Tag Archives: legend

The Venus Flytrap: Poison In The Pages

Standard

Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have found three books in its library, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, painted in poison. Bookbinders of that time often reinforced books by using manuscript fragments, and archivists over the years have discovered precious texts among the same. Unable to read the words therein due to a layer of green pigment, the researchers sent the books for micro-XRF analysis. The pigment contained arsenic.

But this will come as no surprise to history and trivia buffs. It was fashionable in Europe then to wear poison, use it in interior décor, and make art with it. The pigment Scheele’s Green, also known as Paris Green, contained arsenic. Its beautiful colour was found in the fabric of ball gowns and cravats, and the works of Cezanne and Monet, among other painters. It was commonly used in wallpaper, and not just in affluent homes; whole families often died mysteriously after a décor makeover, and one suspected reason for Napoleon’s demise was that the walls of his exile home contained it. And arsenic-laced pigment was used both for aestheticizing books, as well as an insecticide in the binding. This toxic substance was widely appreciated just because it could make things pretty.

Strangely enough, at around the same time, a concealed poison caused much alarm and was linked to hundreds of murders in Italy. Known as Acqua Tofana, it was believed to be composed principally of arsenic, although post-mortems didn’t always reveal this substance. It took its name from the apothecary believed to be its manufacturer, Giulia Tofana. With a few trusted women, including Hyeronyma Spara who either was or pretended to be a sorceress, she created a poison that was also sold exclusively to women. It would either be packaged as a compact, and could be openly kept on a dresser alongside other cosmetics, or in a vial with the brand Manna di San Nicola, under guise of being a holy oil from the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari (also known as Santa Claus).

Mozart claimed Acqua Tofana caused his death, and the stories around it are so fascinating that I hope a brilliant novelist pursues them. Among the rumours half-sceptically accepted as history is that there was a high demographic of young Italian widows for decades. That their deceased spouses were often much older was seen as a less likely possibility than that they’d introduced a tasteless, colourless, mysterious blend into their food.

How much of the legend around Acqua Tofana and its sisterhood of makers and clientele is based on the distrust of women? What it brings to mind is the ancient Indian legend of the vishkanya, women whose bodies had been trained from birth, through the gradual imbibing of poisons in small doses, to themselves become lethal. Physical contact with them could kill, and vishkanyas were raised for this purpose alone. Of course, they served whoever raised them. But imagine they indeed existed, and broke away, and formed a feminist legion. I don’t want to touch a book with arsenic in its binding. But I’d love to read one with such poisons and intrigues in its pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Flood Stories

Standard

I counted myself among the lucky ones, while the city drowned. How lucky to be dry. How lucky to have water to drink, a toilet that flushed. How lucky to be parcelling food and not waiting for it. How lucky to be in my own clothes, and to have excess to give. And even when the power went out and took all lines of communication with it, how lucky to have little to do on a lightless night but to tell stories.

In hundreds of cultures, there is a legend about a Great Flood. The most well-known one comes from the landlocked region of the Abrahamic religions: Noah, and his ark of animals. Strangely, the elements of this myth are echoed in folklore everywhere: from the Aztec story of Tapi to the Masai story of Tumbainot to the Alaskan story of Kunyan. The common tale is as follows: that the world is punished with a terrible deluge because of human wickedness, and a chosen person or family build a vessel in which pairs of animals also took shelter. After days or weeks at sea, they finally release a bird or beast that returns, bringing a symbol of hope and dry land.

Hindu lore also contains a similar story: that of Matsya, the fish or fish-man, the first avatar of Vishnu. He warns Shraddhadeva Manu, a Dravidian king, of an impending deluge, and instructs him to build and fill an ark with animals, grains, seven sages and his own family – enough, as in every version of this tale, for a new world to come.

There are plenty of other twists, other downpours and other tales.

The Yuma of Southwest America have a flood tale which is also the origin story of the desert: a divine deluge is sent to eradicate dangerous animals, but when people insist that some of them must be kept for food, the waters are evaporated by a too-powerful fire. A beautiful Nigerian story goes that the moon and the sun were married, and their friend the flood demurs to visit their home but they insist; finally, the waters come through the doors and rise so high that the couple must live in the sky. In many South American flood stories, human survivors are turned into monkeys who slowly regain human attributes.

Primordial water is the origin of all life. A flood myth is essentially a second chance, to recreate: what must we do, once the earth is once again beneath our feet?

So many stories to tell by candlelight, in a storm, as one waits for the next opportunity to give, to get back out there and connect people, gather supplies, support the bravest among us all who wade into the worst-hit areas. I will not romanticise what it is like to wait, in that same darkness, for rescue.

When the floodwaters abate, there will be other stories. Among them, most of all, will be stories of ordinary heroism; ordinary because the massive outreach effort that the people of Chennai have shown is how humanity should always be. It should be ordinary to care. It should be habitual to think of others.

Flood stories are about destruction and punishment, but they are also about cleansing and renewal. They are about the obligation of survivors to question the methods of the past, and to build a future based on the wisdom of loss. What will we do differently, Chennai, now that we know how much we want that difference?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.