Tag Archives: syncretism

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: Paradise In My Pocket

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When people talk about ecological damage, what bothers me most is not that future generations will gradually have less and less to subsist on – I believe too much in abstract ideas to fear that. This is selfish, but I am saddened by the knowledge that even within my own lifetime, sacred places are going to be lost.

When I speak of sacred places, I do not mean pilgrimage monuments. I speak of those things that have allowed my soul to touch centre by being in their presence. These things are paradise only to me. I believe the earth is sacred, and so are coasts and trees. I do not think this is important to anyone but me, just as I expect people to respect that I may not share their beliefs.

I recently resumed work on the novel I have left alone for almost a year, a novel that was begun at all because of one such place: Pasir Ris.

Pasir Ris is a beach in north-east Singapore. It’s a strange place, an aberration in a nation known for its perfectionism – unkempt, wild, lonely, and the water sometimes coagulates with oil. It is barely a beach, by any standards. When I tell Singaporeans that it’s my favourite place in their whole country, they are puzzled. Some of them have never even been there; why would they? There’s nothing there.

But I am writing an entire novel in which the characters, the plot, entire lives and events, are just a way to tell a story about this place that moves me so.

I became obsessed with Ris because of a poem someone else had written. It was years before I discovered that it had been fiction, and by then it was too late. I was miles deep in a story that was more real to me than the scars those lies caused me. By then, it had become my personal sanctuary.

There isn’t the space here to describe all the synchronicities I’ve seen relating to Ris, but one particular incident matters. I had gotten it into my head to have a photoshoot there, dragging a friend clear across a border and then across the island to do it. It transpired that this friend, a multi-award-winning prodigy, had written his first poem at the same beach. We used a clay vessel in the shoot. I left it there because I felt I needed to give something back.

I went back a month later. A single piece of that vessel remained, almost impossibly given all that would have happened in a month. I knew only blessings return that way.

The last few times I was there, I saw that the amusement park nearby was being expanded. I don’t know when I will next go, but I do know it will no longer be my Ris.

Here is the irony of all this: Pasir Ris, like many Singaporean coasts, is reclaimed land. “So much sand,” someone told me. “I don’t know how they found so much. One day it was just there.” Tampering with ecology produced one of my places of pilgrimage, and yet I worry about ecological damage.

I cannot explain this, except to say that the same person who told me about the reclaimed land also told me that because he had grown up by the sea, he did not realise it  had a smell until he was nearly an adult. We only know the worlds we inherit, the metaphors and realities we are lead to believe. We lose these worlds. And we do what we can to immortalize them, to keep paradise in our pockets. I write.

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.