Tag Archives: friendship

The Venus Flytrap: KonMari In Kinship

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My friend handed me an adorable mug, pink with owls, and before I could comment on how pretty it was, she said: “You gave me this.” I had forgotten. Years had passed, during which I’d never imagined that I would be standing in her kitchen again. I was surprised that she still had it. “Yeah, I didn’t Marie Kondo the mug,” she joked.

But the words tripped out of my mouth. “Well, but I Marie Kondo-ed you, because I thought you’d Marie Kondo-ed me.” We both blinked at the prickliness of that moment. “What I meant,” I scrabbled. “Is that I wouldn’t have kept it…”

Objects which are mnemonics of pain, consciously or unconsciously, are a whole category of attachment (again, often unconsciously – hoarders don’t necessarily feel the attachment until asked to part with something). And many people who have transformed their spaces, inspired by Kondo’s techniques, known as KonMari, have done so through confronting the feelings evoked by, if not energetically contained in, those objects. “Does this spark joy?” has another question on its flipside.

Now, having organised and decluttered their surroundings, some KonMari enthusiasts have begun talking about taking the technique further. Top of the list seems to be toxic friends, another category of painful attachments. I’m all for good boundaries, freeing oneself from bad influences, refusing to be manipulated, laying ground rules for healthy relationships and the very effective liberation of headspace through social media unfollowing. But using a single question to evaluate an entire relationship? Not so much.

The idea of pruning connections purely for the purpose of having fewer of them to manage is itself suspect. And if it’s truly toxicity that’s the concern, it gets complex. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work; unlike what people are saying, digitally unfriending a classmate you don’t remember on social media is simply not on the same scale as ending a friendship with someone who is violent to their partner. While a catalytic event, the final straw, is often how we break out of abusive relationships, the exit is usually a long time coming. It takes circuitous routes, just as the healing is non-linear. The most toxic of our relationships are often also the most precious to us. Which means that by KonMari-ing our intimate circles indiscriminately, we’re only isolating ourselves further from sources of support who could help us clean up where we really need to. And sometimes, that cleanse is within – the friend is just a scapegoat.

It’s dangerous to label something “toxic” just because it currently contains friction, boredom or heavier demands on time and energy (for example: a friend going through a divorce is not toxic just because their pain is radiating from them all the time). A friendship, or any significant relationship, will not always reliably spark joy. There will be rough patches, misunderstandings, irritations and imperfect circumstances.

This was more obvious to me than ever in that kitchen, holding a simple object that my friend had divested of power by keeping, but which had suddenly become a mnemonic of our time apart. For a bond to last, you work at it. Love is complicated, but not clutter.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 24th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Highways On The Heart’s Journey

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There are two places on the Chennai-Dindivanam highway where the road curves alongside a wall of sheer rock, the side of a hillock cut down to make room for traffic. Once, a long time ago, driving during a thunderstorm at night, I rested my arm on the windowsill and woke from my sleep just enough to notice the jagged rock, painted with graffiti, and the lightning that illuminated it. I smiled, just then, that night, for the day we had just enjoyed in a town to the south. My oldest friend, her cousin and I. The memory came back to me again a few days ago, driving down that highway and back by daylight. And in the way that memory sieves and keeps the oddest things: I remembered how in years past, the radio signal would turn to static along that wall of stone, and noticed how it did not this time.

Why did some part of me wait to see that rock face as though it was someone I knew? I realised this only as we passed by it, and I felt for some strange reason something resembling joy. How is it that the memory of joy becomes joy itself?

We shared another highway and several long roads together a few months ago, my oldest friend and I, this time with her child. Another adventure, short but intense, sealed permanently in the heart. We weren’t even sure if we would go until we were already gone, the three of us squeezed into a single overnight train berth because not all our seats had been confirmed. I told her I was chasing a vision, and she indulged me. We hired a car and put more miles of roads into our memories. What will we remember when we talk or think of that trip, further into the future? A scattering of sacred places, a grove we drove into without entering the mountains it lay beneath, confidences exchanged, reasons for laughter, a meal, a moment which contained tears, a strange choice?

Not even a fortnight later, I found myself on the other side of that mountain range, on a completely different journey. What will come back to me from that trip, years from now? Ensconced in that travelling was a brush – not unlike driving past that stony hillock on another road – with a place in which I had once sat and watched the rain drip from the eaves of a cottage in a forest and knew with certainty that I had not finished missing someone who had long left me behind. Why did I remember that moment, so much later, in the same way I remember smiling through slumber on a storm-drenched highway, driving back from a reprieve on some distant Sunday? And what will I come to remember of what has just come to pass?

