Tag Archives: personal

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Unsentimental Fool

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Sometime last year, after a lifetime of oversensitivity and a positively medieval sense of the tragic, I thought I had finally become unsentimental. Which meant, in optimistic terms, that my days of weeping in restaurants might finally have been put behind me. I was quite relieved about this. I had spoiled a lot of mascara crying over spilt milk.

I thought I had become unsentimental about, for instance, Leonard Cohen, the artist formerly known as my downfall. So what was I doing at four in the morning, at the end of December, riffling through page after page of Agha Shahid Ali’s collected works to correctly source the poem from which the line that had haunted me all that day had come from – just so I could put it in a letter? And not even a real letter, the kind that sensible people write in order to communicate, but one of those hopelessly twee things I’ve called a postcard: a poem not even sent to its intended, but left in the open (because actual communication would be, you know, too much for the nervous system).

I thought I was over Cohen, but he was in my subliminal impulses, as every thing that ever crosses one’s way becomes. And there I was, having perfectly internalized his mythology, playing it out without a thought.

In any case, I could not find the line anywhere in the book. “I’ve seen how things/ that seek their way find their void instead”. I fell asleep to the realization it wasn’t at all from Ali, but from Federico Garcia Lorca, a hero both of mine and – incidentally – Cohen’s. Fitting, considering that my new year’s resolution is to fully inculcate my complete demonic self, demonic the way Lorca meant it, which is to say – not so much to consume with a mad passion, but to once again also let myself be consumed, be possessed, to stop standing in the way of life, and love, and ferocious intensity.

Which, as you might correctly surmise, might just be a noble way of saying “start crying again in restaurants, if you like”. But it goes a little further than that. What I’ve learnt from my period of emotional austerity is that yes, unsentimentality is a survival mechanism and its opposite (intensity) is a choice – but to choose to live deeply doesn’t mean to choose to live without discretion. Too much contrived emotion only results in not knowing the difference between god and chemical – every sensation inducible, and hence inauthentic.

Maybe you’ll find what I say next more diffident than demonic, but I’ll say it anyway. Today I bought a gramophone, an impulse acquisition, right off the side of a street. An unthinkably romantic purchase if there ever was one, and one I would never have made ever before. I have neither vinyl nor space for décor – and for the longest time, too much drama about anything resembling a symbolic commitment. I have, however, finally found the space in my life again for a little tenderness, a little twinkling; and enough lines in my head, and enough groove in my body, to provide the music and lyrics – but only the kind that comes of its own volition, not the kind that’s just blank noise interfering in a dense, deliciously loaded silence.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard, For You

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When was the last time that the most urgent of my hopes was only that there will be bitter gourd for lunch? Because I am eating alone today, the meal is slow to come, and so I sit on the porch and look at the pepper-vined trees and ponder this until it does. There was no rain in the morning, and so the shrine visit – my most urgent hope otherwise – has been completed. It will be days before I have to think of anything else. It has been years since I have thought of nothing at all.

The food is ready. I’m disappointed – no batter-fried bitter gourd, my favourite, but there are long beans, to which I am allergic. Still, when I’m serving myself in the thatch-roofed hall, a downpour begins, and so I eat as slowly as I can, watching the earth become muddy, knowing that the sunken courtyard in the red house will fill a few inches, but dissipate by the time I return. I am here to fill my own well – but more than that, just to cleanse it, wash away all that was accumulated from everywhere but here.

So this is where I come to escape. At night, owls cry and a mad rooster from the poultry farm next door raises a ruckus. During the day, sunlight laces through leaves susurrous in the wind, and because the eight dogs know me well, I walk without fear. I find starfruit and mangosteen on the ground: echoes of my South East Asian childhood in the soil of South India. Corn grows nearby: a new experiment. There is a pool, another new thing, in which my friend threatens to skinnydip. I have a view from my window.

The memory of this place takes me a long way. I contain it the way some creatures contain water, subsisting on their interior resources long after their landscape has betrayed them.

Nearly everything I have written in the two years since I first began coming here has been a postcard – meant for one person, but sealed from no one’s eyes. But, dear reader, this is my week without letters. It is only for you that I reconnect to civilization at all. I intend to write nothing else, although tonight, in the town, I will read my poems to a few people. When I read them to my friend on the roof of this house a few evenings ago, I had looked up to see a faint rainbow in the west. I who have been led so wary by omens accepted it without suspicion.

