Tag Archives: healing

The Venus Flytrap: Wishes For Well-Being

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I write from a place where I manufacture hope for myself – and for the world – out of nothing but with all of me, the way a silkworm spins a cocoon from its body, or the way the sunlight-catching gossamer that a spider weaves from itself becomes at once its home and its art.

May you find in this time of constraint that you have more will and more heart than you usually have recourse to. May you draw from old wells of strength, and may they show you how you have been here before, and how you lived through it. The circumstances may be amplified, but the feelings are familiar. You have felt helpless before. You have known isolation. May you receive this while bolstered by that memory, just as I send it to you from a place of periodic equanimity, gained by experience and with the sense that all the world has slid now to the level of disquiet I always live with. And having lived that way, I can tell you that you can too. If you have the bare minimum to stay alive in this adversity, you can still find or make mirth, romance, creativity, comfort.

I know that somewhere in this city, the boughs of mango trees must be ladening with ripening fruit. The season for them has surely arrived, as seasons do, even out of turn in this time when ecospheres evolve. Soon, the rare jacarandas – you may know where amidst these many streets suddenly empty of our urgencies and our vanities they are rooted – will prosper in purple. Have you noticed how many words in the English language for this colour borrow from the names of flowers that carry it? Lilac, lavender, violet, periwinkle. Jacaranda is not one among them, both tree and tint. How beautiful to think of them all: summer’s bounty – the flowering trees, the fruit-bearing boughs, the weeds, a wild luxuriance. They will loom radiant in their posts whether we can see them, or touch them, or take from them or not. I write from a place with no foliage in my sight, for the first time in over a dozen years. It’s enough for me to know it thrives out there, away from our plucking hands and our polluting vehicles. Remember that nature has its own rhythms, and that you can conjure them up in thought. They susurrate within you. They are you.

May this find you in a place where your water, your electricity, your subsistence and your Wi-Fi are blessedly stocked. May you have enough. May you know that your coffer of courage, your vault of ingenuity, your repository of goodwill, and your larder of intuition are renewable resources. You do not have to fill them as we did before, using the ways we took for granted. There are other ways: gentler, simpler, more generous, more connected from afar. May you know that you are precious, and so is each life. May you know that if you are lucky, it is disgraceful – as in, incognizant of the universe’s grace – if you do not use your survival to make the world a better place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 26th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Premonitions Bureau

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In 1967, John Barker (a psychiatrist drawn to the occult), a science journalist and a newspaper editor set up what they called The Premonitions Bureau in the UK. The Bureau logged data from people who reported on dreams, physical sensations and other portents which accompanied a sense of knowing (always, notably, of calamity to come). Rather than relegate these findings as symptoms of psychosis that required treatment, the Bureau hoped to understand the phenomenon, and perhaps to use it to prevent disasters. Two of the most accurate percipients, who had between them predicted a plane crash, a major landslide and a shipwreck, among other tragedies, also both repeatedly shared warnings with Barker that his life was in danger. He died of a sudden illness soon after.

Reading a lengthy article on these events, I found myself interested only in two things: Barker’s work in reforming mental health facilities in the UK, and the fact that the Bureau was set up in a field that typically views the paranormal with not just suspicion but condescension.

As for visions, precognition, multisensory awareness? Neither new, nor restricted only to a gifted or cursed few (a vital distinction that redistributes power; important especially in our context with its fraudulent masters). What’s interesting is that Barker sought to reframe them in modern Western psychology, a project which held potential in decolonising the field.

The view that anything that cannot be explained by rationalism (or in shorthand, “science”) is non-existent, or that everything can be explained by the same, is deeply problematic. Those who expand and decolonise healing practices incorporate the work of shamans, doulas and many other therapists into the fold. The metaphysical has a place here, and the Cartesian mind-body divide is refuted. Do vaccines work? Yes. Does acupuncture work? Yes.

The derision of indigenous knowledges exists in many fields. Medicine, for example: many allopathic practitioners, even here in India where systems like Siddha, Unani and Ayurveda exist, tell patients to engage with “alternative” therapies at their own risk. The vocabulary itself reveals the problem – alternative to what? Queerness used to be described that way too, as an “alternative lifestyle”. Alternative, basically, to what’s acceptable.

