Tag Archives: romance

The Venus Flytrap: Dating While Being Intimidating

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“Strong women intimidate boys and excite men”. There is an image of a woman wearing a tank top with these words on it that has been doing the rounds online recently. It’s a glamour shot – an advertisement for the American clothing company that sells the top. But the line is so powerful that the image, free of branding, has gone viral. Is it cocky? Only if you’re someone who hides behind the idea that people fear you, like a little creepy-crawly that casts a looming shadow. But for most people for whom the line strikes a chord, particularly straight women, it appeals not so much to the ego as to the never-not-broken heart.

            No one gets to be strong without first having been shattered. The Japanese have a beautiful artform, kintsugi, in which a lacquer of powdered gold is used to repair cracked pottery, rendering an object more beautiful not despite but because of its brokenness. Some of us are thus now made almost entirely of gold.

            I wish I had a rupee for every time someone said to me, as though it was some major insight they were offering me, “I think men are just afraid of you.” (I’d always have exact by-the-meter change for autorickshaws then). But what does the “just” in “just afraid” really mean? It’s a word that seeks to paint as obvious what is in fact an imbalance, a reflection of the disturbing reality that empowered women are punished most of all in the arena of personal relationships. How can a positive trait like strength – and attendant qualities like ambition, success, independence and candour – be anything other than desirable?

            When a man, especially in a romantic context, is put off by a woman’s strength it is not because he isn’t sure that he can handle a life that demands more of him (this is what he will invariably say as he conveys his regrets). It’s because he actively prefers to not try. The kind of woman he is not afraid of is the one he will choose. She is not necessarily weak. But she is always afraid of him. The truth is, fear does excite weak men – her fear, that is.

            But I think of all the times I have held the beverage before me with slightly shaking hands, lowering my eyes as I received the condescension of being told or showed that I am too strong to love, and I can tell you – of course there was fear then. And despair. And anger. But when I finally raised my chin, the only emotion they’d register would be the last. Scary lady.

            I reject the idea that I am too difficult to love. And if that means being rejected by anyone less than my perfect equal, then so be it. (Why try, why not do the rejecting first? Well, that’s what really separates the weak from the strong – whether you embrace vulnerability or seek to avoid it).

            I’d add a clause to the quote on the tank top. That bit about exciting men? Boring. And easy. Anyone – intimidating or otherwise – knows this. I’d rather be seen, not just salivated over. I’d rather be understood than craved. Of course I want to excite you (it would add another crack to my gold-filigreed heart I didn’t) – but just as much, I want to challenge you, to learn from you, to provoke your sense of purpose, to arouse your best self, to stimulate in you – just as there is in me – an insatiable appetite for life.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Next Big Thing Interview

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I was tagged by Christopher Martin, author and editor (of Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination) to participate in this blog meme. “The Next Big Thing”, is meant to find and promote new and in-progress books, by getting their authors to answer a series of questions. [I’ve seen some versions of this meme with one question fewer, but I’ve decided to answer them all]. I’m tagging: poet Monica Mody, who has a new book, Kala Pani, out soon; erotica author and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who always has an anthology in progress; and poet Anindita Sengupta, who has just completed her second collection. Looking forward to their interviews; in the meanwhile, here are my answers:

What is the working title of your book?

“The High Priestess Never Marries”. It’s a book of stories, short and long.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Literary fiction, preferably, with a distinctly feminist leaning. But if I’m realistic, some people will call it chick lit. And that’s okay.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was something I used to say to my friends, partly with rue and partly with sardonic pride: “the high priestess never marries”. After a decade of romantic complication, I had begun to see my life through the lense of the pseudo-historical notion (backed up by evidence from the devadasi tradition of South India to the oracles of Greek antiquity, among other cultures), that in order to retain her personal power, the “high priestess” – the free spirit, the maverick – had to disavow social norms expected of other women, such as the security of husband and household. In exchange, she was allowed freedoms, education and individual and political agency that most women did not receive. That was very much how it felt to me, as a woman in the early 21st century – that it was still a very either/or dichotomy, I could be an alpha female or I could be in a relationship, but not both.

