Tag Archives: folklore

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: When The Goddess Menstruates

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While so many are galvanizing resources for flood-wrecked Kerala, Kodagu and other parts of South India, a leisurely lot have been spending time and energy spreading the information that the natural disaster (even if not, technically speaking, a national disaster) has been because of the wrath of God. Specifically, that the Supreme Court case on permitting women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats of Kerala has invited the deluge.

For some reason, this often gets conflated into “menstruating women”, as though the Supreme Court has specifically opened the temple to women who are literally having their periods. It’s worth remembering that the exclusion of women was brought into law by the Kerala High Court only in 1991. Prior to that, women generally did not participate due to tradition, enforced by conditioning but not by law.

Does Ayyappan forbid the presence of fertile women? That isn’t for me to decide. But the misnomer “menstruating women” calls to mind exactly that image, and myths around the same. We could begin with Parvati of Chengannur in Alappuzha district, one of the worst hit in these floods. Originally built in 300 AD, the clothes of the goddess here are checked every morning for blood stains. When they are found, the idol is shifted to private quarters for the duration of her period, during which the temple also remains closed. Menstrual seclusion is a part of this temple’s ethos, as it is in most (but not all, though of this I will not speak indiscreetly). Can ritual observation be read as honouring the feminine body, or only as disdain?

Cultures around the world have traditionally regarded menstrual blood as either polluting, or possessing a power that can be used for any means and therefore best avoided, an idea so nuanced that it unfortunately creates taboos. The elaborate and beautiful, though equally violent, Mayan myth of the lunar goddess Po is one example: discovered by her father to have taken a lover, Po is killed, her menstrual blood stored in thirteen jars that contain both evil and healing. The last one contains her essence, and she is reborn.

Myths of unequivocal celebration are rare, like the one about the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, who created humankind through loam and her own menses. Surely, in the rich folklores of the world, far more tales have been created: whispered in menstrual huts, at the thresholds of forbidden kitchens, in factories where women without union benefits pack unaffordable hygiene products for other women. There are no experiences that don’t find themselves woven into stories.

Which brings us finally to the most legendary of them all: the temple in Guwahati where Kamakhya is worshipped in the form of a stone yoni that is kept perennially moistened by a natural spring. Each year, she is said to menstruate during the Ambubachi Mela, coinciding with the June monsoon. Is this celebration? Of the feminine principle, certainly. But I’ve still not heard even one menstruation story that’s simply about normalization. “And then the goddess paused for a while, and drank some tea, and pondered the merits of banana fibre pads over moon cups…”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 23rd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Look At The Sky

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An antlered creature is trapped between two men – we know they are men not only from their smooth torsos but also from the penises that dangle between their legs, indicating their nakedness. The man on the right carries a spear above his head; the other holds a bow drawn taut. In the distance is a smaller creature, in its pose an air of dejection. Above them all are two objects – one of them only partially drawn, or partially obscured. Bulls-eyes from which lines radiate. Two suns? A sun and a supernova, is what experts believe. The rock carving that depicts this scene has just been discovered in the Burzahom archaeological site in Kashmir. The findings suggest that this may be the oldest surviving human artwork inspired by a supernova sighting.

These findings appear in a paper in the Indian Journal of the History of Science, and only get more marvellous. Hrishikesh Joglekar, M N Vahia and Aniket Sule posit a theory that’s inclusive of both archaeology and astronomy. They date the rock carving to 4,500 years ago based on a correlation with a supernova remnant, HB9. And they offer this possibility: the hunt recorded in the carving could have been celestial, for the map of the sky at the same time of the supernova’s explosion contained a remarkably similar picture. The antlered creature is the constellation Taurus, the hunter with the bow and arrow is Orion, and to the right are a hunter formed from stars of the constellation Cetus and the second animal – apparently a canine – from the constellations Andromeda and Pegasus.

Who do we marvel more: the scientists of today who put all of this together, or the woman or man who chiselled what they saw take place in the heavens one night in the Kashmir Valley so long ago?

And I wonder what it was that artist thought as she observed this. What – or who – were the stars to her? What did she believe she was seeing?

There are always stories and there are always theories. Here’s another possibility from science: morning sunlight reflecting on ice crystals, creating the optical illusion of a second sun. And then there are myths. In the Cheonjiwang Bonpuri of Korean shamans, two suns and two moons are created to appease the Rooster Emperors. The Atyal people of Taiwan tell a story about how a hunter had to shoot down one of the two suns in the sky because people could neither sleep nor grow millets. The Mayans had many stories of rivalling suns and moons. And then there’s mythical science: Erik Aspaug’s Big Splat Theory that suggests that our moon was a fragment spun from a newborn earth’s collision with another planet, and that it maybe even had a twin, which the scientist Corey S. Powell poetically names Endymion, lover of the moon goddess Selene.

Some years ago, the graffitied words “regarde le ciel” appeared around Paris. Look at the sky. Imagine if some of this graffiti survived, and sentient beings millennia from now discovered it. What would they think we saw? Would they also know that, too often, we didn’t remember to seek at all?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 11th 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: 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.

