Tag Archives: chennai

The Venus Flytrap: Behind The Zenana’s Doors

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The doors opened and I was inside a zenana: an erstwhile one, turned into a hotel. “A harem” was how my new friend described it, until I gave her the other word. She’d been staying there on her many trips to India over three decades. Nothing of the façade suggested what was within: courtyards, labyrinthine staircases, powder blue and mint green paint, leafiness and sunlight. Even the bustle of Triplicane was extinguished. Mani Ratnam had just been shooting there, and the huge airy room on the roof was still having its regular furniture brought in when I visited. Later, I was disgusted to learn – this mysterious place where I’d been welcomed is infamous for a policy of allowing only white guests. That’s why the seclusion – it is really exclusion.

Still, I’d been there at noon on a new moon day and the gracious caretaker had insisted on taking dhrishti for me as he smashed or split pumpkin, coconut and lime one by one on the road outside, camphor burning. What do we make of these mismatches – when the parts don’t add up to the sum, when a place or a person is nice to you but nasty in general? This was also the second time recently when I’d been treated warmly somewhere, but scratching beneath the surface revealed an underbelly of racism.

Things are not what they seem, and then they are. And then sometimes you find that they are how they are only because you are what you are. Or what you seem to be.

I’ve written elsewhere at length about my Karaikal Ammaiyar mode – a method of dressing that appears careless but in fact is designed to make people take me seriously, or to let me be inconspicuous while I go about my own work. Karaikal Ammaiyar was the 6th century poet who prayed to be turned into a wraith so that her she could move through the world unencumbered by her own beauty. My “true” hyper-feminine, quite glamorous self takes a backseat to this style quite often. There’s something tricky about this mode though, which I keep forgetting. It makes me lower my guard. It puts me on the footing of assuming my own unattractiveness, and so makes me open in ways I don’t easily when aware of myself. I felt it happen recently: I put on my armour, and I dropped my guard.

Only, I was then left wondering: if my alluring self was real, how was my Ammaiyar self also honest? Perhaps like the plain-looking lodging that opened onto a zenana, but revealed itself to be stark of heart, something in my austere manifestation held more than a kernel of truth. Had I played the Ammaiyar disguise so much that I had grown in it, and begun to hold myself in authentic ways even in that state?

My friend who stayed at the zenana had asked me to meet her somewhere else the previous night, with instructions to “dress and behave like a goddess”, so we’d be given permission for something. I knew what she meant. Recognition is mostly a game of optics. Authenticity, though, is about much so more.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 22nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Kadalai? Kadavule!

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Putting kadalai is one of my favourite hobbies (a close second to a most favourite hobby, which is receiving kadalai). The etymology of “kadalai podrathu” is probably from the Marina Beach romance culture, which made the too-healthy-to-be-sexy sundal an aphrodisiac.

Kadalai is not kaadhal, kadalai is not a commitment. Kadalai is just flirtation. Kadalai is repartee and possibility. The best thing about kadalai is that it’s very uncomplicated. So you can share a cone with anyone, metaphorically speaking, and usually be perfectly satisfied with just that. But no less than Rumi is credited with a poem on the chickpea, which includes these zesty lines: “Grace first. Sexual pleasure, then a boiling new life begins, and the Friend has something good to eat.”

I recently discussed this while in the midst of another favourite activity, procrastination (also fun to do with another person). “I wonder what sundal would be, then,” I procrastinated with my friend Sukanya. She expanded the Tanglish lexicon of lust and love immediately: “Sundal would be a booty call text. It’s quite spicy and it’s been cooked – by then some process has happened.” Kadalai progression.

Sukanya lives in an exotic foreign country known as Mumbai and when I visited her once, she asked me to bring a certain local delight – rose milk from the airport Krishna Sweets. Thankfully, it did not bukkake in my luggage. Rose milk would be “final achievement unlocked” she winkyfaced. Except, of course, it turns bad the next day. A comparison I am, sadly, very familiar with.

