Tag Archives: personal

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

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An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Reunion

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I am delighted that my column, The Venus Flytrap, is back in The New Indian Express after a 5-year hiatus! The first piece is below. An edited version appeared in the newspaper on October 26th. The column appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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What do you say to someone, an old friend of sorts, after five years have passed, out of touch? Let me try. Think of this as me greeting you as you find most appropriate: with a hug, a handshake, or maybe just the hope that you still remember me. Do you? Walk with me a little while, if you will. Let’s take for granted that much happened, as was only necessary. Five years is a long time to waste, and a short time to spend. You aren’t the same person; I assure you that neither am I. Yes, I still love to laugh, and I live by the moon even more than before. Yes, there’s indigo in both our throats now – and on some nights, it’s an arrested poison, and in some lights it’s a hauntingly beautiful blush. You, I can see, still seek out challenge, are charmed by caprice, still wear your circumstances like a loose collar, so that nothing gets in the way of a deep breath. Still look for yourself in the reflections of others, and delight in how similar and similarly entangled we all are.

Let’s say, also, that some things stayed the same, even as others changed.

I hope you still have more fingers than mistakes to count on them, and that you do not do so often. Which is to say – I hope you always knew the difference between a risk and Russian roulette. I hope they threw carnations at you more than they did arrows (you know who they are). I hope all the love you ever threw out there yourself boomeranged right back, full force. I hope your elsewheres still fill you with sweet nostalgia, and your somedays have inched ever closer.

Me? There’s plenty of time for that later. But I will say this much: there’s a mountain inside each of us, beyond which no one can hear us screaming. I have conquered mine. But this is also true: Rumi wrote, “There is a kiss we want with our whole lives.” And I am still waiting. And that is probably why, my dear, that I am still here.

I still have a heart like a pair of saloon doors, swinging open at every chance.

What fills your life now? Who are you becoming?

I thought of you sometimes, and of what I would say if I knew you were still listening (and at other times, I thought we’d never see each other again). I thought of you when I wept with joy in the Tuileries one dying summer, and when I looked over a bridge into a lagoon in which a mermaid lay silenced through thirty years of war, and always when the Madras summer does to the jacaranda and rusty shield-bearer trees what a greater poet’s spring did to the branches of the cherry.

Any time someone allows you into their lives is a privilege. Any time someone takes two minutes of their own time to listen to you is a chance.

Walk with me, again, a little while. And thank you, old friend, for letting me walk with you.

 

On Bookstores: “Memory of Trees”

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My first paid job was at an independent bookstore in Kuala Lumpur’s fashionable Telawi neighbourhood. It was the summer before I turned 16. I had just finished school, and under circumstances I can only explain as a combustion of family dysfunction and personal callowness, neither plans nor ambitions existed regarding my future. I spent just over a month at that job. I could not get the hang of the cash register, and the entire situation – circumstantially and emotionally – was a little bizarre, but those weeks turned out to be pivotal. The seeming lack of direction in my life was a blessing in disguise; heading nowhere, I fell heart-first into the artistic subculture where my career began, thanks to friends made at the time.

I spent that month reading, reading, reading. I read Nabokov. I read Kundera. I read Kerouac. I read the classics so I could avoid them later. I read all the dead white men I would spend the next several years uninterested in, because after that first job at Silverfish Books, I found and fell into a compulsive affair with Payless – a chain that stocked books sourced from secondhand stores in the United States. I read Cisneros. I read Rich. I read Anzaldua. I read Marmon Silko. I read the obscure and under-rated. I would never complete a tertiary education. These books, bought cheap and in bulk, were my teachers. They taught me not just how to write from the borderlands, but also how to thrive in a certain kind of world as a certain kind of woman.

Five years into living in Chennai, I take the news that Landmark is phasing out its books section with sadness. Their annual sales used to put me into raptures. Of course, like so many other readers, I am complicit in their failure. When Flipkart and the even more steeply-discounted Homeshop18 came on the scene brandishing cut-rate prices and the magic mantra “cash on delivery”, I made the switch. (Psst – there’s even one terribly useful website, www.indiabookstore.net, that pulls up the all the listings from a range of digital stores).

Yet I hope that what is, effectively, the end of the beloved retailer as we know it will lead to the sprouting of secondhand bookstores. We won’t stop buying books, but we will certainly run out of shelf space. Pre-owned books come with many perks. In London a few months ago, I visited the iconic Skoob (its offshoot in Kuala Lumpur was another playground of my teens) and ticked a couple of titles off my wishlist. They were in great condition, and significantly cheaper even in the Queen’s currency than new copies bought in India. Out of print books abound in such shops. In the past, although it’s no longer an interest of mine, I’ve also found books inscribed by the author.

