Tag Archives: migration

The Venus Flytrap: Alebrijes


In 1936, the artist Pedro Linares Lopez fell into a delirium during a high fever in which he saw a group of fantastical creatures in a forest. There was an eagle-headed lion, a rooster with a bull’s horns and a donkey with butterfly wings – all vividly-coloured and striking, and all shouting the same word repeatedly. “Alebrijes! Alebrijes!” When Lopez recovered, he set to work recreating the hybrid creatures he saw using papier-mache and cardboard. He named his statuettes alebrijes. Lopez lived well into old age, and in the 1980s his alebrijes (which had caught the fancy of the Kahlo-Rivera household, among other tastemakers, when he had first made them) came to tourist attention. They began to be produced from copal wood, held sacred in Mexican culture, and alebrijes are now common souvenirs.

I heard of alibrejes in an interview by the TV journalist Jorge Ramos with an author who influenced me greatly, Sandra Cisneros. Both of them are American citizens of Mexican heritage, and Cisneros had a particularly interesting trajectory: she grew up in Chicago in a conservative working-class background, defied familial expectations by rejecting marriage and pursuing literature and travel, discovered that she was profoundly unhappy trying to fit into and study in the white western academic context, and pioneered a linguistic style that mingled languages and connotations, eschewing translation, trusting in the heart’s power to emote and be understood. Following her success, Cisneros tried her luck in Texas, a little closer to her cultural roots. Still not content, she finally moved to Mexico in middle age.

In the interview, Cisneros described both Ramos and herself as being alibrijes, winged and amphibious and capable of understanding and being in many places. It’s one more lovely way to name ourselves: we who don’t truly belong, who know ourselves best in the margins.

Here is me as an alebrijes right now: light-footed, carved of petrified wood; feline in so many ways; winged, sharp-stingered and solitary as a wasp; my halo held up by flimsy but proud horns. By the time you read this, I will be somewhere in my own heartlands, in a place I’d belonged to my whole life before I’d even set a paw in it. And to where I’ve kept returning, pursuing the truth to a point so deep it becomes fiction. And here is the alebrijes who’s been my obsession, the creature because of whom I first gave myself permission to come to these lagoons: a fish with the upper body of a woman, or a woman who is half-piscine. She doesn’t speak; she sings, and weeps. I have heard her. I have listened carefully.

Over my recent visits, I have found others like me: a new kind of diaspora, neither broken into amnesia nor uncomfortable with our discomfort. Perhaps what we have in common, us alebrijes, is that we know we are different. We know our own sharp edges. And we have learnt to thrive by using the friction of ambiguity as polish. Perhaps it’s a lifelong project, but surely it’s possible: to be made of so many contradictory fractions, but to always hold the knowledge that they re-assemble into wholeness.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 4th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

A New Short Story


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.


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.

A Poem In Mandala Journal


The Exodus issue of Mandala Journal contains a poem, “Carceral“, which is part of one of my longterm works in progress, an installation called “The Country of Intangibles”.

Also, the Kiski Kahani (300 Ramayanas and Counting) project has republished my ars poetica on Sita/Lucifer/Bulletproof Offering, which first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Kindle Magazine.

Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje


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.