Tag Archives: forest

The Venus Flytrap: The Reconfigured Forest

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The forest had reconfigured itself in the years of her absence. At first, she could not find her bearings, and turned among the trees until her coordinates revealed themselves gently. Trees – so many trees – more than before, a lushness so vividly alive it could only be the afterbirth of cyclones, wildfire, calamity. Blossoms bright and wind-scattered. Birdsongs.

She arrived just as the women were about to leave, an hour from sundown, after a day of work among hearths and verdure. Light glints between leaves, on the rippling of puddled water, and along a line of spider’s webbing she pauses to smile at. They recognise her, call her back into their arms, call her by her name. They remember her by the doll she left in an old house, given room in a new one. She knows she once left a pair of sandals here, like an exiled emperor, but cannot recall what they look like. A dog she had hoped to meet again bristles, teeth bared, and lunges for her hand when she reaches for him. She had shouted his name down an avenue of areca-red earth, hoping that he – like her – was still alive. The years in between had contained their bereavements.

She accepts the sum of these facts as a teaching of some kind, and knows she allows this only because enough of who she once was has come back to receive it.

She had been reconfigured too, transformed like this sanctuary into something more deeply herself. Something had come to a close in her new life, and still something felt incomplete. She had held the forest within her for a long time, like a small fish cupped in hands filled with water, slowly seeping out of her. Perhaps she prayed for passage in a dream. And then the forest summoned her in ways that, upon telling, would belie their miraculousness.

If you have truly been inside the forest, you know that it can co-exist anywhere: an enchantment that adjoins a highway bereft of trees, a garden anonymous, a lone sapling slithering a tendril of desire for the sun between the cracks of concrete tiles. If you have ever been lost in the forest, you know that it retrieves all the shards of you and holds them – sometimes, you will think it withholds them too, yet it always gives them back when you ask. And if you have lost the forest, if it too is a place of your shattering, you know what it’s like to believe you can never go back. That the path briared – bewildered – itself into impossible convolutions.

Still – for her, after all this time, the forest parted its draperies, and she was within it again.

And so she walks as deeply inside as she can, to the door of the altar-space. And even though she had turned off every signal on her device, wanting this world to be briefly self-contained, somehow the memory of the map she had been asked to show someone remains undisconnected. She peers through the sheer window on the door and a disembodied voice suddenly says from the palm of her hand, “You have arrived.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 28th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Forest Of The City

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Sometimes I think of what that learned one told me as I move through the city’s avenues, sound-sieged and sun-bleached but for intervallic canopies of leaves. “Vana is ‘city’ too,” he told me, a woman with a forest in plain sight in her name. Vanadurga is She of the City then, another kind of wilderness. Etymologies rearrange things. I think of urban briar and bramble, some danger always underfoot. The frightening things gridlocked into the city’s rhythms the way traffic engorges its roads. It makes sense: Vanadurga’s temples are supposed to be open to the air. No sunshade, no crown of verdure. It is the primeval forest goddess, Aranyani, who has no temples at all, who resides deeper within and without human consciousness. She is remembered only by the beauty of ancient words made to praise her.

Sometimes potted plants are too obvious a metaphor for things that grow – or try to – wherever they are given, in containments disconnected from the bounty of the earth. Other times I wake unto my gallery of green and am grateful for their tenacity, their thirst, their sheer splendour. The way bougainvillea the colour of sweet mango flesh arcs beyond the trellis, flagrantly flirtatious. The way water poured on parched soil brings forth the smell we wrongly identify as rain, for petrichor is only the scent of mud being made.

On the street, besides the stump of a tree we lost in the last cyclone, a vivid frond announces an uprising. Life goes on – “grows on”, someone said. There’s something immutable about this fact, despite the other one: everything changes.

Aranyani walking through cities, through what has become of the landscapes of her dominion. Redolent of bark and blossom, the tinkling of her anklets lost amidst the noises of this feral place.