And because it is you who is my intended now, I have wondered for days what to say to you. What can I tell you of the beauty of these present things, for which no description suffices? Snippets of conversation, an understated happiness that cannot really be imparted, of what use is all of this to you? Here, where I do not have to be who I am supposed to be, because I can be who I am, think of me today not as a witness but a well-wisher: wishing for you the same, a place so generous with its grace you can carry it back to wherever it is you must be, a deep source, a sweet scar.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Writ At My Wrist

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Nobody goes to the Kashmiri shops. Not unless one is a tourist, in a rush to find a present, or a girl who can’t find her house key in her handbag, and decides to wander the labyrinthine corridors of Spencer’s Plaza for the hours it will take before someone else can open the door.

The trinkets I wear are all bought in cheaper places. Still, what else was there to do? I was reading Deborah Baker’s The Blue Hand that day, a marvelous imagining of Ginsberg and the Beats in India, and thinking back to a time when this country had also hovered over me “like a necessary light”, a stormy eight months spent in the bowels of Sowcarpet, a Chennai first punctuated by Spencer’s and Moore Market and an outrageous journey to Calcutta – a nostalgic’s Madras, I know now – and then punctured entirely of its charm over me. I was 19 and tempestuous to the point of being almost feral. I left, then returned. It has been exactly three years since moving here properly (and I almost say, with bitterness, permanently), and I can scarcely believe that this is the same life, that I am the same person.

So I meandered through Spencer’s, a woman long free of enchantment, missing a time when the fire in my own belly was my only guiding light, before even the hunger to own a beautiful thing became tainted with a cynic’s restraint. I looked at things I had no intention of buying. And then I stepped into one shop and asked, for no real reason, to see their silver bangles.

Rummaging idly through the large plastic container set before me, what caught my eye was a particular piece, simple but strangely alluring, that was outside on the glass counter, being put away by the storekeeper. I asked for it and put it on. It was perfectly my size.

“Oh that’s just metal, not silver” said Feroze, the storekeeper. “Are you sure you want it?”

“Yes. How much is it?”

Feroze both frowned and smiled at the same time. “Are you sure?” I insisted I was.

And then he said a very peculiar thing. “That was given to us by a peer, a sadhu baba. He said that one day someone will come for this bangle, it is meant for them, and when they come, to give it to them at no cost.”

I was incredulous. Why would a businessperson give away anything at no cost? “Why did you keep it?”

“Because we believe in destiny.”

“And nobody else wanted it?”

“Nobody else wanted it.”

It had been a very long time since I had truly felt the receptivity that led me to trust what he said next. “It was in your destiny to receive it. If you believe, all things come to you.”

Feroze and I talked for awhile. I listened to him speak without aggrandization about faith, and fate. In his, as with many people from his homeland, was the ordinance to carry precious things to places to which travellers could wander undeterred. In mine, in the cusp between disillusionment and belief, was a single band of dull metal in the shape of an unclosed circle.

I accepted the bangle. Later, at home, I opened my handbag and saw the missing key.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Sharanya Manivannan And The Amazing Technicolor Magic Realist Life

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My friend the filmmaker says that cinema is about one thing only: pace. It comes down to choreography: internal rhythm, internal logic. You can tell any story, you can even tell a non-story, as long as you find its stride.

Like all people who use their life in their work, I tend toward the grandiose. I’m a hypochondriac, an obsessive, a constant connector of dots. Me and my Amazing Technicolour Magic Realist Life (complete with cinematic soundtrack). This is the only lens through which I can bear to look at all – it’s too much otherwise, too intense and too painful.

Yet, there are things I cannot absolve. I cannot fall into their stride, or find a way to absorb them into mine. It takes me months, even years, to name them – and to name something is to attach a value to it, incorporate it into a lexicon of reason. As a writer this is a fundamental of my world. Without this, I can only agitate, like a breathless creature throwing itself against the glass of the bottle that entraps it.

So here I am, replaying over and over in my mind the things I find irreconcilable, the things I cannot find language for. I cannot control them, I cannot rewrite them – and I cannot simply look away. Stripped of language, the power of baptism, I attempt to make this about the visual and the kinetic. Life as train wreck, life as narrative, chronology as dance.

