Tag Archives: family

The Venus Flytrap: Carrying

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In her natural habitat of the Pacific Northwest, an orca that whale researchers have named Tahlequah swims, carrying the corpse of her newborn with her. The calf died shortly after birth, but its mother has carried it with her for over ten days. She keeps it afloat on her nose, pushes it with her head. Tahlequah’s family, her pod, take turns to carry the calf when she cannot. The lost baby was their first birth in three years, rare and precious among their disappearing species. They are grieving. Tahlequah would have gestated the calf for seventeen months.

I lost my grandmother one October, and the month ever since has had a pall around it. One year as the anniversary approached, I made vague plans to tattoo the opening lines of an e.e. cummings poem I connect to her on my forearm: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in/ my heart)”. Commitment is not something I’m careless with, so I cautiously decided that I’d wait and see if I still wanted it the following year. But that month has often been precipitated by other difficult events, landing in my calendar the way one always seems to fall on one’s bad knee. And so it was that when the next October came my heart was something that seeped. Like a sieve, it could not hold much at all, even if it still carried my grandmother in its shards.

I’ve begun the hard work of putting that heart back together, because it never quite recovered from that particular devastation. A part of this work is dialogue. There were three people, other than me, involved in that fall. I met the only one of them I think I can still trust, and we wept and exchanged notes. We’d carried different stories with us during the interim years. But more love than the other knew, too. She said: “I’d wondered if you’d ever write about me”. I said: “It would have been something horrible.” Tell me, teach me, how to live with all the love and loss in the answer that came: “But I’d have known you were thinking of me.”

The word “carrying” evokes a very specific memory for me. A couple of years ago, I hailed an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic, and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle of the seat so the ride would be less bumpy. He said he thought that I was “carrying”. I was not – not carrying a baby, that is. But I carried other knowledges, memories, and the longing for a lover who would understand with kind eyes and hands how I hold my pain as flesh in my lower belly. I sat in traffic, struggling not to cry, counting backwards at the end of a bloodline, carrying the face of my mother and her mother before her and the shock of how my soft and fallow body had become a mirage of motherhood. Why would I need that poem tattooed? I already carry everything – dead, alive and never-born – and where I cannot, there is a love or many that carries it for me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 9th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: On The Cusp Of A New Year

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Here is a story about patriarchy, faith and the passing of time. Many decades ago, when my grandfather was a Marxist, he would not allow altars or rituals in his spaces. My grandmother wrangled a concession in the one place in the household that belonged unequivocally to her. Each year, a new tearaway baby Murugan calendar would find its corner in her kitchen. And each day, she would place a flower on the sill of pages, until the year thinned enough that she had to affix it to the cardboard shrine in some other way.

As this year dwindles to a close, many are pinning great hopes on the one to come. Not because there is anything to look forward to, but because this calendar year seems to have been measured in more upsetting things on a public scale than usual. But humankind is selfish: there is no way that celebrity demises and political disruptions alone have created this atmosphere. That means that events in the theatre of the world have allowed for camouflaged expressions of private burdens and distress. By participating in collective performances of dismay, putting terrorism and pop culture on a near-even scale, one conveys emotions from a personal sphere that don’t necessarily get an airing otherwise.

It’s self-perpetuating: dissatisfaction leads us to seek validation from social media, and social media protocol demands constant opinionating on current affairs. My theory is that we appear to care more than we used to. My hope is that we actually do.

I’m not thinking about the year to come; I’m casting myself halfway into the last century, where my grandmother buys a fresh tearaway calendar for her contraband prayer alcove. She measured her lived years in pain and endurance, as do you and I. But she saw far into the future, which is why time after time I reach far into the past to find her anchoring.

The truth is that next year isn’t going to be radically different, because some of the upheaval we’ve experienced will cause permanent damage. The annals of history are replete with evidence, and the cycles of the present offer nothing new under the sun.

How dare we be so naïve? And how dare we distance ourselves from the fact that we co-created and contribute to this collapsing world, with its mutilated environment and scarcities of compassion and common sense?

For some years now, I’ve been meeting all celebratory occasions very quietly. That might be why that synecdochic piece of family history – about a calendar in a kitchen, my grandmother’s act of resistance in the years when her way of seeing the world had little place in its grander milieu – is on my mind now. This is the world we have inherited, whether we measure being in it in years or months or only by the ages we ourselves turn. It doesn’t have to be the world we leave behind. We must begin – again – to tend to the vision. Begin with a little self-carved stakehold. A corner so sovereign that no one can touch it. And quietly quotidian acts of faith and revolution, among the wilting blooms and crumpled pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 29th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Interview With R. Vatsala

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“When I am asked, do you only write about women and families? I say: what is there is the outside world that is not there in the family? The deifying of families must end; they are made up only of individuals. We have not yet found a better system, but if we are to continue with this one, we must accept that the nucleus of equality or inequality begins within it.”