Chicken 65 is obviously what happens when a height-disproportionate couple tries to have an egalitarian oral experience (quite overrated anyway; in fact, we could say it’s only semiprime). A karuvadu situation might generally mean something dried up beyond redemption, but do you have any idea how tasty karuvadu actually is, after days in the sun? Heat plus anticipation equals much deliciousness. Slow burn. Keep it roasting.

A vengayam, to misquote a famous politician, would be a dudebro who seems complex and deep at first (you know, listens to Cohen and always meant to listen to Mitchell too, takes long solo bike rides to brood in scenic settings, maybe reads a little Zizek – or just reads a little at all), but once everything’s peeled off there’s nothing there. Oh, and he also makes you cry.

Speaking of when everything’s been peeled off, a pachaimolaga is a thing that looks disappointingly small but is capable of imparting much fieriness. Or maybe you’d prefer the pappadum or appalam – the hotter it gets, the more it expands. Apropos which, long before the eggplant emoji, we were already saying “oru kathrikai kooda ille”. Sigh.

Which brings me to how, in these days of both grocery apps and dating apps delivering juicy convenience to our doorsteps, some of us still thiruvify the thenga ourselves. The good old-fashioned way. By hand, the way God and Dr. Ruth told us to. If you don’t think this analogy applies to your anatomy, it’s quite possible that too many already do. And if all this Tanglish has been lost on you, let’s just say the last word is simply: ladies finger.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: For The Women Who Weren’t Born Men

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Maybe they don’t know everything, the women with the divining sticks, but they sure know how to reel a girl in. Maybe they don’t see everything, but they do see you there on the beach, alone or in some laidback configuration, and somehow – they see enough.

And so they come up to you as you’re rolling your jeans up or dusting your bum off, scrunching the newspaper your sundal came in and absentmindedly considering whether to litter, trash or recycle. And they look you in the eyes with a smile of recognition and say: “Nee ambulaiya poranthirikanum, ma!” You should have been born a man.

Even later, when you find out that there’s nothing unique about this line, you will consider it a compliment, because it is meant as one.

And the shore-side soothsayer will offer you this opening gambit as she takes your palm, because whatever else she knows or doesn’t, she can intuit you aren’t going to take it as an insult.

Though later, you learn: some women who do terrible things to other women have been told it too. Other women who do worse things to themselves have been told it too. Are those also ways to be men, then? “Internalised misogyny,” you think. Women who should have been born men because maybe then they would hate themselves, and each other, less.

Even later, when you bristle and say, “Well, if I lived somewhere else, was steeped in better societal conditioning, desexing me wouldn’t feel like a compliment.”

But you don’t live anywhere but here. You live here in this city by the sea. With a long beach where you could be detained for holding hands at night. And by the brightness of day, you give yourself away because only someone who doesn’t mind sun-kissed skin would be loitering. Someone like you, a woman like a man.

Count them and see how few they are, the women. How far between the canoodling (straight) couples and the water-shy families. While half-naked men splash around like they own this city, or indeed, this sea.

“Should have been born a man”, you ponder – and you look at the transwomen who also mill about between stalls selling blackened corn and displaying balloons to shoot for prizes. And you wonder what the fortune-tellers say to them, though you don’t quite know how to ask.

And not yet, not today, but soon – you may wander along that beach and arrive at the memorial of another woman who “should have been born a man”. And you’ll think of the crowds of men in white who surrounded her, and all the women still in their kitchens, whose lives she made a little easier.

