The Venus Flytrap: Locked Down, Longing

Someone I haven’t touched in years emerged again in the shape of words, after a night through which fear and worry had not let me sleep. Sapped of circumspection, I had sent a simple message. Dawn had still not diluted the darkness, yet he replied immediately. He’d just been thinking of me. He too had been restless all night. He’d woken mid-way, he said, and seen the constellated sky through a parting in the curtains. The stars had coaxed a memory of another night under the same sky, of us in other chapters of our lives, of me. He asked me what I remembered.

We’d been back in contact for some time, without meeting, and an ease had returned to our acquaintanceship. But not this much, not yet.

He expected he’d be in my neighbourhood after the lockdown lifts. I offered lightly that we could meet – but not hug. “We could fist bump, with gloves,” he said. Everything and nothing is hypothetical now. The only gloves I own are fingerless lace ones. What could they possibly keep me from? Before I finally slipped into sleep at that swiftly brightening hour, I sent this: “Talking to you as the sun came up reminded me of some mornings long ago. Don’t disappear on me again. I don’t know if I will forgive you next time.” He responded; but not with words.

Days pass, in a calendar that seems to loop on itself. Hours upon hours. Do you keep count? How do you measure this strange and revealing circumstance? A healer told me once, after everything had changed for me, when I wept that the world was like it had never been before: No, the world is exactly the same. It’s you who has changed. Now the reverse is true. I believe we are closer to our truer natures, while what is beyond us has altered. We choose: guile, doubling down, mirroring, or to behold ourselves whole.

One afternoon in my own captivity, a transformer burst and quietness descended. No fan blades whisking the air, no electrical thrums, no traffic or construction anyway – then, I heard a voice. I’ll never be certain, but I hope it was the neighbour whose own words are always soft, and can’t counter her grown son’s frequent and miserable scoldings. She was singing “Poongkuyil koovum…”, with its lyrics about encountering divinity in nature, in a seaside flower grove where a kuyil opens its throat in seduction.

It’s the bird’s mating season now. I thought of a kuyil I’d watched for a year, in a house I miss every day – a house where this confinement could have been more bearable, where I would have observed a courtship unfolding on the boughs of a crow-nested tree. The woman’s voice faded away, perhaps because my imagination overwhelmed my listening. I didn’t catch my favourite line – “Thanimaiyil inimai kannden…” – but I felt it, felt it like the vibration created by stroking upon the rim of a resting prayer bowl. In solitude, I saw sweetness, the woman sang, even if I could no longer hear her – those words reaching through the ether to touch, and to touch again.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 30th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Frida & The Finches

If the finches of the Galápagos islands can’t sing in key, they may go extinct. The males trill to draw their mates to them, and their courtship songs vary based on the physiological differences of their beaks. Through the ten thousand years or so of their existence, their beaks evolved in distinct variations to best suit the sustenance available across their habitats. Diverse shapes, sizes and sharpness for seeds, insects, or cacti. The birds are also known as Darwin finches, after the scientist whose work was heavily influenced by encountering them.

But a human-caused parasitic infestation is affecting their beaks, and thus their lovesongs. Their nostrils are being deformed by the larvae of a blood-sucking fly, which feed on tissue, keratin and blood. The songs of misshapen beaks, off-key and therefore off-putting, have ceased to have their intended effect. Not only are chicks dying from the parasitic attacks, but the survivors cannot sing their lineage into being. The mates cannot be seduced.

A line from of one of my favourite poems, Anne Sexton’s “Sonnet XLIII”, haunts me as I think of those birds – broken into, their faces and voices mutilated, still desirous, without having that yearning be met. And the thwarted mates: where does their disenchantment go? Beyond some point of no return, loveless but ripe with memory, Sexton wrote: “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.” I sought the finches’ songs, and instead found words – reams on their voices and their bodies, but not enough of their music.

Amidst this silence, a resonance. The National Sound Library of Mexico has just discovered and released the only extant recording of what may be Frida Kahlo’s voice. I had never known that I had never known what her voice was like.

In the recording, a woman reads a passage in intimate praise of Diego Rivera. The reading seems practised, with an easy rhythm. The motifs are familiar; the words seem to be Kahlo’s. Rivera the toad, the baby, the great artist whose hands are ever working. At first I wondered what her natural voice must have been like, especially if she had been coached and made a few attempts to perfect the audio. A little moodier, maybe. A little smoke-laced. But this voice is bell-clear, ebullient. Strikingly so when we learn that the recording was aired on radio in 1955, the year after Kahlo’s passing. This would complicate the possibility that it was her, except that the recitation was enigmatically described as being by “a painter who no longer exists”. Researchers believe it was made in the last, painful years of her life.

