Tag Archives: fire

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: When You Burn A Bridge, But You’re Still On Fire

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The forests are burning, again, and so are the bridges. In one of the most striking images that I‘ve seen, a trajectory of incandescence outlines the distant black hills against the night sky, while the reflection of the blaze dapples the Ganga waters. Visually hypnotic, but terrible both in cause and consequence. The burning has gone on for a long time.

Those bridges I spoke of are only metaphorical: one way to find sense and language for this much incineration.

How does one withdraw support from those who abuse it? Amputation is a question of the correct knife. Sometimes, a needle will do to loosen a knot. Sometimes, it takes the the heaviness of a guillotine. Most times, it requires pulling out the knife that was plunged into one’s back and using it to stake freedom.

You built a bridge so you could share the bounty of your own land. You built a bridge so you could live more of other places, other impressions. You built a bridge because there was someone on a further bank who seemed to need it badly, and you misunderstood those who paid no heed as cruel, not cautious. You built a bridge so you could stand at its centre and marvel at how you suspended everything – doubt and mistrust and past failure – to build it anyway, and here it stands. And still you arrive at the day when you find the balustrades breaking down, the traffic one-way, and silt  weakening the foundations you lay with your own hands. And so you set a torch to it, and as the first flicker kindles, the words in your mouth and your beaten, beating heart are I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.

What is not known about amputation, except by those who have successfully performed it, is this: you don’t cut anything of another person away. You only excise that which has become gangrenous within you because of your involvement with them.

I woke very early one morning this weekend with the awareness that I was carrying tight orbs of anger and unhappiness, forms of thwarted love that had outlived their circumstantial triggers. I was as surprised by them as I would have been to find mice in my mattress, and I responded in the same way. They had no place in my life, in my body, in my bed. The arsonists behind those conflagrations had long since left or been left, but this was what they had left behind.

Who set the forests on fire? Who taught you tears could douse them? I looked at those red-hot burdens and said: this is my work to do.

Boundaries are just as beautiful as bridges. They keep out those who don’t deserve your bounty, your benevolence. But as you draw the lines and keep vigil within them, know that everything that wound up on your riverbank still belongs to you. Some things you cannot transmute except by way of bonfire.

You’ve been an inferno for a long time, any way.

What rises from the ashes is aurelian, smoke-feathered, jewel-eyed. It takes flight by the light of broken bridges as they burn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 5th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.