Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.
Some of my friends tell me they have had a year from hell, but I know that what I endured was a year in purgatory. Purgatory because of its impermanence, its seemingly endless yet certainly finite suspension. Purgatory that may or may not be connected to the word “purge” – the ridding of the self of toxicity, the negative; cleansing, absolution. Purgatory, above all else, because I was not condemned. I asked for the descent.
Mythology and Jungian psychology teach us how the descent is a rite of initiation, a necessary and transformative undertaking that one can either resist or rise to. Because its timing is so often arbitrary, the last vestige of control remains in accepting it as adventure. Like the Fool, the first card of the tarot arcana, one volunteers for the exploration – or as I think of it, the excavation. Like Sita setting forth into the forest, the beginning of multiple exiles, kidnapping and banishment, one receives the fall from grace as grace itself. We enter the forest, the desert, the underworld heroically. These are not necessarily physical landscapes, but archetypal ones, metaphorical topography. Bewilderment – becoming the wilderness itself.
Like Ishtar arriving at the gates of the underworld, I screamed my madness at the gatekeeper and demanded entrance – If thou openest not the gate to let me enter/ I will break the door, I will wrench the lock/ I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors/I will bring up the dead to eat the living/And the dead will outnumber the living – and how I was given it, stripped of every ornament, stripped of pomp and circumstance, lowered through each subsequent level, until I stood buck naked before my shadow twin, chastised and begging for rescue.
Nothing prepared me.
She who enters the forest like a queen leaves it like a commoner. She who enters the desert like a fugitive leaves it like a free woman. She who enters the underworld like a dying thing leaves it resurrected. Purgatory changes you. It challenges you, shatters the boundaries of your being, breaks your heart to make more room, pares your body to take less space. It makes a pilgrim of you, and if you’re lucky – if the rules of mythology apply to you, and I find that if you believe in them, they do – it will bring you to deliverance.
This was my year of the Aranya Kandam, and it is in this knowledge that my second book of poetry is ingrained and taking shape. I have spent the year identifying with things I never imagined I could see myself in: the pepper vine laying its heart-like leaves against the bark of better-rooted things, the pining Sita, the wounded and the war-weary. I have spent the year seeking sanctuaries: villages, hill country, communes, the sea, and always, always trees. I have spent the year bringing myself back to life.
Ishtar, finally rescued, ascends through each of the lower realms, reclaiming her lost embellishments – only to find that she is less loved than she had believed. The one who she demanded entry into the underworld for has forgotten this kindness. Sita walks through fire not during exile, but after it. The long wait ends in humiliation, not happiness. Knowing this, can I be blamed if I choose now to linger just a little longer, savouring the petrichor, the silence, the love of the good earth…
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.
A new sequence of poems – though not, I think, a poem in parts – has been published in the new issue of Danse Macabre. You can read “Rituals For Closure” here.
Published as part of The Myths series, which retells timeless classics from around the world in the words of some of the best contemporary writers, Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong recreates a two-millennia old legend from China about a woman who travels hundreds of miles in search of her husband, who has been conscripted in the construction of the Great Wall.
Like all of Peach Village, the orphan Binu was brought up to believe that tears are taboo, a conviction that took hold after 300 of its residents had been executed for having wept at the funeral of someone who had fallen from the favour of the King. The women of the village devised new ways to cry, which would leave their eyes dry but their breasts, ears, lips (or which ever body part was most beautiful) wet with tears. Binu wept through her hair, as she does on the day that she discovers that her husband Qiliang has disappeared.
When she learns that her husband has been taken to Great Swallow Mountain, to work on the construction of the staggeringly ambitious Great Wall, she becomes determined to take a coat to him so that he can stay warm through the winter. Warned that this act will carry her death by sorceresses and shunned and envied by her co-villagers for her stubbornness and peerless devotion, Binu sets forth on a journey of a thousand li.
