Tag Archives: superstition

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: Old Tricks of the New Age

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“You need to fully inculcate your complete maternal self,” he said, between mouthfuls of a fine continental spread. “You need to nurture and give and embrace your true nature.” He paused, significantly, and swallowed. “This just came to me, a message to help you on this journey: start by buying me breakfast. Providing nourishment will allow you to reconnect with yourself.”

We were at The Park. I could have bought breakfast or I could have posted bail.

Well, I should have known better then than to set up an appointment with a holistic healer whose business card read: “Tarot, Hypnotism, Arts Therapy and African Voodoo”. Now, after a couple of years’ worth of questing and questioning, I do. Self-styled spiritualists of the small-time variety are common, ineffective and quite hilarious. The thing about surviving all of that existential anguish is that you’ll have very few tangible takeaways you can talk about afterwards – except the fun anecdotes you’ve collected from those who claimed to have answers for it.

One of my other favourites was the breathing exercise teacher who took a rather unsavoury interest in my toilet habits. “Did you oil your rectum today?” she asked each time I saw her. Taking my uncomfortable expression to be mere stupidity, she would then proceed to gesticulate, in detail, exactly how I ought to do this. I suppose I ought to be thankful that she didn’t take it upon herself to offer a comprehensive demonstration. I can’t say I felt the same hesitation toward the hot chakra cleanser, though.

Which brings me to: why was I prescribed ashwagandha for my insomnia without being informed that it was also the great Indian aphrodisiac? Between the hours I was keeping and the touted potency of that herb, I could have turned into some rampaging nocturnal succubus.

Which I avoided, I hasten to add, by virtue of developing an intense obsession with transcendental mysticism and the fine sciences of auguring the future through the study of the feng shui of fridge contents and the Facebook newsfeed. In fact, I learned during this period that I am so intensely obsessive because I am a Scorpio Rising, that too born in the anaretic degree. This also makes me vindictive, envious, secretive and paranoid. Now you know why I’m so popular.

All of this came, of course, thanks to my involvement with a self-professed visionary. She interpreted my dreams (“To dream of a cat indicates a craving for cheese”), she analysed my psychosomatic conditions (“A pain in the ass indicates grief over betrayal – or an unoiled rectum”) and ran zodiac compatibility tests on my suitors (“Oh what’s a little BO with such a spectacular Mars-Jupiter trine?”). She was as efficient as predictive text on a cellphone. She was oracle and Oprah combined. It all toppled like a house of archangel cards when, in the process of severing my auric cords to malevolent influences from my past, she accidentally singed my eyebrows. Astrally.

“Shame about the eyebrow – now how will you know where to tap to activate your acupressure points?” she said.

I know. Even excusing a little hyperbole, I should be a hardcore cynic by now. But some people are just incorrigible (like Scorpionic types). I’ve just learned that divinity doesn’t come neatly packaged. Aromatherapy oils, though, still do.

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.

Talismans

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One of the residues of my unfortunate upbringing in one of those disgusting godmen cults is that I place some faith in the idea of the talisman. (Other residues would include wavering agnosticism and intense hatred of said and similar godmen cults.)

It’s something that’s been shown to be at least a serendipitous belief, if not a provable one. Two years ago I endured some impossible trauma in which my life was endangered by a person obsessed with me to the point of losing all she actually loved. The experience destroyed me in ways I have yet to recoup. It was at that point that two talismans entered my life.

What I believe is not in the protection of talismans by themselves, but in their definitive, specific purposes. I believe they enter my life, do the required, and then go away once their power has played its use out. One of the talismans I got at this time was explicitly religious, a pendant of Kali which I attached onto an old necklace of slim beige beads. One night, a few months later, I woke up startled and screaming, and found that the necklace had shattered all over my body. The next morning, my mother called from another country to say that she had woken up in the middle of the previous night seized with the certainty that something terrible had happened to me. We had both been shaken from sleep at the same time.

On the day that I spoke to Evelyn Hii of No Black Tie to confirm my first solo spoken word show, a first in some ways in Kuala Lumpur also, it was raining and she was stuck in traffic. So I spent some time at the new age place next door. Everything in it was absurdly expensive, from the espresso to the books. But there was a large bowl near the entrance filled with small orange-yellow stones and a sign that invited the visitor to leave with one. I spotted it as I left, couldn’t resist putting my hand into that cool, textured heap of little gems. “They’re carnelian stones,” said the guy who worked there. “Take the one that calls to you.”

I did. It looked like a miniature mango, with a small brown flaw that could have been from where the stem would have emerged. I went to my meeting. My show was confirmed, with the stone in my pocket. I continued to carry my carnelian stone for months. But somewhere between the four hotels of my Indonesia stay, it disappeared. Its purpose had a clarity I saw right away: it came to me at a crossroads in my career, and went away once the outcome of that crucial period — a period in which opportunities came one after the other, and in which my life became enriched by the generosity of some wonderful people I met then — was sealed.

The second of the talismans I got two years ago was almost a fashion purchase, a cheap metal bangle of a two headed snake. I liked it because it looked good. It wasn’t something I needed to explain. But as soon as I saw and touched it, I understood that it would mean more to me than that. I have an embarrassing amount of jewellery, so you have to understand that this doesn’t happen very often, which is why I recognised it right away. I almost never took it off since then.

Last night, I found my bangle among a pile of clothes on the bed. I had no memory of taking it off, I did not even realise it was gone, and its size is such that it cannot have slipped. It was like it sneaked off my wrist and waited patiently until I saw it.

I wonder what that means.