Tag Archives: travel

The Venus Flytrap: Wild Goose Chases

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So many of society’s systems have been revealed to be constructs by the global coronavirus pandemic. I’d been pondering all things illusory when a series of comic recollections of wild goose chases lightened my mood.

#1: I was on a boat in Pulicat Lake with an international photographer who’d flown in exclusively to take pictures of the flamingo season that local photographers were confidently presenting as thriving (probably using old material). Climate change had deemed otherwise; there’d been no birds in a long while. “Come next month,” the fisherman making his living from rare boat rides forgivably lied. My breaking point was when I suggested we change the story angle and salvage the effort: there was a colonial fort nearby. We circled and circled. The edifice had long been ruined, overrun by vegetation. It didn’t exist anywhere but on Google Maps and influencers’ charades.

So soon after that a curse was arguably in effect, a filmmaker friend wanted to visit a “film city” right here in Chennai. There were amazing, recent reviews online. Again, after hours of searching, getting snappy and exhausted, we finally accepted that it didn’t exist. A place that had opened and shut over a decade ago was still being promoted by – whom? Who has the motive for such mischief?

Wild goose chases #3 & #4: I was in Vagamon, where my favourite architect Laurie Baker had lived, in a house that was still a notable town boast. Except the interiors looked like a boys’ dormitory; outside, a tacky fountain was draped with plastic flowers. Red laterite, lush foliage, legacy? Nope. Everything about the assignment was superficial: I was to weave a facade of serenity from a bizarre itinerary covering too many hill stations in too few days. The fakest element of all was my newfound camera-toting colleague, who spent the trip buttering me up, convincing me to secure a similar assignment so we could meet again. I tried; thankfully, the wheeler-dealer’s using me as an unpaid intern rasped to halt when he admitted he couldn’t be bothered to read the published article, while posting it all over social media for his own credit.

Social media is a master mayajaal, a net of illusion. Concerned friends tell me about how a close relative of mine who is prone to fits of violence and manipulation contingent with untreated mental illness presents herself as a mindful, enlightened creator online. The true stories and the Instastories are a mismatch. I make an income from putting words in other people’s mouths (it’s called PR, babe). I know what goes on behind glamour. But when personal trauma and deceit intersect, it’s hard to stay unafraid. This is a situation many are in: cloistered in quarantine with all that work, money and travel lets them escape. On a greater scale, we also know we aren’t getting the info that could potentially save us.

I was able to laugh a little remembering those wild goose chases; but still, they led back here. The world should not go back to normal when this pandemic is done. Let the falsehoods dissolve once and for all. Let human survival be worth it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 19th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Reminders At Reis Magos

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Here is a partial list of some of the plants I noticed a few days ago at the Reis Magos Fort in North Goa: asarina vines with light purple trumpet-like blossoms; frangipani trees statuesque in a courtyard that could been in a different edifice (an inspired house, a resort); dark-leaved Krishna tulasi; white bougainvillea; coconut trees ridging the coastline of the Mandovi estuary; a banyan tree that – a sign tells you – parasitically strangulated a coconut tree over almost a century then collapsed once its host caught fire; flowering weeds whose names elude my knowledge, growing mutinously between the red laterite bricks. I had wanted to see the fort, and the view of open water from its citadel points, but once I was there a strange feeling made me linger on the foliage instead.

When this Fort became a jail, the opening at the back was sealed with masonry,” said a signboard on the wall outside an entrance. I didn’t step inside. There was a lamp hanging from the ceiling, and beyond it a simple door with bars that revealed fronds of leaves, the water, and Panjim on the other side of a bridge. In other places therein, the glass that had been put in during reconstruction transformed the space, as windows do. Sunlight flooded away the tangibility, but not the fact, of what had happened within those solitary confinement cells and prison holds. To imagine what had was what caused the dizziness that made me steady myself with greenery.

I found it beautiful, this centuries-old fort restored into use and given such serenity only as recently as a decade ago. Its beauty was necessarily marred by its history, exhibited in signs throughout, in captions alongside photographs of freedom fighters and longer descriptions chronicling aspects of Goa’s political past. I skimmed the texts, a little apprehensive about the slant they may take. One anecdote caught my eye: of how African soldiers (from where, though; the only description was “tribesmen”?), themselves under colonial rule, had been deployed by Portugal to suppress revolutionary dissent. In order to manipulate them, they were shown maps depicting Goa as being larger than India. It’s an age-old tactic, exaggerating threats, and still used today to spread misinformation and goad people into inhumane actions.