Decolonising mental and physical health practices is not the replacement of systems (which is erasure, and counterproductive), but concurrent appreciation. The idea is not that any one is inherently better than another, but that they co-exist. And that the correct balance is deeply subjective, varying from person to person, ailment to ailment and situation to situation. Someone I know corrected a common illness we both have using only yoga; I on the other hand prefer to pop a daily pill, and probably will for the rest of my life. But I chose to treat another condition with herbal medicine alone (it worked), instead of a three-month allopathic course I didn’t want the side-effects of. The point is not to privilege one system or another, but to recognise them all as valuable. And human knowledge, both learned and intuitive, as vast. Capitalist pharmaceuticals, flawed education systems and internalised colonialism keep us from tapping into – and healing through – more ways that can quite beautifully be reconciled.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lipstick On The Ladder

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A personal essay I wrote a few years ago, called “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, took me everywhere from literary events in Brisbane to Lakmé Fashion Week in Bombay, went viral when it was republished online, and still brings me messages from women who see something of themselves reflected therein. It was about self-expression and self-concealment: specifically, how women camouflage ourselves so as to not be perceived as desirable and thereby attract undesired attention, much like the bhakti poet Karaikal Ammaiyar who prayed to be transformed into an unsexy wraith so she’d be able to wander undisturbed. But it’s time for me to come clean. At some point, that camouflage ceased to be armour. It became avatar. I began to overidentify, and my self-esteem sank partly from this. In my ongoing journey to reclaiming my voice, I faced an uncomfortable truth: gradually, being dowdy stopped being a choice and became the default. The weapon I uncap to fight back? A pen, of course – but alongside, lipstick.

Megan Falley’s poem “Ode To Red Lipstick” has many quotable lines, referencing history: from concentration camp survivors “thin as smoke, naked / everywhere / except for their mouth”, to Cleopatra. But one unusual detail stands out: “In post-war New York, butches could get locked up / if they weren’t wearing three pieces of traditional / women’s clothes.” A slash of lipstick was often the remedy, for queer women in pantsuits, to avoid arrest. The poem doesn’t say how many of them loved, or how many of them loathed, this. But what’s certain is that it was the preferred circumvention. No simple ribbon, brooch or barrette was chosen over a blazing mouth.

The dynamic young American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who caused a particular shade to sell out when she wore it to a debate, said: “I derive power from my femininity. Any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick. Other people’s attempt to say, ‘Oh, talking about lipstick is unimportant,’ [they are] talking about feminine expression being unimportant. That expressing yourself as a woman is unimportant. Don’t ever believe that…. [Wear] whatever makes you feel authentically yourself and like a badass. The only way that we’re going to move forward is by running as our authentic selves.”

For me, why it begins with lipstick is because colour on my lips behaves like a woman who refuses to climb up a ladder without taking along others like her. The alluring, vivid burgundy or scarlet on my mouth demands that my eyes too be painted, that my hair be opened, that my skin be softened and made rosy – and because of all this, how could I do anything less than drape myself in clothing befitting that effort, that beauty?

I find myself going to my own words from that Karaikal Ammaiyar essay, which come back to me now like a note from a wiser, younger self: “If a red lipstick is wonderful anywhere in the world, it is most wonderful of all on the mouth of a woman who has claimed her own voice.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Voice In The Shape Of A Blood Clot

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A blood clot in the shape of a bronchial tree, a tree in the shape the air takes as we draw it into ourselves. Two trees, actually – one for each lung, upside down like branches reflected in water. (We are bodies of water too, mostly). A dying man in California, bringing up small clots of his own blood in a hospital suddenly, violently, coughed out a perfectly-formed, arboresque one. A cardiothoracic surgeon who attended to him called it “beautiful anatomy”. It is beautiful –  and horrific – the way his blood filled the shape of his breath. I know we should not keep staring at this blood clot like it’s something between an art object and a talisman, without thought for the person who coughed it up in his final days, after his heart had failed but he was still alive. But as this strange year dwindles to a close, it feels like a perfectly-formed clot of blood is as worthy of meditation as any other symbol.

