Tag Archives: longing

The Venus Flytrap: Carrying

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In her natural habitat of the Pacific Northwest, an orca that whale researchers have named Tahlequah swims, carrying the corpse of her newborn with her. The calf died shortly after birth, but its mother has carried it with her for over ten days. She keeps it afloat on her nose, pushes it with her head. Tahlequah’s family, her pod, take turns to carry the calf when she cannot. The lost baby was their first birth in three years, rare and precious among their disappearing species. They are grieving. Tahlequah would have gestated the calf for seventeen months.

I lost my grandmother one October, and the month ever since has had a pall around it. One year as the anniversary approached, I made vague plans to tattoo the opening lines of an e.e. cummings poem I connect to her on my forearm: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in/ my heart)”. Commitment is not something I’m careless with, so I cautiously decided that I’d wait and see if I still wanted it the following year. But that month has often been precipitated by other difficult events, landing in my calendar the way one always seems to fall on one’s bad knee. And so it was that when the next October came my heart was something that seeped. Like a sieve, it could not hold much at all, even if it still carried my grandmother in its shards.

I’ve begun the hard work of putting that heart back together, because it never quite recovered from that particular devastation. A part of this work is dialogue. There were three people, other than me, involved in that fall. I met the only one of them I think I can still trust, and we wept and exchanged notes. We’d carried different stories with us during the interim years. But more love than the other knew, too. She said: “I’d wondered if you’d ever write about me”. I said: “It would have been something horrible.” Tell me, teach me, how to live with all the love and loss in the answer that came: “But I’d have known you were thinking of me.”

The word “carrying” evokes a very specific memory for me. A couple of years ago, I hailed an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic, and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle of the seat so the ride would be less bumpy. He said he thought that I was “carrying”. I was not – not carrying a baby, that is. But I carried other knowledges, memories, and the longing for a lover who would understand with kind eyes and hands how I hold my pain as flesh in my lower belly. I sat in traffic, struggling not to cry, counting backwards at the end of a bloodline, carrying the face of my mother and her mother before her and the shock of how my soft and fallow body had become a mirage of motherhood. Why would I need that poem tattooed? I already carry everything – dead, alive and never-born – and where I cannot, there is a love or many that carries it for me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 9th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sri Lankan Saudade

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Because I am almost never in Sri Lanka, but my heart – like the south-seeking gaze of Vishnu-Ranganatha, who was also meant to live on the island but doesn’t – is always turned in that direction, I obsessively watch the Instastories of a friend of mine. A few seconds of tuk-tuk sounds accompanying the sights of a backstreet of Colombo. Rain dripping off low-hanging leaves on trees by the Kallady lagoon. Sun-kissed beach tides. Sights that have precise impacts in places in this unhomed heart of mine. Like me, she is diasporic Tamil, with some metaphysical umbilical cord rooted in the dust or immersed in the waters of Batticaloa. And she is leaving the country for a while – which means I am going to be deprived of my vicarious living for a while too.

I was supposed to have gone to see her before she leaves, but I’d been foolish. I’d been swayed by a sort of empty promise and not made independent plans in time. How am I going to get by without her daily glimpses? Ridiculously, I’m so sad that she tried to console me. But, as I said to her – “Maybe to be an island girl is to always have a little sadness”.

The Portuguese and Galician word saudade captures that emotion – a word often described as untranslatable, but with equivalents in many languages. Missingness in English, hüzün in Turkish, Sehnsucht in German, keurium in Korean and natsukashii in Japanese are among some – all conveying a certain wistful melancholy. Saudade is also a musical undertone, most famously evoked by the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora (another island girl – or most accurately, a woman of many isles). What would the Tamil word be?

Without boring him with the backstory, I asked the translator Chenthil Nathan. He gave me the beautiful ulluthal – to think back. The word reminded me of ulloli – inner light. The last time I was in Batticaloa, I’d stood in my ancestral temple with my heart sinking to hear Sanskrit hymns. Just six months earlier, the prayers had been in Tamil. The native religion and culture are disappearing – no, they are being disappeared, in favour of the monolithic. I ached, and actually prayed to hear Tamil – and then I did. As the priest and the crowd moved away, a woman’s soft voice rose in song. I found its source, and sat down to listen. Quietly, she was singing to our goddess from a booklet. I brought that booklet back with me. It was called Ulloli.

