Tag Archives: obituary

The Venus Flytrap: The Matriarch of Mattekalleppu

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Not all grandmothers are grand, but mine was. She was magnificent. Nothing shocked me in the last days I saw her alive but how beautiful she was, her illness sculpting her face into the countenance of a warrior – the high cheekbones and strong jaw I never knew were hers before they were mine. In a glass coffin in the morgue, dressed in the red and green saree she asked to be laid out in, she seemed to me like the Virgin of Vailankanni: ethereal and tranquil. At her funeral, adorned in turmeric and garlands, she took on the radiance of a more indigenous goddess.

Not all grandmothers are grand, and neither are they mothers – but mine was both. She was the one who raised me, the first arms in which I lay because her daughter was too sick from the Caesarean to hold me. My grandparents’ presence shielded me from the incompetence of my real parents, saving me from suicide in the years when they would halt my education whimsically, split me from my sisters, speak things to me I cannot bear to remember, drive me into deep and chronic depressions. There is so much I never spoke of, from respect for her. There is nobody left for me to hurt now.

She died in a confluence of auspiciousness: in the holy week of Kantha Shasthi, on the pagan festival of Halloween. Her funeral was held not only on Dia de los Muertos but the day that in some years is both Diwali and Kali Puja. A macabre, ingenious, knowing death.

There are as many ways to die as there are to live, and my grandmother died exactly as she had lived: with immense dignity. Crippled from a hip fracture weeks before, at the mercy of nurses and diapers, losing consciousness in her last two days and attached to machines for her kidneys, liver and lungs – I believe she chose to die contentedly, rather than struggle any longer in such humiliating dependence. She knew her time had come. She saw ancestor spirits, and twinkling lights. She gave instructions.

She died as she had lived, and how. By my age, she had already experienced the ultimate duality: the birth of twins; the boy alive, the girl dead. Pregnant with her fourth child and waking to a snake coiled around her leg, she kicked it off as easily as she chased crabs on the beach. She had premonitory dreams (one of many things I inherited). She held a community together through assassination attempts on my grandfather, his imprisonment, black magic, innumerable tragedies and joys. Wife of a man who was revolutionary, mayor, minister and ambassador, she was a matriarch in the true sense, affecting change through love, not anger. A divided Sri Lanka was as unimaginable to her as it is to me.

Somehow, despite knowing only Tamil, she could engage anybody in conversation. She loved gossip – everything from the dictator’s wife who told her that “he” was a mama’s boy to the young couple sharing her ward whose hugging annoyed her. There is a photo of her somewhere standing in front of the Eiffel Tower in goofy glasses.

She left her thali to me. There is no material object more precious to a woman of her background and generation than the nuptial chain. This is a gesture so profound that I think I will always be uncovering meaning for it.

The day before she died, I knew she would not survive the night. All year long I knew she was dying, and carried this fear within me constantly, almost waiting for it. I am as happy now as I am sad. My grandmother’s death freed her from her pain – and it will free me from mine. In death, she has given me just as much as she did in life.

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.

RIP Toni Kasim

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I will not pretend to have known Toni very well. But I admired her for years, and cherish the few times we spoke. She was warm, friendly, passionate — and with a notable absence of the sanctimony that many self-proclaimed warriors carry.

I saw her a few days before moving back to India. She had spotted me in a cafe and came by to wish me luck. I think I was wary at the time, incredibly disillusioned with people in general. I cannot remember if we hugged. I am grateful now to have seen her that one last time, to have spoken to her.

Rest in peace, Toni. Your love and your work will be remembered and carried forward.

Zaitun Mohamed Kasim

(1966 – 2008)

Human rights activist, HIV/AIDS educator, women’s candidacy initiative leader

Remembering Paula Gunn Allen

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Paula Gunn Allen, the revolutionary writer, teacher and cultural historian passed away of lung cancer on May 29.

THE TEXT IS FLESH

by Paula Gunn Allen

They tell me that in Beirut
men lounger around the tables
over thick syrupy coffee
and recite poetry.

Not the ones they’ve made themselves,
but everyone’s poems.
These are people who know
poems are word in flesh, incarnate.

In safer, more sterile worlds we site
lounging over thin brown water
that steams, reciting formulas
about poems nobody read before.

Here, we are people who are not carnal.
Here, we do not hear the song flesh sings
on its way to death. Neither shadow
nor light are kenned.

In Beirut the bombs. Uzi and oud.
Rocket flares, explodes. Flesh splattered on walls.
Blood flows in cobbled alleys with all the filth,
among which in still courtyards oranges bloom.

Idiom is language of the heart.
I and thou and nowhere at all.
Ya babbebi, anine, ya babeebi.
Here over tiny cups a poem perches

on the edge of lips, stutters once;
talking breath feathers lift
winged flesh into sky
trembles into flight.

Conversations with the dead
convert energy to strengthen
on the rez we talk such tales,
the ones who can talk, who know how.

A community of spirits,
kopisty’a, some in flesh,
some embodied words. A presence
don’t you know. All in mind.

Feathered nests of minds. Such university, these cells,
these breathings, where wings of hair
flutter and fall to the ground. In Beirut
recitation, chanting. Uzi and oud,

carnal rotting, blood washing streets clean.
Life exploding into song,
chanting. Coffeehouses full of poetry,
courtyards full of blooms

flown and scattered, held,
passing back and forth, flower into flesh.
You know, carnal. Like that. Tu es mi carnal,
mi carnales
. Flesh that is known.

In Beirut they chant together
stylized runes, incanted dreams.
Generations, thousands of them
around a table, chanting.

On the rez thunderheads, shiwanna,
mass around the mesas
chanting. We’ve watched them becomes
bolts of flame. Smokes of blast. The noise.

Seem them become rain. bring at last the corn.
Here in fleshless luxury we imagine
they’re in cause and effect relation.
On the rez and in Beirut we know it’s not the same.

What there is, is text and earth.
What there is, is flesh.
And chanting flesh into death and life.
And somewhere within, exploding, some bone.