Tag Archives: beach

The Venus Flytrap: A Scarless Journey To A Stolen Beach

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In retrospect, it’s difficult to tell you exactly what I had hoped for. I had made precise calculations: I trusted that Singaporean efficiency would get me out of the airport in thirty minutes, and that proximity and familiarity would take me to the place itself within that hour. My transit was for five hours, my baggage already checked-in. I had my visa, acquired specifically for one purpose. Not a feast or a tryst, but a visit to a small beach by a mangrove that I had been going to, sometimes in secret, since I was 19. The first time I had gone to Pasir Ris, and every time that followed, I had called that purpose a pilgrimage.

I’ll admit this: I knew it would be different this time.

I walked through a new mall and arrived somewhere almost recognisable. Where there had been chalets was an expanding resort, construction in progress. The park was tidy. Something was missing. I gazed at trees I had known as a younger self and wondered what they had witnessed since.

The lapping water, too, was further inland than I remembered. It is said that the ‘ris’ the beach is named for is ‘keris’ – a weapon native to the Malayan region, with a thin, undulating blade. But even that slim strip of shoreline had diminished. It was a hot day; the sun would not set for almost three more hours. These could not be just tidal vagaries.

Six years since my last visit, a long time only if the interim years had not been what they were. I’d known about the resort development, and had steeled myself for disappointment. But it was not quite that: my experience this time in Pasir Ris was of having outlived something. There was old magic in that mangrove beach, this I can promise you. It was gone, and not for any reason as self-evident as urban progress.

I went back, but it was already gone.

I had stolen the beach from someone, a long time ago. I had made it mine by way of pining and prose. By right I should have lost it, for what I had done. But of all the places that are no longer within my reach, this is the one that most feels like I had let it go.

There’s a feralness in me that makes me crave saltwater, cherish tree roots and place my cheek against the earth to weep or to listen. I know that, though quietly, that is still alive. It should have torn me to see my stolen beach stolen from me. Instead I sought it, touched base, and simply walked away.

Everything that is valuable to me about Pasir Ris is safely stored in the pages of a novel I started writing after that first journey and still haven’t finished. I have loved other places since, lost them, had other preciousness stolen from me, made other reparations.

How strangely scarless it is: to lose but still belong to the things I took and didn’t keep – in fragments of a story, memories of a wilder self, pages and pages of an incomplete pilgrimage.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Mourning the Marina

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That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.

Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.

This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.

Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.

I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.

I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.

One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.

I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.

When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.

It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.

Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.

This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).

Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Burning Breast: Kannagi To Kovalan

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I had a lovely Sunday morning. For one thing, I woke up early — I’m a heavy sleeper and am always inordinately proud of myself when I catch the sunrise. Also, it was the last day of Madras Week — phew! And although I was late, I managed to make it to Eric Miller/The World Storytelling Institute’s Living Statues event at 7.30am. Spoken word in the form of soliloquys in persona in front of six statues that punctuate the main road along Marina Beach. And then the beach itself, with two friends, and breakfast at Rathna Cafe in Triplicane… I fucking love Madras, from the bottom of my silly little heart. :)

Eric asked me to read his soliloquy for Auvvaiyar, as well what I had written the night before for Kannagi. Or as Kannagi, rather. I’ll write more about the Living Statues event when I recap Madras Week on the whole.

And how could I forget the lovely little synchronicity that met us as we got into an auto to leave the beach? The driver’s address, painted where Narain’s knees met the back of the driver’s seat, was Nedunchezhiyan Colony.

If you are not familiar with the story of Kannagi and Kovalan, please see this.

The Burning Breast: Kannagi to Kovalan

What is it to me if there are good women
or good men or gods in this city, now
that you are gone.

When you kissed me I remembered
all the lives that poured out of us,
and I remembered how to honour water.

When you kissed me I remembered
what death felt like, and
I remembered how to honour air.

When you kissed me I remembered
the clay of the body, and
I remembered how to honour earth.

When you kissed me I remembered
that my sins would turn to cinders, and
I remembered how to honour fire.

Listen, husband. Only the sky will
take no side. Let them call me
bitch, witch, menace, terrorist.
Let them call me mad, bad, vindictive,
frigid. Let them name me, claim me,
blame me and defame me. Guard their
coast with stone dolls in my likeness.
Beat their women so their bruises
sting and rhyme with my acclaim.
Let them. Let them think they have me tamed.

But with this burning breast, these bloodshot eyes, I raise
my voice, and I say to you now, all I want, all I am is this:

wife.

– – –

I had shared this poem with friends as soon as it was written, and I thought it might be good to share this exchange, in case you have the same question in mind:

Q: excellent, but
All I am is this; wife
All?
surely not all, but – I am this; wife

SM: Thanks! I’m curious — are you familiar with the Silapathikaram? In context, the idea of Kannagi as simply human, a woman mad with grief, is something very much overlooked. Here in Tamil Nadu, she has been co-opted into various other roles — worshipped as a goddess, held up as a bastion of conservative chastity, as a bastion of radical feminism, a role model for citizen rights, criticized for weakness, glorified for strength… any number of grand meanings have been read into this character. But the commonplace anguish of a widow, extraordinary as the events told are, is what interested me when I set out to write this.

