Tag Archives: distance

The Venus Flytrap: Diving Into The Distance

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I went in search of secrets, and stories only spoken but never committed to script. There in a fan-less portico in the far eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the unforgiving Chithirai month, the elderly gentleman I had gone to see told me candidly: “I have amnesia”. And then: “I also lost all my documents in the flood.”

But the flood he spoke of seemed suspiciously far away; he told me of writing to his grandmother with an exaggeration about kitchen appliances made of stone floating in the calamity. But no one at 90 years old has a grandmother who writes back and exposes the lie. “Was this the flood of 1956?” I asked. He shushed me. In the labyrinth of his memory, the true distances of decades had long ceased to exist.

Distances. My ancestors were mostly fisherpeople who migrated from present-day Kerala, and when I look at Batticaloa on maps I wonder what it was that drew them further and further. I have drawn that map by hand myself, and wondered: which route did they take to the island’s central east: upon sighting shore, did they voyage southwards, where the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa and Galle didn’t seduce them, or north-bound, where the palms of the Jaffna peninsula too failed to beckon? It’s inconceivable that they followed the path that I did, cutting clear across the country on ground, for they navigated by water. Unless they started elsewhere and moved deeper and deeper east to where lagoon-and-field and field-and-lagoon alternate in a geography of perfect balance.

More than a thousand years later, I take a short flight and a long drive: into the country via the capital city on the west coast, followed by nine hours of highways until I arrive on the farther shore. For the longest time, under alibi of war, it was an emotional distance – an expanse, not a detachment – that was hardest of all for me to cross. One’s roots can only be watered by tears.

I discover that the distance between a matrilineal, matrilocal culture and its swallowing into the patriarchal world order is sometimes a mere generation, or one stroke of a clerk’s pen that accidentally transfers the land to the holder of the masculine name because of an ordinance that never considered how it was possible for a society like this to exist at all.

I try to bridge the distance between that pen and mine when I talk to a group of teenagers from surrounding villages and ask them to name ten writers, anticipating correctly that not one would be a woman. “Complicate the narrative,” was what the outreach worker had told me beforehand, and later over dinner with her I felt saddened that the most I could do was to offer my presence as a kind of shock value. Dialogue cannot happen at a distance.

Always, two literal bridges: the old one and the new one over the Kallady part of the Batticaloa lagoon. I crossed it several times each day, carrying more each time by way of knowledge. I never felt the distance. Even now, days later, I still don’t feel the distance.

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

The Venus Flytrap: These Unspeakable Things

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In the two years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve tried to be honest. I’ve tried to share my life in ways that might be meaningful to strangers. I’ve written about things that might be controversial, if not in themselves then in their autobiographical quality – depression, death, violence, desire. While writers’ block might have resulted occasionally in pieces I can best defend by quoting Maugham – “Only a mediocre writer is always at his best” – never have I known exactly what I had to write about and yet felt so sickened, fearful or bereft at the thought.

How many ways can I tell you this story?

I can tell you the facts: two weeks ago, a close friend of mine was sedated, taken into custody on false claims, and detained in a mental ward where he was sexually abused and improperly diagnosed. I can tell you that this was orchestrated by collusion between his family (who had disowned him months earlier), the hospital, and the police. I can tell you, so that you don’t write to me with information that can’t be used, that this happened in another country, with a different set of laws.

I can tell you about the distance, about the bafflement and panic that ensues upon receiving an alarming text, from a number that cannot be reached afterward.

I can tell you again about human circuitry, the connectivity I always feel to my dearest ones, and how it came alive. I was the first person he texted with his last cents of phone credit – and the only one who came through. All the way from here, I tracked him down. The activist who advised him on his rights, the social worker whose care he is under now, the writer who helped him get down the unspeakable in a police report – every person came through me. (“You texted INDIA?” he was asked over and over, once he was released and seeking legal aid, and in his typically dramatic way, he said, “I was semi-sedated and even then I knew the best help I could find was half a world away, but the closest thing to home”.)

I can tell you about the complexity of emotions that come with being in a situation like this, struggling to protect someone very far away. The uncertainty over what to write – and whether to. The gratitude at the help that arrived. The dismay at how eager people are to turn a person into a poster boy. The outrage at Dr. Siras’s suicide, so closely timed to my friend’s own persecution, and for the same reasons why his family turned against him. The chills I still get thinking of how much hinged on me receiving that one text and taking it seriously. The disgust. The anger. The fear.

How many ways can I tell you this story? Trying to tell it at all cleaves me – do I conceal in poetry, rage in polemic, inform as a journalist, or tell it like I just have – a story about which I am only one part, one participant.

How many ways can I tell you this story? Is it enough to say: these unspeakable things are no story. This is reality. My friend has a witness to the world. There are others who have no such testimony.

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.

Manifested Apocalypse

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I feared many things as a child: thunderstorms, plane crashes, the bubonic plague come alive from the pages of books, every flea the potential carrier of a manifested apocalypse.

In all these things, a single binding thread shot through. I never feared losing myself. Only others. I wanted them gathered around me, so that if anything happened, it happened to us all. The dead do not mourn each other.

Today, Mumbai burned. Some have likened it to the events of September 11 2001. I don’t know whether or not it is. But I do know that both times, I cried. Cities I do not know, but know I must get to know.

As someone in a long-distance relationship, events like these rouse particularly tender nerves. To get to the one I love I will need a visa, air tickets, a flight. A friend once told me about a heartrending reality of her relationship: as the half-a-lifetime younger partner of someone whose first wife was very influential, she will not be allowed to go her partner’s funeral when he dies.

This is not the first time I have been in a portmanteau love, split between places. But this is the first time it has been an unwilling separation. I spent the initial couple of months in a sort of morbid surreality. When my partner travelled and didn’t call as planned, I Googled for crashes between origin and destination. There was one time when I actually found one, and I remember feeling all the blood literally rush to my head. The feeling lasted until I realised it was an old report.

My partner and I both moved countries in an effort to carve a viable future out for ourselves, together and apart. It’s been worth it for us both professionally. It has not been worth it otherwise, and these terrorist attacks remind me of it. Reading Sonia Faleiro’s post on being extremely close to one of the points of attack, I thought: blessed are those who are safe because the ones they love are near them.

Recently, a foreign newspaper wrote that the “cultural vibrancy” of my city gives me all the inspiration I need. That isn’t true. In the year since I moved back, I’ve had a certain degree of material success. I’m not ungrateful for this. However, there are things which a healthy bank balance and career recognition cannot rectify. Such as how I watch my back around here, because it’s evident that I am admired but not supported – I am surrounded by crocodile smiles put on because I’m an interesting person to “know”. Such as how I count less than a handful of people here as real friends. Such as how I never fully recovered from the trauma of leaving a city I knew almost as home, because I am still not home. Such as how with my grandmother’s death, I live in a house with a steadily decreasing amount of affection directed my way.

What then, does this mean for me? I don’t know yet. I was talking to a friend about Oprah’s quintessential question tonight: what do you know for sure? I know for sure that in a world increasingly fraught with uncertainty, the distances we place between our selves are only that. Distances we place between ourselves. Distances we choose to.

We were once together in an earthquake. I was angry. “I don’t want to die with you,” I said.

I lied.