At first, when you were younger, you thought that all that the fortune-tellers meant with that provocative, alluring opening gambit was this: that you have courage in excess, a province you demurred was not exclusively male. Later you understood: if you were a man, in this place and in this time, what you could do with that courage would have multiplied. Or to put it another way, perhaps you wouldn’t have needed that much courage at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Turtlewalking Through The Night

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“Little is known about the lives of turtles underwater, but this much has long been understood: Where a turtle hatches is where she comes back to nest, a dozen or so years later. In the nearly three decades of the SSTCN’s work, Venkatramanan estimates that 2,50,000 eggs have been transferred from the beaches to the hatcheries, of which 2,00,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea.”

Read my piece on turtlewalking in Chennai, and the increasingly threatened marine ecosystem, in Hindustan Times.

The Venus Flytrap: Quiet Outrage And Battle Fatigue

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On Saturday afternoon, I climbed into an auto I had hailed on the street just as a small group of teenagers were walking by on the other side. They were a mixed group of boys and girls, smiling and chatty with one another, and at least one of the girls was in a sleeveless outfit that ended at the knee. I registered fairly little of them, and would not have thought about them for a split second longer, had the driver not spoken just then.

I paraphrase from Tamil: “Like this, of course they’ll get their necks slashed.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Didn’t that happen at that train station? If they walk around the city undressed, what else is going to happen but getting their necks slashed?”

“Stop the auto.”

He did. I disembarked silently and took a few steps away. He drove off. I didn’t note his license plate. I didn’t take a photo. What would the point of Internet-shaming him be? Would it stop women from being attacked? Would it change people’s attitudes? Or would it just be one more app-friendly act of resistance, the kind that saturates our feeds yet does not spill over into our lived practices of equal partnering, better parenting or structural overhaul? Petty wins don’t give me power trips. They give me fatigue. The battle is so much bigger, and so continuous.

That evening, I read about Qandeel Baloch’s murder at the hands of her brother. The auto driver had thought a teenage girl deserved a brutal death for wearing something she must have liked. He found it only natural to relay this as a passing comment. Baloch’s brother had had that same thought. He carried it out. Somewhere in Pakistan is a college lecturer, or a taxi driver, or a research analyst – anyone at all, of any gender – pointing to a woman they don’t know as they tell someone else that she’s asking for it. For her boldness. For her vibrance. For her desire to simply be.

“So, he didn’t aruthufy your throat, no?” Many I know would have taken the ride anyway. They told me so. An auto driver is as irrelevant and impersonal to them as the teenager was to him. Neither of those dehumanisations are right.

The act of disengaging, for me, was more loaded than outrage. This is not categorically true; it must be used with acumen. But we cannot be so rash with the latter that we forget that a lived practice manifests in myriad ways.

I quietly unfriended one sleazebag and one mansplainer recently. I quietly wait for friends with problematic politics to arrive at certain insights that click only when they’re experienced, not tutored. I quietly listen when elderly conservatives bluster, and then I quietly go home and write. And that afternoon, I quietly remained standing on that street with my arm held out, alone. I hadn’t raised my voice. But I had stood my ground.

Several minutes later, the same driver came back around. “Naanthan,” he said, a little sheepishly.

Vendam,” I said. He moved on, a stupid grin still on his face. I didn’t have that luxury.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: All Scene, No Art?

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I tried not to judge, but wouldn’t you roll your eyes at the words “colouring book workshop for adults”? Then came the real kicker – the fee. It was the cost of a nice 3-course meal for two at any midscale restaurant. And if that restaurant happens to be family-friendly, you’d probably get table mats to not just colour, but also do crosswords and matching puzzles on. Totally complimentary.

Of course, other people’s time and money are not my concern. The off-putting feeling was really about what passes for leisure-cultural activity in Chennai. “But this is interactive” is no defense: when listening to an orchestra, doesn’t one participate right down to the goosebumps on one’s arms?

Some time ago, at the launch of a very good book, I looked around at the meagre audience and felt deeply annoyed. Just a couple of days prior, there had been another reading by aspirant writers, and their absence meant a conspicuous lack of support for someone who had stayed the course and worked hard to gain their current success. I’ve noted this often, over the years: the desire to be read, heard, watched, admired, applauded – but a reluctance to offer the same.

