A poem on dreaming and fate, new moon and old skin. Read it here.
This week, I mulled over a divination card I came across in an interview with the queer indigenous healer Lettie Laughter. It said: “Your future ancestral self is a badass magician of the heart who will never stop loving you.” The conflation of time in the line was what intrigued me. One becomes an ancestor regardless of whether one has progeny, just as one reaches for ancestors, blood-kin and guiding lights both, from the braided branches of the tree of life. One can go back in time to love one’s known younger self, to unsnag that self from something that doesn’t heal. But the idea of being healer-ancestor and unbegotten-beloved at once was so richly textured that I turned it over and over in my mind.
The following day, giving in to sheer curiousity (the kind where the analysis you’ve read is so powerful that you wonder if the real thing will hold water), I watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Here, too, what stood out for me was ancestry. The proverbial sins of the father are only set scenery. The real story is the suffering of the mothers. We mother ourselves – a line you can read as profane or as protective. In this rendering, Beyoncé counts among her mothers the young poet Warsan Shire and the late radical Malcolm X. There is plenty of amazing black feminist political and spiritualist writing already out there about how she consciously channels the goddesses Oshun and Erzulie Red-Eyes, among other mothers.
“Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth,” Beyoncé enunciates slowly, right before the work moves back into the theme of sexual humiliation in a shattering marriage.
I don’t think that speculating about Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z is any of our business. An artist exposes her vulnerability not to have it dissected; her real life is not a circus act. Judging by the ecstatic reactions to it, Lemonade might be the kind of work that mirrors anything the viewer brings to it, which is why the infidelity and betrayal in it have been so resonant for so many.
Is the work personal? Who cares, when it is personal for so many. Truthfully, the spoken word and cinematography were more interesting to me than the music – one needs no embellishment for lines as stark as “[I] plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know…” But Beyoncé’s willingness to be a conduit for collective pain, regardless of whether or not her own is a basis for that exploration, is what I admire.
I must not have brought a particularly wounded self of mine to my viewing of Lemonade. Because what I saw was the artist clearly cast in the mode of Lettie Laughter’s divination card: simultaneously archetypal and in need of healing. This was one way to be a badass ancestral self, for sure. Every creative day of my life, I write mainly so as to make amends for ancestral silencing, and mostly only to console myself. It was glorious to watch another artist do the same, to step into that liminal space and chant to her sistren.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
Deeply disheartened, I stood before a lit lamp and tried to find a reason to raise my voice in a world made deaf by its own silences. A line flickered to mind, and I recognised it as the title of a book I’d wanted to read, but had never purchased. That line was: “finding beauty in a broken world”. The environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote a collection of essays by that name, on seeking a way of being that integrates all the fragments shattered by human brutality. I yearned for the book suddenly. I have buried myself in language for as long as I can remember. It salves me. It puts me, too, back together.
I sought an excerpt online, the way another person might view a movie trailer. In the first page, Williams writes – “…I faced the ocean. ‘Give me one wild word’. It was all I asked of the sea.”
That was how I had felt, at my altar – and that page led me to this page you read now.
All libraries carry the memories of trees, and sometimes it is to the source that we must go. The summer streets are carpeted with the yellow flowers of rusty shield-bearer trees. I recall the closing lines of Adam Zagajewki’s poem: “Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrush lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.” This is what I try to do, in the evidence of the lines that precede them: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”
As I write this, my voice hurts – both spiritually and physically. For the latter, I drink a kashayam, and for the former I seek the balsam of words. And as I do, I remember something: not too long ago, I was a part of a panel on women’s issues. After the event, one of the other participants asked me, “So, did you never fight with your parents as a teenager?” Of course I had, I said lightly. “Oh really? How is it fighting when you have a voice as soft as yours? Not possible.” The indignation I felt was at once blunt and sharp, like a pair of precise surgical scissors. But in the interest of politeness, I said nothing. I looked her in the eye and allowed a tactful bystander to laugh the situation off with a “that’s just her voice!” How little the person who had insulted me knew of war, I thought, to not be able to tell a fire from a blown fuse.
Tonight, through my bedroom window and yours, the first full moon of the Tamil year will blaze. Perhaps you’ll see it, awoken by mosquitoes or misery (or just the stealth of moonbrightness). And if you do, remind yourself. To sleep well is an act of self-care, and those of us accused of caring too much frequently forget to tender ourselves the same. A mercenary measures steps in blood, a soldier in miles, and a warrior in how gently one’s footfalls shape the earth. Were we only so gentle with ourselves, too.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
I have six poems at the Poetry At Sangam website, two of which are from my forthcoming collection, The Altar of the Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017). I’m so glad to share them, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading them.
There’s a love that looks like no love you’ve ever seen. And on some days, and certain nights, you can almost convince yourself that it looks for you, too.
Almost. The deeper you travel into a life of your own design, the further away the mirage of a co-sojourner appears. There is no one who falls asleep thinking of you. The face you see when you wake up is your own, in a mirror, all evanesced dreamscapes and smudged kohl.
