Tag Archives: poetry

The Venus Flytrap: No Wider Than The Heart Is Wide

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Once, when I was much younger, someone laughed because I said I loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”. He did not know that I could see the future. I did not know until I was in that future that Millay had only been 28 when it was published in November 1920. Perhaps she too could see the future, or perhaps for her too, the future had come too soon. So young, and already, to quote the sonnet’s last lines: “I cannot say/ what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.”

Millay characterised herself as a lonely tree in winter, when to many she must have seemed to still be in the prime of her life. I thought of this when my friend, a wonderful middle-aged woman I’ve known for years, asked me what my age is now, then took my hand and huffed as if to say “Don’t be ridiculous” when I told her. This was after I had spent several minutes nostalgising the liberation I had felt in my mid-20s. Past, present and permanent had come together that morning. I had met this visiting friend in a part of a city I rarely go to anymore, but in which I had spent many meaningful nights and days at one time in my life. Being there, I was reminded of what once was, but which I doubt is likely to ever be again. The boughs of the tree of my life were so laden with flower and fruit that they broke.

Earlier, I had also asked my friend whether she will always live in her 3rd floor Paris walk-up, because of the stairs. It was an impudent question, as I realised only upon asking it, and it said more about my preoccupations than her abilities. Having just turned 60, my friend has already outlived Millay by a couple of years. Is it normal to be this morbid, to seek such calculations and measure against them? I count other years: I am as old as my mother was when she had me, I am as young as Christ was when he was crucified. I have either stopped lying to myself that I haven’t been keeping count, or else I started to without quite knowing why, the way a season can leave your landscape before you’ve even sensed the next one. Some things have wintered in me too. And I don’t wonder what made the young Millay so cold in her foreknowledge when she wrote that poem.

But I am older inside than most people will ever be able to relate to,” I had told my friend, in explanation. But clearly, others can or did. Rereading “What lips…” today, I discovered another poem of Millay’s. “Renascence” was published even earlier, and is about a frightening mystical experience which left her all-knowing. In it was one answer to the question of bitterness, an almost inevitable corollary of wintering: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

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Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

Book Review: He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar by Kala Krishnan Ramesh

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In these troubled times, those of us with god-love in our veins but sense in our brains modulate devotion with analyses and apologies. How does one evade playing into a larger project that has nothing to do with the personal? How does one have faith when faith itself is weaponised? Bangalore-based Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s debut collection of poetry, He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar, staunchly refuses these quandaries altogether. The poet-protagonist of this book is situated in a time where kings govern and manuscripts are written with styluses on palm leaves, bound together by a peacock-blue thread obtained from hyacinth dye. She is mad enough that her neighbours watch her as she stands on cliff edges, gesturing at the sun in what appears to be a one-sided conversation. She is sound enough that classrooms are entrusted to her, and still she comes close to blurting out to her students the verses whispered in her ears, but finds herself “struck/ dumb as you / squat in my mouth / your feet / pressing / my tongue / down so you / can reach into / my heart.” This is how he comes to her, her god: as language.

Murugan, the god of Pazhani hill, near which the poet-protagonist lives and longs in plain sight of a half-bemused, half-understanding populace, is the subject and – as Ramesh iterates throughout the text – the progenitor of these verses. Among his many epithets, Guha – literally ‘cave’, abstracted poetically here as “heart-cave” – is the one she most often calls him by.

“This is He: He who longs for the sound of alphabets set to work praising him, his many hills, his two women, his love of battle, his dark-robed aloneing. This is He who crafts out signs for the tracker, doles out fervor for the oracles; the one who scatters questions, riddles and road blocks on the paths to Him. This is Guha, the One Who Hides in the Heart’s Cave.”

This is a book of metapoetry. From the first poem that invokes Ganesha as is tradition but casts him firmly in the role of publisher, the numerous allusions to Murugan as alphabet, syllable and potentate of the same (“god of words, word-tricks, word / debts”), and even a chastised (or is it chastisting?) piece on how a poet must not also be a critic – this is where poet and poet-protagonist blend knowingly. The self-consciousness is interesting, for emotively speaking the poems gush with pleasure and unabashed expression, seeking no audience but the deity.