And the body emotes, of course. I took ill, I coughed blood, and spent a night and a day crying, waiting to find out why. I thought – this is my lost voice, trying desperately to find a way out. I thought – this is it, I am going to die in this miserable place, all potential and no plot, a trailer with no film to follow. “The X-ray will show you I no longer have a heart,” I declared imperiously to someone who bothered to indulge me. All my usual dramatic tropes and deus ex machinae. I had a vision of myself as Neelakanta, the bitterness in his throat, eternally caught between belly and breath. To spit or to swallow? Do I deny the fact of these irreconcilable experiences, or do I wallow in them?

But here’s the rub: this amazing cinematic life of mine? I’m not the director. I didn’t even write the script. The control I seek is illusory. The truth, and the trick, is that one can never find a stride – at best, one finds herself having fallen into it. What I am doing then is hardly dancing. This is shadow-boxing.

Realising this, I stop in my tracks. The blood on my gloves is only paint. The gloves themselves, costumery. What if the pace of this time in my life is no pace at all – only stillness, silence?

We measure time in exacting ways. But we experience it with no real sense of its structure – the fulcrums of moments, the futility of years. Maybe it’s time for me to zoom in and take the pointillist view – to invest fully in that single dot, single shot, and trust that it means something. And let go, knowing this: even off-scene, a star is a star. And I’ll never be an extra in my own show.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: These Unspeakable Things

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In the two years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve tried to be honest. I’ve tried to share my life in ways that might be meaningful to strangers. I’ve written about things that might be controversial, if not in themselves then in their autobiographical quality – depression, death, violence, desire. While writers’ block might have resulted occasionally in pieces I can best defend by quoting Maugham – “Only a mediocre writer is always at his best” – never have I known exactly what I had to write about and yet felt so sickened, fearful or bereft at the thought.

How many ways can I tell you this story?

I can tell you the facts: two weeks ago, a close friend of mine was sedated, taken into custody on false claims, and detained in a mental ward where he was sexually abused and improperly diagnosed. I can tell you that this was orchestrated by collusion between his family (who had disowned him months earlier), the hospital, and the police. I can tell you, so that you don’t write to me with information that can’t be used, that this happened in another country, with a different set of laws.

I can tell you about the distance, about the bafflement and panic that ensues upon receiving an alarming text, from a number that cannot be reached afterward.

I can tell you again about human circuitry, the connectivity I always feel to my dearest ones, and how it came alive. I was the first person he texted with his last cents of phone credit – and the only one who came through. All the way from here, I tracked him down. The activist who advised him on his rights, the social worker whose care he is under now, the writer who helped him get down the unspeakable in a police report – every person came through me. (“You texted INDIA?” he was asked over and over, once he was released and seeking legal aid, and in his typically dramatic way, he said, “I was semi-sedated and even then I knew the best help I could find was half a world away, but the closest thing to home”.)

I can tell you about the complexity of emotions that come with being in a situation like this, struggling to protect someone very far away. The uncertainty over what to write – and whether to. The gratitude at the help that arrived. The dismay at how eager people are to turn a person into a poster boy. The outrage at Dr. Siras’s suicide, so closely timed to my friend’s own persecution, and for the same reasons why his family turned against him. The chills I still get thinking of how much hinged on me receiving that one text and taking it seriously. The disgust. The anger. The fear.

How many ways can I tell you this story? Trying to tell it at all cleaves me – do I conceal in poetry, rage in polemic, inform as a journalist, or tell it like I just have – a story about which I am only one part, one participant.

How many ways can I tell you this story? Is it enough to say: these unspeakable things are no story. This is reality. My friend has a witness to the world. There are others who have no such testimony.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Human Circuitry

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At the same time that I was asleep and dreaming of a long drive along dirt roads looking for a temple, wondering why we could not just stop and worship at one of the many snake-hills we passed along the way, across the world, she was saying a prayer for me at the shrine of Marie Laveau, Voudou high priestess of New Orleans. A year later, someone else travels to Portugal, and does the same for me at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem. Again, it is unasked for, unexpected, but welcome.

There are those who fill us at every moment that to think of them is only as natural as prayer. For some of my friends and I, what this usually means is to pray. But even those who don’t pray, invoke. Each time I find myself alone with a decanter I think of all those who should share it with me, and raise a toast. I have become a collector of objects that catch the eye only because they are weighted by their associations.