But you must indulge it, a little dulcet speculation. You parse the present as though it already comprises kernels of a different future. Everything that has happened to you has happened in the absence of the one who loves you, who does not know it yet, whom you contain no memory of. The world appears less maimed through this awareness, this version of the story in which there is someone you would walk through the rain to meet, had you only known how to reach their door.
What you do contain, positively, is wisdom. It beams in you like a blacklight tattoo when you need it most. Like that night when you came home after seeing someone so perfect you could have sworn you wrote them into being, but you couldn’t sleep, and not because you’d been hit by lightning. There you were, your palm on your chest at 2am, breathing deeply, sitting still and listening to your heart. How it wouldn’t stop saying, “neti, neti.” Not this, not this.
“Not never, but not now,” you explained to those who were dismayed. But even then, you knew.
A seer tells you to say affirmations to draw love into your life. A priest prescribes garlanded circumambulations. A doctor puts you on multi-vitamin supplements so your hair might stop falling out and you’ll have the energy to go dancing. A friend downloads another app into your phone. You’ll do some or all or none of these.
But mostly you’ll just do what you have to do. You’ll return to the poems, and when the wish to mouth their magic into someone’s ear becomes too much, you will go to Rilke’s “You Who Never Arrived”. You don’t cry like you used to, emotion billowing from you as unmistakably as a bullfrog’s throat. Your sorrow gets mistaken for anger. Your strength for coldness. Your grace for forgetting. Now your tears are scant and taste like tea steeped far too long.
And the flights of speculation too grow fewer, which is why you notice them, lift them to the light in curiosity. There is nothing to anticipate. Days and nights of lacklustre certainty. And it’s you who must tell your heart, this time: “Iti, iti”. This too, this too. Even this. This with its saudades. This with its cosmic signs that anagram to red herrings. This with its gambles made on someone else’s loaded dice (but you’ll make them anyway). “Heads you win, tails I’m lost” – that country ballad by Jewel you’re surprised to remember, so many years later. This now, this here, this always – with its almosts that only almost count.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 10th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
Aruna Sairam shuffled onto my playlist with a song of a longing devadasi, and I called a friend who knew it well. He had the original Telugu text of Paiyyada, while I pored over an English translation. Together, we transliterated: ‘The one who rested his head on the fabric over my breast is embittered by me – aiyo…” At the end of our spontaneous cultural salon, he mentioned another Kshetrayya padam, one in which the raconteur says frankly to the deity Konkaneswara that it will cost a hundred gold coins just to enter her house, and three crore to kiss her.
The poem reminded me of one of my favourite devadasi songs in Tamil, which goes – “kathavai saathadi / kaasilathavan kadavul aanalum, kathavai saathadi”. “Shut the door, girl – if he’s empty-handed, even if he’s god himself, shut the door!”
When Rukmini Devi Arundale appeared on a Google doodle last week, it was the devadasis I thought of again. In the 1930’s, Arundale appropriated the devadasi dance known as sadir, angularised its sensuality, censored its eros and turned it into the caste-privileged form renamed as Bharatanatyam. This was part of a larger project of erasing their matrilineal, woman-centred culture, which had garnered disrepute (it came to be banned all over India). This should be widely-known, and isn’t, because of the sheer domination of one narrative over another. Before their fall from grace, devadasi women from as early as 8th century were known as: dancers, musicians, multi-linguists, land-owners, endowers of public infrastructure, impresarios, polymaths and poets. Today, they are dismissed as sex workers.
We forget them both: the mid-20th century devadasi in a system of ruin and abuse, and the medieval devadasi whose empowerment and erudition remains beyond what many women enjoy today.
I’ve also been reading about the Asur people of Jharkhand and West Bengal. I heard about them just a few days ago, when their traditional telling of the epic battle between Durga, my beloved goddess, and the buffalo Mahishasura, whom the Asurs trace their lineage to, became the stuff of headlines. A fascinating alternative rendering, not unlike how Ravana has the sympathies of Tamil people.
But I’m not convinced that the story we’re being told is the one the Asurs themselves tell. When the word “prostitute” was raised in reference to Durga, as a means of literally demonising those with this belief, I wondered – what if the original word was “apsara” (like the transgendered Mohini, who used her seductive charms on asuras too, before she bedded Shiva). What if, indeed, the word was something like “devadasi”? And if it was “sex worker” – well, as a woman who happens to be Hindu, I am frankly more offended by misogyny than blasphemy.
Another mythological word we misunderstand is “virgin”. It means a sovereign woman or goddess, by no means devoid of sexuality, and in complete control of her own. Hence, unmarried. Like a devadasi was, except to her god and her art.
Myths are full of history, and history is full of myths. We can love their messy richness, and if we must sieve them of anything, let’s sieve the manipulations that serve only their blinkered tellers.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.