Tag Archives: solitude

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Crown Shyness

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You lay on your back on the leaf-layered earth and see the sky rivered blue between patchworks of green. Crown shyness: the reluctance of certain species of trees to touch at their heights, so the canopy is a really a configuration of boundaries. The limit at which something is withheld. We don’t know why those trees do it any more than we know why we behave in our own mysterious ways, at odds with our natures. What’s the worst thing that can happen if your fronds or your fingers linked? What abrasion could be so injurious that what you will lose in the wind anyway cannot be risked? What larvae more fearsome than the way regret eats at you from the inside?

It is not difficult to go so long, crown-shy, tracing but not trespassing borders. It is more difficult by far to begin to make the reach again, to remember how to unfurl into a close but forbidden expanse.

There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened for you in so long,” she says. “And that is because you have forgotten how to want it in a way that forgets all else but the wanting.”

Forgets self-preservation. Forgets uprooting and decay. Forgets the sky itself.

Somewhere, on a farther continent, is a wolf tree, disorderly in its bearing, thriving on too much sunlight and too much space. The wolf tree is the one that was the last one standing, the one left for pity or prettiness while around it axes made way for pastoral land, the one that survived fire or pestilence. Without restriction, its branches shoot forward, devouring all available nutrients: light, moisture, soil, air. It is no longer necessary to reach only toward the sky, hemmed in by the needs of other foliage. So it throws its wooden limbs forth like some form of medieval punishment, protuberant boughs in too many directions at once. They grow horizontally, low on the ground, forking like snake-tongues or strikes of lightning, which have splintered it often. Its crown too is wide, ever-increasing – and un-neighboured, never-encroaching.

A century can pass. Around it, fresh verdure finds cultivation, flourishing just beyond its shade. And then the wolf tree begins to recede – no longer as abundantly nourished, a plethora of resources at its personal disposal. It does not die, but looks like it will, or – if a being as venerable as a tree can be assigned so shamefully human a trait – that it wants to. It isn’t so easy now, to be so crowded in, to be so damn obvious a testament to having withstood the damage of many seasons of solitude. Gnarled into glory. What can anything be, anew, having already been the only thing it will be known or remembered to ever have been?

“There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened for me in so long,” you say. “And that will not be explained by these metaphors, or by your idea that you can explain it.” You let the shadows envelope you. You know it’s not clear from the outside what has happened: if many crowns have collided, or if only a single canopy blots out the sun.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 31st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Love, Freedom, Solitude & Consequence

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When negotiating the delicate balance between aloneness and isolation, these lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Vinegar and Oil” waft back to me – “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it. // How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” There are ways to reject the institution of marriage without having to deny the emotional impact of giving up social legitimacy, protection and – indeed – companionship. That’s the reason why my new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, is subtitled as follows: Stories of Love and Consequence.

There are consequences to loving, there are consequences to pretending to be in love, there are consequences to leaving, there are consequences to pretending to not want love. No matter who you are, you must negotiate these.

These are the consequences that the intelligent, and often very brave, women in my book of stories confront. They are women who, if you asked them, would say “bachelorette” is an andro-centric diminutive; reclaiming “spinster” is a stronger statement. They are widows. They are adulterers. They are lovers, they are losers, they are leavers, they are seekers.

The institution of marriage is profoundly problematic, deeply patriarchal in nature. To be a feminist is to necessarily challenge it. In India, for instance, we know that statistically speaking, women are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate (participation stands at just 27%, even compared to 37% a decade ago) – which means that a woman’s passions and ambitions, no matter her achievements or education level, are simply sublimated into the system. We know that only 5% of marriages are inter-caste, which means that even in so-called “love marriages”, the fundamental function of the institution as a means to perpetuate hierarchical systems remains virtually intact. We know that marital rape is not recognised by law, incontrovertible proof of the idea that a woman, and by extension her body, become the property of the household into which she marries. These are not uniquely Indian problems. It is not a coincidence that the English word “husband” is of agricultural origin: a wife was among the possessions he managed on his property.

It must be possible to challenge the system from within it, and some of the characters in my book try to, through transgressions and interrogations. But to not be within it affords its own agency, even as it strips a woman of privileges as varied as not being regarded as morally bankrupt to the literal, physical security of a companion to walk dark streets with (a companion who, if questioned by the equally patriarchal law enforcement system, can validate the relationship where a woman’s word alone has no currency). And it’s those women – the loners and non-conformists, who largely fill the pages of this book.