It was impossible to ignore the larger signs (except if one can’t read in English). Near the entrance, I looked up to see a “Death Hole”. Upstairs, in a hall lined with art by Mario Miranda, was its other side. One could reverse vantage points: feel the claustrophobia of the idea of hot oil cascading from the ceiling, and then feel the bloodthirst and security of being where one could thwart the enemy.

From within a fort, one can believe oneself safe. One can take borrowed pride in its architecture. One can even let the robust walls muffle the sounds of nearby screaming. One can. That never means that one should. History doesn’t only echo. Sometimes it’s in what’s here, condemned to repetition. The signs are all there, and when we’ve steadied ourselves on pretty plants and sun-dappled waves and sea breezes, we cannot refuse to look at them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 26th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breaking Down In Berlin

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Eventually, the only explanation I could find for the despair the city dredged up in me clicked into place: Berlin, post-partition Berlin, was younger than I was. Four years younger, to be precise, which meant that a vast number of people in the city carried the memory of when and where their city had been divided. They held that demarcation within themselves, a hidden knowledge. Perhaps some raw nerve in me had been tapped by, or tapped into, this.

Every day that I was in Berlin, I woke up and wept and wept and dragged myself out of the attic room my friend Nawaaz had generously let me stay in during his own summer in the city. I had to fill the hours somehow, so that I would not collapse, so I did everything. I consumed beauty and pillage in museum after museum; admired the verdigris that crowned the architecture; pronounced currywurst to be unimpressive – like any tourist. Puzzled by my state, Nawaaz was extraordinarily kind, taking time away from his own plans for me. We went to a gorgeous Afro-Cuban musical performance and drank – oh, I wish I remembered what it was; in those nights I never imagined I would ever stop raising liquor to my lips. We went to the Philharmonic and listened to a youth orchestra. We went to Potsdam with another friend, where we walked improbable distances and I posed with sunflowers twice my height on Friendship Island (bless the act of portrait-taking, the act that stakes a claim to be seen, to scratch one’s presence in a moment into a tangible surface; when I see that photo now, I not only think “I was there”, but also, “I am still here.”). New and old acquaintances took me under their wing: took me boating on a lake, filled the seats at the table where I blew out the candle on my birthday cake that year, told me fantastic stories from their own lives and travels, eased those hours for me. I avoided the Holocaust memorial. I couldn’t risk that fragmentation.

I was in the throes of a mental health crisis, and perhaps it heightened my sensitivity to the place, to its underpinnings. Yet Berlin was followed by a few days all alone in Paris, when I was nothing if not suffused with light. It was that respite that convinced me that the older ruptures in Berlin and the newer ruptures in me had spoken to one another. But empathy is not trauma, as overwhelming as it can be to experience it.

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had visited its remains, now a gallery of murals, and gotten my passport stamped with the motif of a standing bear at Checkpoint Charlie. Seven years since that trip, I turn my theory around in my head. Is there every really a clean selvage between self and situation? I do not blame Berlin for the bewilderment I felt. I am grateful it showed me that I had been unwell. I send love to its invisible borders, place my warm palm on them, somewhere in the ether.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 14th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Packing A Pestle

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I was meant to travel so much this year. I was supposed to see many vistas, bring back myriad stories, and have at least a few experiences that would make me suddenly smile at their memory. Instead, I’ve been rendered out of commission with a string of demands, reversals and blockages on the personal front. So when something turned up in my inbox to which I didn’t have to say No, I think I’d gotten so used to hearing or saying the word that I reached for an excuse. And then, the deeper part of me – the one that is frustrated and yearns – told me not to be silly. I could just pack a mortar and pestle into my luggage, and go.

I’m on a course of traditional medicine that requires me to pulverize fresh herbs every day, hence this unusual travel need. The ferocious Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore did the same: using the kitchen appliance as her flying vehicle, in fact. I could picture myself sitting in a mortar like it was a boat, rowing with the pestle and arriving very late to my appointments but pleasingly dramatically. It would give my broomstick a rest, too.