All nostalgics are masochists; we subject ourselves to the tyranny of memory and history and insist on the accompaniment of ghosts. Sometimes it is beautiful, as when across the breadth of the world, one connects and connects and lights up a web of human circuitry, each point of connection a live wire, always active.

As I was writing this column, a friend asked why I equated prayer with pervasive memory, because prayer is expectation. I realised that this is not how I pray, at least not most of the time. I ask, of course, but mostly what I do is receive. Not in the sense of getting what I hoped to, but in the sense of being constantly plugged in, engaged with the world, connecting. I am blessed with an incredibly rich life only because I am willing to receive it. My relationships are rewarding beyond measure. The only distances that matter are the ones we choose to place between ourselves.

I regularly experience synchronicity, and I think that this is because it is almost as though, from our respective locations, my dearest ones and I are tuned in to the same radio frequency. Someone will tell me she’s trying to find an image online to send me of what she wants to get tattooed: that same image will be on the tee shirt I wear at that very moment. I will send a text message and get a call back instantly – “You won’t believe it but it’s freezing and I am wearing a balaclava and six layers, but I suddenly had to speak to you, and just as I stood up to step out and call, there was your text.” But I do believe it. We could have gone months without contact. It doesn’t matter, it never does, because somewhere, on some profound level, we were connected.

And this is why, when I meet someone who refuses a connection, who reduces it to its most functional or profane terms, I am saddened. If we think again of prayer as a point of connection, as I do, then just as in my dream of snake-hills, some of us are looking for a place to pray, when everything around us is already a prayer in itself.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: My Bloody Valentine

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There’s a story I like to tell about an incident that hasn’t happened yet, and to be realistic, might never actually occur. This may be my favourite, and most frequently contemplated, revenge fantasy, but it is also by far the most restrained one I could potentially imagine for this scenario. It puts me in an exuberant mood to describe its minutiae – who said what, who wore what, architectural detail, supporting characters, soundtrack and scenery. I love to see how my friends react as we reach the story’s singular defining triumph: the clip clop clip clop of my high heels as I walk away from the table into the afternoon light of a city straight out of a TV show.

My weapons are only words, and they are designed to leave incisions, but not casualties. I intend only to draw the curtains, not to draw blood. The most that is spilled are tears (not mine), and perhaps, for cinematic affectation, the contents of a fine-stemmed glass across a crisp tablecloth. The air ricochets, in that final frame, with the sound of stilettos, not bullets, and those stilettos themselves are deployed for no purposes sharper than style.

I am less tranquil, however, in art – both the art I consume and the art I create. “Not you too, Black Mamba!” I admonished the screen in the disappointing latter half of the Kill Bill diptych, as our Lady of Atonement herself mellowed out like the rest of us lily-livered mortals. Where was the gore and hunger of the first film? Give me blood and guts – literal and figurative – and righteous rage. And glory, in many spades. Do it with flair – do it like the merry murderesses in Chicago, cell-block-tangoing their way to fully, fabulously, deserved incarceration. The best vengeance is vicarious.

Violence enjoyed or expressed through art, indulged in imagination, or released in aggressive sport, is not senseless. If anything, it is sensible – even sensual. It’s a primal scream in a soundproof room. It’s also an indicator of one’s sanity or lack thereof. The sociopath is consumed by it – the sound-minded, as I said earlier, simply consume it. There is a delicious mercenary quality to brief immersion – by participating in a proxy ritual, be it armchair massacre or arm-wrestling, there is relief and satiation for that bloodthirst without anyone else having to suffer for it. Surrogate slaughter, if you will. It is singular obsession that is dangerous.