So all the stories fundamentally grapple with the question of whether it is possible to both have love and be free. The story that probably best exemplifies this tussle might be “Afternoon Sex”, in which a woman is utterly devoted to her husband and the institution of marriage, believing both to have saved her life, but some primal part of her nature remains unexpressed and so she has this parallel life, another lover.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Stories of love and its consequences, underpinned by the motifs of sweetness, wildness and greed.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My women friends’ and my own experiences, and some of the cautionary tales that the men we were in love with and whom we thought we wanted to be like turned out to be. Many of us spent a great deal of time in dramatically dysfunctional relationships, often with permeable boundaries and complex power dynamics. Some of them were happy (see “Gigolo Maami”); some of them not (see “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet”). All of them were rich experiences, but what was really interesting were the aftermaths. How it could take a year to admit to oneself that what had taken place was abuse. The bizarre self-flagellation that comes with cheating on someone who claimed infidelity was negligible. The fact that one’s libertine or bohemian ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, but remain subject to the mores of the time and society in which one lives, as well as to human nature. The latent misogyny in heterosexual relationships. The fact that no amount of theory, politics or ideology can save you from being blinded by longing. The consequences, basically.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Although the stories are buoyed by female protagonists, it’s the male characters who’d be really fun to cast. What you have are these wilful, out-of-the-ordinary women who are fatally attracted to these men who are either terrible for them or with whom they are somehow unable to reconcile that love/freedom schism they perceive. So you can imagine: young or old, stupid or cunning, cruel or seemingly benign… they are very sexy men.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t have an agent or a publisher, so far. But the book is still incomplete, and until and unless it is completed I hesitate to go searching. But several of the stories have been published individually. They’ve appeared or are forthcoming in Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, Hobart, Verity La, Out of Print, Pure Slush, The Moth, Bengal Lights, Elle, Monkeybicycle, Erotique, Rose Red Review and the anthology Baker’s Dozen. One of them received an Elle Fiction Award from Elle Magazine (India) in 2012, another was a winner in this year’s Best of the Net anthology and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Most of the stories were written in about ten months, and what followed has been a fallow period of almost a year. There are only a few stories left that I want to write, but it’s impossible to say when or if that will happen. Also, my own understanding of what I want the book to be is evolving. I’ve already removed several stories from the manuscript, for example. Narrative and emotional cohesion matter to me when putting together a collection, something I’ve done only twice in the past, with a chapbook and a full-length book of poetry. The pieces must feel like they belong together, and add up to more than the sum of their parts.

What other books would you compare yours to within your genre?

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek for three reasons: its women-centricness is close to mine, its Spanglish inspired my Tanglish, and I love the easy mix of flash fiction and short stories, which The High Priestess Never Marries also has. Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, because those stories deal explicitly with that mixture of toughness and tenderness that independent, but empathic, women have. Gitanjali Kolanad’s very under-rated and graceful Sleeping With Movie Stars, which like my book is set primarily in Madras and also deals with love and lust as morally ambiguous articles. I didn’t think Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her quite fulfilled the premise he put forth in the media about the book – regarding a self-reflective masculinity and accountability in love – but the impetus is not dissimilar from my stories.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Right now, I am at a philosophical crossroads. For most of my life, I really did believe that a complicated woman could not have an uncomplicated love life. I don’t feel that way anymore. I started out writing this book as a way to broach and explore questions about choice, ambiguity and consequence – but as the answers started to come, the easy-breezy, bindaas agency of my protagonists started to look far less easy and far less like agency. I’m working now from a space of doubt, not from a space of deceptively balanced equivocality. So here’s what I have to find a way of reconciling now, and it’s important to me to be able to do so, because I do not wish to write in the absence of integrity, if not clarity: what if the high priestess archetype is also only a reactionary paradigm, or if that model is in fact a way of perpetuating a system by creating a space for exclusion within it? And what if the high priestess wants to marry? Is she then not who she thought she was, or had she only always been limited by the notion?

TOI iDiva: UnValentine’s Day

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Wandering through Wonderland, the intrepid young Alice encounters a hubristic Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, wearing a beautiful cravat. The cravat, as it turns out, was an unbirthday present. An unbirthday, he explains, is every one of those other 364 days in a year on which one might also receive gifts. It is, as he says, “a knock-down argument”: by celebrating unbirthdays she can avoid getting terribly hung up on that one day, that albatross, the birthday.