“A woman in the shape of a monster / a monster in the shape of a woman”, begins the Adrienne Rich poem for the astronomer Caroline Herschel and other unremembered women in the field. The delicate, brutal branches of that blood-sculpture evoke it. What shape would your truth take if it was expelled, whole, into the light of day? Would it be so monstrous, would it be so beautiful? (The two do not cancel each other out). The poem ends: “I am an instrument in the shape / of a woman trying to translate pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

For myself, I am perhaps hoping to do the reverse – to translate, relieve and reconstruct in ways so that image and thought become pulsations once more. I have been cerebral so long, and this being cerebral has compensated for what is in truth a loss of voice. I told an old friend: I lost my voice when my heart broke in the year I claimed my life back, and that helplessness manifested itself as thyroid disease. She didn’t know what I meant. She counted the evidence against my claim. And I said to her: I have not yet expressed what is truly within me, I have only brought forth echoes.

Echoes lack embodiment. I ground myself by considering the malfunction of the butterfly-shaped gland at the bottom of my throat. I place my fingers there and feel my pulse, the pace at which my blood fills me. I draw the infinity symbol in that place with frankincense oil. My friend went to the Pyramid of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacan, and she said that endangered monarch butterflies – those “daughters of the sun”, spirits of the beloved dead – throng and thrive there now. Our voice notes, disembodied, erase the distance between continents as if through flight. And one of these days, my voice will fill me again in the shape my breath takes when I speak, the shape of my secret passages. Arboresque like forking lightning, like the fractals of desert rivers. Fill them like liquid, like light.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 13th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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 AMMUCHI PUCHI ~

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the-ammuchi-puchi

When Anjali and I were really little, we were sort of afraid of our grandmother, Ammuchi…

Aditya and Anjali love listening to their grandmother’s stories, particularly the scary one about the ghost in the tree. But the night their grandmother passes away, all her stories seem to lose their meaning. Then something happens that is more mysterious and magical than any story. Could their grandmother still be with them after all? A poignant and moving story about bereavement and healing, stunningly illustrated and told in gorgeous poetic prose.

 

Selected reviews & interviews

‘Sharanya Manivannan’s beautiful story will help sensitive children from the world over make friends with loss, and Nerina Canzi’s colour-drenched, jewel-like illustrations bring this tale of grandmothers, families and a very special butterfly to radiant life. The Ammuchi Puchi will take children, and adults, of all ages, on an unforgettable, sweet-sad journey from grey back into a world of glorious colour.’ – Nilanjana Roy, award-winning author of The Wildings

‘Stunning, vibrant illustrations bring this book to life… Not only is this a poignant story, handling the issue of bereavement with tact and understanding, it also shows children that grief is a universal emotion, shared by all cultures and peoples. Simply beautiful!’ – North Somerset Teachers’ Book Awards blog

‘This is just a beautiful book, about love and loss and magic and subjective truth, the hugest of subjects delicately handled for the smallest of people.’ – Preeta Samarasan, award-winning author of Evening is the Whole Day

‘I was genuinely very emotional by the end of this book. I loved these children and their grandmother so much, it’s a very important relationship exemplified with emotion and heart…. The story itself is artfully done, we learn about a strong, sparky, joyful and creative female role model in Ammuchi, who adores her grandchildren, inspires them and ignites their imaginations! … A traditional story feel, bursting with bright colours and emotion set to the backdrop of beautiful India. One for every bookshelf and library.’ – Alexis Filby, Book Monsters

‘The essence of Ammuchi Puchi is of universal appeal and relevance. It’s a beautiful picture book, both for sharing and, with its satisfyingly substantial text, for an older child to read alone. It is a moving, thought-provoking story that doesn’t offer any answers, but only asks of its readers that they have an open mind – and is all the richer because of it.’ – Marjorie CoughlanWindows, Mirrors, Doors

On Magical Butterflies And The Special Love Of Grandmothers” – Interview on the Lantana Publishing blog

 

Purchase online

Lantana Publishing

Amazon.in

Book Depository

 

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The Ammuchi Puchi ~ written by Sharanya Manivannan and illustrated by Nerina Canzi ~ Lantana Publishing, UK, October 2016

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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: Rock Salt And Two Types Of Terror

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“So you’re doing a Bombay quickie,” said Sukanya Venkataraghavan as we lunched at the iconic Café Mondegar last weekend. I was packing all I could within two and a half days: art gallery, shopping, sightseeing and work. I was there for a wonderful Lakmé Fashion Week preview event, at which I read a poem and participated in a panel on feminism and fashion with Laila Tyabji, Mallika Dua, Anita Dongre and Nisha Susan at Godrej’s India Culture Lab. I also had a deadline at the final proofs for my new book. And it was my first visit to the city! Bombay quickie, for sure.