Autonomy may be stained with fear, but it is pervaded by freedom. It is in this freedom that the characters in The High Priestess Never Marries play, pray, push the envelope and prise their own hearts open continuously. They dive into the myths. They trek into the mountains. They dip their paintbrushes into the palettes of their lives. They serve their hearts on a platter, seasoned to perfection. They weep into the sea. They have lovers’ tiffs with the moon. They copulate with trees and devote themselves to deities. They keep very still. They sing. They sigh. They say No, they say Never, they say Not Now – they say Yes Yes Yes O Yes.

They fall. But how they fly.

(An edited version appeared on Bonobology.com)

The Venus Flytrap: Year Of The Aranya Kandam

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Some of my friends tell me they have had a year from hell, but I know that what I endured was a year in purgatory. Purgatory because of its impermanence, its seemingly endless yet certainly finite suspension. Purgatory that may or may not be connected to the word “purge” – the ridding of the self of toxicity, the negative; cleansing, absolution. Purgatory, above all else, because I was not condemned. I asked for the descent.

Mythology and Jungian psychology teach us how the descent is a rite of initiation, a necessary and transformative undertaking that one can either resist or rise to. Because its timing is so often arbitrary, the last vestige of control remains in accepting it as adventure. Like the Fool, the first card of the tarot arcana, one volunteers for the exploration – or as I think of it, the excavation. Like Sita setting forth into the forest, the beginning of multiple exiles, kidnapping and banishment, one receives the fall from grace as grace itself. We enter the forest, the desert, the underworld heroically. These are not necessarily physical landscapes, but archetypal ones, metaphorical topography. Bewilderment – becoming the wilderness itself.

Like Ishtar arriving at the gates of the underworld, I screamed my madness at the gatekeeper and demanded entrance – If thou openest not the gate to let me enter/ I will break the door, I will wrench the lock/ I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors/I will bring up the dead to eat the living/And the dead will outnumber the living – and how I was given it, stripped of every ornament, stripped of pomp and circumstance, lowered through each subsequent level, until I stood buck naked before my shadow twin, chastised and begging for rescue.

Nothing prepared me.

She who enters the forest like a queen leaves it like a commoner. She who enters the desert like a fugitive leaves it like a free woman. She who enters the underworld like a dying thing leaves it resurrected. Purgatory changes you. It challenges you, shatters the boundaries of your being, breaks your heart to make more room, pares your body to take less space. It makes a pilgrim of you, and if you’re lucky – if the rules of mythology apply to you, and I find that if you believe in them, they do – it will bring you to deliverance.

This was my year of the Aranya Kandam, and it is in this knowledge that my second book of poetry is ingrained and taking shape. I have spent the year identifying with things I never imagined I could see myself in: the pepper vine laying its heart-like leaves against the bark of better-rooted things, the pining Sita, the wounded and the war-weary. I have spent the year seeking sanctuaries: villages, hill country, communes, the sea, and always, always trees. I have spent the year bringing myself back to life.

Ishtar, finally rescued, ascends through each of the lower realms, reclaiming her lost embellishments – only to find that she is less loved than she had believed. The one who she demanded entry into the underworld for has forgotten this kindness. Sita walks through fire not during exile, but after it. The long wait ends in humiliation, not happiness. Knowing this, can I be blamed if I choose now to linger just a little longer, savouring the petrichor, the silence, the love of the good earth…

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: Sleepless In A City That Never Wakes Up

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To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to bear witness to one’s own insanity. Nothing between midnight and morning but the agitated flutter of the mind, or the pacing of the reprieve-deprived body from window to window, watching how the light changes in each one. The one from which you watch planes taking off, indulging in yourself the envy of the exiled. The one from which sad, ghostless palms flap their leaves in a wind that teases of but never delivers thunder. Even the spirits don’t stay up with you here. And you yourself, sapped and belligerent, are hardly any company.

I stopped being able to sleep properly six weeks ago, upon returning from my most recent hegira. I call them hegiras because that is what they are. I need to escape this city for the sake of my soul. The further behind I leave it, the closer I return to something resembling myself.

