Tag Archives: spirituality

The Venus Flytrap: Reconciling Spirituality & Resistance

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Last week, a possibly well-intended but definitely poorly-executed infographic made the rounds, with a pair of lists intended to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva, the fundamentalist strain of the former. The infographic relied heavily on scripture and comparison, and erased completely the existence of oppressions of caste, gender and other divisions. As someone with a spiritual life, elements of which draw from practices which fall under the umbrella of Hinduism, I was appalled by its lack of political consciousness. I am not being purposely vague in my self-description. My phrasing is meant to register my opposition to many structural and practical aspects of organised religion, my discomfort in identifying myself with one, as well as the syncretism of my beliefs – while still acknowledging this part of who I am and what influences it.

This is a necessary self-reckoning for people of all spiritual inclinations and religious backgrounds. When fundamentalisms arise, responding by attempting to a-historically defend religions is not only insufficient but dangerous. When we do this, we participate in creating the veneer of gentility that allows for injustice and violence to occur and be swept under the carpet when it does.

I have only respect for those who find that the most effective way is to throw the bhakti out with the bhakts’ bathwater, as many distinguished sociopolitical thinkers have done. I can also extend my understanding to those who, unable to counter the sophistication of critical theory with a sound articulation of why they feel as they do, think that aligning with orthodoxy is the only way to retain the solace they receive from what is ultimately a deeply private engagement. They feel that they have no choice but to side with factions which, while possibly structurally oppressing them, will not overtly shame them (this is done covertly, by fostering insecurity and an inferiority complex). Both these sets of believers will disagree with me, but I do not see them as binaries and neither do I see myself as being in the middle.

I am speaking to – but not for – those who also belong to neither set, but who believe that a vital public rendition of one’s sacred self demands standing up against inequality, challenging systemic persecution and resisting tyranny. By its nature, this cannot be consolidated into a movement, but can interweave with the good work already being done.

It is not by defending religion that we absolve ourselves, but in practising a deeper enquiry into where our beliefs, practices and the world intersect. We must look at the true guiding principles of our private faiths, and see how perfectly tenets like compassion and integrity match with tenets like secularism and justice. This is far from an easy process, and has costs including losing personally meaningful guides who espouse bigotry.

I learned that if there is no room for my sexuality, my politics or my love for the environment within an available framework, I must make my own. And we each should. Our very own, deeply personal ones, which do not seek to evangelise, but which allow us to move through the world ethically and with grace – in all senses of the word.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

~ THE AMMUCHI PUCHI ~

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the-ammuchi-puchi

When Anjali and I were really little, we were sort of afraid of our grandmother, Ammuchi…

Aditya and Anjali love listening to their grandmother’s stories, particularly the scary one about the ghost in the tree. But the night their grandmother passes away, all her stories seem to lose their meaning. Then something happens that is more mysterious and magical than any story. Could their grandmother still be with them after all? A poignant and moving story about bereavement and healing, stunningly illustrated and told in gorgeous poetic prose.

 

Selected reviews & interviews

‘Sharanya Manivannan’s beautiful story will help sensitive children from the world over make friends with loss, and Nerina Canzi’s colour-drenched, jewel-like illustrations bring this tale of grandmothers, families and a very special butterfly to radiant life. The Ammuchi Puchi will take children, and adults, of all ages, on an unforgettable, sweet-sad journey from grey back into a world of glorious colour.’ – Nilanjana Roy, award-winning author of The Wildings

‘Stunning, vibrant illustrations bring this book to life… Not only is this a poignant story, handling the issue of bereavement with tact and understanding, it also shows children that grief is a universal emotion, shared by all cultures and peoples. Simply beautiful!’ – North Somerset Teachers’ Book Awards blog

‘This is just a beautiful book, about love and loss and magic and subjective truth, the hugest of subjects delicately handled for the smallest of people.’ – Preeta Samarasan, award-winning author of Evening is the Whole Day

‘I was genuinely very emotional by the end of this book. I loved these children and their grandmother so much, it’s a very important relationship exemplified with emotion and heart…. The story itself is artfully done, we learn about a strong, sparky, joyful and creative female role model in Ammuchi, who adores her grandchildren, inspires them and ignites their imaginations! … A traditional story feel, bursting with bright colours and emotion set to the backdrop of beautiful India. One for every bookshelf and library.’ – Alexis Filby, Book Monsters

