Tag Archives: cities

The Venus Flytrap: Sleepless In A City That Never Wakes Up

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To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to bear witness to one’s own insanity. Nothing between midnight and morning but the agitated flutter of the mind, or the pacing of the reprieve-deprived body from window to window, watching how the light changes in each one. The one from which you watch planes taking off, indulging in yourself the envy of the exiled. The one from which sad, ghostless palms flap their leaves in a wind that teases of but never delivers thunder. Even the spirits don’t stay up with you here. And you yourself, sapped and belligerent, are hardly any company.

I stopped being able to sleep properly six weeks ago, upon returning from my most recent hegira. I call them hegiras because that is what they are. I need to escape this city for the sake of my soul. The further behind I leave it, the closer I return to something resembling myself.

What can I tell you about a month and a half of chronic insomnia? I can tell you there is a point you hit where you begin to enjoy it. How nothing stirs but that which stirs within you. The silence. The sadness. The solitude. All the things you must stave off during the day, but can unwrap quietly and feast on at night. I can tell you how you begin to take pleasure in becoming a creature of nocturnal habits. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is not to live a shadow life, but to shine light on the cry of a heart in eclipse.

The night drifts on fitfully, always too fast. You like the faraway first call of the muezzin; maybe it reminds you of a city you loved once, which, for all its faults, didn’t kill half its time in slumber. You like the sounds of the train that cannot be heard in hours of traffic. But with these comes the sunrise, and how it comes – hijacking the night sky with an impatience you recognise in nothing else here but your own wretched longings. You will come to hate it – all it brings is one more day you will lose to this city.

On an average night I wake five or six times. I dream almost every night – in snatches, intensely symbolic dreams that please me more than anything the day brings. I lie awake for hours, sometimes too tired to move. I am in grief. I am in the labyrinth. I never have nightmares, and I suspect my waking life compensates enough for this. I am alive here only when all else sleeps and I, alone, am awake.

The days pass without consequence, but at least the nights are complicated. This is the only way I can live in a city of no rain or redemption. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to be its only sentinel, and to see from that vantage point that there is nothing here to save.

Real cities never sleep, just like the people who don’t belong to the ones that do. The trouble with this city and all cities like it is how pleased it is to remain comatose. How pleased it is to shut it eyes and never dream of more.

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.

Featured On A Full Page (More Madras Week)

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A full page in today’s Expresso! Knock aside the food listing and the film ad, and you have an article apiece about “The Sea Story” and the readings on the first night, the theme for which was Cities+Pride.

Five more nights to go! Yesterday’s was Cities+Envy, which went splendidly in spite of the rain and the delay caused by the rain, and tonight’s is Cities+Wrath.

You can check out our full page spread at the e-paper here (available only for today — hopefully I can scan it up by tomorrow). Expresso section, page 6 (Madras Week feature).

MADRAS WEEK AT VANILLA PLACE

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Celebrate Madras/Chennai city’s 369th birthday with seven evenings of photography, folksongs and poetry! Seven nights of still life, song and sinful spoken word, saluting our city by the sea.

August 18 2008 – August 24 2008

MADRAS WEEK EVENTS AT VANILLA PLACE, MYLAPORE

CURATED BY CHANDRACHOODAN GOPALAKRISHNAN
AND SHARANYA MANIVANNAN,
WITH THE PARTICIPATION OF THE WORLD STORYTELLING INSTITUTE.

PHOTO EXHIBITION AND SALE

Opening night: August 18 2008

Time: 7pm

From August 18 to August 24 , organised by Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and The Chennai Photowalk. Photos are of Chennai, as seen through the eyes of the photographers who participated in the first nine photowalks. All photos exhibited are available for purchase.

The Chennai Photowalk is a movement of the residents of Chennai to preserve the city’s heritage in the form of photos. Young and old, professional and the hobbyist, photographers of all description meet, walk and capture a view of the city mostly overlooked.

“THE SEA STORY”: A SPECIAL PERFORMANCE ON OPENING NIGHT

A special storytelling drama with folksongs by the Nochikuppam seafishing community, facilitated by the World Storytelling Institute and hosted by Eric Miller.

“The Sea Story” summary: One evening, a mother sings a lullaby to a child (Thalattu pattu). That night, some men go in a kattumaram to fish in the sea (Rowing pattu).

One man is lost in a storm, and some women on shore lament for the lost man (Oppari pattu). Finally, the lost man re-appears – he was rescued by a sea-turtle! – and the community members are filled with joy (Celebration pattu).

SPOKEN WORD READINGS AND OPEN MICS

From August 18 to August 24 at 8pm every night, hosted by Sharanya Manivannan.

August 18 – “Cities+Pride” (Opening Night)
August 19 – “Cities+Envy”
August 20 – “Cities+Wrath”
August 21 – “Cities+Sloth”
August 22 – “Cities+Greed”
August 23 – “Cities+Gluttony”
August 24 – “Cities+Lust”

Local poets both famous and soon-to-be-famous explore the idea of cities as hubs of sins from different angles. Debauchery or divine redemption? A bit of both is promised each night, along with poetry and prose both original and admired. Performers include Kuttirevathi, Vivek Narayanan, Deesh Mariwala and Sharanya Manivannan.

