Tag Archives: culture

The Venus Flytrap: Avni And Other Tigers

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There is one particular detail of the killing of Avni, the tiger, in Maharashtra last week that I keep circling back to. She was lured using a trail of tiger urine mixed with a men’s perfume, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. The scent contains synthetics that mimic civetone, which is secreted in the perineal glands of civets, and has similar effects to musk, another animal-based perfumery ingredient. Tigers find civetone irresistible; it was deployed here because earlier experiments showed that they wanted to roll themselves all over where it was sprayed, rubbing their faces into it and sniffing with visible pleasure. Essentially, Avni was lured to her death through aphrodisiac pheromones.

Avni was a “man eater”, that archaic word so colonialist in its resonance, which keeps being used in reports about her killing. It’s a word from a worldview that’s clear in its division between animal and human, but specifically Man (colonial order wasn’t the only thing built into the language). As though women or water buffaloes don’t get eaten too (both equally inequal in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of Man). The dictionary suggests that it was first used for human cannibalism (more colonial inference), later becoming used to describe animals. “Man eater” is also still in common parlance as an innuendo, used to caricaturise women who are unapologetically desirous. The fear of the desirous woman is such that she is likened to a creature that kills to devour.

But for cultures that lived or live alongside the tiger, traditionally, fear is mixed not with bloodthirst but with reverence. In the Sundarbans, the tiger deity Dakshin Rai is appeased and asked for protection, while simultaneously expected to be mercurial and voracious. In Karnataka, the tiger god is Hulideva. Naga legend holds that the first tiger, first human and first spirit all shared the same mother. Among Warli and Koli people, Waghya (meaning “tiger”) is one of the principal deities, and Waghoba is the deity of the forest at large in Maharashtra.

It bears noting that it was at the behest of the people living in the Pandharkawada divisional forest, where an estimated 13 people were killed due to tiger attacks, that Avni was shot. While the lack of adequate tranquiliser usage, the decision to kill rather than capture, and the uncertain fate of her two cubs are all worthy of questioning, that she was a threat was something that we must accept. Otherwise, what difference is there between we who live in cities and have the luxury of choosing animal-friendly diets we don’t forage for ourselves, and those who colonised centuries ago and decided that the beasts of our lands were for sport hunting and that some human lives were less valuable than their own?

To return to man-eaters and musky pheromones, there’s another possibility as to why the scent attracted Avni. It’s heartbreaking to think that she died hoping that a mate was rambling in the vicinity. Perhaps what she thought she sensed was a competitor, another tiger on the prowl for the same prey. And so she died ferocious, protective – double-edged, just the way the tiger is understood by those who know it most.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Packing A Pestle

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I was meant to travel so much this year. I was supposed to see many vistas, bring back myriad stories, and have at least a few experiences that would make me suddenly smile at their memory. Instead, I’ve been rendered out of commission with a string of demands, reversals and blockages on the personal front. So when something turned up in my inbox to which I didn’t have to say No, I think I’d gotten so used to hearing or saying the word that I reached for an excuse. And then, the deeper part of me – the one that is frustrated and yearns – told me not to be silly. I could just pack a mortar and pestle into my luggage, and go.

I’m on a course of traditional medicine that requires me to pulverize fresh herbs every day, hence this unusual travel need. The ferocious Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore did the same: using the kitchen appliance as her flying vehicle, in fact. I could picture myself sitting in a mortar like it was a boat, rowing with the pestle and arriving very late to my appointments but pleasingly dramatically. It would give my broomstick a rest, too.

We take objects of the everyday for granted until we’re at a loss. The most obvious of these is the toilet, the #1 impediment for women travelers. Somewhat less indispensably: scissors, tampons, charger cords, a sharpener for your kohl – you’ve probably been in a situation in which you’re positively desperate for something you barely glance at in your cabinets at home. Why, even the lack of saline solution can prevent a short-sighted person from being spontaneous sometimes. On a long trip once, I had been so moody while packing that I hadn’t bother to bring shampoo; and found myself not only at hotels that mysteriously had no such mini-bottles, but also with an unexpectedly charming travel companion and profound regret that my hair smelled more like grease than like Sri Lankan ginger.

