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The Venus Flytrap: Solo In The City

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I am not Carrie Bradshaw, and Lady help anyone who thinks so (for the record, the glorious Samantha, the most soulful maneater in the recent history of female iconography, is my favourite). But among the many moments of Sex and the City that struck a chord in me in spite of its protagonist was the occasion when she realized that perhaps, if we’re all destined for only one great love in this life, New York City was hers.

What does it mean, to have an affair with a city? To be lonely in a way so profound that one speaks to it, feels it under her skin?

I’ve known different types of loneliness in different cities, just as I’ve been different selves in them. But never, nowhere, have I had the kind of erratic, love-hate, impossible relationship to a place the way I do with Madras.

This is not the city in which the pivotal moments of my adolescence played out. Its highways, its bars, its boutiques have not been background sets to my life the way other surroundings have. This is the city that once put me on emergency antidepressants, devastated me in other ways at other times. But it is the city in which I am today, and will be tomorrow. It is the city I cannot run from, and I’ve long acknowledged my surrender.

Among other places I’ve called homes, there are two about which I still dream. One of them is lost to me in practical, bald ways: the tyranny of immigration. In those dreams, I am wistful for a life that I possessed fully, irreplaceably. The other still lies open, like a day I can simply walk into, if I so choose. For months I thought I wanted this second city. I knew myself in it so well.

But I am still here. Still here loving every single auto ride. Thinking of her, my naked city, bereft of hoardings now, as a girl stripped of her jewellery, suddenly bare of everything but her dimples. I’ve written elsewhere about this affair – how even my birth here was accidental, how my last long residence was equally fortuitous, how I wound up back here again against what felt like the wishes of every cell in my body. I have called her mistress and muse in different breaths.

I am alone in this city though there are people I live with and people I speak to. I am alone in this city in an absence of love – an absence into which the city decants herself perfectly. I am alone with this city, perhaps, like that Red Hot Chilli Peppers song.

A friend told me last year how in every hotel room he occupies, he leaves his footwear facing opposite directions. It’s a sign to the spirits, he said, that one is there only temporarily, and will not cause trouble. In the seven months that I’ve been in Chennai again, I’ve been following this advice, as though to invoke the energies of dislocation once more. I won’t be here long. I won’t cause trouble.

Today, for the first time, I placed left and right shoe facing the same direction. For whatever it is worth, for whatever this affair will amount to, I will ride it out. At the end of this, when we come to it, she will have beaten me to a pulp again. Surely. That is her nature. And it is mine to succumb to her.

For if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the way forward is truly, truly only possible with all the epic, luminous ache of a broken heart.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

A Valentine To The City

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When Blogbharti approached me sometime back to commission a piece for their Spotlight Series, I really wasn’t sure what to write about. Then Kuffir, the website’s editor, mentioned that he missed “the fiery poet” who seemed absent from this new blog. For reasons that will be obvious to those who followed me here from the old blog, I’ve certainly tempered things down. So I got to thinking, what provokes me these days, to the point of writing? I wrote this on Valentine’s Day. It was published this morning here. The photos above were taken by me on the fourth Chennai Photowalk.

A VALENTINE TO THE CITY

Sometimes, I hate this city. I don’t deny that. There is so much to hate here. It is merciless. A crude, cruel, unforgiving bitch of a city. The meanness of its people. Sycophancy, moral (dis)order, parochialism pimped out to the tune of “heritage”. Sanctimony. There is the deliberate Anglophilia and its darker – in colour, too – twin, self-loathing. I abhor its hypocrisy, its incestuous orbits, the claustrophobia it induces. How it is its women who are the torchbearers of its patriarchies. The oddness of an illogical concept like caste running this whole machine. I cannot stand its Edenizing of the tremendously racist nation of Malaysia, its unexceptional immigrant dreams; nor can I stand the chest-thumping that trivializes the very real defects of our own. The weather. Hell on earth is Madras in May. Even the rains cannot soften this city.

Sometimes, I hate this city. I do.

And sometimes I take an auto through a road strewn with rose petals, a funeral wake having passed through minutes before. I breathe in that macabre glory. Sometimes I carry my little camera along with a group of mostly large men with large cameras, men who know this city, who can speak of its architecture and its history, who can point to a place one might have seen a thousand times and illuminate it, suddenly. I fall in love this way. Like Rushdie’s man who viewed his bride in pieces, through a perforated sheet, so too I fall for my city, mutilate it, make it mine.

“Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” wrote Orhan Pamuk in his definitive book on the city of his soul. “I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”

And in its distance, the irrevocability of never having grown up here, and then the inevitability of having had to return nonetheless, it wields the same influence over me.

And so this is my secret. I have been speaking to this city, in my head. I call it, typically perhaps, her. I make this city mine just as she unmakes and reassembles me. The dialogue between us is one of cause and consequence. Will you hurt me this time? I ask. What if I never told anyone when I hate you? What if I never let myself speak about leaving? What if I act like I never will, I say sometimes, and that is the most poignant of questions – because sometimes, I think I never will.

So here I am. And here I am. And here I may always be. And even if I leave, to here I will return and return and return, each time in a different sentiment. I will return with rancour. I will return with regret. I will return without routes in mind. Uprooted. Belligerently. In cavalier attitudes, have holidays I will barely remember later. Bouyant and broken and beyond description. I will return, and return, and return.

She has never known the smell of jasmines, doesn’t give a damn about henna on the hands or the hair. She is nothing like who she thinks she is. She stands at the bottoms of hoardings and stares up at misrepresentations of her face, her cleavage, the look in her eyes. And not one passerby recognizes her. She’s slutty: she belongs to millions, and like all of them, I like to think she comes home to me. Still, nothing makes her melt more than S.P. Balasubramaniam’s voice in a flick from the ’80s, nothing breaks her heart quite so sweetly like being called Kannamma. In arguments, and only then, she mixes her V’s and her W’s. She may suggest otherwise in certain company, but cannot speak a word of Hindi. Not a word.

Petulant as a child on a summer holiday trying to sleep in the backseat of a 1994 Maruti 800, neither her hands nor her eyelids able to shield her from the sunlight. Powerful as an MGR speech – Thaimakale! En rathathin rathame! Kitschy and tasteless as a political poster, and just as tactful as a man pissing against it. Coy. Cunning. Deceptively simple.

Living here has turned me from being spiritual to a blasé agnostic. Trees that inspire awe and humility are rare – but one of the better things I did the week before last was to walk the entire stretch of the rather long road on which I live and found, to my surprise, some decent ones. The Marina looms fifteen minutes from home, but too many paces from the call of the soul; even disappearing into the coast in this city by the sea is perhaps too obvious an escape to be worth it. I could stand on the terrace of my family’s apartment, toss pieces of coloured paper into the air, and have each one land on a church, a mosque, but mostly some small roadside shrine. It doesn’t matter. I find myself worshipping nothing but the City. My awful and wonderful god. Dictator of my future, arbitrator of my past.

You don’t inspire me anymore, I tell her. You’re just another city, like the hundreds out there. You’re just another place on the map. You don’t even smell like you used to.

Silence. The persistence of horns. The particular sound of the engines of autorickshaws. Someone whispering nasties to a girl who pretends not to hear as she walks by, someone else uncurdling phlegm from her throat and spitting.

So – what then? I demand. You think you own me?

And that’s when she gathers her skirts – yes, in the plural, she is mad and dramatic and imperious that way – and flees to a more considerate lover. Cruel mistress of mine.

And I am left still sitting here, penning paeans, shooting pictures. Smitten. Sodden. Gone.