Tag Archives: kali

The Venus Flytrap: … And Clap At The End Of Your Lonely Performance

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Everything moves too quickly, and my worries pulse through me continuously, undercurrents to my every action. I gift myself inaction every day through a practice of stillness: watching the light seeping out of the sky, spilling on leaves. That was where the message from my friend Arjun Chaudhuri found me. Our conversation ended with him sending me an emoji of a peach hibiscus. I was sitting on a damaru-shaped stool of rope and rattan, a real peach hibiscus in bloom before me. I’d been watching it when he’d texted. I held my phone up to take a picture of it for him, pixel to petal. In return, a sound note – him in a voice he called broken (it was not) – singing a Bengali poem from hundreds of years ago. Translate it for me, I demanded. And he did: “Ever blissful Kali, charmer of Mahakala, you dance on your own, and sing on your own, and clap at the end of your lonely performance.”

If I call myself unbroken – do I mean as yet, or do I mean that the shattering has been reversed? He called his voice broken, while my hearing could only sense repair.

You don’t know how much I resist them, these pithy ways of understanding life through idleness. But still they come to me, every day, soothing me in this practice of stillness and watching. Do you know that you can only smell petrichor – the scent of water mingling with dry earth, often called the scent of rain – in your potted plants if you don’t water them well? You can’t have both, you see: the pretty word and the lush garden. Not in our sun-scorched climate, our stormless lives. Some days you get to be the poet wearing flowers from her own garden in her long, loose hair. Most days, though, you only get to wait, to water and wish them into bloom.

I probably will not be here much longer, in this particular home with its particular view. I cannot untwine my creepers and take them with me, unless I cut them down to a carry-able size. And can I bear to take a few, and not others? To watch plants thrive is also to sometimes watch them wilt, and die, and because of this I see no reason to not simply start over somewhere else.

This week I’ve been reading about Pawnee White Eagle Corn, a crop that was revived from near extinction. When the Pawnee Nation were exiled within the United States in the 1870s, 50 kernels of their sacred corn – white, with a purple smudge that looks like plumage – were safeguarded and passed down through generations. It has now been carefully, successfully, recultivated.

Why meditate today on the flower that blooms but a day and not the seed that carries its quintessence through centuries? This is why I love my practice of watching and stillness so much. It allows me to take whatever I need at any time: mixed metaphors, mixed blessings, prosperity and decay. Radiance, or resilience, or both. My heart whispers clearly to itself, looking at my plants. And sometimes, across distances, someone sings to me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 24th 2018. “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: 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.

Talismans

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One of the residues of my unfortunate upbringing in one of those disgusting godmen cults is that I place some faith in the idea of the talisman. (Other residues would include wavering agnosticism and intense hatred of said and similar godmen cults.)

It’s something that’s been shown to be at least a serendipitous belief, if not a provable one. Two years ago I endured some impossible trauma in which my life was endangered by a person obsessed with me to the point of losing all she actually loved. The experience destroyed me in ways I have yet to recoup. It was at that point that two talismans entered my life.

What I believe is not in the protection of talismans by themselves, but in their definitive, specific purposes. I believe they enter my life, do the required, and then go away once their power has played its use out. One of the talismans I got at this time was explicitly religious, a pendant of Kali which I attached onto an old necklace of slim beige beads. One night, a few months later, I woke up startled and screaming, and found that the necklace had shattered all over my body. The next morning, my mother called from another country to say that she had woken up in the middle of the previous night seized with the certainty that something terrible had happened to me. We had both been shaken from sleep at the same time.

On the day that I spoke to Evelyn Hii of No Black Tie to confirm my first solo spoken word show, a first in some ways in Kuala Lumpur also, it was raining and she was stuck in traffic. So I spent some time at the new age place next door. Everything in it was absurdly expensive, from the espresso to the books. But there was a large bowl near the entrance filled with small orange-yellow stones and a sign that invited the visitor to leave with one. I spotted it as I left, couldn’t resist putting my hand into that cool, textured heap of little gems. “They’re carnelian stones,” said the guy who worked there. “Take the one that calls to you.”

I did. It looked like a miniature mango, with a small brown flaw that could have been from where the stem would have emerged. I went to my meeting. My show was confirmed, with the stone in my pocket. I continued to carry my carnelian stone for months. But somewhere between the four hotels of my Indonesia stay, it disappeared. Its purpose had a clarity I saw right away: it came to me at a crossroads in my career, and went away once the outcome of that crucial period — a period in which opportunities came one after the other, and in which my life became enriched by the generosity of some wonderful people I met then — was sealed.

The second of the talismans I got two years ago was almost a fashion purchase, a cheap metal bangle of a two headed snake. I liked it because it looked good. It wasn’t something I needed to explain. But as soon as I saw and touched it, I understood that it would mean more to me than that. I have an embarrassing amount of jewellery, so you have to understand that this doesn’t happen very often, which is why I recognised it right away. I almost never took it off since then.

Last night, I found my bangle among a pile of clothes on the bed. I had no memory of taking it off, I did not even realise it was gone, and its size is such that it cannot have slipped. It was like it sneaked off my wrist and waited patiently until I saw it.

I wonder what that means.