‘The essence of Ammuchi Puchi is of universal appeal and relevance. It’s a beautiful picture book, both for sharing and, with its satisfyingly substantial text, for an older child to read alone. It is a moving, thought-provoking story that doesn’t offer any answers, but only asks of its readers that they have an open mind – and is all the richer because of it.’ – Marjorie CoughlanWindows, Mirrors, Doors

On Magical Butterflies And The Special Love Of Grandmothers” – Interview on the Lantana Publishing blog

 

Purchase online

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The Ammuchi Puchi ~ written by Sharanya Manivannan and illustrated by Nerina Canzi ~ Lantana Publishing, UK, October 2016

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The Venus Flytrap: “Girl Power” Meets The Goddess

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A few months ago, at a foreign event promoting a book of writing by Indian women, an audience member posed a question about what they saw as the paradox of the mistreatment of women vs. how “everyone in India worships goddesses”. The question perturbed me, most immediately of all because each of us onstage was of a different faith background (the inquirer’s assumption only addressed mine). So I said as much – that the misconception that all Indians are Hindus is dangerous to begin with.

But the question was also disturbing because its reductiveness was familiar: we hear those statements in India too. Navaratri is an interesting time to ponder this. On the one hand we witness faith as lived expression, and on the other hand, for example, there’s the way brands “modernise” goddesses on social media. (Well, considering it’s Navaratri, perhaps there should be a few more arms and hands in this, but let’s get to those later.) Many attempts to contemporise fail to capture something vital: that the power of the Goddess is ancient, not modern. She exists, as all who actually know her know, beyond linear time.

So what does some cute graphic putting her in a pantsuit and a smart caption about how badass she is really do? Does it blur the distance between pedestal and mortal circumstance, or reinforce it using superficial symbols? There’s subversive and then there’s simplistic. The girl power-meets-goddess figure rhetoric is just as empty as any other get-clicks-quick scheme.

All major religions today need feminist reform movements. Hinduism’s faces a trick door: unlike other major religions, it already has principal feminine icons. The challenge then is not to excavate the buried feminine, as it is in Christianity for example, but to raise questions about the patriarchal co-opting of the same.

“We worship goddesses and beat our wives” is the most tired, most falsely equivalent condemnation there is, and ties in far too closely with another problematic proclamation: “Don’t treat her badly because she embodies the goddess”. Does she? What if she doesn’t want to? What if she’s neither interested in being your sister nor your idol? And if the average abuser doesn’t connect the abstract feminine with the actual woman, is it fair to expect that his philosophy be so literal? Have we actually considered what his philosophy may teach, instead of merely aggrandising its symbols?

It’s not goddess imagery that needs revamping, but our relationship with religion. For many people, the more their ethical compass develops, the more they will veer away from religion altogether. For those who find themselves still drawn to spirituality, a more deeply interconnected matrix is needed: one that brings together creativity, sexuality, the intellect, politics, ritual practice and the intangible.

This means interrogating what the highly subjective endeavour of “worship” means, studying scriptures, reinventing liturgies (like wedding chants, for example), challenging taboos and more. And for Indian feminists of most faith persuasions, the effort collapses completely if the end of caste is not also a leading principle. It has to be holistic. All in all, feminist spirituality is pretty demanding – but believers already know that the love of God always is.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 6th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Old Gods And New Ones

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I’m often asked how I reconcile my irreverent delight in multiple mythologies with my, well, devotion. How can I say that Rama is a terrible husband, but still murmur a couplet from the Vishnu Sahasranamam to soothe my weary nerves? How can I light candles in churches, wishfully say “Inshallah” and also chant in Sanskrit? The answer is that I see story, history and spirit as distinct threads. Braided together, they make an ethos, one way to absorb and encounter. To be a human reaching for the divine is to have the humility to know that only by holding those threads as distinct in the mind can the braid then be experienced in polyphonic fullness, through the heart.

We have the capacity to accommodate variations, unpredictability and what might appear to be inconsistencies. In forests, I rustle with the thought of the Rig-Vedic Aranyani; pining, I reach for the Inuit Sedna: when I sense the feline mystique, I remember the Egyptian lioness Sekhmet. If a story soothes my heart, is it not a prayer too?

