Tag Archives: talismans

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

Standard

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: Certain Completed Geometries

Standard

When I realised that my wallet had been stolen at a train station on my way back from a weekend in another city, my first thought was about my debit card, which a phone call quickly took care of. My second thought was about the currency it had held, which was also abated by the realization that I had – serendipitously – been unable to withdraw more than a small amount at the ATM the previous night, and what more, for reasons completely out of character, had stashed enough change in my pocket for a couple of teas and a plate of hot bhaji for the six hours ahead. My third thought, and the one that made my heart momentarily plunge the most, was about the talismans that wallet had held.

There had been two – both gifts. A Buddhist one for grief, given to me the night before the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And another one, which had been personally blessed by a deceased mystic, and which had come to me through a surreal collusion of dreams, magic space and psychic reciprocity. The second was profoundly sentimental; the first less so – but both were meaningful. What startled me was not that they were gone – but that they had gone at the same time.

I hadn’t always been this sort of person – the sort who wears, who keeps, who trusts. But ever since I became this sort of person, I’ve seen that the nature of talismans is to offer temporary protection. The nature of talismans, in essence, is to get lost. We ourselves grow too attached to them to let them go, let alone recognise that their work has been done. They must be wrenched from us in acts of fate, in seeming carelessness, and we must accept their disappearances as markers of certain completed geometries.

The carnelian stone I carried in my jeans pocket from one crucial meeting until I lost it somewhere in a flurry of hotel rooms, while the career catalysts it had accompanied culminated in certain profound and quantifiable rewards. The dead butterfly that simply vanished from my wardrobe upon my return from a shattering retreat. Time and again I have found them, recognized them as talismanic, and learned – after the initial sense of disappointment and shock – to acknowledge their departures as necessary closures.

What does this mean then, to lose these two amulets at once? One was for forgetting, the other for remembering. The first was to help with the surrender that bereavement demands, the other was the lamp left lit so I could find my way back to a place that in moments – in this day to day reality – seems sometimes to have been almost illusory.

I would like to think that perhaps I have finally learnt how to see in all sorts of darkness – that the heart has memorised the map, and neither torches nor known yet treacherous paths are necessary to return to or to honour that which has been lost.

What have I forgotten, and what have I remembered? With both of these talismans gone, I wonder now not just what has come to its denouement, but what I will find next. What will it see me through? And when it goes, what will I have learnt to see by then?

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

Standard

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.