Then, Chenthil remembered and gave me what he called “a poetic phrase” – nanavidai thoythal, or soaking in dreams or memories. I asked him if he had found the word in a specific text. His answer brightened this un-homed heart of mine: “I read it first in a Jeyamohan essay. Most Sri Lankan writers use the phrase. S. Ponnudurai wrote a book with the same title. So I assume the phrase came from Sri Lankan Tamils. Thinking now, it is natural the Lankan immigrants formed a word for nostalgia.” Indeed. A word, a way of life, some moments that disappear like Instastories, some yearnings held steady, some meanings reclaimed.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 31st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

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Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 20th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Cosmic Longing & A Heart-Shaped Bloom-Bruise

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He found a way to tell me he was wandering near the house I lived in then, a way to get me to ask what he was doing there, to spritz my wrists impulsively with nocturnal jasmine and walk out the door. But I didn’t ask. All of that year so far, I had caught a refrain pulsing in me, with no proof: “my heart is going to break”. And so it did. I had known before I’d known. And then I knew, incontrovertibly.

But that was the week they’d flown by Pluto and sent back images of a heart-shaped bloom-bruise on its southern hemisphere. So, instead, I laughed with delicious bitterness at the meme that made the rounds – “so you dumped me years ago and now you’re driving by my house real slow” – of earth’s obsession with the ex-planet. I sent it to my friends, and they too laughed with me, and then I put my phone away and colluded quietly with the night sky. Its burning brightnesses, its invisible implosions. My heart was going to break, but so what, 320 light-minutes away was one that had broken billions of years ago.

I looked at those images of Pluto and marvelled at the perfection of that heart. It, too, was a scar, the result of a collision with interplanetary debris. They call it Sputnik Planum, sprawled across by a frozen, far younger expanse. Sputnik Sweetheart, I thought – but perhaps that was too sentimental for the star-seekers who know their gods and their stories, who named its principal moon for the ferryman of the dead, and dark regions after Tolkien, and one terrestrial macula for a goddess whose nepenthe helps souls forget lifetimes, and others for different beings of other underworlds.

That NASA flyby was the first time that human eyes had seen the celestial body with such clarity. Now, almost a year later, we know even more. Beneath that iciness, the young surface thrives with heat, continuously replenishing itself. Pluto’s heart beats, is what the astronomers and scientists now tell us. It beats like “bubbles in a lava lamp”, is their specific description, and I think of something silent and aquatic. What if we got closer, learned more? Would it beat the way wings flutter as a hummingbird descends to slip its beak into the flute of a flower? Would it beat like the throbbing at the corner of someone’s lips as they sleep, the one you don’t touch unless you hope to wake them? Blood-tide in the conch of the body, song-tide in the silence of the deep.

Would it beat the way his fingertips uncertainly drum surfaces around me now that he knows he can do nothing to thaw my wintry demeanour?

Someone else, longer ago, cracked open corridors that led me to the songs of pulsars. And later, listening to warbling conus shells – a mermaid, according to local legend – from my maternal homeland, I thought of those dying stars too. Does the beating heart of Pluto make a sound?

Only light-minutes of distance, not insurmountable light years, and each generation closer and closer. I’m listening. Are you?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not This, Not This | This Too, This Too

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There’s a love that looks like no love you’ve ever seen. And on some days, and certain nights, you can almost convince yourself that it looks for you, too.

Almost. The deeper you travel into a life of your own design, the further away the mirage of a co-sojourner appears. There is no one who falls asleep thinking of you. The face you see when you wake up is your own, in a mirror, all evanesced dreamscapes and smudged kohl.

But you must indulge it, a little dulcet speculation. You parse the present as though it already comprises kernels of a different future. Everything that has happened to you has happened in the absence of the one who loves you, who does not know it yet, whom you contain no memory of. The world appears less maimed through this awareness, this version of the story in which there is someone you would walk through the rain to meet, had you only known how to reach their door.