Yes, we all know what Humpty Dumpty’s fate is. He, like some of us, will never get put back together again (although lots of men, and maybe some horse-like satyrs, will try). I know Valentine’s Day can be very hard for some people. Seeing as it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore it even here in Chennai, there seem to be two ways to deal: be Anti-Valentine’s, or be UnValentine’s.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to waste a fortnight, spending thirteen days feeling edgy (and not in a fashionista kind of way) in anticipation of the one that will make you bristly or downright miserable (add a margin for heartsick hungover-ness). To be UnValentine’s is to spend 365 (it’s a leap year!) eating chocolates.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to say you don’t care when you really, really do. To be UnValentine’s is to care – about yourself and how you deserve to be treated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to secretly buy expensive lingerie just in case someone notices you in your glorious misery and gives you some mercy luck. To be UnValentine’s is to hopefully get laid more than once annually.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to be discouraging of insipidly meaningless extravagance. To be UnValentine’s is to be encouraging of profoundly meaningful extravagance.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to obsessively analyse information on your exes to work out how they’re spending mid-February, and with whom. To be UnValentine’s is to already have them blocked on all your feeds, because there is no day, ever, when unsolicited news of them is welcome to upset you.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks to be alone. To be UnValentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to go on a date ironically. To be UnValentine’s is to not have to call it a date in order to feel validated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to begrudge your coupled friends their coupledness. To be UnValentine’s is to not stoop to entertaining the regrettable idea of coupling with your friends just because they’re around.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to observe Single Awareness Day (SAD). Because, you know, one is so critically unaware of one’s singledom otherwise. To be UnValentine’s is to know one’s loneliness but not be distinguished by it.

In South Korea, Black Day is observed on April 14, eating black noodles and commiserating about being single. In Chennai, this particular UnValentine’s Day happens to once again be a public holiday. You can eat black noodles if you like, but you’ll have to share it with your relatives (how’s that for misery?).

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to Valentine’s what militant atheism is to organized religion. Don’t shake your fist at something that doesn’t exist. To be UnValentine’s is to be a believer: in yourself, and your right to red roses, right-hand rings, assorted ridiculousness and loyally royal treatment. Any day you damn well please.

(“It’s a knock-down argument”.)

Here’s the truth: I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day. I have no idea what it means to be wined and dined and defined by one person’s attention on one particular day. What I would miss on that day I might miss on any other day of the year – and so, what I could celebrate on that day, I could celebrate on any other day of the year as well.

Romance is sweet. Revenge is sweeter. But nothing is as sweet as self-respect.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

Book Review: The Cousins by Prema Raghunath

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Marriage, as an institution and an instrument of hegemony, can only delineate desire. It cannot expunge it. In a post-feminist world, and we cannot overestimate the role of feminism here, it is an institution confronted with either a complete collapse or a deliberate and measured dismantling and refashioning. To live, love, court and couple in such a time is often bewildering, but not so bewildering that the contrasting lack of agency of only a few decades or generations ago has vanished out of sight. The characters of Prema Raghunath’s The Cousins exist in a space of arranged marriages and filial duty, the norms and expectations of their early 20th century upper caste Tamil milieu determining the courses of their lives. They do not have agency as we now assume it. They do, of course, have desire and personal volition – and by extension, must endure consequences and repercussions both of their own making and because of the inextricability of questions of public morality, custodianship and duty from their own choices and the choices made on their behalves.

The book’s titular cousins, Goutami and Krishnanand, spend their entire lives as ships passing in the night. Goutami is the product of an unhappy childhood – she loses her mother as a toddler, loses her sister as a teenager and is raised as little more than a servant maid by her aunt. Krishnanand is the archetypal playboy – he deflowers his female cousins in the days before their weddings, is above reproach on account of his superior charm and the fact of his gender, and squanders opportunities at home and abroad in carefree sprees. She falls in love with him while still little more than a child, her older brother Achyutan (who loses himself in drink and mourning) discourages the match, and Goutami is married off to the dependable and conscientious Seshadri. Krishnanand also marries briefly, to a haughty woman who essentially puts him in his place and leaves him repentant in a number of ways.

Goutami and Krishnanand share only one kiss, that too in their youth, and remain consumed by longing well into old age. Their paths cross often, and sometimes improbably, such as in a distant Himalayan town where both Seshadri and Krishnanand are coincidentally posted. Goutami is unfaithful to her husband, a matter which both her own father and Seshadri himself handle with little emotion. “You were a bad girl,” says her father to her, many years after an affair, as though this is how a woman’s infidelity has ever been dealt with. Oddly enough, Raghunath’s curious and somewhat unrealistic handling of the nature of desire and its corollaries is the one thing that ultimately makes the book interesting. Unsatisfied by the way this novel explores love, commitment and sexuality, one is left pondering the question of articulation – how did people in less permissive eras express desire? The concept of sin intrinsically lends itself to binaries; how were liminal spaces negotiated? In what ways is our understanding of romance in generations past coloured by our own misperceptions?

