Tag Archives: Muruga

The Venus Flytrap: On The Cusp Of A New Year

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Here is a story about patriarchy, faith and the passing of time. Many decades ago, when my grandfather was a Marxist, he would not allow altars or rituals in his spaces. My grandmother wrangled a concession in the one place in the household that belonged unequivocally to her. Each year, a new tearaway baby Murugan calendar would find its corner in her kitchen. And each day, she would place a flower on the sill of pages, until the year thinned enough that she had to affix it to the cardboard shrine in some other way.

As this year dwindles to a close, many are pinning great hopes on the one to come. Not because there is anything to look forward to, but because this calendar year seems to have been measured in more upsetting things on a public scale than usual. But humankind is selfish: there is no way that celebrity demises and political disruptions alone have created this atmosphere. That means that events in the theatre of the world have allowed for camouflaged expressions of private burdens and distress. By participating in collective performances of dismay, putting terrorism and pop culture on a near-even scale, one conveys emotions from a personal sphere that don’t necessarily get an airing otherwise.

It’s self-perpetuating: dissatisfaction leads us to seek validation from social media, and social media protocol demands constant opinionating on current affairs. My theory is that we appear to care more than we used to. My hope is that we actually do.

I’m not thinking about the year to come; I’m casting myself halfway into the last century, where my grandmother buys a fresh tearaway calendar for her contraband prayer alcove. She measured her lived years in pain and endurance, as do you and I. But she saw far into the future, which is why time after time I reach far into the past to find her anchoring.

The truth is that next year isn’t going to be radically different, because some of the upheaval we’ve experienced will cause permanent damage. The annals of history are replete with evidence, and the cycles of the present offer nothing new under the sun.

How dare we be so naïve? And how dare we distance ourselves from the fact that we co-created and contribute to this collapsing world, with its mutilated environment and scarcities of compassion and common sense?

For some years now, I’ve been meeting all celebratory occasions very quietly. That might be why that synecdochic piece of family history – about a calendar in a kitchen, my grandmother’s act of resistance in the years when her way of seeing the world had little place in its grander milieu – is on my mind now. This is the world we have inherited, whether we measure being in it in years or months or only by the ages we ourselves turn. It doesn’t have to be the world we leave behind. We must begin – again – to tend to the vision. Begin with a little self-carved stakehold. A corner so sovereign that no one can touch it. And quietly quotidian acts of faith and revolution, among the wilting blooms and crumpled pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 29th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Is There A Holy Text As Hardcore As The Kavasam?

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After a lapse of a few years, I began to listen to the Kantha Shashti Kavasam again. The hymn has sentimental value to me – in the past, it gave me a sense of connection to my childhood and ancestral ties and generally operated in the role of a mnemonic. In the unholy ennui of the present, however, my rediscovery of it brought out a whole different kind of awe: the schmaltz of my memories and the high-pitched vocals are the only delicate things about it. The Kavasam isn’t just beautiful; it’s badass.

If you’re not familiar with the text (there are some terrific English translations online), the Kavasam (meaning “armour”) is a long invocation to Muruga, beloved deity of the Tamils and crown prince of the Saivite cosmos. Composed in the 19th century by Devaraya Swamigal, it’s a lyrically magnificent work. It begins, naturally, with praise and welcoming, and then, once the little lord is nicely flattered, begins to get quite specific in its demands.

Up until about midway through the hymn, the devotee puts forth requests for protection, mostly in the form of a list of the various body parts long enough to sound like a recitation from an anatomy textbook. Having ensured that the pretty prince with the pretty vel has been appointed to look over everything from each of the thirty-two teeth to the colon, things start to get very lively.

Now, up until this point, things are still pretty standard, as far as devotionals go. Then out pop the monsters. Great tail-shaking devils are named and dismissed, as are fire-eating ghouls, baby-devourers, night-roaming spirits, folk entities special enough to have names of their own – all of whom henceforth must run away as if struck by thunder upon hearing no, not our little lord’s name – but the singing supplicant’s! After this comes the litany of voodoo tricks – of which the supplicant has a suspiciously impressive knowledge of. The hymn ends with more medical grievances and praise to the deity, but not before its most spectacular segment: in which Muruga is asked to tie up the devotee’s enemies, roll them up, stomp stomp stomp on them, break break break their bones, pierce pierce pierce their bodies and set them on fire.

Basically, if you want proof of the inherent badassness of the Tamil people, look no further than the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam.

Is there a holy text as hardcore as the Kavasam? Maybe some old Hebrew stuff – but then, the god of the Old Testament is generally seen as curmudgeonly and cantankerous. Unlike the adorable little Muruga, sweet-smiling with bells around his ankles and flowers behind his ears… who will eviscerate your enemies.

There are lots of things from my Tamil heritage that I’m grateful for. Most importantly among them: Sangam poetry, curvy hips and a high tolerance for libations. The drama, intrigue, sabotage and high stakes apparently also come with the genes, if the texts and arts of this culture are anything to go by, but then so does the little avenging god, resplendent, ecstatic – completely aware of the devious nature of his chosen people, and just as prepared to bestow the grace of his bling in your moment of need. Bring it on mofo, my lord has a vel and I’ll have you know that it is bejeweled, baby.

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.