Tag Archives: belonging

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard From Bundjalung Country

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I write this to you by hand from a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane. My companions have gone to an animal show, while I have chosen to catch my breath and reflect. I am surrounded by bird calls (I promised you this a few weeks ago) and the quick footsteps of excited children. I still have white sand in my shoes from a beach I stole away to on my last morning in Byron Bay. This brings to mind the first time that I travelled to this land, when I’d lain on my back under regal trees and it was Singapore by the time I washed Larrakia country out of my hair.

But that was Darwin, in the North, and it is Bundjalung country I have been in this time.  On one of three rainy days, the writer Jeffery Renard Allen and I were having coffee when a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to meet one of the Elders. That woman was Dale Simone Roberts, and as Jeff leant to be introduced to the seated Elder, Aunty Dorrie Gordon, Dale turned to look me in the face and said “Bless your journey. I can see a little bit. You’ve been fighting for the women.”

I burst into tears.

I don’t know what it was: the history and trauma embodied by Aboriginal people like Aunty and Dale, and the ordeal and fresh wounding embodied by Jeff, as an African-American man in the world today; or the fact that while I was contemplating the everyday resilience of others, someone had seen right into mine. Aunty blessed me in her way, and I touched her feet first, as we do in mine.

Immediately after, a precious conversation with Helen Burns, a local writer with whom I’d forged an instant bond upon discovering that we are both writing fiction projects on Andal. She told me how sometimes she sees a person in Tamil Nadu, on a bus perhaps, and could swear that they were Aboriginal. In Pitjanjara (one of many indigenous languages), she said, the word for ‘parrot’ is ‘kili’. I fished into my handbag for my notebook to write this down, and it fell open to an image of Andal I hadn’t realised I had carried to this distant continent.

How many countries are within each nation? How many countries are within each individual?

Among my panels was one on multicultural influence. My passport declares one thing, my heart and tongue claim another, and my history sprawls though acres of a third.

But an Australia-India Council grant has brought Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I here to promote our feminist anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, and over and over again we found ourselves simultaneously adding nuance to popular narratives and expounding on the dire condition of women in India. One journalist told us that a national Year 12 exam asks students to write essays on the same. On us.

 And when she asked about India itself, I told her a list of things I was afraid to speak about, and in this way I named them – the many countries within a nation that only on some days do I call mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Writ At My Wrist

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Nobody goes to the Kashmiri shops. Not unless one is a tourist, in a rush to find a present, or a girl who can’t find her house key in her handbag, and decides to wander the labyrinthine corridors of Spencer’s Plaza for the hours it will take before someone else can open the door.

The trinkets I wear are all bought in cheaper places. Still, what else was there to do? I was reading Deborah Baker’s The Blue Hand that day, a marvelous imagining of Ginsberg and the Beats in India, and thinking back to a time when this country had also hovered over me “like a necessary light”, a stormy eight months spent in the bowels of Sowcarpet, a Chennai first punctuated by Spencer’s and Moore Market and an outrageous journey to Calcutta – a nostalgic’s Madras, I know now – and then punctured entirely of its charm over me. I was 19 and tempestuous to the point of being almost feral. I left, then returned. It has been exactly three years since moving here properly (and I almost say, with bitterness, permanently), and I can scarcely believe that this is the same life, that I am the same person.

So I meandered through Spencer’s, a woman long free of enchantment, missing a time when the fire in my own belly was my only guiding light, before even the hunger to own a beautiful thing became tainted with a cynic’s restraint. I looked at things I had no intention of buying. And then I stepped into one shop and asked, for no real reason, to see their silver bangles.

Rummaging idly through the large plastic container set before me, what caught my eye was a particular piece, simple but strangely alluring, that was outside on the glass counter, being put away by the storekeeper. I asked for it and put it on. It was perfectly my size.

“Oh that’s just metal, not silver” said Feroze, the storekeeper. “Are you sure you want it?”

“Yes. How much is it?”

Feroze both frowned and smiled at the same time. “Are you sure?” I insisted I was.

And then he said a very peculiar thing. “That was given to us by a peer, a sadhu baba. He said that one day someone will come for this bangle, it is meant for them, and when they come, to give it to them at no cost.”

I was incredulous. Why would a businessperson give away anything at no cost? “Why did you keep it?”

“Because we believe in destiny.”

“And nobody else wanted it?”

“Nobody else wanted it.”

It had been a very long time since I had truly felt the receptivity that led me to trust what he said next. “It was in your destiny to receive it. If you believe, all things come to you.”

Feroze and I talked for awhile. I listened to him speak without aggrandization about faith, and fate. In his, as with many people from his homeland, was the ordinance to carry precious things to places to which travellers could wander undeterred. In mine, in the cusp between disillusionment and belief, was a single band of dull metal in the shape of an unclosed circle.

I accepted the bangle. Later, at home, I opened my handbag and saw the missing key.

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: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to it?

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 Photo Negative Heart

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I’ve heard of people planting the umbilical cords of their children in their backyards. I think this is a beautiful, poetic idea, with just the right amount of the macabre to make it a well-rounded celebration of life. An umbilical cord in sacred soil – the soil of home, so the body never forgets. I wish my umbilical cord was planted somewhere – the only thing is, I have no clue where that place might have been.

I was born in Madras pretty much by accident, because my parents lived in Colombo at the time. The first home of my life belonged to the Sri Lankan government, as did the next few, because of my grandfather’s political career, which would lead to our eventual, regrettable move to a country I have very hostile feelings toward. We ate on crockery embossed with the lion emblem for years, and to this day when I see that emblem I think of childhood meals.

If my family had chosen to bury my birth matter, it would have been in a place they did not call home, a place they no longer call home, or a place that in spite of many years of residing there was never, not once, home.

I’ve been back in India for almost a year now, and I am happy. But I am in love with my passport-identified home with the same ferocity with which some atheists hate god. For a person to whom no home exists, I am vociferous in my loyalties.

There are, of course, many benefits to the nomad’s life. The ability to make friends, and sever attachments, quickly. Travel. Multilingualism. The chance to constantly reinvent oneself. The double-edged gift and curse of being able to see one’s “native” places with renewed, awestruck eyes on every always too long, and always too brief, holiday.

But to grow up belonging nowhere at all is not a fate I would wish on anyone.

The great Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo wrote of Caracas, “Its space is real, fearless, solid concrete./Only my history is false”. And this is what I feel of Chennai.

I write this sitting in the café in which I have co-curated a photo exhibit and reading series for Madras Week. I am surrounded by images of a city to which both my past and my destiny are irrevocably interlinked, but it has lived within me in a way that makes sense to no one else at all.

I have written this before, but if there is a better description for how I feel, I cannot come up with it myself: Chennai is my photo negative heart. It is my life flipped inside out. At times I feel as though there was one me living elsewhere, and one that grew up between Chennai and Colombo. My two hearts. My homes to which I am bound by invisible umbilical cords.

In company, I am the former. I don’t understand pop culture references, school cliques, certain slang, certain frustrations. I can’t tell you how much I resent this. I am constantly filled with envy at those who have lived in this city, and not had the city live in them, lingering, looming and all-consuming in its distance.

Only when I am alone can I forget this sobering fact: I did not grow up here. There is nothing I can do to reverse it, nothing that will give me back the childhood I should have had, but watch me try.

My umbilical cord was probably destroyed. I make up for it by putting all that’s left of me, body and soul, into the praise of this city.

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.

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.