When I was little and lived in homes with real gardens, one of my favourite things to do was to step on the thottanchinungi plant. Its little ferns would shrink to the touch, and then slowly open, repeating these gestures until the agitator bored of them. There’s a rhyme I remember the beginning of from those days, in Tamil. It went something like, thottanchinungi, thodupudingi: the fern that shrivelled up and snivelled like someone who had their earrings pulled.
I would eventually become something of an animist. I looked to coasts and trees and red earth. But I only remembered the shy, sensitive thottanchinungi at the beginning of the year. I’d been in the countryside for some weeks by then, anticipating catharsis yet entirely unprepared for it. It was a morning that came amidst many things, mostly devastating ones, but I remember a sense of exhilaration as my friend Rane and I sped off to even more rural interiors on an old, green motorbike. I think we were heading to a lake, but mostly, it was for the ride. Somewhere on the way back, I caught sight of the back of a statue, a typical Kali, a cacophony of arms and legs, and we stopped. I had to see it.
It turned out that what we had discovered was a Tantric shrine. “The serious shit,” Rane said, pointing to the shed full of tools for invocation. No one was around. I prayed that day with the promise to come back before I left this surreal dimension I’d found myself in for what was supposedly the real world. I had no idea then what was coming – I would not return before I went back, and there was nothing to go back to. The unraveling had only just begun. “It’s okay,” my friend said, weeks later. “The account has been opened. You’ll make the deposit some day.”
But I didn’t know all this then.
Climbing off the bike, my eyes following the flight of an astonishing black, white and red butterfly, was when I saw it, my old childhood friend the thottanchinungi. Of all the kinds of weed involved in my catharsis, this was the most symbolic. The mimosa pudica was the ultimate metaphor for the state of my heart that morning, and not just mine. We wait to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be touched. And then we retreat. We fold into ourselves and wait to be left alone. We burn that bridge and bloom again. We burn that bridge but we forget the way back, and over and over and over we build and burn, trapped in our private purgatories.
How easy to curl within ourselves. How hard to stay open, even to the things we think we have been waiting for all our lives. There is resilience. And then there is, simply, running away.
But although the plant I saw that day looked like the thottanchinungi, it didn’t respond to my foot. It refused to shrivel, but I no longer had the time or curiosity to play with it as I once did. Maybe it was something else, some other herb. Something that looked like one thing but was another one entirely. Unequivocal disappointment can be easy to accept. Just ask the thottanchinungi.
But maybe it was the thottanchinungi, only a stronger variant. What I know is this: it held its own. It didn’t shrivel at my skin, but rested calmly against it. Its soul to my sole. By refusing to recoil it stayed receptive to something else, something that held it open, thriving, fully unfurled.
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.