What can I tell you about a month and a half of chronic insomnia? I can tell you there is a point you hit where you begin to enjoy it. How nothing stirs but that which stirs within you. The silence. The sadness. The solitude. All the things you must stave off during the day, but can unwrap quietly and feast on at night. I can tell you how you begin to take pleasure in becoming a creature of nocturnal habits. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is not to live a shadow life, but to shine light on the cry of a heart in eclipse.

The night drifts on fitfully, always too fast. You like the faraway first call of the muezzin; maybe it reminds you of a city you loved once, which, for all its faults, didn’t kill half its time in slumber. You like the sounds of the train that cannot be heard in hours of traffic. But with these comes the sunrise, and how it comes – hijacking the night sky with an impatience you recognise in nothing else here but your own wretched longings. You will come to hate it – all it brings is one more day you will lose to this city.

On an average night I wake five or six times. I dream almost every night – in snatches, intensely symbolic dreams that please me more than anything the day brings. I lie awake for hours, sometimes too tired to move. I am in grief. I am in the labyrinth. I never have nightmares, and I suspect my waking life compensates enough for this. I am alive here only when all else sleeps and I, alone, am awake.

The days pass without consequence, but at least the nights are complicated. This is the only way I can live in a city of no rain or redemption. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to be its only sentinel, and to see from that vantage point that there is nothing here to save.

Real cities never sleep, just like the people who don’t belong to the ones that do. The trouble with this city and all cities like it is how pleased it is to remain comatose. How pleased it is to shut it eyes and never dream of more.

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: Hunger

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I recently met with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in a year and a half because we had both left the city in which we’d lived. Prior to his arrival, he got in touch to ask if there was anything I wanted from his part of the world. I didn’t miss a beat. “Guarana berry shampoo,” I said. I didn’t even bother to be polite.

I have a fondness for edible things in my toilette. Between a Swiss vanilla shower gel, grapeseed oil body lotion, green tea scented moisturizer and the old world charm of my rose fragrances (dried petals in sharbat are lovely), I must smell – and taste – like confection. To put it as coyly as possible, you could say I would make a most delicious corpse.

I’ve had my experiments with olive body butter, chocolate lipstick, coffee cologne, goat’s milk soap, almond scrubs and seaweed face masks. I’ve clogged my drains putting raw eggs in my hair. And those are just the docile delicacies. Eventually, I suspect I will graduate to sheep’s placenta for my cheeks and awaiting wrinkles – I’ve already conditioned my hair with rabbit’s blood. Someone remarked that I bathe like a Greek goddess – a vengeful one, I laughed.

Perfumes are pleasant, but the smell of food is provocative, appealing to our base needs and instincts. Be they to eat or to be eaten. I don’t shower, I steep and season. I don’t moisturise, I marinate. Like some fatalistic Gretel in a fairytale gone awry, I prepare my body. I tend to it like the gods who made offspring from their dust.

It has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with pleasure. The pleasure of deep sleep, of a groan or a stretch, of a breath inhaled to fullness. The pleasure of waking before dawn to a blue that percolates into mellow yellow. The pleasure of catching your own eye in the mirror and falling for your own smile. The pleasure of perfect underwear, or none, on a night when I can be a woman with long hair, unbound, listening to Billie Holiday alone. Every road I walk along, I walk along with you. These are pleasures for the solitary ones. The slow burners. These are pleasures best enjoyed in a body seeped in ripe things, pungent.

I bring my braid to my mouth often, my scented wrist to my nose. I touch my bare arms under the canopy of a pashmina wrap, comforted by my own softness. I write poems to the fold at my stomach, such fullness on so small a frame as mine. To take pleasure in one’s own body is to wait without waiting. It’s to own one’s loneliness. To let it drift on its own weight, it’s full-bodied song.

So they’re worth it, all those expensive, imported, indulgent things that treat the body like a bronze doll being scrubbed, the delicate rounding of the cambers of her limbs with ash and coconut oil. Or rather, like the hours salivating at the oven over the centerpiece at a table; kneading, steaming, tasting, hoping. The rites of adornment. The gluttonous anticipation and sensuality of preparation, and then of waiting to feast. Or be feasted on.

Be slow to submit to devouring. Light every candle first. Sprinkle salt into the bath to sap away draining energy. Dress to undress, and then dress again. Get ready as though every act, every lifting of jewel to ear and tint to lip, is a bead in a rosary to the self.

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.