New deities are constantly being made, just as old ones are being retired (have you read American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s unputdownable novel about what happened to the figures of European folk religions, gradually forgotten by migrants to North America?). It’s fascinating how, on a national stage, the latest expression of patriotism is to pledge allegiance to one such new deity, an artistic creation of late 19th century Bengal.

So Bharat Mata’s official temple, which contains not an idol but a map of India, is one kind of religious expansion. There are of course shrines to film stars and politicians, replete with garlands and aartis. There are also those which emerge from organic impulses, rooted in faith and incident, such as two dog temples in Karnataka built in 2008 and 2009, respectively – in Channapatna, the canine is worshipped as an animal familiar of the village goddess; in Ranebennur is a temple to a pet that’s said to have miraculous posthumous powers.  The Bullet Banna temple in Rajasthan, which sprang up in 1988, has an interesting origin: a rider was killed one night, and no matter how many times the police took his bike to the station, it kept mysteriously reappearing at the site of the accident. The idol in the shrine is the bike itself.

In the 1970s, a Hindi film called Jai Santoshi Ma popularised a new myth about a daughter of Ganesha. Until the film’s popularity had women all over the country undertaking new fasting rituals, the spot of what became the “ancient” Santoshi Ma temple in Jodhpur had been a shrine to the folk deity Lal Sagar ki Mata. Presiding deities are replaced, subsumed, emerge elsewhere, become obsolete, turn into cult figures. This happens both naturally and through imposition.

Spiritual practice is not monolithic – as lived belief, it is constantly enriched and complicated by many sources. It is porous, subjective, disorganised. When we streamline it, let be strictly defined, and – most importantly – limit the rights of others to pursue it in their personal ways, we lose more than just entwined stories and manifold possibilities. We lose spirit itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

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In June of 2008, when Barack Obama was still a presidential hopeful, TIME Magazine published a photograph in which, palm over palm, the candidate held a mélange of metal trinkets. The magazine called them his “lucky charms”, and they included an open bangle that had belonged to a US soldier in Iraq, an icon of the Madonna and child, and a tiny statuette of Hanuman.

            As his two-term tenure as President of the United States comes to end, Obama emptied out his pockets again for a special interview on Youtube. As was widely reported in the Indian press, the monkey god figurine is one he still carries everywhere. I remembered this from 2008; that had been the year that Hanuman had become a vivid presence in my own life, and indeed was the emissary through whom I befriended my muse of many years, Sita. But the tone of the recent coverage bothered me.

            These are the talismans that Obama chose to display during that video interview: a gift of rosary beads from Pope Francis, with a pendant of Christ on the cross; a shiny poker chip that a burly biker gave him while he was on the campaign trail prior to his first election; an Ethiopian Coptic cross, origin mysterious; a Buddha statuette, a monk’s present; and, of course, the Hanuman, given to him by ‘a woman’.

            Taken together, these amulets are a handful of syncretism. Gifts given to a leader as totems perhaps of blessing and protection but more importantly, of responsibility. He carries them on his person the way auto-drivers paste Ganesha-Jesus-mosque stickers on their front windows or on their handlebar cabins. One trinket on its own would only be a personal fetish, but a collection amounts to much more, symbolically and otherwise. And in the current national climate, there’s something just a little saddening about the media focus on that Hanuman statuette. The Buddha too, lest we forget, is just as Indian in origin. Those rosary beads are a part of the worship of millions of citizens. And what, since we’re jousting, could be more secular than a poker chip, representative of the gamble each of us takes on life, every single day?

            Obama may or may not attach spiritual significance to the talismans he carries – and it is his prerogative to discuss this or not. But what he certainly shares openly is that each of these objects was given to him by a specific person – a pope, a monk, an undescribed woman – and reaching for them reminds him of his commitment to people. How successful he has been at this commitment and whether he has acted on it meaningfully in his time in power is a matter of argument. But the least there is to learn here is that one must believe one can do more than try. And when we seek to touch the divine, by any name we call it, let us not overlook that among its marvellous, and certainly, imitable qualities is the one known (not without basis) as ‘humanity’.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

kaliflower

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India by Swati Chopra

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In traditional Hindu dharma, the seeker on the spiritual path – provided he is a man – has a clearly delineated chronological paradigm: he is an unmarried youth, a householder, a retiree in contemplation of hermitude, and finally, a renunciate. These stages of life, while restricted to those willing to fulfill their worldly duties before pursuing their inner calling, allow a space for devotion within the scope of society and even civilization. For the female seeker, however, no such prescribed model exists. Swati Chopra’s Women Awakened Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India takes as its catalyst the practical difficulties of being female and spiritually predisposed within a patriarchal framework.