The spaces between journeys are long, for me, but I carry them far and further. Not to keep their memories alive, but to give myself life – so I am nourished always by the knowledge of what I’ve felt, what I’ve wagered, what I’ve been given, and what I’ve made with it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 17th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Wish On A Coffee Bean

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My friend and I made wishes on coffee beans and planted them – buried them, actually. We gave our wishes to the earth, hers into hallowed ground and mine in potted jasmine. We took photos of each other first, before we parted, each holding our kalpa-beans, and exchanged promises to check on each other on the dates by which we had decided our wishes would be granted. We were playing with the universe. On the morning on which we’d made this pact of aspiration, I had just made manifest a cherished dream of mine. And so, slaked of desire, I went for the whimsical. Perhaps I wasn’t playing with the universe so much as teasing it, saying: “I will ask for the thing I cannot have, and you will withhold it from me, or you will humble me by giving it to me. I will either be sanctimonious or I’ll be sweetly surprised. I don’t mind either.”

I set a short deadline, while my friend – more sincere than I in her entreaty – set a realistic one. And I waited. No, I didn’t. That’s a lie. I just watched. Today, on the day I write this, she will reach out to me with a question. And my answer is ready: “Nothing.”

Nothing granted, everything ventured. It is sanctimonious that I am today.

What I did in those weeks of watching was to watch myself as much as I watched what transpired, the things that held tendrils of possibility that I would indeed be humbled by the universe’s willingness to listen. I watched myself considering the relationship between desire and actualisation. And I watched myself wanting – this is true. And I allowed for and enjoyed the surprises that visited me, but without pausing to ask if they were correlated to a wish made on a coffee bean in a convoluted way – by naming something so deeply desired but already assumed to be unviable.

Here is the secret of why I am not sad, not on this un-disappointing deadline day and not even on the nights when I trace and retrace the question of how I became this person who writes so often of terror but so little of love. It is because it takes not much for me to feel fulfilled. I wasn’t always like this, but I learned (in the only, never easy, way that one can learn these things). I don’t think I can say it better than these lines from a story I wrote once: “So I began to adore simply, not loudly, and always in the awareness that those like me must live like flowering trees. We are who we are, prosperously or otherwise. And our lives are crowned, now and then, with moments of exaltation—each held and breathed in deeply, and then let go.”

I neglected to mention – those were roasted coffee beans. They won’t sprout. The exercise of placing them into earth was only to say, “Even against all contrary evidence, I choose to believe. I choose to ask again, even if I’ve been denied before.” We already chose happiness long ago; so every ritual that reminds us is a pleasure.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 3rd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sand Mandala

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I am letting go of someone I love, and I am doing it by looking at all the ways it’s been done to me and learning from all the mistakes I made as I’ve done it before. I’m thinking of those who disappeared on me – “ghosted” is the word now, and how that haunted me. The one I’m letting go of doesn’t know it, but I’m already gone, and one of these days a reckoning will come when they will force me to tell them why. I can’t begrudge that. I have asked that question of others. I have deserved an answer. But I’m thinking especially of those with whom I chose not to converse with, because to do so would be to tell them something that would turn them against me permanently, and with – I know from having been burnt by truth-telling – consequences.

I saw a video of a painting made of black powder on a linoleum floor of a cat and a snake. A broom hovered over the two figures, then swept their scales and stripes into a meaningless pile. I wondered at the risk the person who’d made this had undertaken – what if the camera wasn’t on? Would they recreate the entire sequence again – the painting and destruction both? How many times?

What I really wondered was why they did it at all – how can anyone make a beautiful thing and then destroy it? Then I recalled sand mandalas, how Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly paint elaborate symbols using coloured granules, only to ceremonially undo them. Not with the effacing glee of a broom, but part by part, in sequence. The sand, collected in a silk-wrapped jar, is then released into a river. Such care in the dismantling.

Everyone I love, I try to raise into my way of loving. This was what had gone wrong with this situation too. In my desire to remake another, I could only elevate them into loving me well, but could not impact how they are fundamentally wired. Which is to say: they learned just enough, but not enough. We arrived at a place where the seed of hatred they hold in their heart had overwhelmed everything else I saw – and wanted to see – in them. My own heart is so small, I rued and rued, until someone changed the narrative for me: to refuse to make space for cruelty is not itself unkind. Not, itself, incapacity.

