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The Venus Flytrap: Crown Shyness

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You lay on your back on the leaf-layered earth and see the sky rivered blue between patchworks of green. Crown shyness: the reluctance of certain species of trees to touch at their heights, so the canopy is a really a configuration of boundaries. The limit at which something is withheld. We don’t know why those trees do it any more than we know why we behave in our own mysterious ways, at odds with our natures. What’s the worst thing that can happen if your fronds or your fingers linked? What abrasion could be so injurious that what you will lose in the wind anyway cannot be risked? What larvae more fearsome than the way regret eats at you from the inside?

It is not difficult to go so long, crown-shy, tracing but not trespassing borders. It is more difficult by far to begin to make the reach again, to remember how to unfurl into a close but forbidden expanse.

There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened for you in so long,” she says. “And that is because you have forgotten how to want it in a way that forgets all else but the wanting.”

Forgets self-preservation. Forgets uprooting and decay. Forgets the sky itself.

Somewhere, on a farther continent, is a wolf tree, disorderly in its bearing, thriving on too much sunlight and too much space. The wolf tree is the one that was the last one standing, the one left for pity or prettiness while around it axes made way for pastoral land, the one that survived fire or pestilence. Without restriction, its branches shoot forward, devouring all available nutrients: light, moisture, soil, air. It is no longer necessary to reach only toward the sky, hemmed in by the needs of other foliage. So it throws its wooden limbs forth like some form of medieval punishment, protuberant boughs in too many directions at once. They grow horizontally, low on the ground, forking like snake-tongues or strikes of lightning, which have splintered it often. Its crown too is wide, ever-increasing – and un-neighboured, never-encroaching.

A century can pass. Around it, fresh verdure finds cultivation, flourishing just beyond its shade. And then the wolf tree begins to recede – no longer as abundantly nourished, a plethora of resources at its personal disposal. It does not die, but looks like it will, or – if a being as venerable as a tree can be assigned so shamefully human a trait – that it wants to. It isn’t so easy now, to be so crowded in, to be so damn obvious a testament to having withstood the damage of many seasons of solitude. Gnarled into glory. What can anything be, anew, having already been the only thing it will be known or remembered to ever have been?

“There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened for me in so long,” you say. “And that will not be explained by these metaphors, or by your idea that you can explain it.” You let the shadows envelope you. You know it’s not clear from the outside what has happened: if many crowns have collided, or if only a single canopy blots out the sun.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 31st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tribute To Veenapani Chawla

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One night many years ago, I stood in Veenapani Chawla’s kitchen and tried to tell her what it meant for me to be there. So I told her about how in the time since I had first started visiting her home, the Adishakti Theatre outside Auroville, I had been writing poems about my engagement with the space (at once tranquil and terrifyingly charged), my friendships in it, and the Ramayana studies and performances I’d been exposed to there. I remember how, at one moment, she looked me in the eyes and asked if I was happy, and that I weighed myself and said honestly, “Happier.”

As we were speaking, someone came in looking for a knife. VP, as she was known, would not pass it by hand. “I don’t want us to fight”, she said, smilingly. I admired her so deeply, and so simply, that I adopted the superstition immediately.

VP died on November 30th 2014, at 67 years old. She was an artistic pioneer who immersed herself in everything from chhau, kalaripayattu and koodiyattam to western dramaturgy, and dispersed equal energy into developing new work, questing, teaching, and creating and maintaining the magical Adishakti campus. “There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti – certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began,” wrote Girish Karnad a few months before her passing. I met many who envied her. But I met so many more who loved her. She was extraordinarily powerful, and equally kind. I had come into her orbit by chance, and stayed in it because of her generosity.

The first time I went to Adishakti, I stayed for a month. I would take my slippers off and dig my feet into the cool earth as though I could shoot out roots, and weep. It was a primal connection. This was where I came to understand intimately that what society calls a fringe is what the psyche knows as a frontier. It was not until a few years later that I found out that my paternal ancestral temple was only twenty minutes away. It had not been an imagined bond between my blood, my bones, those pepper vines, that soil.

I am not a theatre artist. I was not trained in the pedagogy for which Adishakti is famous, developed over decades of intensive research and dedication, and given away to all who wanted to learn it. I never studied performance under VP. I never even learnt how to swim from her – an offer she made me each time I saw her going for her laps in the huge, mineralised pool built on the campus a few years ago. Most of what I learnt from her, though, was intangible – both in its transmission and its nature. Veenapani Chawla was a singular influence on me. Meeting her permanently changed the trajectory of my life. I am who I am at 30 only because I met her at 23. Why I still live in India, why I never married, why I gravitate toward grace and quietude over militancy and glitz – the answers to all of these questions are linked to having known Adishakti and its founder, and having been indelibly transformed by both.

How could so much transpire on the basis of one soft-spoken woman and her home of red earth and verdure? Simple. Above all, knowing Veenapani Chawla taught me that another way, another paradigm, is possible. That one can live a life with devotion at its core: to art, to divinity, and to community.