By interviewing or studying eight women who chose (or were chosen for, as it were) the ascetic life, Chopra explores the fundamentally transgressive stance that is the choice to break away from the designations and limitations of gender in the quest for God, presenting questions about threats to security along the mendicant path, rebellion against family, celibacy versus partnership, biological motherhood as opposed to “universal motherhood”, the place of femininity and emotionality, and being taken seriously once having entered the fold.

Most of these questions remain largely rhetorical. While the book begins on a peaceful, open note, as it progresses little emerges that is challenging or thought-provoking, and though each individual encountered is distinct in her own right, some chapters seem almost no different from others. The eight women mystics and seekers who are either personally interviewed, or whose work is discussed via their disciples are: Sri Anandamayi Ma, Sri Sarada Devi, Mata Nirmala Devi, Nani Ma, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Mata Amritanandamayi, Ven. Khandro Rinpoche and Sadhvi Bhagwati. Although each of them has a journey worth learning from, or at least investigating, and weighty questions are put forward in all cases, one comes away with very little illumination. Even figures as extraordinarily enigmatic as Anandamayi Ma, or as much of a contemporary phenomenon as Mata Amritanandamayi (better known as Amma, the hugging saint) are inadequately considered: neither the nature of their appeal nor the intensity of their own encounters with the divine are conveyed memorably.

There are large gaps in inquiry – six of the women seekers, including two who are foreigners by birth (Nani Ma and Sadhvi Bhagwati), are essentially rooted within the Hindu religion, though they may follow or have originated guru-centric cults. Only the book’s last two chapters, which also happen to be its most comprehensive and insightful, are interviews with two Buddhist nuns, one of British origin and the other a Tibetan of a yogic lineage. But the lack of diversity otherwise is striking, considering the many narratives from other faiths that Chopra could also have included – in syncretic India, surely it would not have been impossible to find a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Jain perspective, and these are only taking into account major traditions.

It’s also particularly interesting that the question of women’s roles within the scriptures is grappled with only in the chapters relating to Buddhism, where questions about the Buddha’s alleged misgivings about opening the sangha to female novitiates as well as the problem of a prayer in which one asks to not be given rebirth as a woman (because only men can achieve enlightenment) are posed to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Ven. Khandro Rinpoche. The texts of the Hindu religion, the focus of the remaining chapters, are not taken to task for the misogyny and other inequalities within them. Chopra’s rather beautiful evocation of the Devi Mahatmyam, though relevant and inspiring, presents only one perspective of the role of the female – divine and otherwise – in theological literature.

To the author’s credit, she maintains a very neutral tone throughout the book, almost as if her own narration is only incidental, and not integral to the heart of the matter at hand. Only once is a significant personal involvement encountered: when she attempts an Internet exercise proscribed by Mata Nirmala Devi and is unmoved by it, but by itself the episode says very little. While the lack of subjectivity, which could easily have manifested in proselytizing or argument, is refreshing, it also eventually becomes somewhat unexciting. Spiritual experience is profound in both its ecstasies and in the wretchedness of its longing – as the passionate Sri Ramakrishna, who emerges ironically as the bedrock of the chapter ostensibly about his partner, Sri Sarada Devi, illustrated. A little more sharing about Chopra’s own spiritual quest – as Carol Lee Flinders’ At The Root of This Longing: Reconciling A Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, Margaret Starbird’s The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine or any of the numerous books of the past few decades that have explored a women-centric faith have done – could have enriched it by a great deal. Religion is structural, but spirituality is personal and individual. This is the book’s core message, but lost in its own telling.

 An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Writ At My Wrist

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Nobody goes to the Kashmiri shops. Not unless one is a tourist, in a rush to find a present, or a girl who can’t find her house key in her handbag, and decides to wander the labyrinthine corridors of Spencer’s Plaza for the hours it will take before someone else can open the door.

