Tag Archives: dislocation

The Venus Flytrap: Mourning the Marina

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That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.

Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.

This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.

Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.

I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.

I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.

One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.

I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.

When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.

It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.

Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.

This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).

Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.

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.

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.