Tag Archives: journey

The Venus Flytrap: A Scarless Journey To A Stolen Beach

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In retrospect, it’s difficult to tell you exactly what I had hoped for. I had made precise calculations: I trusted that Singaporean efficiency would get me out of the airport in thirty minutes, and that proximity and familiarity would take me to the place itself within that hour. My transit was for five hours, my baggage already checked-in. I had my visa, acquired specifically for one purpose. Not a feast or a tryst, but a visit to a small beach by a mangrove that I had been going to, sometimes in secret, since I was 19. The first time I had gone to Pasir Ris, and every time that followed, I had called that purpose a pilgrimage.

I’ll admit this: I knew it would be different this time.

I walked through a new mall and arrived somewhere almost recognisable. Where there had been chalets was an expanding resort, construction in progress. The park was tidy. Something was missing. I gazed at trees I had known as a younger self and wondered what they had witnessed since.

The lapping water, too, was further inland than I remembered. It is said that the ‘ris’ the beach is named for is ‘keris’ – a weapon native to the Malayan region, with a thin, undulating blade. But even that slim strip of shoreline had diminished. It was a hot day; the sun would not set for almost three more hours. These could not be just tidal vagaries.

Six years since my last visit, a long time only if the interim years had not been what they were. I’d known about the resort development, and had steeled myself for disappointment. But it was not quite that: my experience this time in Pasir Ris was of having outlived something. There was old magic in that mangrove beach, this I can promise you. It was gone, and not for any reason as self-evident as urban progress.

I went back, but it was already gone.

I had stolen the beach from someone, a long time ago. I had made it mine by way of pining and prose. By right I should have lost it, for what I had done. But of all the places that are no longer within my reach, this is the one that most feels like I had let it go.

There’s a feralness in me that makes me crave saltwater, cherish tree roots and place my cheek against the earth to weep or to listen. I know that, though quietly, that is still alive. It should have torn me to see my stolen beach stolen from me. Instead I sought it, touched base, and simply walked away.

Everything that is valuable to me about Pasir Ris is safely stored in the pages of a novel I started writing after that first journey and still haven’t finished. I have loved other places since, lost them, had other preciousness stolen from me, made other reparations.

How strangely scarless it is: to lose but still belong to the things I took and didn’t keep – in fragments of a story, memories of a wilder self, pages and pages of an incomplete pilgrimage.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 18th. “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.

Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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Up until somewhere near its midway mark, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – the story, primarily, of a boy’s voyage on a ship from Colombo to England in the 1950’s – proceeds with a certain deceptive simplicity. The boy, named like the author as Michael but known to most of his fellow passengers under the nickname Mynah, is the 11-year old child of divorced parents on a migratory journey, being sent to reunite with his estranged mother. While this echoes, biographically speaking, Ondaatje’s own early background and departure from Sri Lanka, an author’s note insists that this is a work of fiction – and indeed, the events on board the Oronsay are fraught with such drama and intrigue that one would not necessarily imagine otherwise.

At sea for twenty-one days, Mynah befriends Ramadhin, whose troubled heart lends him a cautious nature, and the confident, thrill-seeking Cassius. The trio find themselves assigned the same table at mealtimes – the eponymous Cat’s Table, as one of the other diners calls it, far from the Captain’s and seemingly not of particular ranking or importance. Free of serious adult supervision for the most part, the boys enjoy the small autonomies of travelling alone – sliding on polished floors, dive-bombing into the pool and staying up late – alongside varying encounters with others onboard, who reveal, by their own examples or in direct interactions, numerous things about adulthood that will tincture their understanding of life for a long time afterward.

He remains friends with Ramadhin after they walk off the gangplank, and eventually becomes a part of his family, but loses touch with Cassius. Still, he never stops circling his old friend in some way: a successful writer in adulthood, Michael goes to an exhibit of Cassius’s paintings – inspired, he discovers there, by their time on the Oronsay – and signs the guestbook as ‘Mynah’ yet leaves no address. And although he says that he has rarely thought of the voyage, its impact on the way he understands consequence, relationships and change is profound, deeply sublimated.

And this is where something shifts in the narrative. About halfway through the book, the adult Michael’s voice becomes truly adult in its reminiscences. There is a kiss that “knocks the door down for the next few years”, “an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie”, and suddenly we are seduced – here again is the idiom Ondaatje is famous for.

While the sustained intensity of The English Patient or Anil’s Ghost, to name his two most acclaimed – and stunning – novels, never quite manifests in the same way, The Cat’s Table contains its moments of beauty. If the name Michael appropriated for a narrator who is adamantly fictitious is a sort of reverse red herring, then there are others that the devoted Ondaatje reader will recognize and delight in. On board the ship is a handicapped girl who had once become a trapeze artist, after tracking down a long-lost aunt in a troupe that performs in “a new village in the southern province every week”. Immediately evoked is a poem from his 1998 collection Handwriting entitled “Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus”. This is what it means when an artist, over the course of his career, successfully creates a whole world in his body of work – wandering it, the reader finds herself in familiar rooms.

