Tag Archives: trauma

The Venus Flytrap: Every Age You’ve Ever Been

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How strange it was, her reaction to the story about the famous writer who had been pulled out of school in the 8th grade for bunking class to go the cinema. “How sad,” she said, with sincere sympathy. “Poor child!” I said nothing, at least not immediately. She had forgotten, in the thrall of someone else’s life, her own daughter’s. She had pulled me out of school after the 6th grade, then the 8th, then refused to send me to college, then sabotaged my tertiary studies at least thrice. I never finished them. I am not a college drop-out in the cool sense of the word, not a genius who invented a software or sold an app or became a superstar. I am the other kind.

This is not a special story. I meet them all the time: high-functioning, ambitious – even accomplished – adults like myself who carry the scars of family dysfunction. Families who made bad choices and blamed it on circumstances. Families who justified abuse. Families who forced their young into situations the young should not know, so that they were raised half on their own sheer will and half on slow-release poison. More importantly, I meet scarred adults like myself who work hard to forge relationships with those same families. We do it out of love, yes, but we also do it because the alternative is an abyss of too much pain.

So to all of us who try, I want to say: I see you, I know you. I’ve seen you at all the ages you have ever been. I see their layers glimmer beneath every brick you lay in a life of your own assemblage, and I know what it has taken you and what it takes you every day.

There are places beyond which the well-adjusted cannot understand what we mean. There are places beyond which the well-concealed cannot carry their trauma across without spilling it, and so they refuse to acknowledge ours. And sometimes these categories are nebulous. We see ourselves reflected clearly, or we are oblivious of our blind spots.

I’ll take a crack in my heart over a chip on my shoulder, but some days it all feels the same.

As a writer, I believe the story belongs to whoever needs it. As a survivor, I believe the story belongs only to the one who lived it. These are contradictions, balanced by a single word, for a scarce thing: care. The story, like the survivor, is alive: it changes based on the hour or the day, evolves over years, is shaped by battering and by craft, sandpapered by retellings, distorted by silences. The story, like the survivor, requires care.

Redemption is not denial of all that came before. It’s only an extension of the sheer will through which that survival was – and is – managed. I am writing the future by force. The past is trauma, and trauma is memory. The present is a project, and that too will become memory. The ones we make today are the ones we’ll live with later. And wanting to live means having to try.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 23rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Trauma’s Loose Knots

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Much later, caught in an undertow of memory, the true emotional magnitude of certain events assails us. Trauma leaves live wires all over our lives, faultlines with known and unexpected triggers, unknown and expected after-effects.

Like a rope too thick for anything but a loose knot, we come undone again and again.

Last week, hearing from an eyewitness who was confused as to what the scene they had fled was, I tried to find out online what the tussle and commotion they had seen in Bangalore’s Frazer Town had been. I was dismayed to see a tweet that used the words “small communal unrest”.

Seeing that tweet, I wondered: how is it possible to preface something of a terrible nature with a dismissive adjective? Think of it: “little hate crime”. “Tiny war”. There is no such thing. Only those who are affected have the right of measurement.

Perhaps we rank things on scales so as to be able to process them. The mistake we make is in how we calculate the value of not only human life but the experiential quality of the same. It’s like a zen koan: if no one dies in a conflict or difficult circumstance, and those who survive don’t make a sound, does it matter that it happened?

Always. We often keep the things that deeply shape us from others. Victims of sexual abuse often maintain silences of years. We become embarrassed to share how certain locations or keywords can make our palms sweat and our hearts palpitate – and so we simply withdraw and avoid routes, people, places. Unfulfilled dreams and unrequited desire alter ones ways of being, but the topics are carefully evaded in all but the most trusted company. And then there is the question of narrativisation. People will superimpose their versions onto things that happen to us, or trivialise our struggles, our rights to name things as we understand them – and ultimately, us. And so, sometimes, we don’t tell them our stories at all.

Trauma comes to roost in us both individually and collectively. Chennai continues to stagger from the impact of the recent flooding. People are still in relief camps, some dying of infections. Some cannot go home. Others have lost their livelihoods until their workplaces, vehicles or clients are ready for business again. Someone who briefly evacuated their home told me how in the days and nights since, they still hear the sound of the river in spate at night, and are afraid. Upheaval and shock of any kind – from a bitter breakup to a natural disaster – always bring with them PTSD. Rehabilitation efforts must necessarily consider the emotional and mental costs of survival.

It will sound like I’ve put them all on the same scale – abuse, tragedy, shock and conflict. But trauma is very much like the classic trick question of what weighs more: a 200gm metal coin, or 200grams of feathers. One or the other may not look like much to the beholder, but the burden of each can only be known to its bearer. All trauma is unique – from the cause, to the consequence, to the way we choose to carry it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Hallowed By Thy Claim

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A recent article in Mother Jones contributed an interesting historical detail to the debate over the construction of Park51, an Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan that is better known as “the Ground Zero mosque”. Several blocks of the city of New York are built atop a mass grave, 25 feet underground, containing the bones of some 20,000 African slaves. Therefore, the article contended, if the site of the former World Trade Center is to be understood as hallowed ground, by that same logic, the area which was used as the final resting place of those slaves was also hallowed ground, and swathes of prime American property (including Wall Street) were already a desecration of their memory and the atrocities committed to them.

As someone who has neither stake nor trauma related to the controversy, I do not feel I have the right to opine. But the very notion of hallowed ground intrigues me deeply. There are places which are hallowed by historic incident, and therefore on some level affect or move large numbers of people. But there are also places hallowed for profoundly personal reasons, and their violation — for it is perceived that way, to the person who holds it thusly — is a pain that must be suffered privately, without the release of mass outcry or public catharsis.

The idea of the hallowedness of a place is, in essence, a sort of secular sacredness. And although blessedness, or tremendous positivity if you prefer, can also render a place hallowed, nothing quite exalts in the manner that tragedy does. In examining some of the sites which to me are certainly hallowed ground, it’s always been the element of despair that engendered the profound meaning they came to hold to me. You can miss a place you were happy in, but what you miss is the happiness itself; but when you yearn for a place of more complicated emotion, it is for the place itself, for the intensity it imparted. Like holding your fingers to a flame not because you want to be burnt, but because the heat is so exquisitely real.

Some months ago, a pigeon began to nest on my balcony, and I put up with the smell, filth and inaccessibility for weeks because I knew what would happen if I cleared what was, to me, no more than a mess: traumatised by the incident and drawn back to the site of that trauma, the pigeon would never stop hanging around, disquieted by grief and yet potently drawn to it. I thought of how I too am magnetized to the sites of some of my upheavals, and saddened, wanted to spare her this experience if I could.

Hallowedness renders “holy”, but more importantly, it reflects our humanity: our mortality, as in the cases of the mass burial ground and disaster site of Manhattan, but also the persistence of memory — not necessarily just in what we choose to honour, but also our unwillingness to tear ourselves from a moment of transformation, the intensity of a shock that affirms over and over, “I felt this, this was real, and seared forever by it, I am”. A place that is hallowed also hallows, in the double-edged way which diffrentiates that which is blessing, and that which is luck.

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.