I thought I built citadels out of love. Or gardens. Sanctuaries. At least, I can say with certainty that this is what I have always tried to do. But if I am honest, fear and memory have made me build sandcastles at times, sown with eventuality. I don’t think this was one of those times, but I’ll take my cue. A sand mandala, then. Made more and more beautiful with tending, with each intricate addition and every surprising colour. Not a ghosting, not a burnt bridge, only a meticulously reconfigured arrangement. Not with words, for mine are blades. Not with messengers, for that is cowardice. Only this intention: silk-wrapped, released into the elements, and with so much love, let go.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Coven At The Crossroads

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This is a column about things too sacrosanct to write about, but which deserve sharing. About spoken silences. About synecdoches: how smallness can contain splendour. About how your long covenant with your work encountered the best chemistry you have with the world, and they embraced one another – just as you do these people who you knew were friends even before you met them.  About opening your palms later to enjoy how the deep inner magic of a few days has left them glittery. How long will you hold onto this for?

This is a column about women talking to each other. This is a column about women being quiet with each other. This is a column about women reading each others’ minds only so as to have each others’ backs. This is a column about sheer excess, because what the heart communes with another’s heart rarely requires the formality of words.

This is a column about something people call sisterhood, but that’s an illusory word. Someone says “coven”. Someone else says “solidarity”. This is a column about all that, then.

About people meeting for the first time who seem to other eyes to have known each other forever, who share confidences as though they aren’t revelations. And about people who meet after half a lifetime but exchange notes from their journeys as though they’d never diverged. About old friends anew, and new friends already familiar.

About gratitude. About how life gives you only limited chances to see what you really do in the world, but if you’re lucky you’ll see lessons even in the laurels. About knowing better than to mistake glitter for gold, but learning also to love glitter for what it is, and cherish gold for what it’s worth. About grace. About growing deeper. About mirrors. About how what you see is based on who you are. About inner beauty and how every butterfly carries the memory of how it dreamed its wings in the dark of its cocoon.

About amazement. About sitting on the stairs surrounded by wine glasses and the scent of recently-sprayed Volini, talking about chronic illnesses. About shaking it off.

About someone bringing your forgotten bra to you in a brocade pouch one evening and then you draping your shawl over someone else’s shoulders so that she can take hers off at the lunch table two days later.

About gestures. About statements. About synchronicities. About how you packed a box of tea for someone you thought you’d meet, but don’t, then coincidentally catch her at breakfast before her flight. About how you, sleepy and unwashed, thank her for her defiance, for it was the very stuff that transformed an uncomfortable handshake into a warm hug.

A column, then, about many warm hugs. With those you recognise as kindred, even if only for some time as you amble on parallel paths. And with those in whose eyes you see the fear of unbelonging. To them you want to say: I was once you. I still know that me. Come into this garden of mine, this garden of forgiveness and myrhh, resilience and rosewater, for it has room for us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 18th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Loves Of My Life

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She walked in and my jaw fell open. I was onstage, and lost my train of thought mid-sentence. I gushingly apologised to the audience, saying “I’m sorry, I’m so distracted by my friends, thank you all so much for being here!” and half the crowd turned around to see who had made the writer wordless. This particular friend had told me she’d be travelling during my book launch in Chennai last week, but there she was to surprise me – and as I said to her later, she should have worn a feather boa for all the flutter she caused!

It was perfectly fitting, because my new book (The High Priestess Never Marries) is only partly about all the wrong loves. It is in larger part about the right ones. Love for the self, for the world, and for one’s significant others – by which in my case, I plainly and unequivocally mean my friends. Are these platonic friendships? Yes, in a certain very clear-cut sense. But I love holding hands, I love hugging, I rest my head on my friends’ shoulders and they rest their feet on my lap as we talk for hours. I kiss their heads if I don’t want to leave lipstick on their faces. I massage knots out of their backs when they need it. These too are forms of intimacy.

Exhausted the following day, I met another old friend and we literally just slumped on a sidewalk after some sathukudi juice and chattered away. This ease came from years of effort, deep root-reaching. With friends, do things to invest, not impress.

Friendship is grossly underrated in patriarchal society because the cubicle of matrimony is prized above all other bonds.

