Tag Archives: ghosts

The Venus Flytrap: The Maladjusted Medium

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“These leaves are used in headache ointments,” she said, and handed me a few. They had a interesting, pleasantly medicinal smell. I asked her what the tree was called, but its name is the last thing I remember from that evening.

We were in the playground, waiting for the baby to tire herself out. The woman speaking was employed by my friend, for whom I was translating the conversation. She walked over and tore a bit of bark off the same tree. “This is used to make paper,” she said. “Where I come from, there’s nothing but these trees and maybe twenty houses, spread out far from each other.

“At night it’s pitch dark. By 6pm, my heart starts to palpitate. I can hardly sleep.”

“Didn’t you grow up there?” I asked. “How can you be so afraid? And what are you afraid of?”

“Ghosts,” she said. “I saw one when I was ten years old.”

Later, she would say that she didn’t normally tell people about these things. About how since she had seen that ghost, with its ghastly monkeylike face, she lived in nightly fear. About how some years after that, she developed the ability to channel deities, and exorcise the possessed – only in her case, it wasn’t so much an ability as an inability to resist being taken over. It always happened without her control, on two specific days of the week.

Later, I would also wonder why she had told this story at all – at 6pm on a Tuesday, no less.

It was the first her employer had heard of this side of her, and there were many questions. She carried on talking about her experience as a medium – but mostly, she talked about fear. Her fears seemed normal enough – fear of the dark, fear of spirits, fear of being in train stations at night, fears about negotiating life in this city as an unthreatening, working class woman.

At some point, she stopped me mid-translation. “I don’t want to talk now, I’m getting scared.” But it was too late. Even as we began to change the subject, she started to hyperventilate. Her slight body tensed and shuddered violently, her face contorted in anguish. I ran for the baby, thinking back on an incident from my own childhood in which a possessed woman had grabbed hold of me and flung me around like a crash test dummy. My friend put her arms around her until she calmed, sobbing. We left the playground as soon as we could.

There was only one thing about the possession that disturbed me, and disturbs me still: how a person of such power – a person who had the capacity to support her community as a healer – could have so little control over it. She was at the mercy of her own power. It had, in fact, turned on her.

And doesn’t this ring true for many of us? How easy it is to hide our own light, our own gifts, so as to get along with a hostile environment. But to get by on a mediocre life when one is meant for extraordinary things is to poison the self. On some level we are all maladjusted mediums. How many of the ghosts that besiege you are of your own killing?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: For Fear, Or To Overcome It

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I have been thinking of my grandmother’s death for most of my life. In the beginning, it was her fault. When we were children, she would laugh about coming back to haunt us when she died, a loose-haired, lolled-tongued cliché. Perhaps this was meant as admonishment, but the heart warms to remember. This was a woman who would sit at windows with a cup of tea and casually remark on the ghost inhabiting the nearby tree. For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe.

Years later, living elsewhere, I became possessed by a sort of paranoia about her mortality. I would dream of getting phone calls telling me she had died, and wake weeping, believing them real. There were other sorts of dreams: like one I cherish, in which she told me, “I am you.”

She lived for a year after I came home again. And one day I woke up and she really was dead, but I already knew, and so I followed the sound of crying, spent an hour consoling others, and went to work.

When the first of my sisters was born, my grandmother’s youngest sibling and only brother died suddenly. She went to the funeral, took the next flight back, washed her hair and returned to the maternity ward with a packed dinner, all in the same day. I wonder now if she had known. If she too had watched her brother in the months before, the death in his bones rattling like a pair of dice no one else could hear. Perhaps, as it was for me, foreshadowing was not frightening, but only preparation for a seamless transition.

The dreaming has already begun for my grandfather and I. She told him to stop crying because she is happy. She told me, when I tried to follow them both down a coast, that I had to stay. That she would be back, but I had to stay. This was my dream on the worst day of my grief, when I hoped to die with my grandfather so I would not be left orphaned.

In her heartbreaking memoir, Paula, Isabel Allende wrote of dreaming of her comatose daughter the night before she died. When Allende awoke, Paula’s rabbit fur slippers lay next to her bed.

All her life, my grandmother lost her smile the minute a camera came near her. Yet for some reason, on an evening four years ago that I barely recall, she let me apply makeup on her and take a picture. She is not just smiling in it – she is effervescent.

This is the picture that my grandfather found the morning that she died. This is the picture garlanded in the living room. I do not feel her gone. Every time I step out, there she is, just as she always was.

I was told once that white feathers are the markers of angels. There was one under my desk at work yesterday. I smiled but didn’t think about it – my life is full of synchronicities and surrealities; if I was an atheist, my “faith” would be tested daily.

An hour later, someone asked if the thing on my shoulder was real. It flew to the ceiling when flicked – a moth, like the one my sister had turned to find at the sound of rapped knuckles against a window in our grandparents’ room. Moths in many cultures are the spirits of the dead. It must been with me from when I came indoors. The white feather was gone when I went back to my desk.

For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe. And I do, Ammamma. I do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.