Tag Archives: catharsis

Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong (trans. Howard Goldblatt)

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Published as part of The Myths series, which retells timeless classics from around the world in the words of some of the best contemporary writers, Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong recreates a two-millennia old legend from China about a woman who travels hundreds of miles in search of her husband, who has been conscripted in the construction of the Great Wall.

Like all of Peach Village, the orphan Binu was brought up to believe that tears are taboo, a conviction that took hold after 300 of its residents had been executed for having wept at the funeral of someone who had fallen from the favour of the King. The women of the village devised new ways to cry, which would leave their eyes dry but their breasts, ears, lips (or which ever body part was most beautiful) wet with tears. Binu wept through her hair, as she does on the day that she discovers that her husband Qiliang has disappeared.

When she learns that her husband has been taken to Great Swallow Mountain, to work on the construction of the staggeringly ambitious Great Wall, she becomes determined to take a coat to him so that he can stay warm through the winter. Warned that this act will carry her death by sorceresses and shunned and envied by her co-villagers for her stubbornness and peerless devotion, Binu sets forth on a journey of a thousand li.

Along the way, she is assisted by a blind frog, whom she suspects is a reincarnated mother looking for her missing son. But she is also accosted by a group of half-deer children, encounters cities where people are sold as “large livestock”, and is chained to a coffin, having been sold off herself as a dead man’s wife. Her weeping takes on legendary scope – she is hired at one point to weep into a vat because her tears contain the five tastes needed for a pharmacy. It overwhelms her to the point where every part of her body begins to cry, and she journeys the thousand li with “eyes dripping like house eaves after rain”, leaving a stream wherever she walks or crawls. As the story proceeds, we understand that Binu did not set out on her adventure under any grandiose illusions of success, but because it was the only thing that, in the face of her loss, she knew how to do.

In the preface, Su Tong says that “Binu’s story is a legend not so much about a woman at the bottom of society, but rather a legend about status and social class”. Perhaps this accounts for the matter-of-fact nature of his retelling, where another writer may have emphasized the mystical and metaphysical nature of events in the story including rebirth, animal familiars, prophecy and the like. Yet Binu’s loss, as all who have endured pain will know, is profoundly intimate. From the work of scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carl Jung, we know that myths exist for the purpose of deconstruction – not in a literary sense, but as a means of projecting our private lives onto narrative structures that allow us to see the bigger picture even as we endure intensely personal experiences.

The story of Binu, in that scheme of things, functions as an allegory on the necessity of grief, and how far one may need to go to truly access – and release – it, against every self-preservative instinct that may prevent it. The great wall that ultimately shatters under the weight of her loss is the one that had been raised by her upbringing, which forbade all but the most discreet, controlled displays of such emotion. Weep, the myth seems to instruct the reader. As Binu herself says to one who questions if she too is dead – “I am still crying, and that proves I am alive.”

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Healing, Subtle As A Scar

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Without going into details, I was attacked last week and left with gashes on my chest which required medical attention and an injection. They were inflicted on me at the beginning of a nightmarish evening, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the damage for myself until the next day. What happened then surprised even me.

Streaked across my decolletage, above my heart, were three bright, stinging maroon gashes. The deepest and longest rose from near my armpit like a wave unfurling in a torrent of movement. The one beside it looped in a small knot somewhere at the start of its trajectory. The last was shortest and extended almost directly under my suprasternal notch, that evocative hollow at the base of the throat. They were unequivocally, unexpectedly, beautiful.

Resting beside them on a thin silver chain was the rose quartz I had purchased just hours before the attack. I’d bought it to heal my heart chakra, and the literal effect – the surgery, if you will – laid bare across my flesh was not lost on me. Healing is rarely subtle work. I trust that which hurts.

Between the scarlet of the scarring and the calm pink of the quartz, dramatized against the brown of my skin, the only logical thing for me to do was to reach for my camera.

In the photographs that emerged, I look serene where my face can be seen. Where it cannot be seen I am all clavicle and throat, whisper of cleavage, shadow and light. The gashes tether every picture.

I know all about the documentation of scars. I’ve always found catharsis in creativity, in taking the trauma of a situation and subverting it. It is a manner of control, of reclamation, of hijacking Pavlovian associations before they fully form and replacing them with artistic ones. It is the duty of the artist to interrogate every experience. But although I had experimented with the subject of the self, in particular the wounded self, in a variety of disciplines – from autobiographical writing to self-portraiture in oil painting, and the body itself in dance – my photographic self-portraits had never been driven by anything but vanity. The horror of the scarring, however, and the overwhelming sensuality of their placement, had me transfixed.