I took a pool cab home from my sathukudi sidewalk date. Two college-age boys got in and immediately started discussing how painful it was for one of them to hear that a girl they know was seeing someone. They wondered if they would ever find their own “someones”. The next day, I saw another pair of young men in a bookstore pick up a mushy self-help title on romance; one said “Ithu use agum, machan”. I loved this – young men talking openly about their emotions, being willing to learn, and to teach themselves and each other what they need to know. Men of my age and older – empirically, not categorically speaking! – often fail at these things. It made me so happy to actively see the change that feminists like myself have demanded in the personal sphere – one that makes it acceptable for everyone to be tender, vulnerable and hopeful.

I wished the same thing for both pairs of friends I eavesdropped on: that through their societal and sexual “aloneness”, they’d see the love they already have in their lives for what it is.

I wouldn’t want to partner with anyone I don’t love as intoxicatedly as I love my friends. I will never look for a partner or lover to replace anything that my friends give me, for my friendships are not proxies for the real thing. They are the real thing. My significant others. My co-sojourners. The loves of my life.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 12th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Heartbreak’s Optical Illusion

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If you’re capable of being a good friend (and not everyone is), you’ve probably sat through endless sessions of lament, helping someone through heartbreak. Only, when it’s not your heart that’s broken, the circles they’re carouseling can be baffling. The lowlife they’re describing – that lying, cheating, manipulative, selfish man or woman – isn’t the person they’re holding in their mind’s eye (or their heart’s vice-grip) as they sob. It can be as though they’re telling you about one person, while thinking about another.

“S/he’s a [you-know-what],” you say, because, well, it’s clear to you that they are. But even as you say it, you wonder: does your friend know what? The person they’re talking about – the one so clearly conjured up by their descriptions – is obviously undeserving of such lament, or such love. But the person they’re thinking about – the one who has caused these tears and confusion – is almost beatific.

It’s not that your friend is in some failure delirium. Because, briefly perhaps but with total vividness, the one who broke their heart was something other than the rude word you’ve recommended they be saved under on your friend’s phone (try it: in case it rings and flashes the said word, it’s a mnemonic to avoid feeling thrilled). They were – in short – wonderful. So was the heartbreaker intentionally deceitful? Sometimes, but this is not about those times. Consider: were they just as enamoured by the possibilities of who they were capable of becoming – the version of themselves that another saw, and was falling in love with?

And so, the deflating but not devastating premise is this: they tried it until they got lazy. They did it until being interesting, exciting and kind became too much effort. They pursued it until self-actualisation and being with someone as amazing as your friend turned out to not be their journey at all, just a merry detour. And like the kid who thinks he’s cruising along without training wheels until his parent lets go of the bike, they crashed right into the flowerpots.

The truth is that the potential someone else saw in them was probably not there to begin with. But unlike the kid with the bike, the bruises were also received by that someone else. And while the kid may keep trying, the heartbreaker usually just gets up and walks away, dusting themselves off – as though what happened between them and your friend was so light. And that’s the part that hurts most.

Can you help your friend integrate the two: the awful one who broke their heart, and the awesome one that same person was capable of being (but chose not to be)? It’s not bad to see the best in people. But it’s dangerous to see only that.

But also so normal. You see what I’ve been doing all this while? I assumed that you’re an empathetic listener. I assumed that you surround yourself with people who are passionate and resilient, and that you care for them. Are these things true? Or do they really just say more about me, and what I want to see, than they do about you, and who you are?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Heartbreak Whisperer

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By the time I hang up, it will be late into my night or theirs, but I know that by the time they come to me they have exhausted their usual sources of solace. And so they call from somewhere in the world, asking almost shyly first, and I listen and let them weep and then tell them what I know to be true. One friend recently told me, “I knew you’d understand.” Another said, “You’re the only one who doesn’t judge.” I hadn’t heard either of their voices in a long time, but it didn’t matter. I am happy to be just their heartbreak whisperer.

Heartbreak is a form of grief, and all grief deepens after the initial stage of public acknowledgement. In that stage, desperate for distraction, most people make themselves fun to be around. They want to be social, and to be seen. They want to be tagged in as many photos as possible, caught mid-laugh, their arms around new acquaintances, raising a toast to the camera and the concept of liberty. Their anger, confusion and sorrow are gladly indulged, because it’s really not that difficult to say, “There, there, hon – bottoms up!”

But the mask wears thin, and not just one’s own. Fairweather friends show their true colours and leave, or must be left, with the added damage of tending to that loss. No one who tells you “get over it” is your friend. But even close ones grow weary, and one grows guilty and self-critical. Ultimately, we’re left to our own disasters.

