Tag Archives: community

The Venus Flytrap: Other Types of Joy

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Several months ago, I finally put my innate maternal instinct to good use, and began volunteering with children. Roped in by another artist with a community-minded bent, I started spending a little time every week with children between the ages of three and five in a slum in Chennai, mostly telling stories and introducing the vocabulary of emotional nuance to them. At the moment, they’re getting ready to perform a short play I wrote for them.

I’m not going to lie about my motives. Deeply disillusioned by events in my career, I needed something to renew my faith in human goodness. I did not, at the time, have the capacity to work with preemie babies, the orphaned, the ill or the disabled, but I knew I wanted to work with children, and the opportunity to teach was perfect. Their backgrounds are inconsequential to me: to treat them as disadvantaged when their spirits shine and their bodies are able is to condescend. A friend of mine told me shortly after I first began this work that it would be good for me to see other types of suffering. I thought about how gleefully I am grabbed and kissed hello and goodbye by those little ones, and I knew that what this work does for me is the opposite: it allows me to see other types of joy.

Soon, I was also conducting sessions for older students at a lower income group matriculation school, teaching them spoken English and, again, emotional awareness. Teaching was rewarding in multiple ways, my love for children aside. I felt I’d found a dimension to my life that was independent of my artistic work, which otherwise defined my identity. This has been my struggle for over a year now: finding stability that will ground the volatility of my nature. As I enter my mid-twenties, the need for a steady foundation has become my primary endeavour.

One afternoon last month, in order to observe and learn, I accompanied another trainer to her session with primary school students. During a particularly noisy few minutes, she told the kids to take a free-drawing break. At the end of the class, a little girl brought her drawing to me. “It’s my gift to you,” she said. Two boys tore their pages out and did the same. I protested, asking why they didn’t want to take their artwork home to show their parents – they were truly beautiful pieces. “But I have so many drawings at home!” said one. “This is for you”. None of them had even met me before.

I did not expect that what I needed for my jadedness, my disconnect from my own creativity, would come from this work. Yet there it was – the most profound insight, so simply evident. Art for its own sake: not for legacy, not for honours, not to make a statement or to buy a more comfortable rung on the ladder. Art for the sake of love.

At the end of what feels like a hopelessly difficult year, it is the kindness of those toward whom I had the conceit to think that my kindness could make a difference to that restores my faith. I had never imagined I could become a teacher. I am humbled, even more so, by what I have been taught.

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: Original Instructions

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In the small town of Gudalur, two and a half hours downhill from Ooty, there is a coalition of NGOs that, through serendipitous circumstances and sound intentions, run a school and a hospital for the tribal community. I’m visiting with my friend the American Badaga, tagging along on an Ooty-Gudalur-Coimbatore-Palani-Perumalmalai-Kodaikanal trip completed over just five nights, sleeping in a different place on each one. We’re there to look into alternative education systems; after the tribal school is an international school in the forest. Mostly, though, I’m there on impulse, just to get away.

The week before, I’d attended a lecture in Chennai by Vandana Shiva, the renowned physicist and activist. Dr. Shiva had spoken about the country’s agricultural crisis, encouraging the audience to “violate the contracts” that gave undue power to governments and organizations that contribute to the deterioration of the environment, and to suffering among the poor.

Yet, sitting by a window overlooking the filthy Cooum river later that rainy afternoon, coming down from the high that listening to an inspiring speaker brings, I was saddened to think that the only phrase that still haunted me was something said in passing as Shiva was introduced. Another world is possible. I so much wanted it to be.

It came to me again in Gudalur. I’d never expected that just a few days after the lecture, I would find myself reading on a rock under a tree on the far west of Tamil Nadu, wet earth under my bare feet, adivasi children singing nearby, a cow to my right and a chicken to my left. My troubles very, very far away.

I’m reading Cait Johnson, who posits that spirituality is essentially rooted in the elements, the same notion that had me head for the hills to hide among trees, and attend Shiva’s lecture. Whenever I lose my connection to my elementals, I seek to replenish them in nature. Johnson writes about “Original Instructions” – intuitive knowledge kept alive by people, like the adivasis, whose ways of life honour the sacred interconnectedness of all life.

Watching the good people of Gudalur – the teacher who speaks openly and without prejudice to a classroom about gay and transgender people, the Ayurvedic doctor seeking to both learn from and better equip traditional healers, the professionals who set up the Ashwini Hospital and Vidyodaya School and gradually ensured that autonomy over them returned to the adivasi community – my heart remembers its own Original Instructions.

Watching them, I remember that there are good people in the world, who do good work for its own sake. I had forgotten.

I have been heartsick for what feels like a long time, but isn’t. I have been disillusioned with my own journey. I have wanted to count to one hundred and bow out, like the poetess in Ana Enriqueta Terán’s mysterious poem. What I did because I thought it was in my blood, I’ve watched others do with a bloodthirst I cannot muster. I have felt time and again that I can barely co-exist in a world so cutthroat, let alone compete.

But this is what I know, after Gudalur: another world, in all the many variations Vandana Shiva may or may not have meant, is possible. In fact, it may already exist. All it takes is to get back there.

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.