Most people who saw the photographs reacted with horror. “I can’t look at it, Sharanya – I’m sorry, I just can’t,” friend after friend told me. I’m certain there were some who reacted with a different kind of horror – appalled at my exhibitionism, perhaps. I am very well aware that what to me was a meditation on pain, a means of negotiating with the multiple complexities of an event that had left me shaken and hurt in more ways than one, was for others just victim vogue.

The responses intrigued me. I had shared these photos not to shock people, but because it was truly healing for me to have taken them. Those close to me, I realised, were reacting to the violence I had experienced, and not to the process by which I was dealing with it. Many avoided it altogether. “I wanted to call and ask to meet,” said someone, when we eventually spoke. “But I saw the pictures.” Only one person told me the photos were beautiful, and asked – almost as an afterthought – what had happened.

I answered the question very rarely, when it was asked. What mattered was that if I was well enough to subvert it, it meant I had survived it.

The body is the canvas of our personal mythologies, but we are conditioned to titivate and obscure its realities. The reality of my body today includes three beautiful gashes across my chest, just as it includes the scar at my navel and an assortment of idiosyncrasies better left to poetry. They may fade, or they may stay, testament. The body and its blood. All of it is beautiful. And every last mark I carry is mine.

There are scars we see, and then there are scars we can’t. Perhaps what drew me to honour these ones, etched across my body with brutal intention, was that to do so gave me another way of calligraphing the invisible ones. I was here. I am here. Here I am.

An adapted 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: Touching Souls

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When I was little and lived in homes with real gardens, one of my favourite things to do was to step on the thottanchinungi plant. Its little ferns would shrink to the touch, and then slowly open, repeating these gestures until the agitator bored of them. There’s a rhyme I remember the beginning of from those days, in Tamil. It went something like, thottanchinungi, thodupudingi: the fern that shrivelled up and snivelled like someone who had their earrings pulled.

I would eventually become something of an animist. I looked to coasts and trees and red earth. But I only remembered the shy, sensitive thottanchinungi at the beginning of the year. I’d been in the countryside for some weeks by then, anticipating catharsis yet entirely unprepared for it. It was a morning that came amidst many things, mostly devastating ones, but I remember a sense of exhilaration as my friend Rane and I sped off to even more rural interiors on an old, green motorbike. I think we were heading to a lake, but mostly, it was for the ride. Somewhere on the way back, I caught sight of the back of a statue, a typical Kali, a cacophony of arms and legs, and we stopped. I had to see it.

It turned out that what we had discovered was a Tantric shrine. “The serious shit,” Rane said, pointing to the shed full of tools for invocation. No one was around. I prayed that day with the promise to come back before I left this surreal dimension I’d found myself in for what was supposedly the real world. I had no idea then what was coming – I would not return before I went back, and there was nothing to go back to. The unraveling had only just begun. “It’s okay,” my friend said, weeks later. “The account has been opened. You’ll make the deposit some day.”

But I didn’t know all this then.

Climbing off the bike, my eyes following the flight of an astonishing black, white and red butterfly, was when I saw it, my old childhood friend the thottanchinungi. Of all the kinds of weed involved in my catharsis, this was the most symbolic. The mimosa pudica was the ultimate metaphor for the state of my heart that morning, and not just mine. We wait to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be touched. And then we retreat. We fold into ourselves and wait to be left alone. We burn that bridge and bloom again. We burn that bridge but we forget the way back, and over and over and over we build and burn, trapped in our private purgatories.

How easy to curl within ourselves. How hard to stay open, even to the things we think we have been waiting for all our lives. There is resilience. And then there is, simply, running away.

But although the plant I saw that day looked like the thottanchinungi, it didn’t respond to my foot. It refused to shrivel, but I no longer had the time or curiosity to play with it as I once did. Maybe it was something else, some other herb. Something that looked like one thing but was another one entirely. Unequivocal disappointment can be easy to accept. Just ask the thottanchinungi.

But maybe it was the thottanchinungi, only a stronger variant. What I know is this: it held its own. It didn’t shrivel at my skin, but rested calmly against it. Its soul to my sole. By refusing to recoil it stayed receptive to something else, something that held it open, thriving, fully unfurled.

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.