Mario Miranda’s murals loomed large over us, and the Saturday afternoon crowd was louder than the music. Sukanya and I had connected as writers on Twitter (her fantasy novel, Dark Things, came out earlier this year). Secretly, I was feeling drained and anxious, the result of several weeks of travel and intense focus. In the offhand way I gloss over it, I said I was feeling exhausted after having been very social and around many people’s energies.

“Rock salt”, she said – and suddenly I knew I was among kindred. She was referring of course to the aura cleansing powers of the kitchen condiment. I reached over and squeezed her hand in relief. “I know. I just forgot to bring some!” I exclaimed.

The conversation took a decidedly mystical, and more open, turn. “There are a lot of nice weirdos out there,” said Sukanya. “I think of myself as a functioning introvert.” As someone who is the same, who literally sets aside hours for solitude, I instantly grew comfortable.

When we wandered over to cold coffees at the also-famous Café Leopold, which had been Sukanya’s first choice, I confessed why I had said we should just do Mondegar earlier. It had been because of what she’d told me about the 26/11 bullet holes there and how they had become a selfie spot. I hadn’t wanted to put myself in a site of trauma when I was feeling exhausted and delicate. But connecting with her had brightened my energy and centred me somewhere familiar. I could shop the Colaba Causeway, I could laugh like always. Being able to share that I am quite shy and extremely sensitive – an empath, if I were to use the term that’s become popular – conversely helped me bloom.

On the way back to my guesthouse, I stopped at a small shop and practised the new Hindi words she taught me: akkah namak. Rock salt sells by the quarter kilo, so I now have some from the west coast.

I’m sure there are more than a few nice weirdos reading this, because our tribe is vast, even though we each think we navigate the world alone. I saw a lovely Georgia O’Keeffe quote the other day, and it may speak to you, too: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Go forth and wander, courageous one. And don’t forget that rock salt, lavender oil or healing crystal as you go.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 25th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Every Age You’ve Ever Been

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How strange it was, her reaction to the story about the famous writer who had been pulled out of school in the 8th grade for bunking class to go the cinema. “How sad,” she said, with sincere sympathy. “Poor child!” I said nothing, at least not immediately. She had forgotten, in the thrall of someone else’s life, her own daughter’s. She had pulled me out of school after the 6th grade, then the 8th, then refused to send me to college, then sabotaged my tertiary studies at least thrice. I never finished them. I am not a college drop-out in the cool sense of the word, not a genius who invented a software or sold an app or became a superstar. I am the other kind.

This is not a special story. I meet them all the time: high-functioning, ambitious – even accomplished – adults like myself who carry the scars of family dysfunction. Families who made bad choices and blamed it on circumstances. Families who justified abuse. Families who forced their young into situations the young should not know, so that they were raised half on their own sheer will and half on slow-release poison. More importantly, I meet scarred adults like myself who work hard to forge relationships with those same families. We do it out of love, yes, but we also do it because the alternative is an abyss of too much pain.

So to all of us who try, I want to say: I see you, I know you. I’ve seen you at all the ages you have ever been. I see their layers glimmer beneath every brick you lay in a life of your own assemblage, and I know what it has taken you and what it takes you every day.

There are places beyond which the well-adjusted cannot understand what we mean. There are places beyond which the well-concealed cannot carry their trauma across without spilling it, and so they refuse to acknowledge ours. And sometimes these categories are nebulous. We see ourselves reflected clearly, or we are oblivious of our blind spots.

I’ll take a crack in my heart over a chip on my shoulder, but some days it all feels the same.

As a writer, I believe the story belongs to whoever needs it. As a survivor, I believe the story belongs only to the one who lived it. These are contradictions, balanced by a single word, for a scarce thing: care. The story, like the survivor, is alive: it changes based on the hour or the day, evolves over years, is shaped by battering and by craft, sandpapered by retellings, distorted by silences. The story, like the survivor, requires care.

Redemption is not denial of all that came before. It’s only an extension of the sheer will through which that survival was – and is – managed. I am writing the future by force. The past is trauma, and trauma is memory. The present is a project, and that too will become memory. The ones we make today are the ones we’ll live with later. And wanting to live means having to try.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 23rd. “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: Beyoncé And The Badass Ancestral Self

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This week, I mulled over a divination card I came across in an interview with the queer indigenous healer Lettie Laughter. It said: “Your future ancestral self is a badass magician of the heart who will never stop loving you.” The conflation of time in the line was what intrigued me. One becomes an ancestor regardless of whether one has progeny, just as one reaches for ancestors, blood-kin and guiding lights both, from the braided branches of the tree of life. One can go back in time to love one’s known younger self, to unsnag that self from something that doesn’t heal. But the idea of being healer-ancestor and unbegotten-beloved at once was so richly textured that I turned it over and over in my mind.