So many burn out because they fuel only their ambition, not their sense of awe. Whenever I discourage someone from self-publishing a collection before sending even a single poem to a poetry journal, or chide them for not reading enough, it’s because I’ve seen a little farther down the path than they have. I speak from just the distance I have come so far, but this I know:  the journey is full of disappointment, rife with treachery, and one keeps on it through tenacity, humility and something I can only name as grace. If you demand an audience while refusing to be in one, you become the proverbial frog under the coconut shell. And so does the art you make.

But when I was asked when I’d last been to an arts event not directly related to my own field, i.e. literature, I couldn’t pinpoint one within the last three months. I posed the same question to other Chennai-based artists – when had they last had a cultural experience outside their turf? A musician was unsure – there’d been a photo exhibit in the last month but he couldn’t recall its name. A dancer knew distinctly that at least a year had passed since catching Ponniyan Selvan onstage. A theatre practitioner had attended a concert early this year. The person who’d asked me the question, also a musician, couldn’t remember. My own answer had been a cheat: I’d visited two heritage monuments in Karnataka.

This highlights the next level of the problem: professionals who don’t frequently cross-pollinate locally. Even if most of us privately, compulsively, consume culture through books, films and music, this doesn’t necessarily influence our collective milieu. As tempting as it is to blame Chennai’s sparse arts scene (with a few concentrated festivals a year, not a continuous buzz) I’d prefer to turn the onus on us: those in, and who want to be in, the arts. Let’s colour outside the boxes a little more, shall we?

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Illusion Of Safety Is A Highly Gendered Phenomenon

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Some years ago, a spectacularly acrimonious argument with an auto driver had me racing up several flights of stairs, palms sweating, ears ringing with filthy curses, desperately seeking the reassurance of the friend who opened the door. Shaken, I recounted the incident: the driver knew where I lived, I was at the drop-off location frequently, it was a long ride, he knew what I looked like, what if, what if…?

“Don’t be silly,” said my friend. “How many times a day do you think he has a fight? Do you think he keeps accounts of each one?”

His logic was so beautiful, so collected, that for a few moments relief washed over me. I was just being paranoid, I agreed. I mean, why would I think that… And then the genderedness of our perspectives clicked into place. My male friend lived in a city in which he could unzip his trousers by a random wall if the bathroom queues were too long, and no matter how many women dropped by, his neighbours still said friendly hellos to him. I lived in a city in which I never left a party without someone asking me to text when I got home, and none of those same neighbours ever looked me in the eye. Both these cities share the same name and map coordinates, and vastly different emotional echolocations.

Which city did the murder of S. Swathi at the busy Nungambakkam railway station happen in last week: his or mine? Entitlement or vulnerability? Both, as it happens, which is why the reactions to it have been so shameful and so confused.

Chennai is not any more dangerous than it ever was, so let’s drop that sensationalist line of thinking. Ask a college student, ask a transwoman, ask every person wrapping a dupatta on her body as though it was made of chainmail. If you hear women themselves saying that the city has “become unsafe”, what’s between the lines is this: if someone chooses to kill me publicly, they may just get away with it. The psychological stakes have been raised from eyes averted from slaps in parking lots and ears plugged to screams in the adjacent building to even greater non-involvement.

The need to categorise the murder as only an issue of urban safety is an act of obfuscation. True, we should be able to take for granted working CCTV surveillance and prompt responses from authorities, as well as protection for those who come forward as witnesses. But to ignore the larger picture of public indifference and poor socialisation means changing nothing about how things really are. We can talk about these things while still honouring Swathi’s family’s request to not speculate on her case.

We cannot address women’s safety without talking about stalking, specifically how treating love as a dinner table taboo and allowing misogynistic cinema to teach its ways instead has destroyed its spirit. Modern Indian culture does not empower people with respectful courtship etiquette, but neither does it empower them with the skills to handle rejection. And when a person confides that someone makes them feel afraid, how seriously do we take them?

