Tag Archives: hope

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

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In June of 2008, when Barack Obama was still a presidential hopeful, TIME Magazine published a photograph in which, palm over palm, the candidate held a mélange of metal trinkets. The magazine called them his “lucky charms”, and they included an open bangle that had belonged to a US soldier in Iraq, an icon of the Madonna and child, and a tiny statuette of Hanuman.

            As his two-term tenure as President of the United States comes to end, Obama emptied out his pockets again for a special interview on Youtube. As was widely reported in the Indian press, the monkey god figurine is one he still carries everywhere. I remembered this from 2008; that had been the year that Hanuman had become a vivid presence in my own life, and indeed was the emissary through whom I befriended my muse of many years, Sita. But the tone of the recent coverage bothered me.

            These are the talismans that Obama chose to display during that video interview: a gift of rosary beads from Pope Francis, with a pendant of Christ on the cross; a shiny poker chip that a burly biker gave him while he was on the campaign trail prior to his first election; an Ethiopian Coptic cross, origin mysterious; a Buddha statuette, a monk’s present; and, of course, the Hanuman, given to him by ‘a woman’.

            Taken together, these amulets are a handful of syncretism. Gifts given to a leader as totems perhaps of blessing and protection but more importantly, of responsibility. He carries them on his person the way auto-drivers paste Ganesha-Jesus-mosque stickers on their front windows or on their handlebar cabins. One trinket on its own would only be a personal fetish, but a collection amounts to much more, symbolically and otherwise. And in the current national climate, there’s something just a little saddening about the media focus on that Hanuman statuette. The Buddha too, lest we forget, is just as Indian in origin. Those rosary beads are a part of the worship of millions of citizens. And what, since we’re jousting, could be more secular than a poker chip, representative of the gamble each of us takes on life, every single day?

            Obama may or may not attach spiritual significance to the talismans he carries – and it is his prerogative to discuss this or not. But what he certainly shares openly is that each of these objects was given to him by a specific person – a pope, a monk, an undescribed woman – and reaching for them reminds him of his commitment to people. How successful he has been at this commitment and whether he has acted on it meaningfully in his time in power is a matter of argument. But the least there is to learn here is that one must believe one can do more than try. And when we seek to touch the divine, by any name we call it, let us not overlook that among its marvellous, and certainly, imitable qualities is the one known (not without basis) as ‘humanity’.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

kaliflower

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Jarful Of Joy

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At the start of this year, I decided to keep a jar of wonders. Each time something very good – truly meaningful, or in the form of an accomplishment – happened, I wrote it down, folded the paper and kept it in a container meant just for this purpose.

Some years ago, during a time of struggle, I had embarked on a similar exercise, though far different in scale. Each day I would find three things I could be thankful for and write them down. They were the smallest things. A chance to wear certain earrings. Somebody’s smile. Ice cream. They were all I could have at the time.

A new year is like a birthday: no matter what we say about not taking them seriously, we do. Something in the stardust of our bodies responds to the orbit of the earth around the sun, and so we keep score, mark off tallies, calculate and clear the slate. Some years allow you to enjoy looking behind you; some years demand that you turn your back on them.

And where do I find you? Here we are at the very last page of that free tearaway calendar everyone has in their kitchen. Are you looking forward, or are you holding back? What did you make, using what you were given, this year? What do you carry with you as you step over, trying to keep your lucky foot forward, into the next?

It doesn’t feel like December in Madras this year. It’s not cold enough. It’s quiet, too. The intangible fabric of the city has been creased by the strandline of floodwaters.

But tomorrow can still feel like January. We’re only two weeks deep into mystical, romantic Margazhi. The harvest is around the corner – may our pots overflow!

Tonight, I will open my jar of wonders and read the notes, and bask in gratitude. This was the year I was blessed enough, and brave enough, to ask for more. This was the year the Queen of England was in my audience, listening to me recite a poem. This was the year I finished writing books I worked on for years. This was the year I started writing The Venus Flytrap again! For every piece of paper I fish out of that jar, I will be thankful, thankful, thankful.

I feel like I should add a dhrishti-dab, so let me just say that somewhere there’s an inverse of that jar and it contains disappointments, dead-ends, lost friendship, fear, grief, nights when even the moon snubbed my company and – of course – my perennial heart condition (i.e. broken). But I didn’t keep that jar.

And so, after reading the notes in the one I did keep, I will clear it out so that it will be not empty, just not yet filled. I don’t know how I will measure the coming year, whether it will be a year for asking or for accepting. Whether I will collect pebbles or count cairns. But that’s the beauty of a turning year, and the human need to reckon. We can always begin again.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Other Types of Joy

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Several months ago, I finally put my innate maternal instinct to good use, and began volunteering with children. Roped in by another artist with a community-minded bent, I started spending a little time every week with children between the ages of three and five in a slum in Chennai, mostly telling stories and introducing the vocabulary of emotional nuance to them. At the moment, they’re getting ready to perform a short play I wrote for them.

