Tag Archives: home

The Venus Flytrap: Nest-Breaking, Nest-Building

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Vacating a house that one made into a home is a painful thing. In the weeks before this happens, I leave my space in disarray on purpose. It’s as if I can’t bear for it to be perfect – a space so imbued with my energy, my signature, that an intuitive friend who visited a couple of months after I moved in said it was like I’d already lived here for years. Such perfection is futile, for it is finite. I don’t know yet where I will next roost, only that there is a deadline by which to find it.

So there’s a ruthlessness in the way I look at my belongings, and in how I’ve decided to pare the contents of my wardrobe and my bookshelves down. Clearing of this nature has meaningful emotional ramifications. I will not do it sensibly, so I leave it for later. The weeks tick by, but I refuse to start packing until I know where I will unpack. Someone who has known me for a very long time links it to trauma during my teenage years when I repeatedly lived out of boxes. But that’s not why.

Now, it’s because when I place each thing into a carton, I want to hold the foreknowledge of how it will exist in the time to come. Of whether the window that this curtain will cover will bring in light from the west, for I love to read in such light in the late afternoon. Of whether this painting I made still feels true to who I want to be in that environment, and whether I will paint more in my new surroundings. Of whether I myself will move through that space with a sense of certainty, or only a sense of having borrowed something.

The knowledge of how it feels to feel at home is a luxury. I’ve lost so many homes in my life and not always known that’s what they were until after. But not this time.

A long time ago, I was a month-long guest in a community where the residents moved out of their rooms to make space for their visitors. I made friends with the person whose room I occupied, and he told me that he’d coped with his eviction because someone had told him to imagine that a magical person would come and fill his room with their energy, and it would linger after they left. My friend still uses that word for me: magical. Someone will live in this space I have lived in, and for a little while the love I put into it will brighten it like the scent of bergamot.

Before all that though, the pigeons I’ve struggled with for years, refusing to get the wire meshing that would keep them out but make me feel cooped in, will inherit my precious balcony. Alas, they win! But then, the landlord’s son will inherit them, and all their colonising crap. So I’ll win too. And I’ll move away with my magic, and my sparkle, and this new skill I didn’t learn from birds but taught myself somehow: how to build a nest.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 26th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sri Lankan Saudade

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Because I am almost never in Sri Lanka, but my heart – like the south-seeking gaze of Vishnu-Ranganatha, who was also meant to live on the island but doesn’t – is always turned in that direction, I obsessively watch the Instastories of a friend of mine. A few seconds of tuk-tuk sounds accompanying the sights of a backstreet of Colombo. Rain dripping off low-hanging leaves on trees by the Kallady lagoon. Sun-kissed beach tides. Sights that have precise impacts in places in this unhomed heart of mine. Like me, she is diasporic Tamil, with some metaphysical umbilical cord rooted in the dust or immersed in the waters of Batticaloa. And she is leaving the country for a while – which means I am going to be deprived of my vicarious living for a while too.

I was supposed to have gone to see her before she leaves, but I’d been foolish. I’d been swayed by a sort of empty promise and not made independent plans in time. How am I going to get by without her daily glimpses? Ridiculously, I’m so sad that she tried to console me. But, as I said to her – “Maybe to be an island girl is to always have a little sadness”.

The Portuguese and Galician word saudade captures that emotion – a word often described as untranslatable, but with equivalents in many languages. Missingness in English, hüzün in Turkish, Sehnsucht in German, keurium in Korean and natsukashii in Japanese are among some – all conveying a certain wistful melancholy. Saudade is also a musical undertone, most famously evoked by the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora (another island girl – or most accurately, a woman of many isles). What would the Tamil word be?

