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The Venus Flytrap: Sand Mandala

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I am letting go of someone I love, and I am doing it by looking at all the ways it’s been done to me and learning from all the mistakes I made as I’ve done it before. I’m thinking of those who disappeared on me – “ghosted” is the word now, and how that haunted me. The one I’m letting go of doesn’t know it, but I’m already gone, and one of these days a reckoning will come when they will force me to tell them why. I can’t begrudge that. I have asked that question of others. I have deserved an answer. But I’m thinking especially of those with whom I chose not to converse with, because to do so would be to tell them something that would turn them against me permanently, and with – I know from having been burnt by truth-telling – consequences.

I saw a video of a painting made of black powder on a linoleum floor of a cat and a snake. A broom hovered over the two figures, then swept their scales and stripes into a meaningless pile. I wondered at the risk the person who’d made this had undertaken – what if the camera wasn’t on? Would they recreate the entire sequence again – the painting and destruction both? How many times?

What I really wondered was why they did it at all – how can anyone make a beautiful thing and then destroy it? Then I recalled sand mandalas, how Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly paint elaborate symbols using coloured granules, only to ceremonially undo them. Not with the effacing glee of a broom, but part by part, in sequence. The sand, collected in a silk-wrapped jar, is then released into a river. Such care in the dismantling.

Everyone I love, I try to raise into my way of loving. This was what had gone wrong with this situation too. In my desire to remake another, I could only elevate them into loving me well, but could not impact how they are fundamentally wired. Which is to say: they learned just enough, but not enough. We arrived at a place where the seed of hatred they hold in their heart had overwhelmed everything else I saw – and wanted to see – in them. My own heart is so small, I rued and rued, until someone changed the narrative for me: to refuse to make space for cruelty is not itself unkind. Not, itself, incapacity.

I thought I built citadels out of love. Or gardens. Sanctuaries. At least, I can say with certainty that this is what I have always tried to do. But if I am honest, fear and memory have made me build sandcastles at times, sown with eventuality. I don’t think this was one of those times, but I’ll take my cue. A sand mandala, then. Made more and more beautiful with tending, with each intricate addition and every surprising colour. Not a ghosting, not a burnt bridge, only a meticulously reconfigured arrangement. Not with words, for mine are blades. Not with messengers, for that is cowardice. Only this intention: silk-wrapped, released into the elements, and with so much love, let go.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Pre-Existing, Even Permanent, Love

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 In the darkest year of my life, I met a man who seemed to be simple, creative and fearless – one thing I am not, one thing that I am, and one thing that I am always mistaken to be except by those who know that courage is not the absence of fear. I asked him how he was the way that he was, which is to say – I asked him how I could be more like him. “It’s just one thing,” he told me. “Everywhere I go, I think – everybody loves me. And everywhere I go, I also think – I love everybody.”
I was dismayed by this answer, for I knew the first of those things to be patently untrue. I could not go anywhere – let alone everywhere – with such certitude. With such denial.
As for the second thing, even in callow moments when it has been true, when it has felt as though my heart was an ever-expanding galaxy, that feeling too has sometimes proved irretrievable. Although I will concede that to love is never for nought, not entirely.
Many years since that conversation, as I packed once more to go to several somewheres with neither of the two expectations I was advised to always carry, it suddenly hit me: maybe it had only been his phrasing that I had not been able to relate to. When all along, the deeper truth of his statement was not so elusive. Because what I know to be true is this: only in the presence of a specific kind of love, self-love, does the self-aware person seek to be loved by another. And in the absence of self-love, the self-aware person knows better – sometimes through conscious empathy, and sometimes through instinct – than to inflict their need on another.
Therefore, perhaps what that advice had really meant was this: “I love myself, and so I am certain that this will be unchanged no matter who I encounter. I greet them as if we love each other already, because there is no risk.” At least, that is my interpretation, now, for that strange answer. That its application fundamentally rests on a prerequisite: pre-existing, even permanent, love for oneself.
Now that, no one has ever taught me how to have.
But I have spent my whole adult life trying to teach myself, going over lessons again and again like a student held back year after year.
My capacity for love has greatly diminished, but my enquiry into it is stronger than ever. I write to you from high on a mountain,  surrounded by verdure, but my thoughts are on a potted hibiscus that may not be watered in my absence. This plant suffered a fungal infection, after which I’d left it for dead, but without the will to uproot it. Left untended for a week, in the absence of hope and nourishment, it suddenly began to sprout the tiniest green leaves.
This is how I last saw it: tenacious even if not thriving. But I went into and will come down from the mountains with no expectations at all, only to learn a little more – from anything that will teach me.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Reconfigured Forest

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The forest had reconfigured itself in the years of her absence. At first, she could not find her bearings, and turned among the trees until her coordinates revealed themselves gently. Trees – so many trees – more than before, a lushness so vividly alive it could only be the afterbirth of cyclones, wildfire, calamity. Blossoms bright and wind-scattered. Birdsongs.