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

The Venus Flytrap: A Sonder

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Lovers of language will be familiar with The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an Internet project that creates new words to help describe emotions that are, well, difficult to describe. The project is a beautiful experiment on the fine line between babble and Babel. Among its more popular invented words is one you’ve very likely seen in a meme or a listicle somewhere, whether or not you knew of the Dictionary in question. That word is “sonder”.

            The Dictionary defines the word as follows: “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. That’s the abridged version. An achingly hipsterish video accompanies the entry: it reminds the viewer that while they are the protagonist of their own life, around them are a supporting cast and a multitude of extras, each with a life that pivots around themselves. And there, the viewer in question is only an extra.

            I understand the popularity of the word. It gives a person pause, and for a few seconds or minutes they experience the humbling amazement that there are realities, perspectives and stories other than their own (honestly, not much of an epiphany at all if one likes to read). But what does that realisation really do other than reinforce the centrality of one’s own narrative? The truth is, every single day we rub up against the narratives of other people. And too often – out of urgency, protocol, fear or sheer indifference – we fail to register them, unless something they do or say or don’t imposes on our attention. If you really think about it, a sonder (the Dictionary defines it as a noun) is not a moment of connection; it is simply a break from a permanent cloud of self-involvement.

            I’m not sure if The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has a word for the opposite of sonder, the feeling I’d describe as the wall one hits against in certain individuals despite one’s core curiosity about and attunement to others. The people you see often, who allow you only the most functional and superficial access to their nature. You have to know them, professionally or circumstantially, and you form an impression of them that has nothing to do with who they think they are, only what they choose to not do.

            Surely that is not such an obscure sorrow, the knowledge that someone trusts themselves so little that they do not trust the world.

            What makes me like a person, whether at first impression or as I’m getting acquainted with them, is a willingness to not conceal the fact of an interior life. Not the details, necessarily, just the fact itself. A lightness with which the intricate is yielded: a mood, a glint of the eyes, a curve of the lip, a few open words. A lightness that is partly the absence of guile, but more so the acceptance that this is how we are, all of us, no more than pure emotion scaffolded by body, name, role, place. And how sad and wasteful it is to pretend otherwise.

            You will come to know a person whether they let you in or not. And they will come to know you, or a version of you, composed of the truths you give away and the lies you live by. Even if I’m wrong and a dramatic sonder is the most us egotistical human beings are capable of, imagine: in that moment of sondering, when someone looks up and catches some deep, unguarded glimpse of you – do you think you’ll like the you that they’ll see?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Reunion

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I am delighted that my column, The Venus Flytrap, is back in The New Indian Express after a 5-year hiatus! The first piece is below. An edited version appeared in the newspaper on October 26th. The column appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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What do you say to someone, an old friend of sorts, after five years have passed, out of touch? Let me try. Think of this as me greeting you as you find most appropriate: with a hug, a handshake, or maybe just the hope that you still remember me. Do you? Walk with me a little while, if you will. Let’s take for granted that much happened, as was only necessary. Five years is a long time to waste, and a short time to spend. You aren’t the same person; I assure you that neither am I. Yes, I still love to laugh, and I live by the moon even more than before. Yes, there’s indigo in both our throats now – and on some nights, it’s an arrested poison, and in some lights it’s a hauntingly beautiful blush. You, I can see, still seek out challenge, are charmed by caprice, still wear your circumstances like a loose collar, so that nothing gets in the way of a deep breath. Still look for yourself in the reflections of others, and delight in how similar and similarly entangled we all are.

Let’s say, also, that some things stayed the same, even as others changed.

I hope you still have more fingers than mistakes to count on them, and that you do not do so often. Which is to say – I hope you always knew the difference between a risk and Russian roulette. I hope they threw carnations at you more than they did arrows (you know who they are). I hope all the love you ever threw out there yourself boomeranged right back, full force. I hope your elsewheres still fill you with sweet nostalgia, and your somedays have inched ever closer.

Me? There’s plenty of time for that later. But I will say this much: there’s a mountain inside each of us, beyond which no one can hear us screaming. I have conquered mine. But this is also true: Rumi wrote, “There is a kiss we want with our whole lives.” And I am still waiting. And that is probably why, my dear, that I am still here.

I still have a heart like a pair of saloon doors, swinging open at every chance.

What fills your life now? Who are you becoming?

I thought of you sometimes, and of what I would say if I knew you were still listening (and at other times, I thought we’d never see each other again). I thought of you when I wept with joy in the Tuileries one dying summer, and when I looked over a bridge into a lagoon in which a mermaid lay silenced through thirty years of war, and always when the Madras summer does to the jacaranda and rusty shield-bearer trees what a greater poet’s spring did to the branches of the cherry.

Any time someone allows you into their lives is a privilege. Any time someone takes two minutes of their own time to listen to you is a chance.

Walk with me, again, a little while. And thank you, old friend, for letting me walk with you.

 

Guest Column: Say Cheese

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A couple of months ago, I was told that I had appeared in a newspaper’s tabloid section, in one of those visual round-ups of who had been wearing what at which party. This wasn’t the first time this had happened and it probably won’t be the last, but to the best of my knowledge it may have been one of the few occasions on which I had appeared…. accompanied.