Later, in the book’s most breath-catching passage, the one most reminiscent of the elegance of his earlier prose, Michael reads a letter from the hitherto incomprehensible Miss Lasqueti to his cousin Emily. Both had been on the ship: the former is the one who has so named the Cat’s Table, the latter is onboard by coincidence, but her presence affects and alters the young Mynah deeply. Lasqueti writes of a time in her past when she had fallen under the spell of a powerful man, just as Emily has, and of what the experience taught her and what had been taken from her as a result. In one luminous line, she mentions in passing the artist Caravaggio, for whom Ondaatje named a protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient.

What begins as an adventure story is thus revealed to be a novel about adulthood as disillusionment and the untraceable origins of damage. What happens to Mynah on the ship is not anything as obvious as trauma; he is simply an observer, and in this way the events of those three weeks influence him in a subtle but indelible way. And there are events aplenty: how could there not be, when his co-passengers include a prisoner, a botanist transporting an entire garden across the world and a businessman with a curse on his head, to name just a few.

Good books by great authors sometimes suffer on account of their siblings. Though by turns moving and delightful, The Cat’s Table is not Ondaatje’s most wondrous work, but it helps to keep in mind that this is a book by a master of his craft being compared to other pieces of his own oeuvre. It is not an opus composed at the height of his powers, but coasts on a pleasant, if modest, plateau.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Certain Completed Geometries

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When I realised that my wallet had been stolen at a train station on my way back from a weekend in another city, my first thought was about my debit card, which a phone call quickly took care of. My second thought was about the currency it had held, which was also abated by the realization that I had – serendipitously – been unable to withdraw more than a small amount at the ATM the previous night, and what more, for reasons completely out of character, had stashed enough change in my pocket for a couple of teas and a plate of hot bhaji for the six hours ahead. My third thought, and the one that made my heart momentarily plunge the most, was about the talismans that wallet had held.

There had been two – both gifts. A Buddhist one for grief, given to me the night before the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And another one, which had been personally blessed by a deceased mystic, and which had come to me through a surreal collusion of dreams, magic space and psychic reciprocity. The second was profoundly sentimental; the first less so – but both were meaningful. What startled me was not that they were gone – but that they had gone at the same time.

I hadn’t always been this sort of person – the sort who wears, who keeps, who trusts. But ever since I became this sort of person, I’ve seen that the nature of talismans is to offer temporary protection. The nature of talismans, in essence, is to get lost. We ourselves grow too attached to them to let them go, let alone recognise that their work has been done. They must be wrenched from us in acts of fate, in seeming carelessness, and we must accept their disappearances as markers of certain completed geometries.

The carnelian stone I carried in my jeans pocket from one crucial meeting until I lost it somewhere in a flurry of hotel rooms, while the career catalysts it had accompanied culminated in certain profound and quantifiable rewards. The dead butterfly that simply vanished from my wardrobe upon my return from a shattering retreat. Time and again I have found them, recognized them as talismanic, and learned – after the initial sense of disappointment and shock – to acknowledge their departures as necessary closures.

What does this mean then, to lose these two amulets at once? One was for forgetting, the other for remembering. The first was to help with the surrender that bereavement demands, the other was the lamp left lit so I could find my way back to a place that in moments – in this day to day reality – seems sometimes to have been almost illusory.

I would like to think that perhaps I have finally learnt how to see in all sorts of darkness – that the heart has memorised the map, and neither torches nor known yet treacherous paths are necessary to return to or to honour that which has been lost.

What have I forgotten, and what have I remembered? With both of these talismans gone, I wonder now not just what has come to its denouement, but what I will find next. What will it see me through? And when it goes, what will I have learnt to see by then?

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: Touching Souls

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When I was little and lived in homes with real gardens, one of my favourite things to do was to step on the thottanchinungi plant. Its little ferns would shrink to the touch, and then slowly open, repeating these gestures until the agitator bored of them. There’s a rhyme I remember the beginning of from those days, in Tamil. It went something like, thottanchinungi, thodupudingi: the fern that shrivelled up and snivelled like someone who had their earrings pulled.