The Venus Flytrap: Crows, Caution And True Colours

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When Wendell Berry wrote of “the peace of wild things”, he could not have been thinking of the crow. For the crow, with its blade-like intelligence and its capacity for vendettas, might have longed for the same thing as the only domesticated creature that writes poetry (the human). In the human’s attempts to study the crow, we have learnt that they recognise faces outside their species, and warn one another of inimical elements. They also shower affection and aegis, as they do on Gabi Mann, a little girl in Seattle who feeds them, and to whom they bring gifts of beads and trinkets and objects deemed precious by their intentions.

Chennai is a city of crows, so it is easy to observe them. As they cast shadows on walking paths. As they cascade good luck in the form of shit. As they swoop down on early mornings to eat freshly cooked rice, and some part of us longs to confer on them the names of ancestors. As they keep sentinel silences from near distances, and unlike the needy nuisance of pigeons, never trespass.

In our folktales they innovate and connive, in our mythologies they chauffeur deities of double-edged power, like the righteous Shani, and Dhumavati who rises in smoke. And according to both science and legend, crows are known for their ability to hold a grudge. They don’t forget ill-will done toward them.

Popular wisdom gives grudges a bad rap. Grudge-holders are said to be small-hearted and stuck in the past, while those who “let go” are noble. Those who don’t make it easy for others to keep trampling them are criticised as “being difficult”. But the way we talk about these issues – injury, forgiveness and healing – is all wrong. By diabolising our emotional responses, we actually allow the pain to twist into different sorts of cruelties, towards the self and others.

A grudge doesn’t mean extracting revenge. It doesn’t mean carrying negative emotions. It simply means recognising a person for what they are, instead of making excuses for them. And not forgetting lessons learnt.

A grudge-holder can be unfailingly polite, while also being cold. They can act kindly, without ever re-opening the door. They can even wish well, while simultaneously wishing to keep their distance. It’s not a grudge one truly holds, but a memory. Not a scar, but the concealed weapon of knowledge. It never needs to be used. Bearing it is protection enough.

Various fables about the crow suggest its intense colour is a form of punishment. But in a story belonging to the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people, its rainbow feathers are singed due to bravery. The earth is trapped in endless winter, and it travels on behalf of all living things to ask the creator for a solution. The creator imagines fire into being, and the crow is the first to experience it. The crow’s gift, however, is that in times of rain its wet feathers will glisten with their original variegation.

One can carry a grudge the way a crow carries a secret shimmer within. Where you’ve been burnt, a resistance: your true colours, and always, an awareness of theirs.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 2nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Flood Stories

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I counted myself among the lucky ones, while the city drowned. How lucky to be dry. How lucky to have water to drink, a toilet that flushed. How lucky to be parcelling food and not waiting for it. How lucky to be in my own clothes, and to have excess to give. And even when the power went out and took all lines of communication with it, how lucky to have little to do on a lightless night but to tell stories.

In hundreds of cultures, there is a legend about a Great Flood. The most well-known one comes from the landlocked region of the Abrahamic religions: Noah, and his ark of animals. Strangely, the elements of this myth are echoed in folklore everywhere: from the Aztec story of Tapi to the Masai story of Tumbainot to the Alaskan story of Kunyan. The common tale is as follows: that the world is punished with a terrible deluge because of human wickedness, and a chosen person or family build a vessel in which pairs of animals also took shelter. After days or weeks at sea, they finally release a bird or beast that returns, bringing a symbol of hope and dry land.

Hindu lore also contains a similar story: that of Matsya, the fish or fish-man, the first avatar of Vishnu. He warns Shraddhadeva Manu, a Dravidian king, of an impending deluge, and instructs him to build and fill an ark with animals, grains, seven sages and his own family – enough, as in every version of this tale, for a new world to come.

There are plenty of other twists, other downpours and other tales.

The Yuma of Southwest America have a flood tale which is also the origin story of the desert: a divine deluge is sent to eradicate dangerous animals, but when people insist that some of them must be kept for food, the waters are evaporated by a too-powerful fire. A beautiful Nigerian story goes that the moon and the sun were married, and their friend the flood demurs to visit their home but they insist; finally, the waters come through the doors and rise so high that the couple must live in the sky. In many South American flood stories, human survivors are turned into monkeys who slowly regain human attributes.

Primordial water is the origin of all life. A flood myth is essentially a second chance, to recreate: what must we do, once the earth is once again beneath our feet?

So many stories to tell by candlelight, in a storm, as one waits for the next opportunity to give, to get back out there and connect people, gather supplies, support the bravest among us all who wade into the worst-hit areas. I will not romanticise what it is like to wait, in that same darkness, for rescue.

When the floodwaters abate, there will be other stories. Among them, most of all, will be stories of ordinary heroism; ordinary because the massive outreach effort that the people of Chennai have shown is how humanity should always be. It should be ordinary to care. It should be habitual to think of others.

Flood stories are about destruction and punishment, but they are also about cleansing and renewal. They are about the obligation of survivors to question the methods of the past, and to build a future based on the wisdom of loss. What will we do differently, Chennai, now that we know how much we want that difference?

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