Constellation of Scars — The First Chapter Published In Ghoti

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The first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Constellation of Scars, is available in the summer 2008 issue of Ghoti Magazine.

I recently realised the glaring grammatical error in the first line which, because it still worked on an instinctual level, escaped me for years. All my life I will remember this…

The novel is far from over. I have worked on it in some form or the other for about seven years, but in the form it is in now for about three years. There’s much left to go.

At Thalankuppam

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Some very friendly boys and their dog, on Thalankuppam beach. All photos above are by me. Larger sizes and black and white versions are on my Flickr page.

Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and I came up with the idea of holding a poetry reading at Thalankuppam, north of the city of Chennai, while talking about coasts. Like many artists, we are both obsessed with them to some extent. When I told him about my own favourite beach, which is widely regarded as a crappy excuse for one but stirs me still, he told me about Thalankuppam. He had discovered it by accident, while riding without any particular destination in mind, leaving the city behind. By this time, we and a few others had been having a lot of discussions about the necessity and opportunity present to create a community, one which not just writes and reveres the written word, but takes joy in the spoken.

Thalankuppam made sense on several levels — gorgeous yet discreet, it has an interesting story which few know. We wanted a small event, something in the indie spirit. No sponsors, no pish-poshness. We also wanted something that had the ethos of the city in it — an ethos which we hope to shape, in our own small ways. As I have written and said elsewhere before, I feel blessed to be at this point again for the second time in my life. The right place at the right time, just as I was six or seven years ago in KL. Chennai is pulsing with something which, if harnessed, will set the city alight. Trust me on this one. I’ve seen it once and am certain I’m about to witness it again. Or the city will, in any case, with or without me.

On the afternoon of March 9th, a small group set forth from Madras University, hugging the beach northwards for under an hour until we reached the area of Thalankuppam. We entered a settlement area, and the further into it we drove the more I realised that truly, this was the kind of beach that could only be stumbled upon. When we finally parked to walk, near a delta, we were confronted by a small hill of sand. Human-made, from sediment that clogged the factory-bordered river otherwise.

Beyond this hill was the beach. And jutting from this beach was the abandoned pier. Chandroo’s camera will say things best, so please go ahead and harass him to post his photos up.

We settled on the beach to start the reading, which was pleasantly delayed by the far from camera-shy boys above. Matthew played sacrificial lamb, reading a poem which Sivakami, who had had to leave once we reached Thalankuppam, had left with him. He delivered her homage to the masculine and feminine properties of the sea beautifully. Chandroo read three poems, one of which was a translation of Subramania Bharathy. Katia, Matilda, Sarah and Jenny — the unsuspecting newspaper interns we whisked off to this deserted, untouristy part of greater Chennai — most impressively shared some of their favourite poems by others from memory. Katia read some musings from her journal. I read a few pieces, including one about a dream I had about a sea that was startlingly similar to the view mid-way on the pier. Julian did not read, but lent his quiet support.

We had held off from actually getting on the pier and walking to its end because Chandroo, whose 25th or thereabouts trip this was, had recommended we wait until closer to sundown, when the colours of our surroundings would take on different properties. He was right — it was worth it.

Walking the pier itself was probably the most incredible experience of an altogether brilliant evening. The good kind of scary, like a rollercoaster, only more dangerous, because the only safety devices we had were each others’ sweaty hands and our own intrepid footsteps. You can’t tell from the picture we used on the flyer, but that is no bridge. It’s like a horizontal ladder. Lose your step and you plummet into the water.

It was like walking on waves, the ocean surging around us. Absolutely stunning.

At the end of the pier was a wonderful little sheltered platform. I tried to imagine watching a thunderstorm from there, the terrible thrill it must be like. We were joined by two latecomers, who hadn’t carpooled and had gotten lost hence. Here, I read two more poems before we headed back, beating the dusk.

Thank you all — who were interested but could not make it, who came, who will come to future events. We had a wonderful time and will keep you posted about the next event. Suggestions, ideas — let us know. Sivakami Velliangiri left a poem responding to the event in the comments section of the announcement post; do check it out.

Poetry On The Pier

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Pier-flyer
For more on the location, please see here. We’ll coordinate a meet-up point in the city from which to head out to the beach. Please get in touch so we have some idea of how many people to expect. And feel free to forward!
This is a small, indie event, open-mic style (but without a mic). This is not a workshop or a slam. Bring poems, and an open mind and open heart.
Update: Please click on the flyer for date and time details! Thought this was obvious, but I guess it wasn’t. :)