Tag Archives: terrorism

The Venus Flytrap: Rock Salt And Two Types Of Terror

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“So you’re doing a Bombay quickie,” said Sukanya Venkataraghavan as we lunched at the iconic Café Mondegar last weekend. I was packing all I could within two and a half days: art gallery, shopping, sightseeing and work. I was there for a wonderful Lakmé Fashion Week preview event, at which I read a poem and participated in a panel on feminism and fashion with Laila Tyabji, Mallika Dua, Anita Dongre and Nisha Susan at Godrej’s India Culture Lab. I also had a deadline at the final proofs for my new book. And it was my first visit to the city! Bombay quickie, for sure.

Mario Miranda’s murals loomed large over us, and the Saturday afternoon crowd was louder than the music. Sukanya and I had connected as writers on Twitter (her fantasy novel, Dark Things, came out earlier this year). Secretly, I was feeling drained and anxious, the result of several weeks of travel and intense focus. In the offhand way I gloss over it, I said I was feeling exhausted after having been very social and around many people’s energies.

“Rock salt”, she said – and suddenly I knew I was among kindred. She was referring of course to the aura cleansing powers of the kitchen condiment. I reached over and squeezed her hand in relief. “I know. I just forgot to bring some!” I exclaimed.

The conversation took a decidedly mystical, and more open, turn. “There are a lot of nice weirdos out there,” said Sukanya. “I think of myself as a functioning introvert.” As someone who is the same, who literally sets aside hours for solitude, I instantly grew comfortable.

When we wandered over to cold coffees at the also-famous Café Leopold, which had been Sukanya’s first choice, I confessed why I had said we should just do Mondegar earlier. It had been because of what she’d told me about the 26/11 bullet holes there and how they had become a selfie spot. I hadn’t wanted to put myself in a site of trauma when I was feeling exhausted and delicate. But connecting with her had brightened my energy and centred me somewhere familiar. I could shop the Colaba Causeway, I could laugh like always. Being able to share that I am quite shy and extremely sensitive – an empath, if I were to use the term that’s become popular – conversely helped me bloom.

On the way back to my guesthouse, I stopped at a small shop and practised the new Hindi words she taught me: akkah namak. Rock salt sells by the quarter kilo, so I now have some from the west coast.

I’m sure there are more than a few nice weirdos reading this, because our tribe is vast, even though we each think we navigate the world alone. I saw a lovely Georgia O’Keeffe quote the other day, and it may speak to you, too: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Go forth and wander, courageous one. And don’t forget that rock salt, lavender oil or healing crystal as you go.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 25th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: I’ll Always Have Paris

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Paris was the gift I gave myself when no one else would have me. It was an armistice of beauty I bought in a time of despair. I had wept my way through a month in England and a week in Berlin and arrived, fragile cargo, at the city of light. There, I breathed easily for a handful of days near the end of that summer. And then I would go back to India, and to much worse yet to come. But those few and blessed days became some of the most precious stones I’d bead onto the thread of my life. I knew them by touch: a memory I felt for whenever I doubted my gifts, my deservingness or my capacity to love myself. They still shimmer.

            This is what Paris is to many people – those who have set foot in it, and those who know it in fantasy. On Saturday, I woke up to the news about the terrorist strikes on the city. I saw the mourning on social media first before I saw the reason why. “An attack on Paris is an attack on love”, someone* wrote on Facebook. And indeed it is. Not just love in the romantic sense, but love in the sense of altruistic compassion, which is formalised in the ideology known as democracy. Something about the city stands for freedom – whether that is the freedom to kiss or the freedom to think. Paris is beautiful in ways both intangible and palpable. It stands for the idea that life can be beautiful, and then it shows you how. At a distance, the city is a muse. In attendance, it is living magic.

            I took a room in Montmartre that overlooked a ficus-gilded wall. For four days, I wandered by the river, in the churches, to the museums. I saw a woman with a cobalt blue parrot in the Latin Quarter one day and outside my hotel the next. I clicked a love-lock into place. In the most charming sequence from those days soaked in the miraculous, I found myself crying with joy in the Tuileries one afternoon, unable to believe that I could feel anything other than pain for the first time in a long time, and when I left the gardens and crossed a bridge, a stranger stopped me and gave me a gold-plated ring. She said it belonged to me. And so it does.

            This is not entirely panegyric. My first day in Paris was spent in its outskirts, in its underbelly if you will, among refugees. That’s a story for another time. But I know that story too.

            Does Paris matter more than Beirut or Baghdad? Does it matter more than Damascus or Maiduguri? Does it matter more than Muzaffarnagar? No. I am sad about Paris not because of outraged sentiments, but because of pure sentimentality. I am angry, about other places near and far, every single day. None among us is omniscient, which is the simple reason why our indignation or concern appears to be selective. We learn later, and then we know better next time. If you are upset about what happened in Paris because terrorism is terrible, then recognise fear-mongering under any name it appears by. If you aren’t particularly upset about what happened in Paris, but you care about liberté, égalité, fraternité, then recognise what is at stake. Everywhere. Maybe the attacks on Paris hurt so much because the city is a civilisational catalyst, one in which those principles are already – and I use this word deliberately – enshrined.

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

*With thanks to Narayani Nadesan

Book Review: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar

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The trouble with writing about war is that it’s almost impossible to do so without having to name an enemy, and some would argue, almost disingenuous not to. If taking the side of the terrorist, that vague yet absolutely damning term that has taken firm root in the world’s contemporary lexicon, is crude; then to take the side of any of the governments locking horns against this named but nebulous danger is equally reckless. In this lucid and well-researched enquiry into the American vendetta that in the decade since 9/11 has become a “global war on terror”, Amitava Kumar finds one way to approach this: from his position as an individual, he addresses the Other in the same way.

