italy. Known as Acqua Tofana, it was believed to be composed principally of arsenic, although post-mortems didn’t always reveal this substance. It took its name from the apothecary believed to be its manufacturer, Giulia Tofana. With a few trusted women, including Hyeronyma Spara who either was or pretended to be a sorceress, she created a poison that was also sold exclusively to women. It would either be packaged as a compact, and could be openly kept on a dresser alongside other cosmetics, or in a vial with the brand Manna di San Nicola, under guise of being a holy oil from the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari (also known as Santa Claus).

Mozart claimed Acqua Tofana caused his death, and the stories around it are so fascinating that I hope a brilliant novelist pursues them. Among the rumours half-sceptically accepted as history is that there was a high demographic of young Italian widows for decades. That their deceased spouses were often much older was seen as a less likely possibility than that they’d introduced a tasteless, colourless, mysterious blend into their food.

How much of the legend around Acqua Tofana and its sisterhood of makers and clientele is based on the distrust of women? What it brings to mind is the ancient Indian legend of the vishkanya, women whose bodies had been trained from birth, through the gradual imbibing of poisons in small doses, to themselves become lethal. Physical contact with them could kill, and vishkanyas were raised for this purpose alone. Of course, they served whoever raised them. But imagine they indeed existed, and broke away, and formed a feminist legion. I don’t want to touch a book with arsenic in its binding. But I’d love to read one with such poisons and intrigues in its pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Sons Of Mars

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Mars retrograde is supposed to bring the men back. The planet of ambition, sex and war – at least as per astrologers and storytellers – had backtracked not even three days when my text messages started showing signs of an accurate forecast. A retrograde is when a planet appears to be moving backwards in the sky, and its astrological effects are said to be a little askew. Seeing these effects in my inbox, I did not reply. Call it the thwarted drive of a weakened Mars or the long-term strategy of a sensible warrior. It may not be wise to pay heed to astrology, but that returning men rarely warrant replies is a permanently valid prophecy.

It so happens that Mars is also astronomically important this month, and its proximity to Earth at the end of July means its visibility increases for sky-watchers. It also has a perihelic opposition, when it’s at its closest to the sun while also directly opposite to Earth. And at the end of the month, Mars will come closer to us than it has in a decade and a half, and this will almost coincide with the longest lunar eclipse of the century.

Our planet experiences lunar eclipses a few times a year, but Mars has them almost every night, and in totality. Its two moons – Phobos and Deimos – are relatively small and frequently covered by the sun. There cannot be any total solar eclipses on that planet. Mars is the Roman name for the Greek deity Ares, god of war. His sons were Phobos and Deimos. Phobos – named for fear, from which we get the word “phobia”. Deimos – named for dread, especially before battle. The young twins accompanied their father into war. Fearsome to behold, Deimos was lion-headed, and his brother had a fiery gaze.

I looked at images of Phobos and Deimos and felt a strange and loyal smugness. They are not as pretty as our moon, who despite all her craters and caprices is complete in herself. They are misshapen, and strike me as being untrustworthy. Phobos is believed to actually be a pile of rubble with a thin crust, and is known to be collapsing internally, torn up over its tidal interactions with Mars.

The mother of the twins was Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love, and because of this they were also the gods of the fear of loss. Not loss itself but the fear of it. Perhaps Dread and Fear include the anxiety of sitting by an ailing loved one, or the disquiet of realising someone does not intend to call you back.

Our moon has no scientific name. She is The Moon. And surely among her many prestiges she is also the governess of loss – not the one who controls or creates it, but the one who looks over those who experience it. We are mostly made of water, more receptive to the lunar pull than to the retrogression of a distant planet.

So Mars is in retrograde and maybe the men will try to come back, but even with the occlusion of an eclipse, they should know they’re treading in a selene-centric galaxy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Worn On The Sleeve

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There’s a scene in the heart-wrenching 2008 film Frozen River, in which two impoverished women who smuggle people across the US-Canada border bring a dead baby back to the parents it was separated from. One of them drives, instructing the other to hold the baby close to her body so that the corpse will not be cold when they hand it to the mother. Something miraculous happens, somewhere between the warmth of the jacket the child is wrapped in, the skin it is close to, and perhaps the familiar sound of a heartbeat.

For some reason, news of US First Lady Melania Trump travelling to and from a child detention centre wearing a jacket with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” (sic) reminded me of this movie, and this scene in particular. It does not matter that she reportedly didn’t wear it inside the centre, one of several where children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border have been detained. Many of those children don’t understand English. Some of us, watching, do. And we do care, but the message wasn’t for us, either.

Some style statements are literal. Propaganda through fashion – and specifically, through styles created by private manufacturers not directly affiliated to governments – is not just for those in the public eye, as Ms. Trump’s own $39 Zara jacket is an example of.

During World War II, textiles with lively prints were produced in the US and UK with concealed messages. An attractive red dress with black and white patterns donated to the FIDM Museum, Los Angeles, sewn in the 1940s, says in reversed writing: “There’ll Always Be An England”. Its wearer would be able to read the text when examining herself closely in the mirror, but would likely walk by countless people who did not catch its hidden message. In Japan at the same time, omoshirogara kimonos, depicting scenes of war and victory, were worn privately. The fabric was sometimes used as the inner lining of kimonos worn outside. India’s khadi movement was a public display of political sentiments. Charles Dickens’ novel The Tale of Two Cities features tricoteuses, women who knitted the names of those sent to the guillotine into their purls. Historically, women in the spectator seats of executions were indeed known to knit. Among their goods was the Phrygian cap, which unlike a crown was a symbol of democracy.

Zara didn’t just make a random jacket put to strategic use, for in the recent past it has also used anti-Semitic and white nationalist motifs on clothing. Neither did Ms. Trump, whose image is carefully crafted, just throw on an outfit. It’s the kind of thing an obnoxious teen might wear to dinner with his parents, except that on her and on this occasion it was more like Cruella de Ville’s Dalmatian fur coat.

Here’s a tiny consolation: in 2017, Turkish shoppers discovered notes sewn into Zara attire by unpaid workers hired by a factory which also made Mango and Next products. These notes brought attention to their plight, shared by workers worldwide. Some opinions are worn on the sleeve; but some truths are sewn into the seams.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 28th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.