I still pay it forward, though. Whenever I come across shelves of free books or book swaps in cafes and other places, I press a lipstick print on the title page of my own little paperback and leave it for whoever is meant to find it. I may be a cheapo when it comes to purchasing, but I do believe in giving my own work away often. As off-putting as I found the staff of Paris’ famed Shakespeare & Company when I visited this summer, I blew a kiss to the ghosts of Hemingway, Nin and Ginsberg and left some copies there too. [Later, I learnt that the establishment that now operates under this name isn’t actually the one Hemingway – whom in rather trite fashion I was reading at the time – frequented, but you know what they (meaning I) say. You can’t unkiss a kiss.]

So no, I don’t like bookstores, however iconic they may be, which are burdened by their legacies. I do like ones that strive to mean something in the present moment, like Singapore’s Books Actually – which publishes chapbooks, organizes readings and has a friendly resident cat. There, I’ve never left books for free, because they care enough about indie authors to actually stock them.

I recently came across this word: tsundoku. A web meme defines it as follows: “buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands”. I remain old-fashioned: because I need to see the spines of books and touch their pages, I cannot convert to a more efficient electronic device.

I am comforted by the presence of books as much as by their contents. I don’t go to libraries because I am selfish, slow and scattered. But I do go to bookstores because they soothe me. I think it’s because they carry, tangibly, the memory of trees. To step into a bookstore is to step into a forest of stories. We lose our forests to far worse things than literature.

An edited version appeared in Kindle Magazine.

A Poem In The Nervous Breakdown And A Recent Talk

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A poem, “Light Years“, is on The Nervous Breakdown.

Last April, The Nervous Breakdown published another poem of mine, called “Secret Theatres“, and that poem was a finalist in this year’s 3 Quarks Daily Prize. They also published this self-interview.

Finally, I delivered a talk on March 10 at the Madras Management Association’s Women Managers’ Convention 2012. I thought for a long time about whether or not to post the link to the recording, as what I spoke about is so personal and the Internet is a vastly different space from any kind of event. I decided last night (after watching Brené Brown’s new TED talk on Shame and thinking about her previous one on Vulnerability) that I would post it, wrote out reasons I planned to share with you, and then accidentally deleted the whole screed. And that – overriding my own self-sabotage – finally became the best reason to do so. Here it is, in the segment “Business Session 1: Women On A Mission”.

The Venus Flytrap: Doing The Sari

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Dresses may come and dresses may go, but there’s nothing like a sari.

This isn’t the story of how I fell in love with a difficult garment. I’ve never struggled with the sari, not the way I struggled with the bindi (which you can see I’ve fully appropriated), not the way I struggled with dark skin or with dark moods, or anything else with a similar gravity, the congenital weight of things beyond one’s choice. No, there was never a time when I thought that the sari was anything but prime plumage. Watching women wind lengths of cloth around themselves was where I learnt the meaning of the word “covet”, the floreo of pleating fingers the thing that must have mesmerized me into dance. There is a photograph of me at about three years old, wearing a miniature approximation in yellow and green, a fake nose-ring, my grandmother’s wig and an aigrette of pink flowers. I am not cute, I am coy, guilefully aware; at this age more so than at any other, the sari’s magical transformative effects on my demeanour are evident. The image is nearly prophetic. Somewhere in my baby brain I had set my sights on what I would grow up to look like, and through tube tops and sundresses, through denim and leather, that was exactly where I wound up arriving. And I was born knowing the sari signified, above all else, arrival.

I fought to wear saris long before anyone thought I was ready for them, just as I had glued a faux diamond to my nostril for a whole year until I was allowed to pierce it at fourteen. In both cases, the redemption was instant: it was plain to see that my vanity did not dwarf me. Vindicated though I was, for a decade, I saved the sari for “special occasions”, motivated in most part by the time it took to drape one, and in some part by wiles: the knowledge that the garment conferred on me what I call deadliness – it (or I) could stop both hearts and traffic. I’m still careful about when I take it out of my arsenal, if only because in love and in war timing is everything, but I’ve also stopped treating it as sacrosanct. I suppose that happens once you discover how much more interesting it is to keep it on, while doing the thing that usually requires taking it all off.

Today I deal with my wardrobe, and by extension the world, with the maxim, “when in doubt, go with the sari”. There are sequin-strapped blouses for when upstaging the bride is the order of the day and demure, high-backed handloom weaves for when a disingenuous innocence needs to be affected. There are gloriously unaffordable inheritance silks, but these come with taboos: call me prudish, but there will be no kinky romps in anything that used to belong to my grandmother. For that: frivolous synthetics that fall easily, cling flirtatiously.

I know for some the sari connotes respect or codes of restriction. But more and more, this is what I suspect about the true nature of the sari’s timelessness. It has survived the ages because depending on the wearer, it may murmur or it may sing, but it always says the same thing: ravish me.

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.