We take objects of the everyday for granted until we’re at a loss. The most obvious of these is the toilet, the #1 impediment for women travelers. Somewhat less indispensably: scissors, tampons, charger cords, a sharpener for your kohl – you’ve probably been in a situation in which you’re positively desperate for something you barely glance at in your cabinets at home. Why, even the lack of saline solution can prevent a short-sighted person from being spontaneous sometimes. On a long trip once, I had been so moody while packing that I hadn’t bother to bring shampoo; and found myself not only at hotels that mysteriously had no such mini-bottles, but also with an unexpectedly charming travel companion and profound regret that my hair smelled more like grease than like Sri Lankan ginger.

But I’ve never had to carry a mortar and pestle anywhere before, and my new need made me consider the familiar implement, and its relations, with a fresh regard. Culturally speaking, these appliances have always been known to be worth their (quite literal) weight. The Mesoamerican molcajete was a part of the burials of people of elite status. A related kitchen implement, the larger two-part stone grinder known in Tamil as the ammi kal and in Odia as the sila puua, is used in wedding and other festive ceremonies. It has such an intuitive design and function that people as far away as the Andes have also used it for centuries, where it is known as the batán and uña. Quern-stones have also been admired for their beauty, as in ceremonial metates of Costa Rica which had elegant bird and animal shapes, or were associated with legends, such as in the British isles, where mill-stones were repurposed as tombstones.

The sensible thing to do, though, is to just pack a plastic juicer instead. It would weigh so much less and make my medicine just fine. But it wouldn’t be quite so evocative, would it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Highways On The Heart’s Journey

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There are two places on the Chennai-Dindivanam highway where the road curves alongside a wall of sheer rock, the side of a hillock cut down to make room for traffic. Once, a long time ago, driving during a thunderstorm at night, I rested my arm on the windowsill and woke from my sleep just enough to notice the jagged rock, painted with graffiti, and the lightning that illuminated it. I smiled, just then, that night, for the day we had just enjoyed in a town to the south. My oldest friend, her cousin and I. The memory came back to me again a few days ago, driving down that highway and back by daylight. And in the way that memory sieves and keeps the oddest things: I remembered how in years past, the radio signal would turn to static along that wall of stone, and noticed how it did not this time.

Why did some part of me wait to see that rock face as though it was someone I knew? I realised this only as we passed by it, and I felt for some strange reason something resembling joy. How is it that the memory of joy becomes joy itself?

We shared another highway and several long roads together a few months ago, my oldest friend and I, this time with her child. Another adventure, short but intense, sealed permanently in the heart. We weren’t even sure if we would go until we were already gone, the three of us squeezed into a single overnight train berth because not all our seats had been confirmed. I told her I was chasing a vision, and she indulged me. We hired a car and put more miles of roads into our memories. What will we remember when we talk or think of that trip, further into the future? A scattering of sacred places, a grove we drove into without entering the mountains it lay beneath, confidences exchanged, reasons for laughter, a meal, a moment which contained tears, a strange choice?

Not even a fortnight later, I found myself on the other side of that mountain range, on a completely different journey. What will come back to me from that trip, years from now? Ensconced in that travelling was a brush – not unlike driving past that stony hillock on another road – with a place in which I had once sat and watched the rain drip from the eaves of a cottage in a forest and knew with certainty that I had not finished missing someone who had long left me behind. Why did I remember that moment, so much later, in the same way I remember smiling through slumber on a storm-drenched highway, driving back from a reprieve on some distant Sunday? And what will I come to remember of what has just come to pass?

The spaces between journeys are long, for me, but I carry them far and further. Not to keep their memories alive, but to give myself life – so I am nourished always by the knowledge of what I’ve felt, what I’ve wagered, what I’ve been given, and what I’ve made with it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 17th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Pre-Existing, Even Permanent, Love

