Tag Archives: travel

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.