Read my piece on iconoclastic Tamil writer R. Vatsala on Scroll.

~ THE AMMUCHI PUCHI ~

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the-ammuchi-puchi

When Anjali and I were really little, we were sort of afraid of our grandmother, Ammuchi…

Aditya and Anjali love listening to their grandmother’s stories, particularly the scary one about the ghost in the tree. But the night their grandmother passes away, all her stories seem to lose their meaning. Then something happens that is more mysterious and magical than any story. Could their grandmother still be with them after all? A poignant and moving story about bereavement and healing, stunningly illustrated and told in gorgeous poetic prose.

 

Selected reviews & interviews

‘Sharanya Manivannan’s beautiful story will help sensitive children from the world over make friends with loss, and Nerina Canzi’s colour-drenched, jewel-like illustrations bring this tale of grandmothers, families and a very special butterfly to radiant life. The Ammuchi Puchi will take children, and adults, of all ages, on an unforgettable, sweet-sad journey from grey back into a world of glorious colour.’ – Nilanjana Roy, award-winning author of The Wildings

‘Stunning, vibrant illustrations bring this book to life… Not only is this a poignant story, handling the issue of bereavement with tact and understanding, it also shows children that grief is a universal emotion, shared by all cultures and peoples. Simply beautiful!’ – North Somerset Teachers’ Book Awards blog

‘This is just a beautiful book, about love and loss and magic and subjective truth, the hugest of subjects delicately handled for the smallest of people.’ – Preeta Samarasan, award-winning author of Evening is the Whole Day

‘I was genuinely very emotional by the end of this book. I loved these children and their grandmother so much, it’s a very important relationship exemplified with emotion and heart…. The story itself is artfully done, we learn about a strong, sparky, joyful and creative female role model in Ammuchi, who adores her grandchildren, inspires them and ignites their imaginations! … A traditional story feel, bursting with bright colours and emotion set to the backdrop of beautiful India. One for every bookshelf and library.’ – Alexis Filby, Book Monsters

‘The essence of Ammuchi Puchi is of universal appeal and relevance. It’s a beautiful picture book, both for sharing and, with its satisfyingly substantial text, for an older child to read alone. It is a moving, thought-provoking story that doesn’t offer any answers, but only asks of its readers that they have an open mind – and is all the richer because of it.’ – Marjorie CoughlanWindows, Mirrors, Doors

On Magical Butterflies And The Special Love Of Grandmothers” – Interview on the Lantana Publishing blog

 

Purchase online

Lantana Publishing

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Book Depository

 

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The Ammuchi Puchi ~ written by Sharanya Manivannan and illustrated by Nerina Canzi ~ Lantana Publishing, UK, October 2016

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The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

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Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Every Age You’ve Ever Been

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How strange it was, her reaction to the story about the famous writer who had been pulled out of school in the 8th grade for bunking class to go the cinema. “How sad,” she said, with sincere sympathy. “Poor child!” I said nothing, at least not immediately. She had forgotten, in the thrall of someone else’s life, her own daughter’s. She had pulled me out of school after the 6th grade, then the 8th, then refused to send me to college, then sabotaged my tertiary studies at least thrice. I never finished them. I am not a college drop-out in the cool sense of the word, not a genius who invented a software or sold an app or became a superstar. I am the other kind.

This is not a special story. I meet them all the time: high-functioning, ambitious – even accomplished – adults like myself who carry the scars of family dysfunction. Families who made bad choices and blamed it on circumstances. Families who justified abuse. Families who forced their young into situations the young should not know, so that they were raised half on their own sheer will and half on slow-release poison. More importantly, I meet scarred adults like myself who work hard to forge relationships with those same families. We do it out of love, yes, but we also do it because the alternative is an abyss of too much pain.

So to all of us who try, I want to say: I see you, I know you. I’ve seen you at all the ages you have ever been. I see their layers glimmer beneath every brick you lay in a life of your own assemblage, and I know what it has taken you and what it takes you every day.

There are places beyond which the well-adjusted cannot understand what we mean. There are places beyond which the well-concealed cannot carry their trauma across without spilling it, and so they refuse to acknowledge ours. And sometimes these categories are nebulous. We see ourselves reflected clearly, or we are oblivious of our blind spots.

I’ll take a crack in my heart over a chip on my shoulder, but some days it all feels the same.

As a writer, I believe the story belongs to whoever needs it. As a survivor, I believe the story belongs only to the one who lived it. These are contradictions, balanced by a single word, for a scarce thing: care. The story, like the survivor, is alive: it changes based on the hour or the day, evolves over years, is shaped by battering and by craft, sandpapered by retellings, distorted by silences. The story, like the survivor, requires care.

Redemption is not denial of all that came before. It’s only an extension of the sheer will through which that survival was – and is – managed. I am writing the future by force. The past is trauma, and trauma is memory. The present is a project, and that too will become memory. The ones we make today are the ones we’ll live with later. And wanting to live means having to try.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 23rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.