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Casual Casteism Of The Term ‘TamBrahm’

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It was a night like so many others in my mid-twenties. My friends were already at the dimly-lit club, along with a very young couple, new to the clique. I was the last to arrive, and much inebriation had already taken place. “You must be a Tam-Brahm too, right?” asked the cheerful girl, shortly after we’d been introduced. Before I could launch into the response that my friends could expect of me, her boyfriend piped up: “No, she’s not. Brahmins don’t keep names like Manivannan.”

This is true – my surname comes from the Tamil bhakti movement; it’s in the verses of the Azhwars, including the foxy and mysterious Andal’s. Do I like my father’s name? Sure, I do. Am I proud of it? No, because pride is about achievement. I did nothing to achieve a poetic surname, just as my companions that evening had done nothing (not even karmically!) to be ranked upper caste. I was struck that a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly. And the infuriating, ugly question thus raised: what could my caste background possibly mean to that setting?

Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice evening. But it was also an encounter that in many ways exemplified how caste still holds its gridlock in the minds of otherwise cosmopolitan – and even very lovely – people. I was raised abroad, of mixed heritage and caste-oblivious; I never encountered it as a personal marker until I tried to apply to college in India, at almost 20. This too was a privilege. Once I moved to Chennai, I found that almost all my friends came from atop the caste pyramid. This was not incidental: it spoke to the fact that the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles (what a Venn diagram; why aren’t our associations more diverse?) that I moved in were thus dominated. I was among the very few odd ones out, and was made, suddenly, very aware. Even if I hadn’t chosen to educate myself, there were countless slips, suggestions and jabs that reinforced the need.

I can relate several more of them to prove my point, but instead I’ll make a request: it’s time to retire the term “Tam-Brahm”. Don’t try to make a horrible thing sound hip. That it rhymes doesn’t make the history – or the present – it references any cooler, or more palatable.

When you sit with me – or to put a fine point on it, anyone who is not like you – in a conversation and cavalierly place the words “Tam-Brahm” on the table, it is more than just an uncomfortable allusion. It is a subtle act of aggression. Through this ID, what you make clear to me (perhaps unconsciously) are your rank in a hierarchy versus mine, your defensiveness about the caste system, your negating of centuries of violence, oppression and inhumanity, and most of all, your unapologetic embrace of all the same.

Casteism will not die until caste does. And you are so much more than what your ancestors did to other people – including, perhaps, to mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

“Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”

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I’m so very delighted that my essay on femininity, fashion and exile, “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, from the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India/Hardie Grant Australia), has been republished in The Ladies Finger. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

The Venus Flytrap: Nothing To Laugh About

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It was the middle-aged waiter’s sweetly apologetic tone and awkward phrasing that gave him away. Clearly, he was not the one with the objection. He was only the messenger.

This is what he said: “You have independence. But please, laugh a little quietly?” Sudhandhiram – the Tamil word for independence; he knew he was infringing on our rights, and he wanted us to know that he was sorry. We were two women who had finished a long lunch, eaten three types of dessert, and paid the bill. We were loitering, already considered a suspect activity for women. Ladies loitering while laughing loudly. Someone – patron or staff or management – had found this worthy of reprimand.

I have a big laugh. People recognise me by it in crowded auditoriums. Strangers turn to look upon hearing it (possibly to check they haven’t wandered into the set of a horror movie). I do not cover my mouth with a dupatta when I laugh. I do not usually wear a dupatta, in fact, because I don’t believe that anything should be covered unless in the interest of weather or aesthetics, rather than decorum.

I’ve jumped ahead a few paces because there’s something you and I, and everyone in this uncomfortable status quo, knows axiomatically. No one would have dared to go up to a chuckling man about to leave a restaurant and told him (politely or otherwise) to can it.