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 In the darkest year of my life, I met a man who seemed to be simple, creative and fearless – one thing I am not, one thing that I am, and one thing that I am always mistaken to be except by those who know that courage is not the absence of fear. I asked him how he was the way that he was, which is to say – I asked him how I could be more like him. “It’s just one thing,” he told me. “Everywhere I go, I think – everybody loves me. And everywhere I go, I also think – I love everybody.”
I was dismayed by this answer, for I knew the first of those things to be patently untrue. I could not go anywhere – let alone everywhere – with such certitude. With such denial.
As for the second thing, even in callow moments when it has been true, when it has felt as though my heart was an ever-expanding galaxy, that feeling too has sometimes proved irretrievable. Although I will concede that to love is never for nought, not entirely.
Many years since that conversation, as I packed once more to go to several somewheres with neither of the two expectations I was advised to always carry, it suddenly hit me: maybe it had only been his phrasing that I had not been able to relate to. When all along, the deeper truth of his statement was not so elusive. Because what I know to be true is this: only in the presence of a specific kind of love, self-love, does the self-aware person seek to be loved by another. And in the absence of self-love, the self-aware person knows better – sometimes through conscious empathy, and sometimes through instinct – than to inflict their need on another.
Therefore, perhaps what that advice had really meant was this: “I love myself, and so I am certain that this will be unchanged no matter who I encounter. I greet them as if we love each other already, because there is no risk.” At least, that is my interpretation, now, for that strange answer. That its application fundamentally rests on a prerequisite: pre-existing, even permanent, love for oneself.
Now that, no one has ever taught me how to have.
But I have spent my whole adult life trying to teach myself, going over lessons again and again like a student held back year after year.
My capacity for love has greatly diminished, but my enquiry into it is stronger than ever. I write to you from high on a mountain,  surrounded by verdure, but my thoughts are on a potted hibiscus that may not be watered in my absence. This plant suffered a fungal infection, after which I’d left it for dead, but without the will to uproot it. Left untended for a week, in the absence of hope and nourishment, it suddenly began to sprout the tiniest green leaves.
This is how I last saw it: tenacious even if not thriving. But I went into and will come down from the mountains with no expectations at all, only to learn a little more – from anything that will teach me.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Reconfigured Forest

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The forest had reconfigured itself in the years of her absence. At first, she could not find her bearings, and turned among the trees until her coordinates revealed themselves gently. Trees – so many trees – more than before, a lushness so vividly alive it could only be the afterbirth of cyclones, wildfire, calamity. Blossoms bright and wind-scattered. Birdsongs.

She arrived just as the women were about to leave, an hour from sundown, after a day of work among hearths and verdure. Light glints between leaves, on the rippling of puddled water, and along a line of spider’s webbing she pauses to smile at. They recognise her, call her back into their arms, call her by her name. They remember her by the doll she left in an old house, given room in a new one. She knows she once left a pair of sandals here, like an exiled emperor, but cannot recall what they look like. A dog she had hoped to meet again bristles, teeth bared, and lunges for her hand when she reaches for him. She had shouted his name down an avenue of areca-red earth, hoping that he – like her – was still alive. The years in between had contained their bereavements.

She accepts the sum of these facts as a teaching of some kind, and knows she allows this only because enough of who she once was has come back to receive it.

She had been reconfigured too, transformed like this sanctuary into something more deeply herself. Something had come to a close in her new life, and still something felt incomplete. She had held the forest within her for a long time, like a small fish cupped in hands filled with water, slowly seeping out of her. Perhaps she prayed for passage in a dream. And then the forest summoned her in ways that, upon telling, would belie their miraculousness.

If you have truly been inside the forest, you know that it can co-exist anywhere: an enchantment that adjoins a highway bereft of trees, a garden anonymous, a lone sapling slithering a tendril of desire for the sun between the cracks of concrete tiles. If you have ever been lost in the forest, you know that it retrieves all the shards of you and holds them – sometimes, you will think it withholds them too, yet it always gives them back when you ask. And if you have lost the forest, if it too is a place of your shattering, you know what it’s like to believe you can never go back. That the path briared – bewildered – itself into impossible convolutions.

Still – for her, after all this time, the forest parted its draperies, and she was within it again.

And so she walks as deeply inside as she can, to the door of the altar-space. And even though she had turned off every signal on her device, wanting this world to be briefly self-contained, somehow the memory of the map she had been asked to show someone remains undisconnected. She peers through the sheer window on the door and a disembodied voice suddenly says from the palm of her hand, “You have arrived.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 28th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Contained Within All Homecoming Is Risk

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October 1st was the tenth anniversary of my move to Chennai. I observed it by escaping to my motherland, Sri Lanka, my third such trip within a year. This will not seem as amazing to you as it is to me if you haven’t known for yourself what displacement does to the mind. On the first trip, I accepted the jarring I felt at not having a foothold that wasn’t built of childlike nostalgia. I chose to risk it by building an adult’s orientation. By the third, I love that I have bearings now: tangible mappings, viable anchors.

I love Colombo for its airport that brings me into the island, so I can wend my way into the places that fill my dreams and my pages with their waters and groves and pastoral lands – places I didn’t grow up in, but have me in a bloodbound soul-hold. At first, I thought: why do I need a relationship with the capital city at all, even if it was my first home?