Perhaps this is why, for someone with such a taste for brutality, my own pet revenge fantasy is so decidedly sterile. No adrenaline, no deeply visceral satisfaction – but also no horrific aftermath, no guilt, no demons – at least, not new ones. What I want is closure. What I want is conversation. Neither are within my grasp for now, so I’ll take what I can get: staving off my madness, the madness we are all capable of, with another movie marathon, the violence of a Pollock, the brute force of the Bösendorfer in the Boys For Pele album, the drum dance, the deep laugh, the riot of my own angry paintbrushes, the pleasure in the way my own voice delivers a certain sequence of words into a microphone, the power to eviscerate a poem of its pretty so all that’s left is elemental, vital, staccato. Clip clop clip clop.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Certain Completed Geometries

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When I realised that my wallet had been stolen at a train station on my way back from a weekend in another city, my first thought was about my debit card, which a phone call quickly took care of. My second thought was about the currency it had held, which was also abated by the realization that I had – serendipitously – been unable to withdraw more than a small amount at the ATM the previous night, and what more, for reasons completely out of character, had stashed enough change in my pocket for a couple of teas and a plate of hot bhaji for the six hours ahead. My third thought, and the one that made my heart momentarily plunge the most, was about the talismans that wallet had held.

There had been two – both gifts. A Buddhist one for grief, given to me the night before the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And another one, which had been personally blessed by a deceased mystic, and which had come to me through a surreal collusion of dreams, magic space and psychic reciprocity. The second was profoundly sentimental; the first less so – but both were meaningful. What startled me was not that they were gone – but that they had gone at the same time.

I hadn’t always been this sort of person – the sort who wears, who keeps, who trusts. But ever since I became this sort of person, I’ve seen that the nature of talismans is to offer temporary protection. The nature of talismans, in essence, is to get lost. We ourselves grow too attached to them to let them go, let alone recognise that their work has been done. They must be wrenched from us in acts of fate, in seeming carelessness, and we must accept their disappearances as markers of certain completed geometries.

The carnelian stone I carried in my jeans pocket from one crucial meeting until I lost it somewhere in a flurry of hotel rooms, while the career catalysts it had accompanied culminated in certain profound and quantifiable rewards. The dead butterfly that simply vanished from my wardrobe upon my return from a shattering retreat. Time and again I have found them, recognized them as talismanic, and learned – after the initial sense of disappointment and shock – to acknowledge their departures as necessary closures.

What does this mean then, to lose these two amulets at once? One was for forgetting, the other for remembering. The first was to help with the surrender that bereavement demands, the other was the lamp left lit so I could find my way back to a place that in moments – in this day to day reality – seems sometimes to have been almost illusory.

I would like to think that perhaps I have finally learnt how to see in all sorts of darkness – that the heart has memorised the map, and neither torches nor known yet treacherous paths are necessary to return to or to honour that which has been lost.

What have I forgotten, and what have I remembered? With both of these talismans gone, I wonder now not just what has come to its denouement, but what I will find next. What will it see me through? And when it goes, what will I have learnt to see by then?

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Dropping Names

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Recently, a friend dropped me a note under a different name from the one I’d known him by for eleven years. I raised one culture-mulcher highbrow eyebrow at his new moniker and immediately called him out on it. As expected, the change had been a result of his moving to Australia, where – he said – his new buddies had rechristened him. I snorted privately and exhorted publicly: “Be proud of your polysyllabic name! Besides, Bobby doesn’t rhyme with Banana (while your real name does)”. Rhyme is important to me – in case I ever have to write a sonnet for an epitaph, I don’t want my options to be limited to hobby, lobby and (ahem) snobby. Banana, cabana and Hannah Montana lend themselves much better to eulogizing.

He had changed his name on all his social networking profiles, chat and email programmes. I found this annoying and somewhat regressive, but he insisted that letting one’s friends call you by nicknames is sweet. “Sure,” I acceded. “But you don’t see me changing my name to Ammamma Kitty”.

At this juncture I will confess to the following: I have a different legal name for reasons you can exaggerate in your imagination, once published an article under a pseudonym inspired by an alter-ego inspired by a plush toy, and yes, one of my friends calls me Ammamma. Many others do call me variations of Kitty (though not, you monkeys, the obvious synonym). Still, to my mind, none of these things are rooted in embarrassment, which is how I saw the friend-henceforth-known-as-Bobby’s choice. There is a long history of Asian people assimilating by taking on Western names – how many Tripurasundaris have become Tinas, and how many Mei Lings, Marilyns? Rueful, I considered how Bobby rhymed with Robby, a diminutive – in every sense – of Rabindranath.

No, the whole thing made me want to commit many cliché reactionary acts, like politicizing my sloth as a bed-in, wearing homespun khadi, piercing my other nostril and rereading Spivak (she of the ex-husband’s name). I was too lazy for all of this, though, and had evening plans that interfered with the bed-in, so I settled for clicking the “like” button on someone else’s snarky post to “Bobby P.” asking when he was going to cut a record and start a fragrance line. The view from my high horse was pretty great.