Open mic readings are open to all. Please contact sharanya.manivannan@gmail.com.

About the organisers

Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan is a writer (of prose, poetry and carefully worded commercial fiction) and a photographer (of people, places and the occasional abstract) from Chennai. His great-grandfather was an epigraphist, translator and the first Tamil novelist. These genes, always unpredictable, waited three generations to surface in Chandrachoodan, causing him to take a great interest in his city and its heritage. Which in turn took form as a monthly photowalk.

As a spoken word artist, Sharanya Manivannan has performed to critical and popular acclaim at dozens of venues, including an abandoned pier, a cemetery and the 11th century Borobudur Temple, as well as more conventional locations. Her book of poems, Witchcraft, will be published this year, and carries a foreword from celebrated Sri Lankan-American poet Indran Amirthanayagam that describes it as “bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils… a glorious, chilling and sensual debut”. Sharanya is committed to the creation of a spoken word scene in Chennai, and regularly co-organises and hosts events that encourage the open mic format, in which anyone willing to share their work is welcome.

The World Storytelling Institute was founded by Eric Miller and Jeeva Raghunath in Chennai, in December 2007.  Mr. Eric is the director of the WSI; Ms. Jeeva is the director of its section on storytelling for/by/with children.  The WSI’s mission is to facilitate training in, performance of, and discussion about, forms of storytelling.  In Tamil Nadu, three traditional styles of storytelling are 1) Kathaiyum Pattum (Story and Song); 2) Villupattu (Bow Song); and 3) Katha Kalak Chebam, also known as Harikatha (God Story).  In cultures around the world, there are similar styles.  We seek to help these styles be meaningful and useful in the modern world.  Eric is Assistant Professor of Story and Storytelling at the Image College of Art, Animation, and Technology (Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad), which trains students in the design of 3D Animation, Cinema Visual Effects, and Computer-video-Internet games. He is near completion of a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia): his dissertation concerns the use of videoconferencing for educational and performance applications. Originally from New York City, Eric has settled in Chennai.  He is married to Chennai native Magdalene Jeyarathnam, the founder-director of Chennai’s Center for Counseling, and they have a daughter.

Venue

Vanilla Place, No. 8/57, 1st Street Luz Avenue, near Nageswara Park, Mylapore.

All events are free and open to the public.

For further details, please contact Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan – 9884467463

The Venus Flytrap: Solo In The City

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I am not Carrie Bradshaw, and Lady help anyone who thinks so (for the record, the glorious Samantha, the most soulful maneater in the recent history of female iconography, is my favourite). But among the many moments of Sex and the City that struck a chord in me in spite of its protagonist was the occasion when she realized that perhaps, if we’re all destined for only one great love in this life, New York City was hers.

What does it mean, to have an affair with a city? To be lonely in a way so profound that one speaks to it, feels it under her skin?

I’ve known different types of loneliness in different cities, just as I’ve been different selves in them. But never, nowhere, have I had the kind of erratic, love-hate, impossible relationship to a place the way I do with Madras.

This is not the city in which the pivotal moments of my adolescence played out. Its highways, its bars, its boutiques have not been background sets to my life the way other surroundings have. This is the city that once put me on emergency antidepressants, devastated me in other ways at other times. But it is the city in which I am today, and will be tomorrow. It is the city I cannot run from, and I’ve long acknowledged my surrender.

Among other places I’ve called homes, there are two about which I still dream. One of them is lost to me in practical, bald ways: the tyranny of immigration. In those dreams, I am wistful for a life that I possessed fully, irreplaceably. The other still lies open, like a day I can simply walk into, if I so choose. For months I thought I wanted this second city. I knew myself in it so well.

But I am still here. Still here loving every single auto ride. Thinking of her, my naked city, bereft of hoardings now, as a girl stripped of her jewellery, suddenly bare of everything but her dimples. I’ve written elsewhere about this affair – how even my birth here was accidental, how my last long residence was equally fortuitous, how I wound up back here again against what felt like the wishes of every cell in my body. I have called her mistress and muse in different breaths.

I am alone in this city though there are people I live with and people I speak to. I am alone in this city in an absence of love – an absence into which the city decants herself perfectly. I am alone with this city, perhaps, like that Red Hot Chilli Peppers song.

A friend told me last year how in every hotel room he occupies, he leaves his footwear facing opposite directions. It’s a sign to the spirits, he said, that one is there only temporarily, and will not cause trouble. In the seven months that I’ve been in Chennai again, I’ve been following this advice, as though to invoke the energies of dislocation once more. I won’t be here long. I won’t cause trouble.

Today, for the first time, I placed left and right shoe facing the same direction. For whatever it is worth, for whatever this affair will amount to, I will ride it out. At the end of this, when we come to it, she will have beaten me to a pulp again. Surely. That is her nature. And it is mine to succumb to her.