The following day, giving in to sheer curiousity (the kind where the analysis you’ve read is so powerful that you wonder if the real thing will hold water), I watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Here, too, what stood out for me was ancestry. The proverbial sins of the father are only set scenery. The real story is the suffering of the mothers. We mother ourselves – a line you can read as profane or as protective. In this rendering, Beyoncé counts among her mothers the young poet Warsan Shire and the late radical Malcolm X. There is plenty of amazing black feminist political and spiritualist writing already out there about how she consciously channels the goddesses Oshun and Erzulie Red-Eyes, among other mothers.

“Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth,” Beyoncé enunciates slowly, right before the work moves back into the theme of sexual humiliation in a shattering marriage.

I don’t think that speculating about Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z is any of our business. An artist exposes her vulnerability not to have it dissected; her real life is not a circus act. Judging by the ecstatic reactions to it, Lemonade might be the kind of work that mirrors anything the viewer brings to it, which is why the infidelity and betrayal in it have been so resonant for so many.

Is the work personal? Who cares, when it is personal for so many. Truthfully, the spoken word and cinematography were more interesting to me than the music – one needs no embellishment for lines as stark as “[I] plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know…” But Beyoncé’s willingness to be a conduit for collective pain, regardless of whether or not her own is a basis for that exploration, is what I admire.

I must not have brought a particularly wounded self of mine to my viewing of Lemonade. Because what I saw was the artist clearly cast in the mode of Lettie Laughter’s divination card: simultaneously archetypal and in need of healing. This was one way to be a badass ancestral self, for sure. Every creative day of my life, I write mainly so as to make amends for ancestral silencing, and mostly only to console myself. It was glorious to watch another artist do the same, to step into that liminal space and chant to her sistren.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Calling To A World That Isn’t Listening

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Deeply disheartened, I stood before a lit lamp and tried to find a reason to raise my voice in a world made deaf by its own silences. A line flickered to mind, and I recognised it as the title of a book I’d wanted to read, but had never purchased. That line was: “finding beauty in a broken world”. The environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote a collection of essays by that name, on seeking a way of being that integrates all the fragments shattered by human brutality. I yearned for the book suddenly. I have buried myself in language for as long as I can remember. It salves me. It puts me, too, back together.

I sought an excerpt online, the way another person might view a movie trailer. In the first page, Williams writes – “…I faced the ocean. ‘Give me one wild word’. It was all I asked of the sea.”

That was how I had felt, at my altar – and that page led me to this page you read now.

All libraries carry the memories of trees, and sometimes it is to the source that we must go. The summer streets are carpeted with the yellow flowers of rusty shield-bearer trees. I recall the closing lines of Adam Zagajewki’s poem: “Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrush lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.” This is what I try to do, in the evidence of the lines that precede them: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”

As I write this, my voice hurts – both spiritually and physically. For the latter, I drink a kashayam, and for the former I seek the balsam of words. And as I do, I remember something: not too long ago, I was a part of a panel on women’s issues. After the event, one of the other participants asked me, “So, did you never fight with your parents as a teenager?” Of course I had, I said lightly. “Oh really? How is it fighting when you have a voice as soft as yours? Not possible.” The indignation I felt was at once blunt and sharp, like a pair of precise surgical scissors. But in the interest of politeness, I said nothing. I looked her in the eye and allowed a tactful bystander to laugh the situation off with a “that’s just her voice!” How little the person who had insulted me knew of war, I thought, to not be able to tell a fire from a blown fuse.

Tonight, through my bedroom window and yours, the first full moon of the Tamil year will blaze. Perhaps you’ll see it, awoken by mosquitoes or misery (or just the stealth of moonbrightness). And if you do, remind yourself. To sleep well is an act of self-care, and those of us accused of caring too much frequently forget to tender ourselves the same. A mercenary measures steps in blood, a soldier in miles, and a warrior in how gently one’s footfalls shape the earth. Were we only so gentle with ourselves, too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.