But I’ve never had to carry a mortar and pestle anywhere before, and my new need made me consider the familiar implement, and its relations, with a fresh regard. Culturally speaking, these appliances have always been known to be worth their (quite literal) weight. The Mesoamerican molcajete was a part of the burials of people of elite status. A related kitchen implement, the larger two-part stone grinder known in Tamil as the ammi kal and in Odia as the sila puua, is used in wedding and other festive ceremonies. It has such an intuitive design and function that people as far away as the Andes have also used it for centuries, where it is known as the batán and uña. Quern-stones have also been admired for their beauty, as in ceremonial metates of Costa Rica which had elegant bird and animal shapes, or were associated with legends, such as in the British isles, where mill-stones were repurposed as tombstones.

The sensible thing to do, though, is to just pack a plastic juicer instead. It would weigh so much less and make my medicine just fine. But it wouldn’t be quite so evocative, would it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Losing A Museum

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Brazil’s national museum was only 200 years old, but contained within it were artifacts aged millennia, like the 11,500 year old female skull nicknamed Luzia. Or even millions of years: like the fossils of a maxakalisaurus, a vegetarian dinosaur. The base on which its reconstructed skeleton stood had been termite-ridden. The under-resourced museum had been forced to crowdfund the repair, reopening the exhibit only in July. But now the entire museum has gone up in flames, along with most of its 20 million artifacts. Some mollusk specimens were saved; the fireproof Bendegó meteorite is intact (perhaps other salvages will be revealed in the coming days) – but what of the frescoes from Pompeii (which survived that inferno, 20 centuries ago)? In the aftermath of the fire, the blame is squarely being pointed on the lack of governmental funding.

Neglect is one way to erase, equally tragic as when the erasure is intentional. The destroying of heritage objects and institutions is a tactic of both power and terror. History is a long list of such acts of cultural genocide, through the annihilation of libraries, museums and monuments. To erase record is to first muddy then suppress memory.

And then there is pillage, which is unquestionably wrong, but sometimes reveals itself retrospectively as fortunate. The entirety of the British Museum, for instance. The first time I went, I fell in love. The last time, I made it minutes before closing time, wanting only to see again the Mesopotamian terracotta relief called The Queen of the Night.

Panting, rushing through those majestic halls, refusing all other possibilities of beauty that might distract, I arrived before that taloned one, who may be Inanna or her shadow, Erishkigal, or the Semitic Lilitu. I briefly touched my palms to the glass. Menstruating, heart pounding, desperately grateful, what came to me in that intense moment was a Durga mantra. A Tamil woman intoning Sanskrit syllables inside her heart, gazing at an Iraqi goddess, in a monument that is at once a paean to human experience and itself a dark remnant of human cruelty. I was there because I had the paperwork that allowed the visit. I was also there because, remarkably, I existed still.

No, it is incomplete to say that it was only paperwork that had given me passage. I had come at the invitation of a body connected to the same monarchy that enacted on the world a colonisation it cannot recover from, can only incorporate into its being. I stood there in England and said grace, this is true, but it’s also true that arriving and departing contained more complicated thoughts. The great Gloria Anzaldúa describes a similar moment in one of her essays: “What does it mean to me esta jotita, this queer Chicana, this mexicatejana to enter a museum and look at indigenous objects that were once used by my ancestors? Will I find my historical Indian identity here, along with its mestisaje lineage?”

To lose is a tragedy, to steal is a travesty, to survive is bittersweet. A museum can contain the world. And each visitor carries her own: ashes, remnants, inheritances, loans, and certain indestructible materials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 6th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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: Other Sitas, Many Ramas

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The lines flow like waves along their skin, or radiating circles. The same word over and over again in faded-tattoo green in the Gondi language, in Devanagari script. Ram Ram Ram. I came across the Ramnami people of Chhattisgarh in a stunning feature written and photographed by Joydip Mitra for the People’s Archive of Rural India. Ramnamis are descended from Dalits who rejected the caste system, and calligraphed the sacred onto their skin. Only the elderly write their devotion onto their bodies now. In the photographs, only their eyes and lips carry no ink, and around their shoulders they wear fabrics that repeat the name they hold holy. Ram Ram Ram.

