Tag Archives: memory

The Venus Flytrap: Losing A Museum

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Brazil’s national museum was only 200 years old, but contained within it were artifacts aged millennia, like the 11,500 year old female skull nicknamed Luzia. Or even millions of years: like the fossils of a maxakalisaurus, a vegetarian dinosaur. The base on which its reconstructed skeleton stood had been termite-ridden. The under-resourced museum had been forced to crowdfund the repair, reopening the exhibit only in July. But now the entire museum has gone up in flames, along with most of its 20 million artifacts. Some mollusk specimens were saved; the fireproof Bendegó meteorite is intact (perhaps other salvages will be revealed in the coming days) – but what of the frescoes from Pompeii (which survived that inferno, 20 centuries ago)? In the aftermath of the fire, the blame is squarely being pointed on the lack of governmental funding.

Neglect is one way to erase, equally tragic as when the erasure is intentional. The destroying of heritage objects and institutions is a tactic of both power and terror. History is a long list of such acts of cultural genocide, through the annihilation of libraries, museums and monuments. To erase record is to first muddy then suppress memory.

And then there is pillage, which is unquestionably wrong, but sometimes reveals itself retrospectively as fortunate. The entirety of the British Museum, for instance. The first time I went, I fell in love. The last time, I made it minutes before closing time, wanting only to see again the Mesopotamian terracotta relief called The Queen of the Night.

Panting, rushing through those majestic halls, refusing all other possibilities of beauty that might distract, I arrived before that taloned one, who may be Inanna or her shadow, Erishkigal, or the Semitic Lilitu. I briefly touched my palms to the glass. Menstruating, heart pounding, desperately grateful, what came to me in that intense moment was a Durga mantra. A Tamil woman intoning Sanskrit syllables inside her heart, gazing at an Iraqi goddess, in a monument that is at once a paean to human experience and itself a dark remnant of human cruelty. I was there because I had the paperwork that allowed the visit. I was also there because, remarkably, I existed still.

No, it is incomplete to say that it was only paperwork that had given me passage. I had come at the invitation of a body connected to the same monarchy that enacted on the world a colonisation it cannot recover from, can only incorporate into its being. I stood there in England and said grace, this is true, but it’s also true that arriving and departing contained more complicated thoughts. The great Gloria Anzaldúa describes a similar moment in one of her essays: “What does it mean to me esta jotita, this queer Chicana, this mexicatejana to enter a museum and look at indigenous objects that were once used by my ancestors? Will I find my historical Indian identity here, along with its mestisaje lineage?”

To lose is a tragedy, to steal is a travesty, to survive is bittersweet. A museum can contain the world. And each visitor carries her own: ashes, remnants, inheritances, loans, and certain indestructible materials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 6th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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: The Story Only Of What Survived

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There are objects and there are stories, and sometimes the two entwine.  Museologists embark on projects of assisted storytelling: the history of the world in one hundred objects, the history of India in two hundred. The latter, still being curated and inspired by the former at the British Museum, will find the objects catalogued into nine “stories”. Nine ways of telling, then. Nine connections of dots.

The objects have gravitas: articles of public religion, preserved scripts, art pieces. But something feels missing, scrolling through. This is not the history of the world as I understand it; this is only an arrangement of facts. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective. But what has always spoken to me is silence. The true history of the world, as I encounter it, is in that which didn’t get told. In the British Museum’s project, for instance, we find the Ain Sakhri lovers, an 11,000 year old Israeli erotic sculpture. It doesn’t move me, but it reminds me of artifacts that do: the 6,000 year old Valdaro lovers, skeletons laid to rest with their limbs embracing, ceremonial flint blades along the thighs. Or more poignant still, the 4,800 year old pieta skeletons: a mother cradling her baby, her skull tilted in a gaze toward her child, discovered in Taiwan.

What I mean to say is: the story of only what survived, or even the only stories that survived, can never be the whole truth.

How would she have measured that life – that mother? What objects – what everyday mortar-pestle, what tooth relic of the firstborn, what period rag – evidenced it? Imagine tabling them for ourselves too: the synecdoches of a history of the self.

Weapons are among the objects in those museum curations of the history of humanity. Handaxes of white quartz, jadeite, basalt. They are beautiful, if we forget their use. And they remind me of a gemstone I gave someone because among its properties was the capacity to distil the darkness from drink. I hadn’t known yet that he was addicted to toxicity. That object belongs to him but its history belongs to me. There is the reverse too: a pendant I don’t wear because someone terrible owns the exact same one. Perhaps other people’s objects tell our stories too.

Years ago, inspired by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, I conceptualised an installation using absence. My absence, in fact. My departure from the country that was my home for 17 years, and all the things I left behind, not knowing that it was to be a permanent cleaving. What happened to that? Perhaps that artwork is a kind of object now, a question mark. For some reason, those photographs of workers on skyscrapers comes to mind suddenly: the way they posed dangling their legs over beams, eating lunch in high altitude without getting dizzy. Some things are like this. The frozen moment is best; all movement is precarious.