A woman who makes her presence felt – merely through function, existence or expression – in a public space is a public nuisance. And a woman who does not invisibilise herself makes her presence felt. Anywhere. Women who breastfeed on overnight buses. Girls who sweat through their football jerseys until their coloured sports bras show. Women who have to buy three movie tickets just so that no one sits on either side of them. Women who scream for help through thin walls while the neighbours turn the TV up louder.

I believe in silence in libraries and in meditation halls. I believe public walls should not be pissed against, and bhajans shouldn’t be played on loudspeakers. These are courtesies. They affect large numbers of people as they study, reflect, commute, sleep. They are intersections at which personal liberties can infringe on others. They are not gendered. Not even the open urination thing.

In conversations about women in public spaces, the topic we discuss the most is safety. In this painfully unequal world of ours, it is a concern. But a group of four women will still be asked, “Are you out alone?” (“No, each of us is out with three other people for company”). This is because the conversation has yet to extend to the notion of rights to public space. To be there, basically. To step into a public space should not mean giving up one’s autonomy over one’s body, voice or mobility. It should not mean adjusting (that delightful term used for everything from marriages to train bunks to bra straps) one’s very presence so that it looks, sounds and seems more like an absence.

In a world that makes one weep, we must take every chance to laugh out loud.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Flood Stories

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I counted myself among the lucky ones, while the city drowned. How lucky to be dry. How lucky to have water to drink, a toilet that flushed. How lucky to be parcelling food and not waiting for it. How lucky to be in my own clothes, and to have excess to give. And even when the power went out and took all lines of communication with it, how lucky to have little to do on a lightless night but to tell stories.

In hundreds of cultures, there is a legend about a Great Flood. The most well-known one comes from the landlocked region of the Abrahamic religions: Noah, and his ark of animals. Strangely, the elements of this myth are echoed in folklore everywhere: from the Aztec story of Tapi to the Masai story of Tumbainot to the Alaskan story of Kunyan. The common tale is as follows: that the world is punished with a terrible deluge because of human wickedness, and a chosen person or family build a vessel in which pairs of animals also took shelter. After days or weeks at sea, they finally release a bird or beast that returns, bringing a symbol of hope and dry land.

Hindu lore also contains a similar story: that of Matsya, the fish or fish-man, the first avatar of Vishnu. He warns Shraddhadeva Manu, a Dravidian king, of an impending deluge, and instructs him to build and fill an ark with animals, grains, seven sages and his own family – enough, as in every version of this tale, for a new world to come.

There are plenty of other twists, other downpours and other tales.

The Yuma of Southwest America have a flood tale which is also the origin story of the desert: a divine deluge is sent to eradicate dangerous animals, but when people insist that some of them must be kept for food, the waters are evaporated by a too-powerful fire. A beautiful Nigerian story goes that the moon and the sun were married, and their friend the flood demurs to visit their home but they insist; finally, the waters come through the doors and rise so high that the couple must live in the sky. In many South American flood stories, human survivors are turned into monkeys who slowly regain human attributes.

Primordial water is the origin of all life. A flood myth is essentially a second chance, to recreate: what must we do, once the earth is once again beneath our feet?

So many stories to tell by candlelight, in a storm, as one waits for the next opportunity to give, to get back out there and connect people, gather supplies, support the bravest among us all who wade into the worst-hit areas. I will not romanticise what it is like to wait, in that same darkness, for rescue.

When the floodwaters abate, there will be other stories. Among them, most of all, will be stories of ordinary heroism; ordinary because the massive outreach effort that the people of Chennai have shown is how humanity should always be. It should be ordinary to care. It should be habitual to think of others.

Flood stories are about destruction and punishment, but they are also about cleansing and renewal. They are about the obligation of survivors to question the methods of the past, and to build a future based on the wisdom of loss. What will we do differently, Chennai, now that we know how much we want that difference?

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