Tag Archives: homeland

The Venus Flytrap: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to it?

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: 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.

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.