The object as narrative device. But that word’s the key I think. Device. Not a song, not a memory, not the way expressions flit across faces just long enough to tell the truth. A thing is only a thing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Trauma’s Loose Knots

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Much later, caught in an undertow of memory, the true emotional magnitude of certain events assails us. Trauma leaves live wires all over our lives, faultlines with known and unexpected triggers, unknown and expected after-effects.

Like a rope too thick for anything but a loose knot, we come undone again and again.

Last week, hearing from an eyewitness who was confused as to what the scene they had fled was, I tried to find out online what the tussle and commotion they had seen in Bangalore’s Frazer Town had been. I was dismayed to see a tweet that used the words “small communal unrest”.

Seeing that tweet, I wondered: how is it possible to preface something of a terrible nature with a dismissive adjective? Think of it: “little hate crime”. “Tiny war”. There is no such thing. Only those who are affected have the right of measurement.

Perhaps we rank things on scales so as to be able to process them. The mistake we make is in how we calculate the value of not only human life but the experiential quality of the same. It’s like a zen koan: if no one dies in a conflict or difficult circumstance, and those who survive don’t make a sound, does it matter that it happened?

Always. We often keep the things that deeply shape us from others. Victims of sexual abuse often maintain silences of years. We become embarrassed to share how certain locations or keywords can make our palms sweat and our hearts palpitate – and so we simply withdraw and avoid routes, people, places. Unfulfilled dreams and unrequited desire alter ones ways of being, but the topics are carefully evaded in all but the most trusted company. And then there is the question of narrativisation. People will superimpose their versions onto things that happen to us, or trivialise our struggles, our rights to name things as we understand them – and ultimately, us. And so, sometimes, we don’t tell them our stories at all.

Trauma comes to roost in us both individually and collectively. Chennai continues to stagger from the impact of the recent flooding. People are still in relief camps, some dying of infections. Some cannot go home. Others have lost their livelihoods until their workplaces, vehicles or clients are ready for business again. Someone who briefly evacuated their home told me how in the days and nights since, they still hear the sound of the river in spate at night, and are afraid. Upheaval and shock of any kind – from a bitter breakup to a natural disaster – always bring with them PTSD. Rehabilitation efforts must necessarily consider the emotional and mental costs of survival.

It will sound like I’ve put them all on the same scale – abuse, tragedy, shock and conflict. But trauma is very much like the classic trick question of what weighs more: a 200gm metal coin, or 200grams of feathers. One or the other may not look like much to the beholder, but the burden of each can only be known to its bearer. All trauma is unique – from the cause, to the consequence, to the way we choose to carry it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard, For You

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When was the last time that the most urgent of my hopes was only that there will be bitter gourd for lunch? Because I am eating alone today, the meal is slow to come, and so I sit on the porch and look at the pepper-vined trees and ponder this until it does. There was no rain in the morning, and so the shrine visit – my most urgent hope otherwise – has been completed. It will be days before I have to think of anything else. It has been years since I have thought of nothing at all.

The food is ready. I’m disappointed – no batter-fried bitter gourd, my favourite, but there are long beans, to which I am allergic. Still, when I’m serving myself in the thatch-roofed hall, a downpour begins, and so I eat as slowly as I can, watching the earth become muddy, knowing that the sunken courtyard in the red house will fill a few inches, but dissipate by the time I return. I am here to fill my own well – but more than that, just to cleanse it, wash away all that was accumulated from everywhere but here.

So this is where I come to escape. At night, owls cry and a mad rooster from the poultry farm next door raises a ruckus. During the day, sunlight laces through leaves susurrous in the wind, and because the eight dogs know me well, I walk without fear. I find starfruit and mangosteen on the ground: echoes of my South East Asian childhood in the soil of South India. Corn grows nearby: a new experiment. There is a pool, another new thing, in which my friend threatens to skinnydip. I have a view from my window.

The memory of this place takes me a long way. I contain it the way some creatures contain water, subsisting on their interior resources long after their landscape has betrayed them.

Nearly everything I have written in the two years since I first began coming here has been a postcard – meant for one person, but sealed from no one’s eyes. But, dear reader, this is my week without letters. It is only for you that I reconnect to civilization at all. I intend to write nothing else, although tonight, in the town, I will read my poems to a few people. When I read them to my friend on the roof of this house a few evenings ago, I had looked up to see a faint rainbow in the west. I who have been led so wary by omens accepted it without suspicion.

And because it is you who is my intended now, I have wondered for days what to say to you. What can I tell you of the beauty of these present things, for which no description suffices? Snippets of conversation, an understated happiness that cannot really be imparted, of what use is all of this to you? Here, where I do not have to be who I am supposed to be, because I can be who I am, think of me today not as a witness but a well-wisher: wishing for you the same, a place so generous with its grace you can carry it back to wherever it is you must be, a deep source, a sweet scar.

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: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to it?

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.