Of course, I was duly chastised. Later that day, I went out with an expat friend. We were the last to arrive, and a group of people I hadn’t met before were already there. “Hey everybody,” said my friend cheerily, and extended a hand in my direction. “This is Ranya”.

Then she turned to me and said, just as cheerily, “I’m so glad you texted earlier, because I spent ages online trying to remember how to pronounce your full name, but on my phone I have the ‘version for dummies’ saved!”. This was true. Ranya was the nickname I hadn’t needed to bring back to India, cases of extreme closeness or extreme mangling notwithstanding. Someone had given it to me back in school, when P. Diddy was still Puff (and still cool), Bobby still had a name that rhymed with Banana, and I – well, I was Ranya.

I did, however, at least already have one nostril pierced by then.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Year Of The Aranya Kandam

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Some of my friends tell me they have had a year from hell, but I know that what I endured was a year in purgatory. Purgatory because of its impermanence, its seemingly endless yet certainly finite suspension. Purgatory that may or may not be connected to the word “purge” – the ridding of the self of toxicity, the negative; cleansing, absolution. Purgatory, above all else, because I was not condemned. I asked for the descent.

Mythology and Jungian psychology teach us how the descent is a rite of initiation, a necessary and transformative undertaking that one can either resist or rise to. Because its timing is so often arbitrary, the last vestige of control remains in accepting it as adventure. Like the Fool, the first card of the tarot arcana, one volunteers for the exploration – or as I think of it, the excavation. Like Sita setting forth into the forest, the beginning of multiple exiles, kidnapping and banishment, one receives the fall from grace as grace itself. We enter the forest, the desert, the underworld heroically. These are not necessarily physical landscapes, but archetypal ones, metaphorical topography. Bewilderment – becoming the wilderness itself.

Like Ishtar arriving at the gates of the underworld, I screamed my madness at the gatekeeper and demanded entrance – If thou openest not the gate to let me enter/ I will break the door, I will wrench the lock/ I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors/I will bring up the dead to eat the living/And the dead will outnumber the living – and how I was given it, stripped of every ornament, stripped of pomp and circumstance, lowered through each subsequent level, until I stood buck naked before my shadow twin, chastised and begging for rescue.

Nothing prepared me.

She who enters the forest like a queen leaves it like a commoner. She who enters the desert like a fugitive leaves it like a free woman. She who enters the underworld like a dying thing leaves it resurrected. Purgatory changes you. It challenges you, shatters the boundaries of your being, breaks your heart to make more room, pares your body to take less space. It makes a pilgrim of you, and if you’re lucky – if the rules of mythology apply to you, and I find that if you believe in them, they do – it will bring you to deliverance.

This was my year of the Aranya Kandam, and it is in this knowledge that my second book of poetry is ingrained and taking shape. I have spent the year identifying with things I never imagined I could see myself in: the pepper vine laying its heart-like leaves against the bark of better-rooted things, the pining Sita, the wounded and the war-weary. I have spent the year seeking sanctuaries: villages, hill country, communes, the sea, and always, always trees. I have spent the year bringing myself back to life.

Ishtar, finally rescued, ascends through each of the lower realms, reclaiming her lost embellishments – only to find that she is less loved than she had believed. The one who she demanded entry into the underworld for has forgotten this kindness. Sita walks through fire not during exile, but after it. The long wait ends in humiliation, not happiness. Knowing this, can I be blamed if I choose now to linger just a little longer, savouring the petrichor, the silence, the love of the good earth…

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.

Guest Column: IDiva’s “Break Free” issue

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I had a guest column appear in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. The brief I was given was “life as a PYT (pretty young thing) in Chennai”. What fun!

Whatever anyone might say about me and my having grown up abroad, take this: I lived in Sowcarpet for eight months in my late teens. How’s that for street cred? And when I say lived, I mean it – glam, bling, potty mouth and all. So whenever I think that even Nungambakkam can’t take my sass, I remind myself: if I was rocking my divahood in a North Madras labyrinth five years ago, this city better learn to keep up with me!