With unadorned clarity, the author pledges permanent allegiance to the god: “Your name / companions my / journeys / your name / guards my life / your name / walks beside my words. / I write because you like / to inhabit the cities on my / page; / I sing because you like to / hear yourself being / praised in my voice. / I walk and stop and move / because you desire to / have me seek you.” She is often vexed, but rarely pained. A simple confidence runs through all her disputes and delights.

The poet-protagonist implores her lord for only one thing: a wellspring of words to please “Guha, who loves / a good poem more than / anything else in all the worlds”. She doesn’t seek protection or riches, she doesn’t supplicate for forgiveness for worldly deeds (only for the accusation that she has forgotten Him). Occasionally, we hear voices around her: the stylus maker from Madurai who speaks to her father, her mother who addresses their neighbours’ curiosity, Murugan’s wives Valli and Deivanai observing her in a fever delirium in which the deity comes to her and writes out poems she has promised for the following day’s assembly of scholars.

All of them indulge her, and this collection itself is one of deeply indulgent poems, but equally well-crafted. Some devotional writing lends itself to expansive interpretation; here, the subjectivity creates a capsule of experience. But the reader sometimes feels like an outsider, one of the many people who watch the poet-protagonist in her intoxication.

The book closes on a dream in which Murugan visits the poet on the night before she turns fifty – and so we know that she has crossed all manner of youthful exhilarations and societal imperatives happily, with the assurance of her lord: “Know this, my dear poet, when I / write you / I do not love you like a parent or / a patron, but like a poet loves his words, / and I do not carry you protected, safe / in pockets of my love, but send / you out into the world, / for I / write you fit to fight…”

This book is an anachronism in a gentle sense, stepping out of time and into an ageless emotional matrix. He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar is playful, perfectly devoid of cynicism, a welcome wandering away from the gravely mundane.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu BLink.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Colour Of Craving

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The first mango of the season isn’t what it used to be, a rite, sometimes devoured knifeless over the kitchen sink, pulp dripping to the elbows. No – that gives me away as one who eats alone, which I often am, but I know that a shared bowl of slices is how it usually goes. I am avoiding that sweetness this year, instinctively. I don’t need more heat. I don’t need more thirst. But I want that brilliant colour, the colour of the ambrosial flesh that bursts through as nails or blade break green skin. I call that colour, simply, “mango” – but for centuries it was recreated as a pigment known as “Indian yellow”, made from the urine of cattle that lived on nothing but mango leaves.

That too, a colour. Rain-dripped, in my imagination. The voice of a woman without a lover sears across millennia from the Kuruntokai, in a poem about the ardour of the body without an admirer. These specific words: “my beauty dark as a mango leaf.” She grieves its inevitable pallor from inattention; she grieves, in short, a lack of colour.

People went to great lengths to create pigments. They used the wrappings on mummies for a shade of brown, and went deep into Afghani mines for an ultramarine hue made from powdered lapis lazuli. I want to say the great artists of those times knew what riches and gore they held at the tips of their paintbrushes, but the truth is I doubt it. We do not think deeply about our consumption either: the dead trees of our libraries and furniture, the farmers’ tears in our food.

Today’s artists may not have pyramids and mines excavated for pigments, but they still feud over them. Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights over the laboratory-produced Vantablack, the blackest known substance on earth, which absorbs up to 99.965% of light. Stuart Semple then one-upped him with The World’s Pinkest Pink, made available for sale to all, with the exception of Kapoor and his associates.

There are more imaginative names for colours, so striking in themselves that they change the way a fabric drapes or the way the eye drinks in an object. Verdigris. Oxblood. Bastard-amber. Rose madder. Coquelicot. Areca. And there are medical conditions – synaesthesia – which affect the way in which the senses perceive. So one may see music, words and numbers as distinct colours. To some, this cognition is a gift. I wonder if it’s a disorder too, the pleasure I get from language, how singular words are charged for me with emotive dimensions. Sometimes my mouth waters because of a word.

And my heart is somehow soothed by the sight of indigo, made with that dye that cannot dissolve in water but bleeds and bleeds once on fabric, like someone with a lot of fortitude, who cries often. A plant dye that evokes another one, and more poems still: the protagonist of Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar binds her manuscripts with thread dyed with hyacinths, a signature.

And let me just say: Kapoor is wrong, anyway. The darkest material in the world isn’t a colour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.