I’m not going to lie about my motives. Deeply disillusioned by events in my career, I needed something to renew my faith in human goodness. I did not, at the time, have the capacity to work with preemie babies, the orphaned, the ill or the disabled, but I knew I wanted to work with children, and the opportunity to teach was perfect. Their backgrounds are inconsequential to me: to treat them as disadvantaged when their spirits shine and their bodies are able is to condescend. A friend of mine told me shortly after I first began this work that it would be good for me to see other types of suffering. I thought about how gleefully I am grabbed and kissed hello and goodbye by those little ones, and I knew that what this work does for me is the opposite: it allows me to see other types of joy.

Soon, I was also conducting sessions for older students at a lower income group matriculation school, teaching them spoken English and, again, emotional awareness. Teaching was rewarding in multiple ways, my love for children aside. I felt I’d found a dimension to my life that was independent of my artistic work, which otherwise defined my identity. This has been my struggle for over a year now: finding stability that will ground the volatility of my nature. As I enter my mid-twenties, the need for a steady foundation has become my primary endeavour.

One afternoon last month, in order to observe and learn, I accompanied another trainer to her session with primary school students. During a particularly noisy few minutes, she told the kids to take a free-drawing break. At the end of the class, a little girl brought her drawing to me. “It’s my gift to you,” she said. Two boys tore their pages out and did the same. I protested, asking why they didn’t want to take their artwork home to show their parents – they were truly beautiful pieces. “But I have so many drawings at home!” said one. “This is for you”. None of them had even met me before.

I did not expect that what I needed for my jadedness, my disconnect from my own creativity, would come from this work. Yet there it was – the most profound insight, so simply evident. Art for its own sake: not for legacy, not for honours, not to make a statement or to buy a more comfortable rung on the ladder. Art for the sake of love.

At the end of what feels like a hopelessly difficult year, it is the kindness of those toward whom I had the conceit to think that my kindness could make a difference to that restores my faith. I had never imagined I could become a teacher. I am humbled, even more so, by what I have been taught.

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: Hoping For A Revolution

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A friend of mine says you either have a soul, or you don’t. It’s a dispassionate way of looking at compassion, as contradictory and yet as perfectly truthful as when Tori Amos sang, “I believe in peace, bitch”.

Faith in humanity, in the face of the obvious proof that some people really are that irredeemable, is hard to maintain. Real faith, not what we profess at fashionable fund-raisers and through email signatures. Anonymous altruism is the real test – can you send love out into the world, with no expectation of acknowledgement?

Take it a step further. Can you send love out into the world without knowing who its recipient will be?

The love I speak of here is not romantic, but love in the Buddhist sense of metta (loving-kindness). Love that comes from the wish for the wellbeing of the world. Impersonal, all-encompassing benevolence that takes within its stride the fact that to hate and to be hated are inevitable, but that compassion for people beyond their actions is an achievable ideal.

A woman in New York decided to do exactly that earlier this year, initiating what she calls The Hope Revolution. The idea is simple – leave “love notes” in public places. Notes that say kind things to complete strangers, because in the times we live in, a little more thoughtfulness could go a long way.

Imagine it: the discovery, the intrigue and the joy of finding encouragement. Something left on the seat of an auto, or tucked between the pages of a browsing copy of a magazine. Consider the thrill of finding a message that seems almost heaven-sent, written as though it was meant for no one but you, a marker on your personal journey. That reassurance is something we probably don’t get enough of ourselves, and how good it feels to be able to bestow it!

Of course, there is one practical limitation: not everybody can read. So here’s a thought – what if those who can read them are gently nudged about this reality when they stumble on a love note? Whether it’s a reminder about literacy issues (a more basic humanitarian concern than many people realise), or a simple line about taking a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to have the written word in one’s own life, it’s another way of setting into motion the ripple effect of the message itself.

Maybe I do believe too much in the inherent goodness of people, when there’s plenty of contrary evidence around. But is twenty seconds to scribble a line on a napkin and put it back in the stand asking for too much?

I have a theory I hold on to very naively, willfully ignoring the damage I have seen belief in it cause, but here it is: love is a boomerang. You get what you give, sometimes not for years, sometimes seemingly never. But it comes back.

So today I will go out and leave handwritten notes. I will tell someone I have never set eyes on that they are beautiful, and someone whom I may find insufferable that they are on the side of angels, and someone who may have a propensity to hurt me that they have the power to heal the lives of others.

Because sometimes all we need is a little reassurance to grow into that which already sleeps within us like a seed, dormant but alive. And someday, somewhere, at a moment when I need it more than ever, I could find the perfect love note too. The one that seems as though it was written for no one but me.

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