It’s socially unacceptable to stay heartbroken beyond a point – an extremely arbitrary point, often determined by no more than your confidante’s disinterest. There used to be a popular calculation: that it would take you half as long as you were with someone to get over them. But how provably untrue. What does “with” mean anyway?

It takes as long as it takes. If your physical heart underwent surgery, you would give your body all it needed to heal. Well, your metaphysical heart shattered into pieces. How can anyone expect it to behave like it didn’t happen? Why do you?

Among those who hit the ground running, successfully staving off the horror of their true feelings by throwing themselves into adventure or work or a rebound, the mess comes out later, inconveniently. By then, the early sympathy is gone and they’re entrenched in new self-made environments. But there it is: the unrequited love calcified into insomnia, the self-destructiveness in the second year after divorce, the irreversible regret.

So this is why I’ll be the heartbreak whisperer, across time zones and in violation of sanctioned timelines. A heartbreak isn’t something you build a bridge across and “get over”. You almost drown, you sink to the very bottom, and there you learn the language of water. And when you surface, breathing raggedly but breathing, not only are you in a new lease of life but you’ve also seen the undercurrent of another world. I’ve spent a lot of time in those depths. No one who’s seen them forgets. Anyone who tells you to forget is telling a selfish, and dangerous, lie.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 8th. “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: It Takes A Long Time To Grow An Old Friend

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Once upon a time, I was in a little coterie with B and C (let’s call me A, then). There was also D, but D – well – was eventually a complete D to all of us, if you know what I mean. I became, separately, very close to both B and C. Adult life meant we all saw less of one another than we had when we first met. But I stayed in regular contact with them both, and they would each ask me about the other. “I miss B,” C would emoji me now and then, and because I missed B too I’d concur. But I didn’t know that where I only meant I would like to see B more frequently, C meant something else altogether.

No, this isn’t a case of B – C = exam (love)failure. That’s a topic for another set of initial-based pseudonyms! So one weekend, I suggested something logical. Given that B and I meet often, and C and I meet often, why didn’t we all just meet together?

Except that the day came and I flaked out. Sunday-slumped, I told B I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t bother to tell C, thinking that they’d enjoy being together after such a long time and my absence might help them reconnect. But when C asked me where I was and I flippantly said, “oh yeah, didn’t B tell you I’m not coming?” I wasn’t prepared for the earful I received.

“I thought you’d like hanging out, considering how you’re always telling me you miss B,” I defended myself. “I had no idea that some other dynamic existed.”

I insisted that they meet, and C reported back to me. It turned out that B + C – A equalled shallow conversation, inability to share, and a total lack of meaningful exchange. “We talked about work,” shrugged C. “Office stuff.”

“Why didn’t you talk about the H situation or the O revelation or the X confession?”

“You weren’t there, na,” came the reply. “So how?”

How had I wound up being the proxy through whom two good friends conducted a non-friendship with one another? One devoid of acrimony or issues, but equally devoid of value?

In adult life, we often create ties knowing that they are water-soluble. Part of this no doubt comes from the heartbreak of watching seemingly close friendships dissolve like confectionery in the palm. But another part comes from sheer self-involvement, which can reflect as much in busyness as in laziness.

Not every relationship will weather everything. But those that do have one thing in common: investment. This is why I have what I have, separately, with B and C. In our respective friendships, we chose and keep choosing to put in the work of love.

It takes a long time to grow an old friend. Fleeting connections may be water-soluble, but friendships are like plants. They need to be watered. They thrive on things like dialogue, time, vulnerability, support, laughter and secrets. They cannot rest on proxies like alcohol, location, alumni reunions, or even a common companion. One doesn’t need a garden, just a windowsill of soothing, well-rooted green.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 31st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Reunion

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I am delighted that my column, The Venus Flytrap, is back in The New Indian Express after a 5-year hiatus! The first piece is below. An edited version appeared in the newspaper on October 26th. The column appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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What do you say to someone, an old friend of sorts, after five years have passed, out of touch? Let me try. Think of this as me greeting you as you find most appropriate: with a hug, a handshake, or maybe just the hope that you still remember me. Do you? Walk with me a little while, if you will. Let’s take for granted that much happened, as was only necessary. Five years is a long time to waste, and a short time to spend. You aren’t the same person; I assure you that neither am I. Yes, I still love to laugh, and I live by the moon even more than before. Yes, there’s indigo in both our throats now – and on some nights, it’s an arrested poison, and in some lights it’s a hauntingly beautiful blush. You, I can see, still seek out challenge, are charmed by caprice, still wear your circumstances like a loose collar, so that nothing gets in the way of a deep breath. Still look for yourself in the reflections of others, and delight in how similar and similarly entangled we all are.