Without boring him with the backstory, I asked the translator Chenthil Nathan. He gave me the beautiful ulluthal – to think back. The word reminded me of ulloli – inner light. The last time I was in Batticaloa, I’d stood in my ancestral temple with my heart sinking to hear Sanskrit hymns. Just six months earlier, the prayers had been in Tamil. The native religion and culture are disappearing – no, they are being disappeared, in favour of the monolithic. I ached, and actually prayed to hear Tamil – and then I did. As the priest and the crowd moved away, a woman’s soft voice rose in song. I found its source, and sat down to listen. Quietly, she was singing to our goddess from a booklet. I brought that booklet back with me. It was called Ulloli.

Then, Chenthil remembered and gave me what he called “a poetic phrase” – nanavidai thoythal, or soaking in dreams or memories. I asked him if he had found the word in a specific text. His answer brightened this un-homed heart of mine: “I read it first in a Jeyamohan essay. Most Sri Lankan writers use the phrase. S. Ponnudurai wrote a book with the same title. So I assume the phrase came from Sri Lankan Tamils. Thinking now, it is natural the Lankan immigrants formed a word for nostalgia.” Indeed. A word, a way of life, some moments that disappear like Instastories, some yearnings held steady, some meanings reclaimed.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 31st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Contained Within All Homecoming Is Risk

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October 1st was the tenth anniversary of my move to Chennai. I observed it by escaping to my motherland, Sri Lanka, my third such trip within a year. This will not seem as amazing to you as it is to me if you haven’t known for yourself what displacement does to the mind. On the first trip, I accepted the jarring I felt at not having a foothold that wasn’t built of childlike nostalgia. I chose to risk it by building an adult’s orientation. By the third, I love that I have bearings now: tangible mappings, viable anchors.

I love Colombo for its airport that brings me into the island, so I can wend my way into the places that fill my dreams and my pages with their waters and groves and pastoral lands – places I didn’t grow up in, but have me in a bloodbound soul-hold. At first, I thought: why do I need a relationship with the capital city at all, even if it was my first home?

But then, I love coming down Galle Road as the sun sets and looking to my left to see the sea at the far end of each avenue, dazzling between the facades of buildings in that west-facing marigold light.

I love that in this terrible economy, where nothing costs as little as it should, avocados – among the more indulgent fruits in my regular life – are a mere SL rupees 15 for a 100 grams, even in supermarkets. “What’s that?” asks my Tamil auto driver when I call out at the road-side fruit stall. “Oh, butterfruit,” I say.” He repeats to himself for practice the (he says) “stylish” word I use. Ah-vo-cah-do.

He offers me the Sinhala word: “Allibera.” I ask for the Tamil word. “Tamil le butterfruit dhaan.” he says. But of course.

I love the chill that goes through me as I have a moment of double recognition on a familiar road from my childhood: the indelible image of a “dreadlocked man under a dreadlocked banyan tree”, imprinted in my earliest years somehow, regurgitated in a homesick poem nearly 20 years after, coming together still later, because these trees are still here. And so am I.

I love the love-cake. I love speaking in my native dialect.

Are these small things love, and if so, what is their sum? Maybe I can’t be sure whether I love this city, or even need to anymore, but I do know how deeply you can dislike a place that is your utter comfort zone, your geographical arranged marriage, the place that cannot ever break your heart because you never fell in love with it to begin with. I love not being in Chennai.

Contained within all homecoming is risk. Those who take it move beyond nostalgia. This can be a bitter loss, or great luck. Let us say I have been lucky. Let us say by assuming nothing I gained much.

It’s a simple thing, really: when I say that I love that I can be here, what I mean is that I love that I could come back. That I want, still, to keep coming back.

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

A New Short Story

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To celebrate its second anniversary, The Hindu Business Line’s BLink magazine has published a fiction special. My short story on Sri Lanka, family and faith, written exclusively for this issue, is in it.

Warakapola

In Warakapola we stop for the first time, at the Bhadrakali-Hanuman kovil by a hill on the A1 highway, the first of many roads on this journey. We climb the few stairs to the temple to see its strangely companionable deities, but our grandfather gets out of the vehicle only for the Pillaiyar at its base. He holds a dried coconut with both hands, and circles it in the air, making his entreaties to the god of beginnings. And then he breaks it open on the ground, using his better arm. On the second try, it cracks open.

