Tag Archives: comfort

The Venus Flytrap: Calling To A World That Isn’t Listening

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Deeply disheartened, I stood before a lit lamp and tried to find a reason to raise my voice in a world made deaf by its own silences. A line flickered to mind, and I recognised it as the title of a book I’d wanted to read, but had never purchased. That line was: “finding beauty in a broken world”. The environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote a collection of essays by that name, on seeking a way of being that integrates all the fragments shattered by human brutality. I yearned for the book suddenly. I have buried myself in language for as long as I can remember. It salves me. It puts me, too, back together.

I sought an excerpt online, the way another person might view a movie trailer. In the first page, Williams writes – “…I faced the ocean. ‘Give me one wild word’. It was all I asked of the sea.”

That was how I had felt, at my altar – and that page led me to this page you read now.

All libraries carry the memories of trees, and sometimes it is to the source that we must go. The summer streets are carpeted with the yellow flowers of rusty shield-bearer trees. I recall the closing lines of Adam Zagajewki’s poem: “Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrush lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.” This is what I try to do, in the evidence of the lines that precede them: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”

As I write this, my voice hurts – both spiritually and physically. For the latter, I drink a kashayam, and for the former I seek the balsam of words. And as I do, I remember something: not too long ago, I was a part of a panel on women’s issues. After the event, one of the other participants asked me, “So, did you never fight with your parents as a teenager?” Of course I had, I said lightly. “Oh really? How is it fighting when you have a voice as soft as yours? Not possible.” The indignation I felt was at once blunt and sharp, like a pair of precise surgical scissors. But in the interest of politeness, I said nothing. I looked her in the eye and allowed a tactful bystander to laugh the situation off with a “that’s just her voice!” How little the person who had insulted me knew of war, I thought, to not be able to tell a fire from a blown fuse.

Tonight, through my bedroom window and yours, the first full moon of the Tamil year will blaze. Perhaps you’ll see it, awoken by mosquitoes or misery (or just the stealth of moonbrightness). And if you do, remind yourself. To sleep well is an act of self-care, and those of us accused of caring too much frequently forget to tender ourselves the same. A mercenary measures steps in blood, a soldier in miles, and a warrior in how gently one’s footfalls shape the earth. Were we only so gentle with ourselves, too.

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

On Bookstores: “Memory of Trees”

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My first paid job was at an independent bookstore in Kuala Lumpur’s fashionable Telawi neighbourhood. It was the summer before I turned 16. I had just finished school, and under circumstances I can only explain as a combustion of family dysfunction and personal callowness, neither plans nor ambitions existed regarding my future. I spent just over a month at that job. I could not get the hang of the cash register, and the entire situation – circumstantially and emotionally – was a little bizarre, but those weeks turned out to be pivotal. The seeming lack of direction in my life was a blessing in disguise; heading nowhere, I fell heart-first into the artistic subculture where my career began, thanks to friends made at the time.

I spent that month reading, reading, reading. I read Nabokov. I read Kundera. I read Kerouac. I read the classics so I could avoid them later. I read all the dead white men I would spend the next several years uninterested in, because after that first job at Silverfish Books, I found and fell into a compulsive affair with Payless – a chain that stocked books sourced from secondhand stores in the United States. I read Cisneros. I read Rich. I read Anzaldua. I read Marmon Silko. I read the obscure and under-rated. I would never complete a tertiary education. These books, bought cheap and in bulk, were my teachers. They taught me not just how to write from the borderlands, but also how to thrive in a certain kind of world as a certain kind of woman.

Five years into living in Chennai, I take the news that Landmark is phasing out its books section with sadness. Their annual sales used to put me into raptures. Of course, like so many other readers, I am complicit in their failure. When Flipkart and the even more steeply-discounted Homeshop18 came on the scene brandishing cut-rate prices and the magic mantra “cash on delivery”, I made the switch. (Psst – there’s even one terribly useful website, www.indiabookstore.net, that pulls up the all the listings from a range of digital stores).

Yet I hope that what is, effectively, the end of the beloved retailer as we know it will lead to the sprouting of secondhand bookstores. We won’t stop buying books, but we will certainly run out of shelf space. Pre-owned books come with many perks. In London a few months ago, I visited the iconic Skoob (its offshoot in Kuala Lumpur was another playground of my teens) and ticked a couple of titles off my wishlist. They were in great condition, and significantly cheaper even in the Queen’s currency than new copies bought in India. Out of print books abound in such shops. In the past, although it’s no longer an interest of mine, I’ve also found books inscribed by the author.

I still pay it forward, though. Whenever I come across shelves of free books or book swaps in cafes and other places, I press a lipstick print on the title page of my own little paperback and leave it for whoever is meant to find it. I may be a cheapo when it comes to purchasing, but I do believe in giving my own work away often. As off-putting as I found the staff of Paris’ famed Shakespeare & Company when I visited this summer, I blew a kiss to the ghosts of Hemingway, Nin and Ginsberg and left some copies there too. [Later, I learnt that the establishment that now operates under this name isn’t actually the one Hemingway – whom in rather trite fashion I was reading at the time – frequented, but you know what they (meaning I) say. You can’t unkiss a kiss.]

So no, I don’t like bookstores, however iconic they may be, which are burdened by their legacies. I do like ones that strive to mean something in the present moment, like Singapore’s Books Actually – which publishes chapbooks, organizes readings and has a friendly resident cat. There, I’ve never left books for free, because they care enough about indie authors to actually stock them.

I recently came across this word: tsundoku. A web meme defines it as follows: “buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands”. I remain old-fashioned: because I need to see the spines of books and touch their pages, I cannot convert to a more efficient electronic device.

I am comforted by the presence of books as much as by their contents. I don’t go to libraries because I am selfish, slow and scattered. But I do go to bookstores because they soothe me. I think it’s because they carry, tangibly, the memory of trees. To step into a bookstore is to step into a forest of stories. We lose our forests to far worse things than literature.

An edited version appeared in Kindle Magazine.