Tag Archives: poetry

The Venus Flytrap: The Forest Of The City

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Sometimes I think of what that learned one told me as I move through the city’s avenues, sound-sieged and sun-bleached but for intervallic canopies of leaves. “Vana is ‘city’ too,” he told me, a woman with a forest in plain sight in her name. Vanadurga is She of the City then, another kind of wilderness. Etymologies rearrange things. I think of urban briar and bramble, some danger always underfoot. The frightening things gridlocked into the city’s rhythms the way traffic engorges its roads. It makes sense: Vanadurga’s temples are supposed to be open to the air. No sunshade, no crown of verdure. It is the primeval forest goddess, Aranyani, who has no temples at all, who resides deeper within and without human consciousness. She is remembered only by the beauty of ancient words made to praise her.

Sometimes potted plants are too obvious a metaphor for things that grow – or try to – wherever they are given, in containments disconnected from the bounty of the earth. Other times I wake unto my gallery of green and am grateful for their tenacity, their thirst, their sheer splendour. The way bougainvillea the colour of sweet mango flesh arcs beyond the trellis, flagrantly flirtatious. The way water poured on parched soil brings forth the smell we wrongly identify as rain, for petrichor is only the scent of mud being made.

On the street, besides the stump of a tree we lost in the last cyclone, a vivid frond announces an uprising. Life goes on – “grows on”, someone said. There’s something immutable about this fact, despite the other one: everything changes.

Aranyani walking through cities, through what has become of the landscapes of her dominion. Redolent of bark and blossom, the tinkling of her anklets lost amidst the noises of this feral place.

If only the summer could still do to me what I see it do to the pods and buds on these trees. I borrowed the line from Pablo Neruda, and that’s why I reject its original preposition. I cannot type his “do with” without remembering what he did to the Ceylonese woman he employed while a consul on the island. Reader, he raped her. Don’t tell me you can know that and still be softly stirred by “I want to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees”. Yet, why then did I forget, for awhile, what Derek Walcott too had done as every timeline filled up last week, in eulogy, with his exhortation to the rejected lover to feast on their life?

No, the summer is probably doing with me everything it always has: season of quenching, of moisture, of the quotidian pleasure of undressing. Season when the skin sings. I can’t see the brazen bougainvillea bursting over my balcony from behind my French windows. Am I like that too, in blossom but unaware? Disentangling the wrong etymologies. Seeing cities of trees and forests of conurbations while seeking some other kind of proof. I’d like to flourish again as if it was the first time, as if I need not be grateful, as if I did not know too well that seasons turn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Flood And Drought

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That night, the full moon visited the Pleaides after the cyclone had crossed. All was calm again, and in the absence of artificial brightness I took a single clay lamp to my room to mark the occasion. To reinforce the rattling doors of my balcony, which had already invited a deluge in earlier that day, a decorative item – an altar of steps – that had been stored outside had been brought in. The steps served their purpose as they done hadn’t in a while. They held up that little lamp, its reflection steady against the closed glass door. And I sat for as long as it blazed in the quiet, storm-strewn twilight, and poems came back to me.

So that the next morning, still utterly disconnected from any form of communication, I woke unto poems. I tried to be sensible. I thought of my deadlines first, the people who couldn’t reach me. I thought of all the things that would catch up with me the minute the networks started working again. But I could no more stem the torrents of poetry than I could the rainwater that had seeped beneath and between those balcony doors and creased the pages of the books I had left stacked on the floor.

I write to you pretending to be in another century, envious of writers who predated the Internet, or who were born early enough that they didn’t become usurped by it. What bliss, to wake up in the aftermath of a storm to filthy floors and untallied damages and find myself just as calm as the climate, cossetted in fresh poems. Is this what happens to me when I have so little static around me, when there are no tweets to click on or messages to attend to, when I can’t squander hours in idle browsing, cheating myself that I’m trying to find something interesting to write about?