The Cousins’ chief problem is in its structure: it shifts constantly between speakers when it could just as easily and probably far more successfully have been told in a single narrative voice.  One moment Goutami is speaking to her granddaughters, relating the story of her life. In the next, Achyutan reflects on how many people’s ashes in urns he has set into rivers. If the star-crossed love between the cousins is the fulcrum on which the novel pivots, this is certainly lost in the cacophony. Instead, all sympathy goes toward an unlikely hero: Seshadri. That he stays by his wife despite her straying is irrelevant, because loyalty is a far more complex subject than this novel chooses to grapple with. What makes him likable is that he chooses to educate his daughters, first defers the default option of marrying them off and then allows them to marry to their own liking, and even arranges at one point for Goutami to spend time living and working in England while he remains in India. He emerges as far more progressive in his thinking and actions than the self-involved and fairly insipid duo the novel is ostensibly about. In contrast, it’s difficult to feel much for Krishnanand and Goutami, who have no qualms about running roughshod over other people in general but lack the courage to find a way to be together.

It’s not clear what Raghunath attempts with this novel: to tell a love story, to present a portrait of a bygone era, or to explore the ambiguities of lived experience. In the first two regards it does not fare well. In the last, however, it does in some way inspire thoughts and questions. An otherwise completely mediocre work, The Cousins is salvaged, ironically, by the fact it does not satisfy, and in doing so prompts the reader to turn those questions elsewhere: to the self, to other people, and to better-written books.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

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: The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day

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I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day in my life. Don’t ask me why. But considering the popularity of armchair activism in Tamil Nadu lately (yoo-hoo, bona fide Sri Lankan Tamil here, and yes I am talking to You), I’m sure I’m perfectly qualified to proselytize on the subject.

Presenting then, The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day. Because face it – with the torch song graveyard that is your iTunes playlist, no one believes you when you claim to be a cynical misanthrope. Here’s a much more believable list of excuses to justify your chronic inability to get laid.

1. The heart transplant wait list – Want to simultaneously give someone the shivers and get them off your case? Offering them an intense look as you take their hand and whisper, “Thank you for the chocolate heart. May I have your real one now? As in, the organ pumping blood. I want to be around for the next season of Lost and really kind of need it,” should do the trick.

2. Women’s rights – I’ll confess I didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day for a few years running because I was celebrating V-Day, aka Vagina Day, the international campaign to end violence against women. The revolution was my boyfriend (I’ve still got that on a tee shirt). I was simply too busy sending e-cards with visuals of suggestive open fruit and forwards about reclaiming the word cunt to do mushy things with the real one. This probably explains why I find supermarkets so very sexy.

3. Alphabetical objection – Alternately, claim to have a serious issue with the letter V itself. Why does it come before the letter W, which is a double V and therefore twice as cool? Spend the day coming up with a complex theory, invoking words like “semantics”, “hegemony” and “dialectics” as many times as you can. Avoid words like “verisimilitude” and “Voltaire” as far as possible. Then, in the grand tradition of Valentine’s lone rangers, blog it for the miserable masses. If all goes well, by next year, you could even have a chat date with someone you’ve never met in your life (unless Orkut counts as life).

4. Penance – Get by on your glory days. Say you celebrated twice last year, in two different time zones (if you can pull it off, slip in a mention of joining the mile-high club). And that in the interest of fairness, you felt a bit of restraint might be in order this year. You’re planning on celebrating your birthday twice, anyway.

5. Adventures in internationalism – In South Korea, Black Day is celebrated on April 14. Singles go out to eat black noodles and commiserate over their lonely hearts. Tell your friends that in the interest of expanding your cultural perspectives and your palate, you’re going to do this the fully traditional way, and earn your right to be utterly miserable on Tamil New Year.

6. Anatomical accuracy – As someone on a quest for truth and enlightenment, you are shocked by the simplified heart symbol that has come to stand for that most noble of causes, love. Express your disdain by going “visceral realist” (thereby squeezing in a reference to Roberto Bolaño that’ll be sure to impress literary types like, umm, yours truly). Just be sure that any anatomically accurate tattoos you might get aren’t of your heart. We both know that’s really made of marshmallow.

If all else fails, remember: you can still stay at home with your torch songs and a bottle of Shiv Sena-sanctioned non-alcoholic wine. It’s only for a day, anyway. As gastroenterologists say, this too shall pass.

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: In The Mood For Nostalgia

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I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.

It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.

When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.

Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930’s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.

I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.

We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.

Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Poem: Mamihlapinatapai

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Mamihlapinatapai

Yahgun (Tierra del Fuego): a look shared by two people, each of whom wish the other would initiate that which they both desire, but which neither one wants to concede.

The saddest word in the world
has a piñata nestled
within it. You will never
know the richness of
your own heart until
you have held it high
above the totem
of your body and
blessed its
rupture.