For a dying woman she sounds buoyant. Even rehearsed, this was Kahlo’s true voice then: her voracious desire to live and her adoration of her beloved both vivid. Having had an amputation, she had written in her diary of not needing feet, being winged. Thus returns the sorrow over the vanishing finches, so misunderstood. I wish for them mates who can perceive their true voices. Even in mutilation and dissonance. And for love or something like it to carry their timbre through.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 20th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Poppy-High Parrots

Silence isn’t usually associated with parrots. But intelligence is, and in the farmlands of Madhya Pradesh, a wickedly intelligent pandemonium of them have learnt the value of keeping watchfully quiet. They wait until a farmer enters the poppy field and cautiously slits a pod to help it ripen, exposing the latex inside. And then they swoop in, diving right for the opium milk – sometimes tearing the stalk off below the pod so they can fly away and feast. Then they perch somewhere and bite into the pods, holding the stalk in one claw like a kid nibbling at candyfloss. They can’t get enough of the high. One opium expert said the parrots enjoy opium like we enjoy caffeine. Except they crash into branches, lie around dazed and evidently take evolutionary leaps in their desire for the next hit. Parrots that don’t squawk? Stoned, surely.

These parrots are addicted, and are causing severe damage to the livelihood of farmers in the Malwa-Mewar belt, where opium cultivation for medicinal purposes is legal, monitored by the International Narcotics Control Board. But illicit smuggling is a problem, licenses are renewed based on production, and the farmers are struggling, just like farmers all over India. Throw in a frenzy of drug-addled parrots and you can see why the pods are cautiously slit. Not because the flowering plant is delicate, but because it becomes liable to immediate plunder. Nilgais, scorpions and snakes are also common pests in poppy fields, attracted to the opium. But the parrots have the advantage of flight. And obsession.

These marauding parrots call to mind ones from classic literature who enjoyed trickery and entertained themselves by distressing people. It’s easy to imagine some of them drug-intoxicated. Take the raunchy one from this poem, translated by Martha Ann Selby, from the medieval Sanskrit anthology Subhasitaratnakosa: “At daybreak, / when the parrot / was bent on mimicking / her cries of passion / in front of her elders, / the doe-eyed girl, / embarrassed, / drowned it out / by jangling / her stacks of bangles, / clapping / as if to make / the children dance in play.” I must confess I was amused when I first saw videos of them guzzling opium. I wondered: how did they escape with their loot without it falling out of their beaks during a triumphant cackle, like a bird in a cautionary folktale?

But this was ignorant. Not long ago, I was upset by a photograph of the corpses of poisoned peacocks – only to learn that they are actually pests in paddy fields. In these cases, parrots and peacocks are to the farmer what pigeons and mosquitoes are to us in cities. For me to find the thought of junkie parrots hilarious was only a few steps removed from those who snatch beloved creatures away from indigenous minorities in the name of animal rights. For us humans who do not really co-exist with undomesticated wildlife in our ordinary lives, our views on fauna will always be lacking. We could learn from those clever parrots, maybe – how to be quiet (and listen) when all we’ve known to do is talk, talk, talk.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 7th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Songless Female Of The Species

It was the length of the tail feathers that caught my eye, and then the statesqueness of the pose, and only lastly those eyes like beads of ruby. I didn’t know what it was, this bird that had sought out a branch of the neem tree that I see more of every day than any other living creature. Only a crow that surely has come to know me as well or as little as I know it roosts there, and sometimes it takes a companion; they bite each others’ beaks (I wonder if they are voyeurs into my life, too). Intrigued, I looked up the plumage colours of this strange new bird and was surprised to learn that this creature so striking that I could not think of it as anything but totemic was in fact something quite ubiquitous. So ubiquitous, in poetry and public imagination, that I couldn’t believed I hadn’t even known that this is what it looked like. It was a female kuyil who had come by, who briefly lingered within the lush enclosure of the branches of the neem tree that is my neighbour, whose leafy heart I look into directly.

The female of the species, I read, is rarely seen. (This made me feel better about my ignorance of her beauty). It is not her song we hear, but her mate’s. He doesn’t look like her; indeed, he looks a little closer to the crow in whose nest she stealthily lays her eggs, uninterested in the process of incubation. The female of the species appears when she chooses to heed that call. When the love spell of his beautiful voice has worked, has convinced her.

Between the neem tree and I was one more neighbour: a spider whose home was made of silk spun from her own body. That delicate web often caught the light, and I refused to remove it. But someone who thought it inauspicious jettisoned it with a sweep of their fingers before my eyes. Minutes before I wrote this, and just a little after I had contemplated that little habitat again, admiring the arachnid for its autonomy, its dexterity and its architectural aesthetic. The spider and its home were gone before I could even gasp.

Now I look into that tree’s branches without the filter of a spider web on the window grill. And I wonder if she will come back, that allured and alluring kuyil, with her stippled wings and her receptivity to seduction. I am summoning her, too. I know if she returns, it will only be for the crow’s nest (but there is no nest that I can see, unless the tree has more secrets). Who really summoned her here – a mate or I? Perhaps beyond all other symbolisms – self-contained spider, intelligent crow, bitter and benevolent neem tree, auspiciously fertile female kuyil – it is he who is my true totem for this moment. This male kuyil whose song I have heard but who has not been sighted so far: who opens his heart and unfurls his voice, and unafraid to ask for his deepest desire, calls and calls for his lover to come.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 3rd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.