Will the power come back on in time for me to send you this missive? Even the most ambitious of writers past didn’t have the conceit of today’s. They didn’t know if their manuscripts would survive ordinary accidents, sabotage, and finally, the postal system. But – unlike I have all year, except for the boon of this column – they wrote anyway. And trusted.

I could not raise potted plants this year, after the last ones I’d tended to died in last December’s floods. It was not that I was so attached to those ones that I couldn’t try again. Just that the keeping of plants is an indicator of heart-health. And mine was very small and stony and sad this year. In the interim, other forces took over my balcony: laundry, pigeons, storage, an altar that got its swansong on Karthigai Deepam.

The cyclone was the final coup in my efforts to reclaim the space. Now it stands completely empty, and full of potential. Will I dare to do it: to trust again? I will measure my capacity by beginning with things with thorns: bougainvillea, roses and cacti. Perhaps I only know how to parse the world in metaphor. But isn’t that too a way to look it in the eye?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dancing To The End Of Love

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When Leonard Cohen, whose legacy will probably live forever, died last week, public mourning was more withdrawn than usual. Perhaps it had to do with all the other news of that week, and how the luxury of emotional reactions seemed futile against humanity’s folly. So people shared songs without musings. And goodbyes without eulogies about when they first heard hello. But even if he had passed away in less fraught a week, these responses may have been the same. His lyrics had a way of saying everything necessary, at once personal and all-encompassing.

Leonard Cohen’s words often found us in intimate moments, or more precisely, led us to them – gently swinging the door open for intimacy to wander in and close it promisingly behind her. I thought over the songs that had imprinted themselves on the corridors of my memory and blushed. There were rooms in low light, there were roofs in moonlight, there were regrets turned rosy by what that poet’s baritone made us believe. There were reasons. And there was no reason to reveal them.

There were other kinds of poignancies too. A new friend with whom “Suzanne” was drunkenly sung, still demurely seated at a just-cleared lunch table in Calicut, who passed away not long after and who the song now always reminds me of. But I can’t write about him without feeling that it would anger the old friend, who is no longer one, the one who he actually belonged to.

But like songs, or like secrets, does anything ever only belong to one person alone? The answer is yes, but only that which rests on a palm, not inside a fist.

There will be many people who know only one song of Cohen’s, and they know it in someone else’s voice. They know it from Jeff Buckley’s dulcet rendition or they know it from Shrek (or one of the hundred and one TV shows or films that elevated any scene at all through “Hallelujah” alone). And to them, I say: there’s so much more. Begin with the ones that feel like you’ve heard them somewhere (you have), but maybe weren’t listening as intently then: “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Bird On A Wire”, “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”

And then – if you’re still interested – find my rare favourite, “The Gypsy’s Wife”, with the wild woman, the Salome-Kali dancing with a decapitated head on the threshing floor in the liminality between light and dark. Go further – chase Cohen’s words from the audial to the page. Read his poems. Read his novel, Beautiful Losers, on the Native Canadian saint Katherine Tekatwitha, one of the last things he authored before a nervous breakdown led him to realise he needed to move towards the stage.

Go talk to someone else who loved his work so much they ruined some of his songs for themselves by giving them away, and this is what you’ll learn: still, because they are simply too beautiful to not share, they’ll give them away again. That’s Cohen for you: a spiritualist who knew that transcendence was not in renouncing the world, but in taking its hand, reading its open palm.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Mirror Of Another Time

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I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.

I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.

I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.

In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.

When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…

I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.

But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 29th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Beyoncé And The Badass Ancestral Self

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Calling To A World That Isn’t Listening

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Not This, Not This | This Too, This Too

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Devadasis Were Virgins

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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.

In Femina Magazine, Dec 18 2015 Issue

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I was very thoughtfully interviewed by Kirthi Jayakumar earlier in 2015 for Femina. The piece appeared in the Dec 18 2015 issue of the magazine.

Please keep your eyes and hearts open and your loving wishes sent in the general directions of The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016) and The Altar Of The Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017). And me, if you have more love to spare. Because I do, and I’ll try to make more books from it :) Happy new year! xo

Sharanya Manivannan Femina 1Sharanya Manivannan Femina 2