The trinkets I wear are all bought in cheaper places. Still, what else was there to do? I was reading Deborah Baker’s The Blue Hand that day, a marvelous imagining of Ginsberg and the Beats in India, and thinking back to a time when this country had also hovered over me “like a necessary light”, a stormy eight months spent in the bowels of Sowcarpet, a Chennai first punctuated by Spencer’s and Moore Market and an outrageous journey to Calcutta – a nostalgic’s Madras, I know now – and then punctured entirely of its charm over me. I was 19 and tempestuous to the point of being almost feral. I left, then returned. It has been exactly three years since moving here properly (and I almost say, with bitterness, permanently), and I can scarcely believe that this is the same life, that I am the same person.

So I meandered through Spencer’s, a woman long free of enchantment, missing a time when the fire in my own belly was my only guiding light, before even the hunger to own a beautiful thing became tainted with a cynic’s restraint. I looked at things I had no intention of buying. And then I stepped into one shop and asked, for no real reason, to see their silver bangles.

Rummaging idly through the large plastic container set before me, what caught my eye was a particular piece, simple but strangely alluring, that was outside on the glass counter, being put away by the storekeeper. I asked for it and put it on. It was perfectly my size.

“Oh that’s just metal, not silver” said Feroze, the storekeeper. “Are you sure you want it?”

“Yes. How much is it?”

Feroze both frowned and smiled at the same time. “Are you sure?” I insisted I was.

And then he said a very peculiar thing. “That was given to us by a peer, a sadhu baba. He said that one day someone will come for this bangle, it is meant for them, and when they come, to give it to them at no cost.”

I was incredulous. Why would a businessperson give away anything at no cost? “Why did you keep it?”

“Because we believe in destiny.”

“And nobody else wanted it?”

“Nobody else wanted it.”

It had been a very long time since I had truly felt the receptivity that led me to trust what he said next. “It was in your destiny to receive it. If you believe, all things come to you.”

Feroze and I talked for awhile. I listened to him speak without aggrandization about faith, and fate. In his, as with many people from his homeland, was the ordinance to carry precious things to places to which travellers could wander undeterred. In mine, in the cusp between disillusionment and belief, was a single band of dull metal in the shape of an unclosed circle.

I accepted the bangle. Later, at home, I opened my handbag and saw the missing key.

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: Original Instructions

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In the small town of Gudalur, two and a half hours downhill from Ooty, there is a coalition of NGOs that, through serendipitous circumstances and sound intentions, run a school and a hospital for the tribal community. I’m visiting with my friend the American Badaga, tagging along on an Ooty-Gudalur-Coimbatore-Palani-Perumalmalai-Kodaikanal trip completed over just five nights, sleeping in a different place on each one. We’re there to look into alternative education systems; after the tribal school is an international school in the forest. Mostly, though, I’m there on impulse, just to get away.

The week before, I’d attended a lecture in Chennai by Vandana Shiva, the renowned physicist and activist. Dr. Shiva had spoken about the country’s agricultural crisis, encouraging the audience to “violate the contracts” that gave undue power to governments and organizations that contribute to the deterioration of the environment, and to suffering among the poor.

Yet, sitting by a window overlooking the filthy Cooum river later that rainy afternoon, coming down from the high that listening to an inspiring speaker brings, I was saddened to think that the only phrase that still haunted me was something said in passing as Shiva was introduced. Another world is possible. I so much wanted it to be.

It came to me again in Gudalur. I’d never expected that just a few days after the lecture, I would find myself reading on a rock under a tree on the far west of Tamil Nadu, wet earth under my bare feet, adivasi children singing nearby, a cow to my right and a chicken to my left. My troubles very, very far away.

I’m reading Cait Johnson, who posits that spirituality is essentially rooted in the elements, the same notion that had me head for the hills to hide among trees, and attend Shiva’s lecture. Whenever I lose my connection to my elementals, I seek to replenish them in nature. Johnson writes about “Original Instructions” – intuitive knowledge kept alive by people, like the adivasis, whose ways of life honour the sacred interconnectedness of all life.

Watching the good people of Gudalur – the teacher who speaks openly and without prejudice to a classroom about gay and transgender people, the Ayurvedic doctor seeking to both learn from and better equip traditional healers, the professionals who set up the Ashwini Hospital and Vidyodaya School and gradually ensured that autonomy over them returned to the adivasi community – my heart remembers its own Original Instructions.