I would eventually become something of an animist. I looked to coasts and trees and red earth. But I only remembered the shy, sensitive thottanchinungi at the beginning of the year. I’d been in the countryside for some weeks by then, anticipating catharsis yet entirely unprepared for it. It was a morning that came amidst many things, mostly devastating ones, but I remember a sense of exhilaration as my friend Rane and I sped off to even more rural interiors on an old, green motorbike. I think we were heading to a lake, but mostly, it was for the ride. Somewhere on the way back, I caught sight of the back of a statue, a typical Kali, a cacophony of arms and legs, and we stopped. I had to see it.

It turned out that what we had discovered was a Tantric shrine. “The serious shit,” Rane said, pointing to the shed full of tools for invocation. No one was around. I prayed that day with the promise to come back before I left this surreal dimension I’d found myself in for what was supposedly the real world. I had no idea then what was coming – I would not return before I went back, and there was nothing to go back to. The unraveling had only just begun. “It’s okay,” my friend said, weeks later. “The account has been opened. You’ll make the deposit some day.”

But I didn’t know all this then.

Climbing off the bike, my eyes following the flight of an astonishing black, white and red butterfly, was when I saw it, my old childhood friend the thottanchinungi. Of all the kinds of weed involved in my catharsis, this was the most symbolic. The mimosa pudica was the ultimate metaphor for the state of my heart that morning, and not just mine. We wait to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be touched. And then we retreat. We fold into ourselves and wait to be left alone. We burn that bridge and bloom again. We burn that bridge but we forget the way back, and over and over and over we build and burn, trapped in our private purgatories.

How easy to curl within ourselves. How hard to stay open, even to the things we think we have been waiting for all our lives. There is resilience. And then there is, simply, running away.

But although the plant I saw that day looked like the thottanchinungi, it didn’t respond to my foot. It refused to shrivel, but I no longer had the time or curiosity to play with it as I once did. Maybe it was something else, some other herb. Something that looked like one thing but was another one entirely. Unequivocal disappointment can be easy to accept. Just ask the thottanchinungi.

But maybe it was the thottanchinungi, only a stronger variant. What I know is this: it held its own. It didn’t shrivel at my skin, but rested calmly against it. Its soul to my sole. By refusing to recoil it stayed receptive to something else, something that held it open, thriving, fully unfurled.

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: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Honouring Our Destinies

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A few weeks ago, I watched the Italian film Il Postino, inspired by the legendary Pablo Neruda, and found myself weeping in its closing moments. I shut my laptop and held myself as sobs racked my body. I was weeping not for the quaint charms of the film, but for Mario Ruoppolo, the guileless postman who worships Neruda to tragic consequences. I was weeping because I knew by then that I was not him, and could not fathom why I was this lucky.

Two days before this, I’d sat across from my publisher and watched a cheque for what I still find an enormous figure being cut. It was a surreal moment. The year before, I had a jar of coins from which I would count out enough change in order to eat. I was unemployed, on a precarious visa, everything in absolute ruins. Things happened. I moved back to India believing it was the end of my life.

It was. It was the end of a life in a horrible place in many senses of the word. But just a year later, my publisher was saying as the cheque was signed, “I don’t pity you. You are too talented to be pitied.” I wasn’t allowed to say thank you or cry.

And so I cried for Mario.

There is still a part of me that is a friendless 12-year old, the bus always dropping me at school forty minutes early. My classroom that year was a converted chapel, a detail I find appropriate in retrospect. Every single morning, I would write a song. Those forty minutes were my sanctuary. I wrote then because I had nothing else to do. Without writing, in the eyes of many including myself, I didn’t exist.

It’s astonishing to realise that only five years later, I was appearing in magazines and getting fan mail. It’s even more astonishing to write this to you today, having just seen the final proofs for my first book, knowing that in a matter of days, it will be complete.

The journey has been long, and is not over. It’s a journey that has shaken the agnosticism out of me. It’s been startling to see how people seem to have fallen out of the sky with their admiration and generosity, their dedication sometimes outshining mine.

An investor who refuses a cut from the profits; a photographer who wants only a good deed as payment; designers, pre-production and publicity people who work for free – at what point in the last decade did I go from being the girl in the chapel to this? I am humbled by the knowledge that these gifts are not for me; they are for the work that is bigger than anything I am or will be.

Instead of being reassured, I encountered my own resistance. Not believing myself deserving, I became self-sabotaging. I was so frazzled I literally had to sit on my hands during editorial meetings. But the book was a juggernaut out of my control, and I had to give in. I had to let go of my dream in order to allow it to happen.

A friend told me, addressing my anxieties, “Well, if it’s like good pasta, it better be a little al dente“. The little bit of rawness is what makes it perfect.

I am no Mario Ruoppolo, and neither am I Neruda. But I am the girl in the chapel who grew up to be the woman who wrote Witchcraft and whatever – little or much – it accounts to. I don’t believe fortunes are arbitrary. I see now that I am obligated to honour mine with every instrument I am gifted.

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.