“Ram is written all over us,” says Pitambar Ram of Raigarh to the journalist. “So, you see, we are the Ramayana.”

There are so many, you know. My newest book of poetry, The Altar of the Only World, began with someone who held this name holy too. It was always Sita, only Sita, for me, and this too is a long tradition – found in folksongs and variations, the way a story becomes a new one each time it is told. It began with her weeping in the forest – there is a Sanskrit word for that, “aranyarodhan”, even though the Sita I got to know was not a Sanskrit version at all. Instead, she is mothered by Mandodari, who drinks a grail of sacrificial blood and sets her miraculous, curse-born child to drift away on the water like Moses or Karna. Instead of being the daughter of the earth, she is the earth itself. As well as a Persian angel, exiled from heaven because of too much devotion, and a goddess of love and war who enters the underworld to confront her shadow, who in the ancient Sumerian texts that describe her looks strikingly like the lion-headed Pratyangira Devi.

When I started to write The Altar of the Only World, nine years ago, it felt like it was a safer world to tell stories in. And a safer world to tell the truth in, too. Not so anymore. This casts an edge over all the usual trepidation before a book release. And then there’s the ambivalence of letting go of something that has been incomplete in you for so long that you can hardly imagine it fulfilled.

A year and a half ago, I was on a flight that made a missed approach. Like other frightening things, I had never known such a thing existed until it happened. In a terrible storm, the plane almost touched the tarmac and then suddenly swooped upwards again into the roiling thunderclouds. We circled the airport for many long minutes, not a word from the captain or crew for a while. The cabin remained quiet, and there was applause when we finally landed. I remember feeling aware, not afraid. This is how letting a piece of long labour into the world feels like: you cannot tell if it will make it or not, but you must suspend absolutely the idea that you can control what happens. And given the vagaries of the journey, be grateful for touchdown at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Fire-Trampoline Marriages

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We need to talk about those fire-trampoline marriages. You know: the kind where after a grand time running around town setting other people’s hearts on fire, someone takes a leap off a ledge, bounces right into the waiting arms of the patriarchy, and looks back up (still bouncing, not a toenail singed) and shouts: “I always told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing!”.

If only real life was as comic panel-perfect as this analogy. Because what happens next largely happens out of sight. While the man or the woman with the trampoline conducts their socially-sanctioned conjugal bliss in full public view, cheesy captions and all, there is also a person trapped in that metaphorical burning building. The ashes of charred dreams and the mess left for them to clean up are not metaphorical at all. (The jumper’s spouse is a contemplation for another time).

It should be no surprise that in an India where only 5% of marriages are inter-caste (i.e. actually based on something other than upholding the system), there are a whole lot of fire-trampolines. This applies especially among those who are more educated, more affluent and for the most part, urbanites. There’s a profound disconnect between the veneer of liberal values and sexual mores that are enjoyed superficially and one’s actual beliefs.

But more so than a question of ideologies, this is really an issue of accountability. To mislead and treat someone badly then write it off as something you needed to do for the sake of family, culture, religion, money or general appearances is not “the right thing to do”. There’s nothing honourable about it. The most devious version of all is when the jumper pleads their cowardice, and claims they wish they were strong like you. Don’t believe it for a second.

I hear many stories from the people left holding the broom, the bucket and the bad end of the stick. Here’s what I told the last woman who cried to me about a man who suddenly got engaged to someone else while almost simultaneously declaring his love for her for the first time. (Yes, men do seem to jump into fire-trampolines more than women because the system is essentially designed to serve them better). This is what I told her: “It’s not that he doesn’t know what he wants, despite what some will tell you, including him. It is that he knows what he can have. He can have the convenience of his marriage, and by leaving this door ajar, he can also have emotional intensity – and more – from you.”

Because anyone who keeps a fire-trampoline handy has got other tricks up their sleeve. It’s no leap (pun intended) from “I told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing” to “You knew I was married.”

At first it’s horrific, the aftermath among the embers. But eventually, you see distinctively what happens to the two survivors. The one who jumped continues to keep jumping, through more and more hoops of their own making. As for the one who was trapped in the inferno, the one who walked through flames? You already know what resurrects from ash.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.