If only the summer could still do to me what I see it do to the pods and buds on these trees. I borrowed the line from Pablo Neruda, and that’s why I reject its original preposition. I cannot type his “do with” without remembering what he did to the Ceylonese woman he employed while a consul on the island. Reader, he raped her. Don’t tell me you can know that and still be softly stirred by “I want to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees”. Yet, why then did I forget, for awhile, what Derek Walcott too had done as every timeline filled up last week, in eulogy, with his exhortation to the rejected lover to feast on their life?

No, the summer is probably doing with me everything it always has: season of quenching, of moisture, of the quotidian pleasure of undressing. Season when the skin sings. I can’t see the brazen bougainvillea bursting over my balcony from behind my French windows. Am I like that too, in blossom but unaware? Disentangling the wrong etymologies. Seeing cities of trees and forests of conurbations while seeking some other kind of proof. I’d like to flourish again as if it was the first time, as if I need not be grateful, as if I did not know too well that seasons turn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 23rd 2017. “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.

The Venus Flytrap: Wild Song

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Sometimes the forest stretches her limbs, lets loose her hair so its tendrils unfurl – a little like territory flags, but those are human contrivances – into the places in our lives where we have forgotten her.

She reminds us. She asks that we watch, and that we listen for her. On certain city roads, there is an even keen of insect sounds that surrounds us for exactly as long as we ride under an arbour of embracing branches. Then we re-enter the sunlight and that forest essence vanishes.

Do you hold your breath under that canopy cover? Do you slow down?

So I both wonder and don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking, the leopard who was caught in a Bengaluru school last week. He was tranquilised and captured, and has since fled his cage again. He is at loose in the Bannerghatta National Park, his habitat, as I write this. It takes only minimal empathy to imagine why he might abhor his cell. Around the city, there other sightings. What could they be: tricks of the eye, wishful mirages, or truly: animals of the wild, wandering?

The forest seeps into civilisation in ways brutal and beautiful. Sometimes, both at once. In Munnar, mountain elephants stumble onto highways, lumber into jeeps and onto people. In the Sundarbans, tigers whose ecosystems are ravaged by natural upheaval seek human meat. Meanwhile, at the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, where Soligas live alongside them as per longstanding tradition, the tiger population doubled between 2010 and 2014, and no animal-people conflicts occurred. In times of disaster, there are rumours circulated about beasts escaping captivity: about disintegrated walls at Vandalur Zoo during the recent floods, for instance.

Tell me who among these is most brutal: the lost one, the lacking one, or the liar?

So one reads about these leopards, at a safe distance admittedly, and watches and wonders a little more.

Sometimes, I sit with people and sense the sea in them calling. Or the mountains, or the starlight. Or once in a while, in the aura of a particularly battle-weary individual, the desert. Most of all, though, it’s the sea – biologically, our bodies are made almost entirely of water. A sun-kissed beach and a cliff-jagged coast will each offer a different conversation, but it is nourishment just the same.

The forest calls to me often, and even if I no longer chase its song, I know its resonance. Amidst the vehicle horns of the city and its bandage of artificial light, I seek it. And in doing so, invoke it.

I am waiting for April, when a particular jacaranda tree will empurple my daily route. I am waiting for a dark crow taking shelter among tamarind pods on a day of rain. But most of all, I am waiting for escape: for the helix of a montane highway, for the bite of clear cold air, for a place where I can sink my feet into the lush red earth and know it to be a homecoming.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

I Am

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It was a pleasure to do this short video interview for I Am, an initiative of Ahalya Bespoke, in which I shared the story of how I was allowed to accompany a traditional Irula honeygathering mission a few years ago.

An Essay in Kindle

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I wrote an ars poetica of sorts about the Bulletproof Offering manuscript, “Sita as Lucifer”, for the March issue of Kindle Magazine. The formatting and asterisk breaks are off/gone, but you can read it here.

And yes, the words and lipstick print on the cover of the issue are also moi!

Vachathi

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There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.

Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.

Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.

Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.

Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.

Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.

Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.

It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.

The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.

Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.

An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.

Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.

It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.

That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.

For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.

At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.