Along the way, she is assisted by a blind frog, whom she suspects is a reincarnated mother looking for her missing son. But she is also accosted by a group of half-deer children, encounters cities where people are sold as “large livestock”, and is chained to a coffin, having been sold off herself as a dead man’s wife. Her weeping takes on legendary scope – she is hired at one point to weep into a vat because her tears contain the five tastes needed for a pharmacy. It overwhelms her to the point where every part of her body begins to cry, and she journeys the thousand li with “eyes dripping like house eaves after rain”, leaving a stream wherever she walks or crawls. As the story proceeds, we understand that Binu did not set out on her adventure under any grandiose illusions of success, but because it was the only thing that, in the face of her loss, she knew how to do.
In the preface, Su Tong says that “Binu’s story is a legend not so much about a woman at the bottom of society, but rather a legend about status and social class”. Perhaps this accounts for the matter-of-fact nature of his retelling, where another writer may have emphasized the mystical and metaphysical nature of events in the story including rebirth, animal familiars, prophecy and the like. Yet Binu’s loss, as all who have endured pain will know, is profoundly intimate. From the work of scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carl Jung, we know that myths exist for the purpose of deconstruction – not in a literary sense, but as a means of projecting our private lives onto narrative structures that allow us to see the bigger picture even as we endure intensely personal experiences.
The story of Binu, in that scheme of things, functions as an allegory on the necessity of grief, and how far one may need to go to truly access – and release – it, against every self-preservative instinct that may prevent it. The great wall that ultimately shatters under the weight of her loss is the one that had been raised by her upbringing, which forbade all but the most discreet, controlled displays of such emotion. Weep, the myth seems to instruct the reader. As Binu herself says to one who questions if she too is dead – “I am still crying, and that proves I am alive.”
An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.
I have been thinking of my grandmother’s death for most of my life. In the beginning, it was her fault. When we were children, she would laugh about coming back to haunt us when she died, a loose-haired, lolled-tongued cliché. Perhaps this was meant as admonishment, but the heart warms to remember. This was a woman who would sit at windows with a cup of tea and casually remark on the ghost inhabiting the nearby tree. For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe.
Years later, living elsewhere, I became possessed by a sort of paranoia about her mortality. I would dream of getting phone calls telling me she had died, and wake weeping, believing them real. There were other sorts of dreams: like one I cherish, in which she told me, “I am you.”
She lived for a year after I came home again. And one day I woke up and she really was dead, but I already knew, and so I followed the sound of crying, spent an hour consoling others, and went to work.
When the first of my sisters was born, my grandmother’s youngest sibling and only brother died suddenly. She went to the funeral, took the next flight back, washed her hair and returned to the maternity ward with a packed dinner, all in the same day. I wonder now if she had known. If she too had watched her brother in the months before, the death in his bones rattling like a pair of dice no one else could hear. Perhaps, as it was for me, foreshadowing was not frightening, but only preparation for a seamless transition.
The dreaming has already begun for my grandfather and I. She told him to stop crying because she is happy. She told me, when I tried to follow them both down a coast, that I had to stay. That she would be back, but I had to stay. This was my dream on the worst day of my grief, when I hoped to die with my grandfather so I would not be left orphaned.
In her heartbreaking memoir, Paula, Isabel Allende wrote of dreaming of her comatose daughter the night before she died. When Allende awoke, Paula’s rabbit fur slippers lay next to her bed.
All her life, my grandmother lost her smile the minute a camera came near her. Yet for some reason, on an evening four years ago that I barely recall, she let me apply makeup on her and take a picture. She is not just smiling in it – she is effervescent.
This is the picture that my grandfather found the morning that she died. This is the picture garlanded in the living room. I do not feel her gone. Every time I step out, there she is, just as she always was.
I was told once that white feathers are the markers of angels. There was one under my desk at work yesterday. I smiled but didn’t think about it – my life is full of synchronicities and surrealities; if I was an atheist, my “faith” would be tested daily.
An hour later, someone asked if the thing on my shoulder was real. It flew to the ceiling when flicked – a moth, like the one my sister had turned to find at the sound of rapped knuckles against a window in our grandparents’ room. Moths in many cultures are the spirits of the dead. It must been with me from when I came indoors. The white feather was gone when I went back to my desk.
For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe. And I do, Ammamma. I do.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.