She arrived just as the women were about to leave, an hour from sundown, after a day of work among hearths and verdure. Light glints between leaves, on the rippling of puddled water, and along a line of spider’s webbing she pauses to smile at. They recognise her, call her back into their arms, call her by her name. They remember her by the doll she left in an old house, given room in a new one. She knows she once left a pair of sandals here, like an exiled emperor, but cannot recall what they look like. A dog she had hoped to meet again bristles, teeth bared, and lunges for her hand when she reaches for him. She had shouted his name down an avenue of areca-red earth, hoping that he – like her – was still alive. The years in between had contained their bereavements.

She accepts the sum of these facts as a teaching of some kind, and knows she allows this only because enough of who she once was has come back to receive it.

She had been reconfigured too, transformed like this sanctuary into something more deeply herself. Something had come to a close in her new life, and still something felt incomplete. She had held the forest within her for a long time, like a small fish cupped in hands filled with water, slowly seeping out of her. Perhaps she prayed for passage in a dream. And then the forest summoned her in ways that, upon telling, would belie their miraculousness.

If you have truly been inside the forest, you know that it can co-exist anywhere: an enchantment that adjoins a highway bereft of trees, a garden anonymous, a lone sapling slithering a tendril of desire for the sun between the cracks of concrete tiles. If you have ever been lost in the forest, you know that it retrieves all the shards of you and holds them – sometimes, you will think it withholds them too, yet it always gives them back when you ask. And if you have lost the forest, if it too is a place of your shattering, you know what it’s like to believe you can never go back. That the path briared – bewildered – itself into impossible convolutions.

Still – for her, after all this time, the forest parted its draperies, and she was within it again.

And so she walks as deeply inside as she can, to the door of the altar-space. And even though she had turned off every signal on her device, wanting this world to be briefly self-contained, somehow the memory of the map she had been asked to show someone remains undisconnected. She peers through the sheer window on the door and a disembodied voice suddenly says from the palm of her hand, “You have arrived.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 28th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Sitas, Many Ramas

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The lines flow like waves along their skin, or radiating circles. The same word over and over again in faded-tattoo green in the Gondi language, in Devanagari script. Ram Ram Ram. I came across the Ramnami people of Chhattisgarh in a stunning feature written and photographed by Joydip Mitra for the People’s Archive of Rural India. Ramnamis are descended from Dalits who rejected the caste system, and calligraphed the sacred onto their skin. Only the elderly write their devotion onto their bodies now. In the photographs, only their eyes and lips carry no ink, and around their shoulders they wear fabrics that repeat the name they hold holy. Ram Ram Ram.

“Ram is written all over us,” says Pitambar Ram of Raigarh to the journalist. “So, you see, we are the Ramayana.”

There are so many, you know. My newest book of poetry, The Altar of the Only World, began with someone who held this name holy too. It was always Sita, only Sita, for me, and this too is a long tradition – found in folksongs and variations, the way a story becomes a new one each time it is told. It began with her weeping in the forest – there is a Sanskrit word for that, “aranyarodhan”, even though the Sita I got to know was not a Sanskrit version at all. Instead, she is mothered by Mandodari, who drinks a grail of sacrificial blood and sets her miraculous, curse-born child to drift away on the water like Moses or Karna. Instead of being the daughter of the earth, she is the earth itself. As well as a Persian angel, exiled from heaven because of too much devotion, and a goddess of love and war who enters the underworld to confront her shadow, who in the ancient Sumerian texts that describe her looks strikingly like the lion-headed Pratyangira Devi.

When I started to write The Altar of the Only World, nine years ago, it felt like it was a safer world to tell stories in. And a safer world to tell the truth in, too. Not so anymore. This casts an edge over all the usual trepidation before a book release. And then there’s the ambivalence of letting go of something that has been incomplete in you for so long that you can hardly imagine it fulfilled.

A year and a half ago, I was on a flight that made a missed approach. Like other frightening things, I had never known such a thing existed until it happened. In a terrible storm, the plane almost touched the tarmac and then suddenly swooped upwards again into the roiling thunderclouds. We circled the airport for many long minutes, not a word from the captain or crew for a while. The cabin remained quiet, and there was applause when we finally landed. I remember feeling aware, not afraid. This is how letting a piece of long labour into the world feels like: you cannot tell if it will make it or not, but you must suspend absolutely the idea that you can control what happens. And given the vagaries of the journey, be grateful for touchdown at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: No Wider Than The Heart Is Wide

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Once, when I was much younger, someone laughed because I said I loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”. He did not know that I could see the future. I did not know until I was in that future that Millay had only been 28 when it was published in November 1920. Perhaps she too could see the future, or perhaps for her too, the future had come too soon. So young, and already, to quote the sonnet’s last lines: “I cannot say/ what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.”