But then, I love coming down Galle Road as the sun sets and looking to my left to see the sea at the far end of each avenue, dazzling between the facades of buildings in that west-facing marigold light.

I love that in this terrible economy, where nothing costs as little as it should, avocados – among the more indulgent fruits in my regular life – are a mere SL rupees 15 for a 100 grams, even in supermarkets. “What’s that?” asks my Tamil auto driver when I call out at the road-side fruit stall. “Oh, butterfruit,” I say.” He repeats to himself for practice the (he says) “stylish” word I use. Ah-vo-cah-do.

He offers me the Sinhala word: “Allibera.” I ask for the Tamil word. “Tamil le butterfruit dhaan.” he says. But of course.

I love the chill that goes through me as I have a moment of double recognition on a familiar road from my childhood: the indelible image of a “dreadlocked man under a dreadlocked banyan tree”, imprinted in my earliest years somehow, regurgitated in a homesick poem nearly 20 years after, coming together still later, because these trees are still here. And so am I.

I love the love-cake. I love speaking in my native dialect.

Are these small things love, and if so, what is their sum? Maybe I can’t be sure whether I love this city, or even need to anymore, but I do know how deeply you can dislike a place that is your utter comfort zone, your geographical arranged marriage, the place that cannot ever break your heart because you never fell in love with it to begin with. I love not being in Chennai.

Contained within all homecoming is risk. Those who take it move beyond nostalgia. This can be a bitter loss, or great luck. Let us say I have been lucky. Let us say by assuming nothing I gained much.

It’s a simple thing, really: when I say that I love that I can be here, what I mean is that I love that I could come back. That I want, still, to keep coming back.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 12th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Three Poets In Agra

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The holes didn’t make the leaves look any less beautiful, and that’s what caught my eye. When you live with and look after plants you learn to ignore natural wilting and discolouration, understanding that all things have their moments and their messes, just like you. But the crisp semi-circles that began to appear along the edges of the greenest of my bougainvillea’s leaves were so perfect that I could not regard them as decay. They looked like bites out of an apple logo, or lunar incurvations. They were lovely – but what was causing them? I enjoyed a whimsy about caterpillars dreaming their butterfly selves at a near distance from my own dreaming, but worried that the pigeon terrors had developed a taste for them.

I asked my friend Nitoo Das, the poet who waters her plants at midnight, and she told me that the culprit, or more accurately, the artist, behind the geometric mystery was the leaf-cutter bee.

I hadn’t considered that bees would deign to grace my modest balcony garden, and so regarded this as the highest compliment. Leaf-cutters were new to me, so I looked them up. What I learned was that they are solitary creatures. Hives are social entities, created with the labour of many. But leaf-cutters do everything themselves: from pollination to home-building to protecting her eggs. As Nitoo told me, they bite green leaves not to consume them, but to use the material to build their nests, which themselves are holes.

I sighed with joy. I could live with leaf-cutter bees, who live in a way I already lean toward.

Just a few days later, Nitoo and I met at a Delhi station and took the train to Agra with a third poet, the brilliant young Urvashi Bahuguna.

Many reams have already been written about the beauty of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. On that overcast and uncrowded day, the serenity of the first washed my cynicism clean. There really was love imbued there. I imagined being able to go there to read or contemplate, to be something other than a sleepless tourist collecting proof of experience.

We noticed how parakeets loved red sandstone but were unenthused by marble. Their colour brought to mind the leaf-cutter bee’s alcoves lined with green leaves, and I wondered where my neighbour made hers. It was close by, I was sure, but either out of sight or else I hadn’t known how or where to look.

In a shop in Agra, we were shown sarees made of banana stems and leaves. They were exquisitely soft, and had been made by prisoners serving life sentences. The proceeds from them would go towards supporting the prisoners’ families. I choose one made from banana stems in a gentle red, with a print that reminded me of georgette and chiffon sarees of the 80s, the kind my mother was always wearing when my sister and I would lift our chins to kiss her bare waist.

I hadn’t known that the banana plant, with all its versatility, could also be worn. I thought of my leaf-cutter co-habitant then too, and hoped for a long and gentle co-existence.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 28th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Travel: Little-Known Hill Stations In The Western Ghats

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My story on looking for quiet places to read my new manuscript in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, featuring an elephant surprise, is in Condé Nast Traveller India. You can read it here.

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

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Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 20th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.