Let’s say, also, that some things stayed the same, even as others changed.

I hope you still have more fingers than mistakes to count on them, and that you do not do so often. Which is to say – I hope you always knew the difference between a risk and Russian roulette. I hope they threw carnations at you more than they did arrows (you know who they are). I hope all the love you ever threw out there yourself boomeranged right back, full force. I hope your elsewheres still fill you with sweet nostalgia, and your somedays have inched ever closer.

Me? There’s plenty of time for that later. But I will say this much: there’s a mountain inside each of us, beyond which no one can hear us screaming. I have conquered mine. But this is also true: Rumi wrote, “There is a kiss we want with our whole lives.” And I am still waiting. And that is probably why, my dear, that I am still here.

I still have a heart like a pair of saloon doors, swinging open at every chance.

What fills your life now? Who are you becoming?

I thought of you sometimes, and of what I would say if I knew you were still listening (and at other times, I thought we’d never see each other again). I thought of you when I wept with joy in the Tuileries one dying summer, and when I looked over a bridge into a lagoon in which a mermaid lay silenced through thirty years of war, and always when the Madras summer does to the jacaranda and rusty shield-bearer trees what a greater poet’s spring did to the branches of the cherry.

Any time someone allows you into their lives is a privilege. Any time someone takes two minutes of their own time to listen to you is a chance.

Walk with me, again, a little while. And thank you, old friend, for letting me walk with you.

 

Guest Column: Sisterhood Is Complicated

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I’ll have to begin this with a mea culpa.

There have been times when I’ve been a multiplier of gossip, a pronouncer of wicked words, a deliverer of the sharply-shredding gaze. And although I don’t think gender has anything to do with who constitutes one’s tribe, I’m still plagued with a little feminist guilt when the rage subsides and I realize its recipient has been of my own “kind”. Which is to say: another chick, another bachelorette, another girlfriend gone gaga. How strange that I can comfortably joke that one of my superpowers is emasculation, but feel such self-reproach when I turn my cruelty towards another woman.

I did this, in fact, not so long ago. The when and the why have (hopefully) sunk into irrelevance, but what I’ve continued to think about is a specific phrase I appended to one particular verbal defenestration. “Oh thank God I met you today,” I said to the other party, after a long tirade about a certain distressing damsel. “I needed to talk to a female friend today to restore my faith in the sisterhood.”

The Sisterhood.

What on earth does it mean, who gets admittance, and why does it sound so grandiose? In the United States some decades ago, sisterhood was radical and political – specifically, it was also (to quote from some book titles) Powerful, Global and Forever. But what does it mean to us, here, in these times? Female friendships are one thing but what about female community? In a country where the sexes still experience segregation in some quarters, i.e. that community can be forced rather than fall together organically, it’s a particularly interesting question.

The times I have most felt that sisterhood is important have been in times of its abject lack. For instance, I have longed for it when I felt betrayed by female peers who preferred stabbing me in the back and stepping on my shoulders to reveling in the creative synergy we could have had together. I have longed for it when I’ve felt ostracized. I’ve longed for it when I’ve seen other women enjoy it with an ease I did not share.

But sisterhood is complicated, like all good and grandiose things. Platonic relationships between women are the ultimate Longfellow’s little girl – when they’re bad they’re horrid, but when they’re good they’re very good indeed. There have certainly been times when I have genuinely had it, or something resembling the fuzzy, fierce emotions I associate with it. And in those times, I haven’t always been its perkiest cheerleader, much as I may have yearned or fought for it before. I’ve thrown in the towel (“I’m sick of these chicks and these straight boys. Where is my gay posse? Give me a boa and crown me empress among queens!”). I’ve been downright partial (too little energy for a bus across town to see a galpal, way too much enthusiasm for a bus across town to see a funbunny). I’ve taken it for granted, forgotten how special it is, traded it in, opted out, and generally been less than totally sisterly.

But then, think for a moment about what it actually means to have sisters or siblings. It means rivalry, it means responsibility, it means broken things and fisticuffs and conspiracy and tears and duplicity and loyalty and love. Love is complicated. Women are complicated. Family is complicated. Sisterhood is all of these – a little less on some days, a lot more on others. But always, somehow, worth the effort of finding out which.

An edited version appeared in Times of India (Chennai) today.