But it’s true: life as a PYT in a decidedly unsexy city like Chennai is a challenge, and the secret to it is to never forget it. Never take it for granted. So every time a girlfriend and I have a Zara’s or 10D lunch and order a pitcher for just the both of us, every time I take the 29C in a sleeveless blouse and don’t get hassled, every time I stare down that horrible policeman who patrols my road on evenings, harassing single women, until he revs up his bike and retreats – I celebrate it!

The way I see it, it’s a choice. You can let the parochial mentalities and hypocrisies depress you, or you can engage with the city as it is. Like all sexually repressed societies, Chennai is obsessed. Which means that as women, we are actually far more objectified than we would be in freer societies. I say, embrace it. If every Raman, Soman and Quick Gun Murugan on the street can admire your goods, why can’t you? We live in one of the few places on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear flowers in your hair, for any occasion and for none at all. Sarees, salangai, all of Pondy Bazaar rolled out for your choosing. A great town to look like a woman, as my transgender friends will attest. Reclaim the kitsch. And the chic.

The truth was, for me, there was a defining moment – what I call my “When I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Embrace My Expat Status” moment. It took months of Fab India kurtas, polite smiling, neutralizing my Ceylon Tamil accent and general diffidence before it happened. But once I realised that nothing was worth losing my spark for, I stopped compromising.

Finally, it helps to keep a sense of perspective. One of my favourite Chennai anecdotes is of when my older friend (who was as much a badass in her time as I am today, and even more so now) suddenly put out her cigarette with a mumbled expletive, then went up to an old woman and her grandchild and made small talk.

When she came back to see me laughing at this show of conformity, she said, “You know that old woman? She has issues with my smoking – but she once sent a nude photo of herself to a friend of my dad’s”. My laughter turned to shock. My friend winked. “Bet you wish I’d told you that before you saw her, eh?”

Oh yes, my fellow PYTs (and our wannabes) – this town has seen a lot before us, and will see a lot after us too. I just plan to leave stiletto tracks visible enough for the next generation. No hypocrisy here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Sadness And The River

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How much closer it is to morning than it is still night doesn’t matter, but I am talking to someone I love across time zones. We are talking about ourselves, two or three years ago, marveling at how much like fiction the details of our lives then sound now. We’re a little older, cynical but outwardly thriving. We’ve had success and scandal since. We’ve relocated. Most of all, we’ve calcified. We are shells of who we were when we were poor, unpublished, camping out on couches.

How the hell did we do it? What the hell were we living on? You need to understand – we aren’t giggling over anecdotes. We’re trying to figure out what we lost, and how we might possibly get it back.

I confess that I barely remember individual incidents. I was so alive at the time, I wasn’t keeping count. Everything is a blur of readings and conversation, fashion and addictions and the lights and darknesses of the city I left my soul behind in. It’s funny to think of it now, how a bohemian, barely legal immigrant and a boy wonder acted like they owned it. I’m convinced, still, that we did. You own cities not by living in them, but by loving them. Enough to spend the night at a station after the train service stops. Or to risk your life border running. These are only examples. They say nothing of how a person will fight for what they need, for who they are. They say nothing of what we were, or how far off the map we’ve detoured.

“Needs change,” he says. “We had such simple ones though.”

We fought for ourselves, for one another, but eventually, we also fought each other. We fell apart. Things caught up (my visa status, mainly, but enough has been said and speculated about that). Then he heard I was leaving, moving back to India, and called from a number I didn’t recognise. He said he needed to hear one of my poems, to get over someone, a person he would pursue halfway across the world soon after. I didn’t think till much later that maybe he needed to hear it to get over me.

The poem “Boot Theory” by Richard Siken ends thusly: A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river/ but then he’s still left/ with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away/ but then he’s still left with his hands.

Two years ago, as a survival mechanism, I decided to stop being her. That ridiculous, stormy-hearted woman. But much as I dammed the river or amputated my hands, enough of her ghost has stuck around.

I don’t miss that place; I miss who I was in it. How we measure our histories has as much to do with what we choose to forget, as it does with what we choose to keep. How we determine our futures depends on how soon we realise our folly, and begin the journey back.

So dear one, I’m saying a poem for you tonight. I’m saying more than one prayer. I’m thinking of you and the cities we have known – together and apart. I don’t know what we were thinking but we must’ve thought it was forever. It seemed like it could be. After all, weren’t we?

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.