Watching them, I remember that there are good people in the world, who do good work for its own sake. I had forgotten.

I have been heartsick for what feels like a long time, but isn’t. I have been disillusioned with my own journey. I have wanted to count to one hundred and bow out, like the poetess in Ana Enriqueta Terán’s mysterious poem. What I did because I thought it was in my blood, I’ve watched others do with a bloodthirst I cannot muster. I have felt time and again that I can barely co-exist in a world so cutthroat, let alone compete.

But this is what I know, after Gudalur: another world, in all the many variations Vandana Shiva may or may not have meant, is possible. In fact, it may already exist. All it takes is to get back there.

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.

Mayda del Valle on Grandmothers, Spirituality, and Faith

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Some of you know that I lost my grandmother last October. Fewer of you, I think, know what kind of rocky ride the almost-year since has been. What you’ve probably noticed either way is that I no longer blog unless it’s to archive my journalism work, link to press about me or to poems published, or to publicize my (very few) events. I’m not going to go into my disengagement with the online life any further right now, except to say that today I came across that most rare thing: something that makes me want to blog, that I simply must share.

I’d never heard of Mayda del Valle before, but I won’t forget her name now. Here she is at the White House with a  searingly powerful performance of a poem that made me cry both times I watched it, for reasons too private and too sacred to discuss now.

If you’d like to read the poem, it’s here.

The Venus Flytrap: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Ways of Worship

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It’s 8pm on a full moon night in October and the spray of the huge waves shoots above the barricades and drizzles us from time to time. This is a village on the Balinese coast, a day before the writers’ festival begins. When the sun is out, the sea is postcard-stunning. It looks just like what someone who has never seen the sea might imagine it to be like. At night, it is this: vivid, histrionic.

We’re a table of a dozen, half of whom are too far away to politely shout at over the sound of the waves. We have come from all over the world – one of the coordinators mentions that a writer called in tears from an airport somewhere between here and Mozambique. This is the calm before the storm: by the time the festival starts, 110 writers would have arrived here.

I’m fascinated by the kind-faced educator from New Zealand and the playwright who lived with AIDS orphans in Burundi for a year during the early 90’s. The American who sits down across from me turns out to be John Berendt, the author of the acclaimed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I give him my book. To my surprise, he asks me to sign it for him.

It is the day after the anniversary of the 2002 terrorist attacks on this island, the ones that confounded the world, because who in their right mind would bomb paradise?

We talk about temples. Bali is over 90% Hindu, practicing a highly ritualistic and animistic variant of the religion with a profoundly philosophical bent. The agricultural system, for instance, is based on the notion of “Tri Hita Karana”: the three causes of happiness are good relations with God, other people and the environment. Incidentally, “Tri Hita Karana” is the theme of this year’s festival.

I am menstruating and will not visit the temples: there is nothing taboo about doing so based on what I believe, but I will not violate those of a place I visit. Besides, I know from experience that even the ruins – no, especially the ruins – possess immense power. Last year, at another festival elsewhere in Indonesia, we were reading at the 11th century Borobudur stupa. The vibrant local dance closing the evening came to an abrupt halt – one of the dancers was possessed. She could be heard screaming and crying as she came out of her trance.

Jean Bennett, the educator, speaks of the psychogeography of elevation: you can read the spirituality of any place based on what stands at its highest point. Around the world, there are the pilgrimage points of cathedrals, and then there are those of capitalist gods. We manifest what we worship upon our landscapes.

Driving into Ubud town the next day, where the festival will be, we pass two striking statues. One is of a Durga unlike any I have seen. She looks like a Kwan Yin riding snakes. The other is a dramatic Arjuna standing atop an elephant’s back. Bali is unapologetic about its spirituality. It’s neither a place that trumpets its ways of life militantly, nor does it suppress it under the guise of progress. This is not a place that ever deserved a terrorist attack, let alone two.

The festival is about to start. The literati will descend on Ubud and turn it, for a few days, into an artistic nucleus. I have a new book, a brand new batch of business cards, the validation of being a guest of this prestigious event. I’m a poet in paradise. I cannot wait to see what I will come bearing back to the world.

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