We bought the coconuts as we left Wellawatte and divided them into two bags. One is in the backseat, the other lodged between the driver and my grandfather, in the front. They must not be stepped on. We stretch our limbs out and try to sleep.

Nobody tells us — although there are those in the van who know — that it will be 10 hours to Batticaloa, in all.

You can read all of “16 Coconuts To Pillayaradi” here.

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard, For You

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When was the last time that the most urgent of my hopes was only that there will be bitter gourd for lunch? Because I am eating alone today, the meal is slow to come, and so I sit on the porch and look at the pepper-vined trees and ponder this until it does. There was no rain in the morning, and so the shrine visit – my most urgent hope otherwise – has been completed. It will be days before I have to think of anything else. It has been years since I have thought of nothing at all.

The food is ready. I’m disappointed – no batter-fried bitter gourd, my favourite, but there are long beans, to which I am allergic. Still, when I’m serving myself in the thatch-roofed hall, a downpour begins, and so I eat as slowly as I can, watching the earth become muddy, knowing that the sunken courtyard in the red house will fill a few inches, but dissipate by the time I return. I am here to fill my own well – but more than that, just to cleanse it, wash away all that was accumulated from everywhere but here.

So this is where I come to escape. At night, owls cry and a mad rooster from the poultry farm next door raises a ruckus. During the day, sunlight laces through leaves susurrous in the wind, and because the eight dogs know me well, I walk without fear. I find starfruit and mangosteen on the ground: echoes of my South East Asian childhood in the soil of South India. Corn grows nearby: a new experiment. There is a pool, another new thing, in which my friend threatens to skinnydip. I have a view from my window.

The memory of this place takes me a long way. I contain it the way some creatures contain water, subsisting on their interior resources long after their landscape has betrayed them.

Nearly everything I have written in the two years since I first began coming here has been a postcard – meant for one person, but sealed from no one’s eyes. But, dear reader, this is my week without letters. It is only for you that I reconnect to civilization at all. I intend to write nothing else, although tonight, in the town, I will read my poems to a few people. When I read them to my friend on the roof of this house a few evenings ago, I had looked up to see a faint rainbow in the west. I who have been led so wary by omens accepted it without suspicion.

And because it is you who is my intended now, I have wondered for days what to say to you. What can I tell you of the beauty of these present things, for which no description suffices? Snippets of conversation, an understated happiness that cannot really be imparted, of what use is all of this to you? Here, where I do not have to be who I am supposed to be, because I can be who I am, think of me today not as a witness but a well-wisher: wishing for you the same, a place so generous with its grace you can carry it back to wherever it is you must be, a deep source, a sweet scar.

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.

Manifested Apocalypse

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I feared many things as a child: thunderstorms, plane crashes, the bubonic plague come alive from the pages of books, every flea the potential carrier of a manifested apocalypse.

In all these things, a single binding thread shot through. I never feared losing myself. Only others. I wanted them gathered around me, so that if anything happened, it happened to us all. The dead do not mourn each other.

Today, Mumbai burned. Some have likened it to the events of September 11 2001. I don’t know whether or not it is. But I do know that both times, I cried. Cities I do not know, but know I must get to know.

As someone in a long-distance relationship, events like these rouse particularly tender nerves. To get to the one I love I will need a visa, air tickets, a flight. A friend once told me about a heartrending reality of her relationship: as the half-a-lifetime younger partner of someone whose first wife was very influential, she will not be allowed to go her partner’s funeral when he dies.

This is not the first time I have been in a portmanteau love, split between places. But this is the first time it has been an unwilling separation. I spent the initial couple of months in a sort of morbid surreality. When my partner travelled and didn’t call as planned, I Googled for crashes between origin and destination. There was one time when I actually found one, and I remember feeling all the blood literally rush to my head. The feeling lasted until I realised it was an old report.