What you do contain, positively, is wisdom. It beams in you like a blacklight tattoo when you need it most. Like that night when you came home after seeing someone so perfect you could have sworn you wrote them into being, but you couldn’t sleep, and not because you’d been hit by lightning. There you were, your palm on your chest at 2am, breathing deeply, sitting still and listening to your heart. How it wouldn’t stop saying, “neti, neti.” Not this, not this.

“Not never, but not now,” you explained to those who were dismayed. But even then, you knew.

A seer tells you to say affirmations to draw love into your life. A priest prescribes garlanded circumambulations. A doctor puts you on multi-vitamin supplements so your hair might stop falling out and you’ll have the energy to go dancing. A friend downloads another app into your phone. You’ll do some or all or none of these.

But mostly you’ll just do what you have to do. You’ll return to the poems, and when the wish to mouth their magic into someone’s ear becomes too much, you will go to Rilke’s “You Who Never Arrived”. You don’t cry like you used to, emotion billowing from you as unmistakably as a bullfrog’s throat. Your sorrow gets mistaken for anger. Your strength for coldness. Your grace for forgetting. Now your tears are scant and taste like tea steeped far too long.

And the flights of speculation too grow fewer, which is why you notice them, lift them to the light in curiosity. There is nothing to anticipate. Days and nights of lacklustre certainty. And it’s you who must tell your heart, this time: “Iti, iti”. This too, this too. Even this. This with its saudades. This with its cosmic signs that anagram to red herrings. This with its gambles made on someone else’s loaded dice (but you’ll make them anyway). “Heads you win, tails I’m lost” – that country ballad by Jewel you’re surprised to remember, so many years later. This now, this here, this always – with its almosts that only almost count.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 10th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Wild Song

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Sometimes the forest stretches her limbs, lets loose her hair so its tendrils unfurl – a little like territory flags, but those are human contrivances – into the places in our lives where we have forgotten her.

She reminds us. She asks that we watch, and that we listen for her. On certain city roads, there is an even keen of insect sounds that surrounds us for exactly as long as we ride under an arbour of embracing branches. Then we re-enter the sunlight and that forest essence vanishes.

Do you hold your breath under that canopy cover? Do you slow down?

So I both wonder and don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking, the leopard who was caught in a Bengaluru school last week. He was tranquilised and captured, and has since fled his cage again. He is at loose in the Bannerghatta National Park, his habitat, as I write this. It takes only minimal empathy to imagine why he might abhor his cell. Around the city, there other sightings. What could they be: tricks of the eye, wishful mirages, or truly: animals of the wild, wandering?

The forest seeps into civilisation in ways brutal and beautiful. Sometimes, both at once. In Munnar, mountain elephants stumble onto highways, lumber into jeeps and onto people. In the Sundarbans, tigers whose ecosystems are ravaged by natural upheaval seek human meat. Meanwhile, at the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, where Soligas live alongside them as per longstanding tradition, the tiger population doubled between 2010 and 2014, and no animal-people conflicts occurred. In times of disaster, there are rumours circulated about beasts escaping captivity: about disintegrated walls at Vandalur Zoo during the recent floods, for instance.

Tell me who among these is most brutal: the lost one, the lacking one, or the liar?

So one reads about these leopards, at a safe distance admittedly, and watches and wonders a little more.

Sometimes, I sit with people and sense the sea in them calling. Or the mountains, or the starlight. Or once in a while, in the aura of a particularly battle-weary individual, the desert. Most of all, though, it’s the sea – biologically, our bodies are made almost entirely of water. A sun-kissed beach and a cliff-jagged coast will each offer a different conversation, but it is nourishment just the same.

The forest calls to me often, and even if I no longer chase its song, I know its resonance. Amidst the vehicle horns of the city and its bandage of artificial light, I seek it. And in doing so, invoke it.

I am waiting for April, when a particular jacaranda tree will empurple my daily route. I am waiting for a dark crow taking shelter among tamarind pods on a day of rain. But most of all, I am waiting for escape: for the helix of a montane highway, for the bite of clear cold air, for a place where I can sink my feet into the lush red earth and know it to be a homecoming.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.