Millay characterised herself as a lonely tree in winter, when to many she must have seemed to still be in the prime of her life. I thought of this when my friend, a wonderful middle-aged woman I’ve known for years, asked me what my age is now, then took my hand and huffed as if to say “Don’t be ridiculous” when I told her. This was after I had spent several minutes nostalgising the liberation I had felt in my mid-20s. Past, present and permanent had come together that morning. I had met this visiting friend in a part of a city I rarely go to anymore, but in which I had spent many meaningful nights and days at one time in my life. Being there, I was reminded of what once was, but which I doubt is likely to ever be again. The boughs of the tree of my life were so laden with flower and fruit that they broke.

Earlier, I had also asked my friend whether she will always live in her 3rd floor Paris walk-up, because of the stairs. It was an impudent question, as I realised only upon asking it, and it said more about my preoccupations than her abilities. Having just turned 60, my friend has already outlived Millay by a couple of years. Is it normal to be this morbid, to seek such calculations and measure against them? I count other years: I am as old as my mother was when she had me, I am as young as Christ was when he was crucified. I have either stopped lying to myself that I haven’t been keeping count, or else I started to without quite knowing why, the way a season can leave your landscape before you’ve even sensed the next one. Some things have wintered in me too. And I don’t wonder what made the young Millay so cold in her foreknowledge when she wrote that poem.

But I am older inside than most people will ever be able to relate to,” I had told my friend, in explanation. But clearly, others can or did. Rereading “What lips…” today, I discovered another poem of Millay’s. “Renascence” was published even earlier, and is about a frightening mystical experience which left her all-knowing. In it was one answer to the question of bitterness, an almost inevitable corollary of wintering: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Crown Shyness

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You lay on your back on the leaf-layered earth and see the sky rivered blue between patchworks of green. Crown shyness: the reluctance of certain species of trees to touch at their heights, so the canopy is a really a configuration of boundaries. The limit at which something is withheld. We don’t know why those trees do it any more than we know why we behave in our own mysterious ways, at odds with our natures. What’s the worst thing that can happen if your fronds or your fingers linked? What abrasion could be so injurious that what you will lose in the wind anyway cannot be risked? What larvae more fearsome than the way regret eats at you from the inside?

It is not difficult to go so long, crown-shy, tracing but not trespassing borders. It is more difficult by far to begin to make the reach again, to remember how to unfurl into a close but forbidden expanse.

There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened for you in so long,” she says. “And that is because you have forgotten how to want it in a way that forgets all else but the wanting.”

Forgets self-preservation. Forgets uprooting and decay. Forgets the sky itself.

Somewhere, on a farther continent, is a wolf tree, disorderly in its bearing, thriving on too much sunlight and too much space. The wolf tree is the one that was the last one standing, the one left for pity or prettiness while around it axes made way for pastoral land, the one that survived fire or pestilence. Without restriction, its branches shoot forward, devouring all available nutrients: light, moisture, soil, air. It is no longer necessary to reach only toward the sky, hemmed in by the needs of other foliage. So it throws its wooden limbs forth like some form of medieval punishment, protuberant boughs in too many directions at once. They grow horizontally, low on the ground, forking like snake-tongues or strikes of lightning, which have splintered it often. Its crown too is wide, ever-increasing – and un-neighboured, never-encroaching.

A century can pass. Around it, fresh verdure finds cultivation, flourishing just beyond its shade. And then the wolf tree begins to recede – no longer as abundantly nourished, a plethora of resources at its personal disposal. It does not die, but looks like it will, or – if a being as venerable as a tree can be assigned so shamefully human a trait – that it wants to. It isn’t so easy now, to be so crowded in, to be so damn obvious a testament to having withstood the damage of many seasons of solitude. Gnarled into glory. What can anything be, anew, having already been the only thing it will be known or remembered to ever have been?

“There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened for me in so long,” you say. “And that will not be explained by these metaphors, or by your idea that you can explain it.” You let the shadows envelope you. You know it’s not clear from the outside what has happened: if many crowns have collided, or if only a single canopy blots out the sun.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 31st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories

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In “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, I write about personal style as a mode of self-expression, and self-concealment. I write about the pleasure of the perfect drape, the passion of red lipstick, and the heartache of living in a time when beauty and power cannot always co-exist. This essay is in the new anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Catriona Mitchell. The book is out now from HarperCollins in India, and Hardie Grant in Australia/the UK shortly.

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