The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 20th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: For Fear, Or To Overcome It

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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Matriarch of Mattekalleppu

Not all grandmothers are grand, but mine was. She was magnificent. Nothing shocked me in the last days I saw her alive but how beautiful she was, her illness sculpting her face into the countenance of a warrior – the high cheekbones and strong jaw I never knew were hers before they were mine. In a glass coffin in the morgue, dressed in the red and green saree she asked to be laid out in, she seemed to me like the Virgin of Vailankanni: ethereal and tranquil. At her funeral, adorned in turmeric and garlands, she took on the radiance of a more indigenous goddess.

Not all grandmothers are grand, and neither are they mothers – but mine was both. She was the one who raised me, the first arms in which I lay because her daughter was too sick from the Caesarean to hold me. My grandparents’ presence shielded me from the incompetence of my real parents, saving me from suicide in the years when they would halt my education whimsically, split me from my sisters, speak things to me I cannot bear to remember, drive me into deep and chronic depressions. There is so much I never spoke of, from respect for her. There is nobody left for me to hurt now.

She died in a confluence of auspiciousness: in the holy week of Kantha Shasthi, on the pagan festival of Halloween. Her funeral was held not only on Dia de los Muertos but the day that in some years is both Diwali and Kali Puja. A macabre, ingenious, knowing death.

There are as many ways to die as there are to live, and my grandmother died exactly as she had lived: with immense dignity. Crippled from a hip fracture weeks before, at the mercy of nurses and diapers, losing consciousness in her last two days and attached to machines for her kidneys, liver and lungs – I believe she chose to die contentedly, rather than struggle any longer in such humiliating dependence. She knew her time had come. She saw ancestor spirits, and twinkling lights. She gave instructions.

She died as she had lived, and how. By my age, she had already experienced the ultimate duality: the birth of twins; the boy alive, the girl dead. Pregnant with her fourth child and waking to a snake coiled around her leg, she kicked it off as easily as she chased crabs on the beach. She had premonitory dreams (one of many things I inherited). She held a community together through assassination attempts on my grandfather, his imprisonment, black magic, innumerable tragedies and joys. Wife of a man who was revolutionary, mayor, minister and ambassador, she was a matriarch in the true sense, affecting change through love, not anger. A divided Sri Lanka was as unimaginable to her as it is to me.

Somehow, despite knowing only Tamil, she could engage anybody in conversation. She loved gossip – everything from the dictator’s wife who told her that “he” was a mama’s boy to the young couple sharing her ward whose hugging annoyed her. There is a photo of her somewhere standing in front of the Eiffel Tower in goofy glasses.

She left her thali to me. There is no material object more precious to a woman of her background and generation than the nuptial chain. This is a gesture so profound that I think I will always be uncovering meaning for it.

The day before she died, I knew she would not survive the night. All year long I knew she was dying, and carried this fear within me constantly, almost waiting for it. I am as happy now as I am sad. My grandmother’s death freed her from her pain – and it will free me from mine. In death, she has given me just as much as she did in life.

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.