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 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.
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.
“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.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to tell you exactly what I had hoped for. I had made precise calculations: I trusted that Singaporean efficiency would get me out of the airport in thirty minutes, and that proximity and familiarity would take me to the place itself within that hour. My transit was for five hours, my baggage already checked-in. I had my visa, acquired specifically for one purpose. Not a feast or a tryst, but a visit to a small beach by a mangrove that I had been going to, sometimes in secret, since I was 19. The first time I had gone to Pasir Ris, and every time that followed, I had called that purpose a pilgrimage.
I’ll admit this: I knew it would be different this time.
I walked through a new mall and arrived somewhere almost recognisable. Where there had been chalets was an expanding resort, construction in progress. The park was tidy. Something was missing. I gazed at trees I had known as a younger self and wondered what they had witnessed since.
The lapping water, too, was further inland than I remembered. It is said that the ‘ris’ the beach is named for is ‘keris’ – a weapon native to the Malayan region, with a thin, undulating blade. But even that slim strip of shoreline had diminished. It was a hot day; the sun would not set for almost three more hours. These could not be just tidal vagaries.
Six years since my last visit, a long time only if the interim years had not been what they were. I’d known about the resort development, and had steeled myself for disappointment. But it was not quite that: my experience this time in Pasir Ris was of having outlived something. There was old magic in that mangrove beach, this I can promise you. It was gone, and not for any reason as self-evident as urban progress.
I went back, but it was already gone.
I had stolen the beach from someone, a long time ago. I had made it mine by way of pining and prose. By right I should have lost it, for what I had done. But of all the places that are no longer within my reach, this is the one that most feels like I had let it go.
There’s a feralness in me that makes me crave saltwater, cherish tree roots and place my cheek against the earth to weep or to listen. I know that, though quietly, that is still alive. It should have torn me to see my stolen beach stolen from me. Instead I sought it, touched base, and simply walked away.
Everything that is valuable to me about Pasir Ris is safely stored in the pages of a novel I started writing after that first journey and still haven’t finished. I have loved other places since, lost them, had other preciousness stolen from me, made other reparations.
How strangely scarless it is: to lose but still belong to the things I took and didn’t keep – in fragments of a story, memories of a wilder self, pages and pages of an incomplete pilgrimage.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
I write this to you by hand from a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane. My companions have gone to an animal show, while I have chosen to catch my breath and reflect. I am surrounded by bird calls (I promised you this a few weeks ago) and the quick footsteps of excited children. I still have white sand in my shoes from a beach I stole away to on my last morning in Byron Bay. This brings to mind the first time that I travelled to this land, when I’d lain on my back under regal trees and it was Singapore by the time I washed Larrakia country out of my hair.
But that was Darwin, in the North, and it is Bundjalung country I have been in this time. On one of three rainy days, the writer Jeffery Renard Allen and I were having coffee when a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to meet one of the Elders. That woman was Dale Simone Roberts, and as Jeff leant to be introduced to the seated Elder, Aunty Dorrie Gordon, Dale turned to look me in the face and said “Bless your journey. I can see a little bit. You’ve been fighting for the women.”
I burst into tears.
I don’t know what it was: the history and trauma embodied by Aboriginal people like Aunty and Dale, and the ordeal and fresh wounding embodied by Jeff, as an African-American man in the world today; or the fact that while I was contemplating the everyday resilience of others, someone had seen right into mine. Aunty blessed me in her way, and I touched her feet first, as we do in mine.
Immediately after, a precious conversation with Helen Burns, a local writer with whom I’d forged an instant bond upon discovering that we are both writing fiction projects on Andal. She told me how sometimes she sees a person in Tamil Nadu, on a bus perhaps, and could swear that they were Aboriginal. In Pitjanjara (one of many indigenous languages), she said, the word for ‘parrot’ is ‘kili’. I fished into my handbag for my notebook to write this down, and it fell open to an image of Andal I hadn’t realised I had carried to this distant continent.
How many countries are within each nation? How many countries are within each individual?
Among my panels was one on multicultural influence. My passport declares one thing, my heart and tongue claim another, and my history sprawls though acres of a third.
But an Australia-India Council grant has brought Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I here to promote our feminist anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, and over and over again we found ourselves simultaneously adding nuance to popular narratives and expounding on the dire condition of women in India. One journalist told us that a national Year 12 exam asks students to write essays on the same. On us.
And when she asked about India itself, I told her a list of things I was afraid to speak about, and in this way I named them – the many countries within a nation that only on some days do I call mine.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
I should be in Australia when you read this, basking on a beach (caveat: it’s winter). While applying for a visa, I encountered again that bizarre requirement often made of Indian women travellers: an NOC/permission letter from my father, along with his documents. If I had a husband, I would have been asked to furnish these from him instead.
I am a working professional in my 30s. But I am – as one travel agent made clear – “also an unmarried woman going abroad alone.”
If this surprises you, you might be a man. My Tweet asking about similar experiences unleashed an avalanche of responses from working women across India, across age strata, travelling everywhere from Greece to Chile on work and leisure. Men were incredulous unless they’d provided such letters on someone’s behalf. To clarify: it’s travel agents, not most embassies or consulates, who make this request.
For the sake of brevity and anonymity, I’ll share highlights. Leading experts having to submit consent letters promising they’d return from conferences (i.e. not run away with a foreigner). Honeymoons on which only the bride had to obtain parental permission to go. A “certificate of character” from an employer, ostensibly testifying to – what, exactly? One traveller even realised later that the passport number on her NOC, forcibly submitted after a long fight, had been wrong – so what was its purpose?
“I really felt like I was being blackmailed at the time, and there was no transparency,” one woman echoed a common sentiment.
Travel can be stressful, and many give in – after all, it’s just one more piece of paper. But what if it’s not possible? I heard some harrowing tales: demanding an NOC from an ex-husband without visiting rights over a child; not being allowed to attend a celebration of one’s work due to having neither father nor husband; agents refusing to process paperwork even after their claims that it’s the law were proved false. Demanding NOCs is not just infantilising, insulting and arbitrary; it’s actually prohibitive.
I’ve furnished such letters in the past too, owing to pressure and misinformation, but not this time. As I collected my passport, I enquired about this procedure. My agent admitted he hadn’t questioned it, but shared guidelines for French Schengen and UK visa applications, which list documents from “spouse” or “relatives”. These gender non-specific terms are applied exclusively, in practice, on women.
Kausalya Padmanabhan, who owns Destinations Unlimited and declined anonymity, has been in the travel industry since 1979. Not only does she never require such letters from clients, she has even put it in writing in certain cases that a submission has been made without an NOC at her own risk as an agent. She insists the bias is homegrown. “There is no rule. If embassies required it, the same would exist worldwide, and it doesn’t.”
Certain Middle Eastern countries still place restrictions on women’s travel, and Ms. Padmanabhan speculates that travel agents simply extended these across all destinations. “It’s we in the trade who must take it up, train our staff accordingly, and refuse to ask for such documents.”
And we, who travel, must stop letting ourselves be bullied.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 4th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.