The Venus Flytrap: Once Again, The Heart

I went looking for something heart-shaped to use as a photo prop, and amongst my objects just as in my life, I found nothing. That ubiquitous icon had far less presence than I’d assumed, except perhaps by way of ink on paper. I have signed words with lipstick kisses and scrawled sigils, like anyone hopeless and hot-blooded. I thought I had filled my life with love, or at least my longing for it, but it appeared to been abstracted. Not a single heart-shaped handmade soap, cheap ring of sentimental value or box that had once held similarly crafted chocolates could be found among the miscellany that is mine. I made do with a decaying rose – how’s that for a metaphor?

The heart symbol is not mere kitsch; its form is derived from the seed or the fruit of the near-mythical silphium plant. Its other names are uncertain, but it was known to be an aphrodisiac, a contraceptive and an abortifacient, thus making it a regalia of desire and its corollaries like no other.

And then I remembered why I think I see it everywhere: if it feels like the heart symbol is embroidered into my life with the frequency of a hem stitch, it’s because of emojis. Big red ones that throb flagrantly on the phone screen, or burst into tiny heart-bubbles with a sound effect to match. Sweet little multi-coloured ones. I send them everyday. They are sent back to me, always, and this is only because as frivolous as I may be in punctuating my messages with them, I’m not frivolous about who receives them. I can’t afford to be. One of my other, actual hearts – my subtle-body one, not the anatomical one, although we know that the weight of the world on the blood-circulating one is not light – knows better. Not everyone is deserving. Not everyone will meet openness with gentleness, even if the truth hurts.

Earthworms have five literal ones; octopi and squid can have three. We have fewer of those, just a solo organ because of which everything rises and falls, but perhaps several other kinds. Secret hearts no one knows we harbour. Folded-and-kept-in-pockets hearts. Dissolved-like-ash-in-water hearts. We love and lose, and linger in our own afterlives.

Apropos everything and nothing at all, I was thinking of St. Valentine – the martyred saint whose name is taken, sometimes in vain, each year. I must confess that my thoughts were a little macabre. I’d read that the holy relic of his skull, adorned with a crown of flowers a la Frida Kahlo, is kept in a small Roman church. This is of especial importance because his hagiography holds that he was beheaded by order of the law. Other corporeal relics of his are scattered across Europe. My macabre wondering was about his physical heart. Perhaps it was the Kahlo-esque imagery that made the idea that it would be cherished separately spring to my mind.

A heart in its own case, its own cocoon. But isn’t that in some ways always so – that whatever beats within us also has at least one counterpart that tendrils ectopically, as fragile and full as a balloon?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 13th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

[P.S. Read also:]

The Venus Flytrap: Emotional Excavations

Every now and then, a discovery occurs that reveals the imaginative or knowledge-based shortcomings of those who made it, or who first respond to it and shape how others view it. The Ishango bone unearthed in 1960, a baboon fibula with 28 markings dating to the late Stone Age, is a perfect example. The artefact has passed into modern feminist lore, with apocryphal stories of irate professors throwing their hands up in frustration, saying: “Think! Who owned this, if it was a calendar? Does a non-menstruating man need a calendar of 28 days?”. A related reference is a riddle which hopefully no longer challenges anyone: “A boy and his father get into an accident. Both require surgery. So why did the surgeon look at the boy on the table and say, ‘I can’t operate on him. He’s my son!’?”

To return to ancient objects, new information on the sprawling geoglyphs in southern Peru known as the Nazca Lines has excited researchers. The geoglyphs were created over 2000 years ago either by carving the ground, or forming images using piled stones. If seen from a great height, they reveal geometric designs and outlines of plants and wildlife, including numerous birds. Some among these birds are now believed to have been non-native, which lends itself to many theories.

But in these speculations is some condescension, including about how the geoglyphs were designed. It’s not like pre-colonial Peruvians had hot air balloons, went one throwaway remark. Well, to quote a meme illustrated with the Easter Island colossuses and various pyramids: “Just because white people couldn’t do it doesn’t mean it was aliens.” Perhaps there is extraterrestrial intelligence out there. More immediately provable is human contempt for the intelligence of other humans. We rarely appreciate the sophistication of those whose cultures (and populations) were systematically erased. Even when we don’t see the world as we were taught to, we often express our visions through inherited and absorbed vocabularies.

While meditating recently, I saw a vulture, and one of my most disagreeable beliefs about myself surfaced – that my ability to look others’ mortality in the eye is not what makes me a good caregiver, but is in actuality unsentimental and calculating. And then the creature’s message came forth: “The vulture waits not for death, but for sustenance”. Suddenly, this was as obvious as the symbolism I’d unthinkingly internalised. Afterwards, recalling the archaeological site of Catal-Huyuk, I read about vulture excarnation as a human pre-burial ritual and the prevalence of skeletons without skulls there. These are mysterious because they don’t fit satisfactorily into tutored worldviews. Practical explanations are given, like: this is because burials beneath the house would smell less if stripped of flesh. But does that engage the emotional? It’s bereavement we speak of, not the disposal of spoilt food.

That gender bias riddle in which a surgeon is prevented from operating on her son invokes medical ethics based on emotion. This is a rare acknowledgment of how reason, like art and ritual, is also emotional. What if every hypothesis got the heart involved, and that what we hold privileged as the mind included the vast province of the imagination?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 27th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Poem: Mamihlapinatapai


Yahgun (Tierra del Fuego): a look shared by two people, each of whom wish the other would initiate that which they both desire, but which neither one wants to concede.

The saddest word in the world
has a piñata nestled
within it. You will never
know the richness of
your own heart until
you have held it high
above the totem
of your body and
blessed its