Tag Archives: plants

The Venus Flytrap: … And Clap At The End Of Your Lonely Performance

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Everything moves too quickly, and my worries pulse through me continuously, undercurrents to my every action. I gift myself inaction every day through a practice of stillness: watching the light seeping out of the sky, spilling on leaves. That was where the message from my friend Arjun Chaudhuri found me. Our conversation ended with him sending me an emoji of a peach hibiscus. I was sitting on a damaru-shaped stool of rope and rattan, a real peach hibiscus in bloom before me. I’d been watching it when he’d texted. I held my phone up to take a picture of it for him, pixel to petal. In return, a sound note – him in a voice he called broken (it was not) – singing a Bengali poem from hundreds of years ago. Translate it for me, I demanded. And he did: “Ever blissful Kali, charmer of Mahakala, you dance on your own, and sing on your own, and clap at the end of your lonely performance.”

If I call myself unbroken – do I mean as yet, or do I mean that the shattering has been reversed? He called his voice broken, while my hearing could only sense repair.

You don’t know how much I resist them, these pithy ways of understanding life through idleness. But still they come to me, every day, soothing me in this practice of stillness and watching. Do you know that you can only smell petrichor – the scent of water mingling with dry earth, often called the scent of rain – in your potted plants if you don’t water them well? You can’t have both, you see: the pretty word and the lush garden. Not in our sun-scorched climate, our stormless lives. Some days you get to be the poet wearing flowers from her own garden in her long, loose hair. Most days, though, you only get to wait, to water and wish them into bloom.

I probably will not be here much longer, in this particular home with its particular view. I cannot untwine my creepers and take them with me, unless I cut them down to a carry-able size. And can I bear to take a few, and not others? To watch plants thrive is also to sometimes watch them wilt, and die, and because of this I see no reason to not simply start over somewhere else.

This week I’ve been reading about Pawnee White Eagle Corn, a crop that was revived from near extinction. When the Pawnee Nation were exiled within the United States in the 1870s, 50 kernels of their sacred corn – white, with a purple smudge that looks like plumage – were safeguarded and passed down through generations. It has now been carefully, successfully, recultivated.

Why meditate today on the flower that blooms but a day and not the seed that carries its quintessence through centuries? This is why I love my practice of watching and stillness so much. It allows me to take whatever I need at any time: mixed metaphors, mixed blessings, prosperity and decay. Radiance, or resilience, or both. My heart whispers clearly to itself, looking at my plants. And sometimes, across distances, someone sings to me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 24th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Writer’s Room: Sharanya Manivannan

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For “Writer’s Room”, a feature in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror LIFE (Architecture), December 2017

I like to have plants within my sight, and so I work with my desk pushed up against the doors of my balcony. I currently grow bougainvillea, roses, jasmine and hibiscus – all of them miss the Chennai summer, which inspires immodestly beautiful blossoms in them. I had grown tulasi, too, but it did not survive the fortnight in October I spent away – incidentally, in Colombo and Batticaloa, where my roots are. Pun unintended. Other plants, like the karpuravalli, have not survived the gluttony or envy of pigeons that claim this as their habitat too. Not long ago, I was delighted to learn that the mysterious half-circles I found on the leaves belonged to the leaf-cutter bee. The leaf-cutter bee is shy and autonomous, which might tell you why I love her. This balcony that for now is mine is in Chennai, a pleasantly green city of India, and I am doubly fortunate to have many trees thrive within my sight too.

I work on my computer, and this one is an old lady who’s been with me for nearly seven years. In notebooks, I make to-do lists and brainstorm and doodle and scribble in atrocious handwriting when I’m trying to record quickly what another is saying. My real handwriting is quite pretty, but it is not what fills their pages. Speaking of which – this desk is not ever nearly as clean as this picture suggests. Take it from me: most of the writers you’ll meet in this column will spin a little lie about that! As they say: a clean desk suggests a messy drawer, and I really think the only place that needs to be pure is the heart.

The Venus Flytrap: The Flower Power Party Guide

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Everybody knows that spouses come to resemble each other, and if you’ve ever been bored on the Internet you’ve probably also seen that animals and the people who keep them share some similarities (or perhaps just a hairdresser). One expert usefully asserted that you could spot a hound owner from a mile away because they “look very doggy”.

But for company that neither vocalizes nor poops, you can’t go wrong with plants – and I have a feeling there’s a kind of foliage just for you. Recently, nodding obsequiously through a particularly boring conversation, I spaced out and thought of how the whiskers this woman was sprouting, elegant and sporadic as they were, were not unlike the bristles of a black bat flower.

Rewarded with a great solo party trick after years of deep poetic thoughts about trees and flowers, I suddenly enjoyed looking around the room. There were the clusters of weeds, the sycophants, all different variants: pretty and harmless dandelions, downright irksome poison ivy, and the honestly rather useful St. John’s wort and cannabis. The last one might have been more than a metaphorical sighting. Not that I could tell.

And that one over there – she surely grows bonsai; her soul itself seems corseted in a trellis. A little sad, a little less interesting than the bougainvillea and the pepper vines snaking their papery petals and heart-shaped leaves along the lengths of supportive spines. Not quite sycophants, those, just Sitas.

Hello, night-blooming cereus – why are you never as fun during the day? And over there’s a teetotaler, but you can’t be condescending to a Rose of Jericho, not when his sense of humour is even drier than his drought.

The cacti are actually a lot of fun: they’re a little prickly at first, but they really know how to hold their liquids. Anyone who vomits qualifies as a corpse flower, but only if they’re within smelling distance (otherwise, they may just be a different sort of plant entirely: the factory kind). Speaking of which – it’s also much easier to ignore the inebriated idiot taking off his shirt if you think of him as a deciduous tree.

Thankfully, though, there are other kinds: the banyan around whom the party inevitably congregates, the resilient olives (sometimes symbolically holding martinis) and maybe an ancient bristlecone pine or sequoia, still living it up and sharing everything they’ve seen along the way.

Including perhaps – through we’ll try not to stare – the cute little hothouse flower accidentally flashing her Georgia O’Keefe. A blush of shy mimosa pudicae, meanwhile, curl up and hide for shame.

I don’t know about you, but I always start the evening off as a narcissus. Vanity trumps misanthropy every time. Before the bloom wears off the rose, though, I’m preening with the lot of them. Sometimes I even get mistaken for celebrity flora, the kind mentioned in holy texts for example: sagacious bodhi trees and Lebanon cedars. I’m able to hang around only so long as they don’t realize that my own superstar qualities are fictional, and then I’m booted out along with the Faraway Tree and the Two Trees of Valinor.

And then there I’ll be, sulking and swilling something in the corner (and you know what my ultimate totem plant would have to be): trap-shut, thorny, digesting my findings.

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: Touching Souls

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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.