For if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the way forward is truly, truly only possible with all the epic, luminous ache of a broken heart.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

A Valentine To The City

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When Blogbharti approached me sometime back to commission a piece for their Spotlight Series, I really wasn’t sure what to write about. Then Kuffir, the website’s editor, mentioned that he missed “the fiery poet” who seemed absent from this new blog. For reasons that will be obvious to those who followed me here from the old blog, I’ve certainly tempered things down. So I got to thinking, what provokes me these days, to the point of writing? I wrote this on Valentine’s Day. It was published this morning here. The photos above were taken by me on the fourth Chennai Photowalk.

A VALENTINE TO THE CITY

Sometimes, I hate this city. I don’t deny that. There is so much to hate here. It is merciless. A crude, cruel, unforgiving bitch of a city. The meanness of its people. Sycophancy, moral (dis)order, parochialism pimped out to the tune of “heritage”. Sanctimony. There is the deliberate Anglophilia and its darker – in colour, too – twin, self-loathing. I abhor its hypocrisy, its incestuous orbits, the claustrophobia it induces. How it is its women who are the torchbearers of its patriarchies. The oddness of an illogical concept like caste running this whole machine. I cannot stand its Edenizing of the tremendously racist nation of Malaysia, its unexceptional immigrant dreams; nor can I stand the chest-thumping that trivializes the very real defects of our own. The weather. Hell on earth is Madras in May. Even the rains cannot soften this city.

Sometimes, I hate this city. I do.

And sometimes I take an auto through a road strewn with rose petals, a funeral wake having passed through minutes before. I breathe in that macabre glory. Sometimes I carry my little camera along with a group of mostly large men with large cameras, men who know this city, who can speak of its architecture and its history, who can point to a place one might have seen a thousand times and illuminate it, suddenly. I fall in love this way. Like Rushdie’s man who viewed his bride in pieces, through a perforated sheet, so too I fall for my city, mutilate it, make it mine.

“Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” wrote Orhan Pamuk in his definitive book on the city of his soul. “I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”

And in its distance, the irrevocability of never having grown up here, and then the inevitability of having had to return nonetheless, it wields the same influence over me.

And so this is my secret. I have been speaking to this city, in my head. I call it, typically perhaps, her. I make this city mine just as she unmakes and reassembles me. The dialogue between us is one of cause and consequence. Will you hurt me this time? I ask. What if I never told anyone when I hate you? What if I never let myself speak about leaving? What if I act like I never will, I say sometimes, and that is the most poignant of questions – because sometimes, I think I never will.

So here I am. And here I am. And here I may always be. And even if I leave, to here I will return and return and return, each time in a different sentiment. I will return with rancour. I will return with regret. I will return without routes in mind. Uprooted. Belligerently. In cavalier attitudes, have holidays I will barely remember later. Bouyant and broken and beyond description. I will return, and return, and return.

She has never known the smell of jasmines, doesn’t give a damn about henna on the hands or the hair. She is nothing like who she thinks she is. She stands at the bottoms of hoardings and stares up at misrepresentations of her face, her cleavage, the look in her eyes. And not one passerby recognizes her. She’s slutty: she belongs to millions, and like all of them, I like to think she comes home to me. Still, nothing makes her melt more than S.P. Balasubramaniam’s voice in a flick from the ’80s, nothing breaks her heart quite so sweetly like being called Kannamma. In arguments, and only then, she mixes her V’s and her W’s. She may suggest otherwise in certain company, but cannot speak a word of Hindi. Not a word.

Petulant as a child on a summer holiday trying to sleep in the backseat of a 1994 Maruti 800, neither her hands nor her eyelids able to shield her from the sunlight. Powerful as an MGR speech – Thaimakale! En rathathin rathame! Kitschy and tasteless as a political poster, and just as tactful as a man pissing against it. Coy. Cunning. Deceptively simple.

Living here has turned me from being spiritual to a blasé agnostic. Trees that inspire awe and humility are rare – but one of the better things I did the week before last was to walk the entire stretch of the rather long road on which I live and found, to my surprise, some decent ones. The Marina looms fifteen minutes from home, but too many paces from the call of the soul; even disappearing into the coast in this city by the sea is perhaps too obvious an escape to be worth it. I could stand on the terrace of my family’s apartment, toss pieces of coloured paper into the air, and have each one land on a church, a mosque, but mostly some small roadside shrine. It doesn’t matter. I find myself worshipping nothing but the City. My awful and wonderful god. Dictator of my future, arbitrator of my past.

You don’t inspire me anymore, I tell her. You’re just another city, like the hundreds out there. You’re just another place on the map. You don’t even smell like you used to.

Silence. The persistence of horns. The particular sound of the engines of autorickshaws. Someone whispering nasties to a girl who pretends not to hear as she walks by, someone else uncurdling phlegm from her throat and spitting.

So – what then? I demand. You think you own me?

And that’s when she gathers her skirts – yes, in the plural, she is mad and dramatic and imperious that way – and flees to a more considerate lover. Cruel mistress of mine.

And I am left still sitting here, penning paeans, shooting pictures. Smitten. Sodden. Gone.