“My friends said we were, like, holding each other,” said the boy in question.

Really?” I said, archly (or so I’d like to think). “And exactly where was this photo taken? Your house?”

Of course, nobody had informed me of the same. I deduced that this was either because they all thought I was a celebrity, and came out in these pages too often to notice, or that I was a harlot, and publicly cuddled up with cutiepies too often to notice.

Naturally, I was really curious about this picture.

I checked out some e-archives. Nothing. I asked a couple of friends. Nothing. But I knew this boy’s friends hadn’t been lying, because you see – I had gone to that party with him. And when a photographer I recognized from various events in the past requested permission to click, I had called him over.

Reader, I posed.

Never trust a person who tells you she doesn’t like being photographed. Because the truth is, we all do. Especially if we’re dolled up and accessorized with pretty baubles and a prettier boy to match. Especially if we’re having fun. And whether we’d like to admit it or not – especially if there’s a chance that we might appear somewhere in the pages of the ultimate peacockry known as Page 3.

“Page 3 culture is so stupid!” a friend exclaimed when she heard I was writing this. I thought she meant that a culture of exhibitionism and attention-seeking was stupid. But she continued. “The photographers and editors should really know better than to snap people with no fashion sense and give them moronic captions like ‘Spotted in Polka Dots’ and ‘Pretty in Pink’”.

Ah. Viva la vainglory. Like I said, I’m only friends with honest people. And people honestly love looking hot.

There’s really no reason to intellectualize Page 3. Of course it’s all a farce. Of course it’s ridiculous. Of course it really means absolutely nothing – so why bother being bothered by it? To take it seriously is to defeat the point of it. The fine line between a poser and a loser is that the former has a sense of humour about it.

I once walked into a book launch and had a dozen cameras go off immediately. “You do know,” I said archly (or so I’d like to think). “That I’m not the author, don’t you?” And then I smiled sweetly for the next round of flashes. I go to these events because they are interesting for my work, because my friends are involved, because I am curious. I don’t go to be seen. I’m seen because I go.

All that said, of course, I do dress for the occasion.

An edited version appeared in Times of India (Chennai) today.

A Little News About The Venus Flytrap

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Those of you who read The New Indian Express would have realised by now that the Zeitgeist supplement, in which my column (“The Venus Flytrap”) ran continuously for almost three years, has come to its end.

At the moment, I don’t know what the future of “The Venus Flytrap” might be. I’m very attached to the column and I’m hopeful that this is not the end of the road. This is just a note to thank all of you wonderful people who have read it, shared it, commented, or otherwise been a part of it. I hope you’ll continue to share my journey as I wait to see what’s around the next corner.

The Venus Flytrap: Doing The Sari

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Dresses may come and dresses may go, but there’s nothing like a sari.

This isn’t the story of how I fell in love with a difficult garment. I’ve never struggled with the sari, not the way I struggled with the bindi (which you can see I’ve fully appropriated), not the way I struggled with dark skin or with dark moods, or anything else with a similar gravity, the congenital weight of things beyond one’s choice. No, there was never a time when I thought that the sari was anything but prime plumage. Watching women wind lengths of cloth around themselves was where I learnt the meaning of the word “covet”, the floreo of pleating fingers the thing that must have mesmerized me into dance. There is a photograph of me at about three years old, wearing a miniature approximation in yellow and green, a fake nose-ring, my grandmother’s wig and an aigrette of pink flowers. I am not cute, I am coy, guilefully aware; at this age more so than at any other, the sari’s magical transformative effects on my demeanour are evident. The image is nearly prophetic. Somewhere in my baby brain I had set my sights on what I would grow up to look like, and through tube tops and sundresses, through denim and leather, that was exactly where I wound up arriving. And I was born knowing the sari signified, above all else, arrival.

I fought to wear saris long before anyone thought I was ready for them, just as I had glued a faux diamond to my nostril for a whole year until I was allowed to pierce it at fourteen. In both cases, the redemption was instant: it was plain to see that my vanity did not dwarf me. Vindicated though I was, for a decade, I saved the sari for “special occasions”, motivated in most part by the time it took to drape one, and in some part by wiles: the knowledge that the garment conferred on me what I call deadliness – it (or I) could stop both hearts and traffic. I’m still careful about when I take it out of my arsenal, if only because in love and in war timing is everything, but I’ve also stopped treating it as sacrosanct. I suppose that happens once you discover how much more interesting it is to keep it on, while doing the thing that usually requires taking it all off.

Today I deal with my wardrobe, and by extension the world, with the maxim, “when in doubt, go with the sari”. There are sequin-strapped blouses for when upstaging the bride is the order of the day and demure, high-backed handloom weaves for when a disingenuous innocence needs to be affected. There are gloriously unaffordable inheritance silks, but these come with taboos: call me prudish, but there will be no kinky romps in anything that used to belong to my grandmother. For that: frivolous synthetics that fall easily, cling flirtatiously.

I know for some the sari connotes respect or codes of restriction. But more and more, this is what I suspect about the true nature of the sari’s timelessness. It has survived the ages because depending on the wearer, it may murmur or it may sing, but it always says the same thing: ravish me.

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.