My partner and I both moved countries in an effort to carve a viable future out for ourselves, together and apart. It’s been worth it for us both professionally. It has not been worth it otherwise, and these terrorist attacks remind me of it. Reading Sonia Faleiro’s post on being extremely close to one of the points of attack, I thought: blessed are those who are safe because the ones they love are near them.

Recently, a foreign newspaper wrote that the “cultural vibrancy” of my city gives me all the inspiration I need. That isn’t true. In the year since I moved back, I’ve had a certain degree of material success. I’m not ungrateful for this. However, there are things which a healthy bank balance and career recognition cannot rectify. Such as how I watch my back around here, because it’s evident that I am admired but not supported – I am surrounded by crocodile smiles put on because I’m an interesting person to “know”. Such as how I count less than a handful of people here as real friends. Such as how I never fully recovered from the trauma of leaving a city I knew almost as home, because I am still not home. Such as how with my grandmother’s death, I live in a house with a steadily decreasing amount of affection directed my way.

What then, does this mean for me? I don’t know yet. I was talking to a friend about Oprah’s quintessential question tonight: what do you know for sure? I know for sure that in a world increasingly fraught with uncertainty, the distances we place between our selves are only that. Distances we place between ourselves. Distances we choose to.

We were once together in an earthquake. I was angry. “I don’t want to die with you,” I said.

I lied.

The Venus Flytrap: A Photo Negative Heart

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I’ve heard of people planting the umbilical cords of their children in their backyards. I think this is a beautiful, poetic idea, with just the right amount of the macabre to make it a well-rounded celebration of life. An umbilical cord in sacred soil – the soil of home, so the body never forgets. I wish my umbilical cord was planted somewhere – the only thing is, I have no clue where that place might have been.

I was born in Madras pretty much by accident, because my parents lived in Colombo at the time. The first home of my life belonged to the Sri Lankan government, as did the next few, because of my grandfather’s political career, which would lead to our eventual, regrettable move to a country I have very hostile feelings toward. We ate on crockery embossed with the lion emblem for years, and to this day when I see that emblem I think of childhood meals.

If my family had chosen to bury my birth matter, it would have been in a place they did not call home, a place they no longer call home, or a place that in spite of many years of residing there was never, not once, home.

I’ve been back in India for almost a year now, and I am happy. But I am in love with my passport-identified home with the same ferocity with which some atheists hate god. For a person to whom no home exists, I am vociferous in my loyalties.

There are, of course, many benefits to the nomad’s life. The ability to make friends, and sever attachments, quickly. Travel. Multilingualism. The chance to constantly reinvent oneself. The double-edged gift and curse of being able to see one’s “native” places with renewed, awestruck eyes on every always too long, and always too brief, holiday.

But to grow up belonging nowhere at all is not a fate I would wish on anyone.

The great Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo wrote of Caracas, “Its space is real, fearless, solid concrete./Only my history is false”. And this is what I feel of Chennai.

I write this sitting in the café in which I have co-curated a photo exhibit and reading series for Madras Week. I am surrounded by images of a city to which both my past and my destiny are irrevocably interlinked, but it has lived within me in a way that makes sense to no one else at all.

I have written this before, but if there is a better description for how I feel, I cannot come up with it myself: Chennai is my photo negative heart. It is my life flipped inside out. At times I feel as though there was one me living elsewhere, and one that grew up between Chennai and Colombo. My two hearts. My homes to which I am bound by invisible umbilical cords.

In company, I am the former. I don’t understand pop culture references, school cliques, certain slang, certain frustrations. I can’t tell you how much I resent this. I am constantly filled with envy at those who have lived in this city, and not had the city live in them, lingering, looming and all-consuming in its distance.

Only when I am alone can I forget this sobering fact: I did not grow up here. There is nothing I can do to reverse it, nothing that will give me back the childhood I should have had, but watch me try.

My umbilical cord was probably destroyed. I make up for it by putting all that’s left of me, body and soul, into the praise of this city.

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.