Two individuals in particular are at the centre of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. Both are men serving long-term prison sentences for the abetment of terrorist advances: Hemant Lakhani, a businessman and habitual braggart whose grandiose lies seal his fate, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, a dim-witted but almost sweetly devout young man. Both were coerced into planning terrorist attacks by paid informants. Neither, Kumar argues, would have gotten involved at all were it not for this coercion, not by radical factions but by the United States government itself. Not unlike the way in which funds that could have been used in the research and eradication of common diseases were diverted to tackle the spectral issue of biological warfare, the ordinary – if gullible – civilian becomes a target while the true progenitors of evil remain at large.

But sting operations are only the more dramatic manifestations of this: less dramatic, but pervasive, is the Islamophobia and general mistrust that had resulted in hundreds of people being taken into custody for transgressions no more serious than minor credit card fraud or having the wrong kind of name. One of the most terrifying examples enumerated in this book is that of Mohamed Yousry, a graduate student who had served as a translator in a court case, an act which later resulted in him being indicted on grounds of providing “material support to terrorists”. Neither his demonstrable lack of “suspicious” allegiance (a non-practicing Muslim with no ties to Islamic organisations, married to a Christian, raising his daughter in her mother’s faith) nor his outright condemnation of the accused he was translating for were enough to keep him from being scapegoated.

The most sinister layer to all of this is torture, as performed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Here, again, the question of coercion arises: if not granted immunity (for operating under Presidential command) if not for having fallen in love with the wrong person (as Lynndie England, who emerged in shocking photographs holding a leash around a prisoner’s neck pleaded, citing her relationship with “the ringleader” of detainee abuse) – would those members of the military have committed those acts? One of the fundamental precepts this book posits is to consider power play and human psychology, difficult though it is to remain dispassionate.

The book’s most thought-provoking angle, however, deals not with the hapless but with those who make informed and conscious statements about the nature of anti-terrorism in the modern world: artists. Whether playing with shock or dealing with sentiment, the examples Kumar details are neither intellectual nor elitist responses, but a means of direct engagement. Conceptual artist Hasan Elahi’s daily web uploads detailing every aspect of his life becomes “a collaboration [with] the FBI” – by submitting himself willfully to the scrutiny of a surveillance state, he overwhelms it. Video art, installation and literature that deal with the reality of today’s world without necessarily fictionalising it are also explored: creativity as a feasible means of the reclamation of power, protest art in the age of advanced technology.

A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is a valuable book, a nearly academic (and therefore highly meticulous) inquiry into anti-terrorism. In the past ten years, we have seen war through the eyes of artists and through the eyes of journalists, but Kumar’s middle ground brings something different to the discourse, and allows him to analyse both these responses as well.

Although Kumar also explores anti-terrorism in India, the book fares strongest when the focus in on America, and America’s effect on the world. His overarching argument is that the war in Iraq is “an elaborate and expensive distraction that hides from us the real crime” (of the war on terror). But while he presents this argument very successfully, the end of terrorism itself remains an open-ended question. This lack of didacticism, notable because it is quite rare in the work of political writers, is welcome. The question at the core of this text seems to be: if finger-pointing engenders and stokes conflict, where might we find ourselves if we stopped looking for easy answers?

An edited version appeared in this week’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.

Manifested Apocalypse

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I feared many things as a child: thunderstorms, plane crashes, the bubonic plague come alive from the pages of books, every flea the potential carrier of a manifested apocalypse.

In all these things, a single binding thread shot through. I never feared losing myself. Only others. I wanted them gathered around me, so that if anything happened, it happened to us all. The dead do not mourn each other.

Today, Mumbai burned. Some have likened it to the events of September 11 2001. I don’t know whether or not it is. But I do know that both times, I cried. Cities I do not know, but know I must get to know.

As someone in a long-distance relationship, events like these rouse particularly tender nerves. To get to the one I love I will need a visa, air tickets, a flight. A friend once told me about a heartrending reality of her relationship: as the half-a-lifetime younger partner of someone whose first wife was very influential, she will not be allowed to go her partner’s funeral when he dies.

This is not the first time I have been in a portmanteau love, split between places. But this is the first time it has been an unwilling separation. I spent the initial couple of months in a sort of morbid surreality. When my partner travelled and didn’t call as planned, I Googled for crashes between origin and destination. There was one time when I actually found one, and I remember feeling all the blood literally rush to my head. The feeling lasted until I realised it was an old report.

My partner and I both moved countries in an effort to carve a viable future out for ourselves, together and apart. It’s been worth it for us both professionally. It has not been worth it otherwise, and these terrorist attacks remind me of it. Reading Sonia Faleiro’s post on being extremely close to one of the points of attack, I thought: blessed are those who are safe because the ones they love are near them.

Recently, a foreign newspaper wrote that the “cultural vibrancy” of my city gives me all the inspiration I need. That isn’t true. In the year since I moved back, I’ve had a certain degree of material success. I’m not ungrateful for this. However, there are things which a healthy bank balance and career recognition cannot rectify. Such as how I watch my back around here, because it’s evident that I am admired but not supported – I am surrounded by crocodile smiles put on because I’m an interesting person to “know”. Such as how I count less than a handful of people here as real friends. Such as how I never fully recovered from the trauma of leaving a city I knew almost as home, because I am still not home. Such as how with my grandmother’s death, I live in a house with a steadily decreasing amount of affection directed my way.

What then, does this mean for me? I don’t know yet. I was talking to a friend about Oprah’s quintessential question tonight: what do you know for sure? I know for sure that in a world increasingly fraught with uncertainty, the distances we place between our selves are only that. Distances we place between ourselves. Distances we choose to.

We were once together in an earthquake. I was angry. “I don’t want to die with you,” I said.

I lied.

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.