Tag Archives: loss

An Essay in Kindle

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I wrote an ars poetica of sorts about the Bulletproof Offering manuscript, “Sita as Lucifer”, for the March issue of Kindle Magazine. The formatting and asterisk breaks are off/gone, but you can read it here.

And yes, the words and lipstick print on the cover of the issue are also moi!

The Venus Flytrap: My Bloody Valentine

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There’s a story I like to tell about an incident that hasn’t happened yet, and to be realistic, might never actually occur. This may be my favourite, and most frequently contemplated, revenge fantasy, but it is also by far the most restrained one I could potentially imagine for this scenario. It puts me in an exuberant mood to describe its minutiae – who said what, who wore what, architectural detail, supporting characters, soundtrack and scenery. I love to see how my friends react as we reach the story’s singular defining triumph: the clip clop clip clop of my high heels as I walk away from the table into the afternoon light of a city straight out of a TV show.

My weapons are only words, and they are designed to leave incisions, but not casualties. I intend only to draw the curtains, not to draw blood. The most that is spilled are tears (not mine), and perhaps, for cinematic affectation, the contents of a fine-stemmed glass across a crisp tablecloth. The air ricochets, in that final frame, with the sound of stilettos, not bullets, and those stilettos themselves are deployed for no purposes sharper than style.

I am less tranquil, however, in art – both the art I consume and the art I create. “Not you too, Black Mamba!” I admonished the screen in the disappointing latter half of the Kill Bill diptych, as our Lady of Atonement herself mellowed out like the rest of us lily-livered mortals. Where was the gore and hunger of the first film? Give me blood and guts – literal and figurative – and righteous rage. And glory, in many spades. Do it with flair – do it like the merry murderesses in Chicago, cell-block-tangoing their way to fully, fabulously, deserved incarceration. The best vengeance is vicarious.

Violence enjoyed or expressed through art, indulged in imagination, or released in aggressive sport, is not senseless. If anything, it is sensible – even sensual. It’s a primal scream in a soundproof room. It’s also an indicator of one’s sanity or lack thereof. The sociopath is consumed by it – the sound-minded, as I said earlier, simply consume it. There is a delicious mercenary quality to brief immersion – by participating in a proxy ritual, be it armchair massacre or arm-wrestling, there is relief and satiation for that bloodthirst without anyone else having to suffer for it. Surrogate slaughter, if you will. It is singular obsession that is dangerous.

Perhaps this is why, for someone with such a taste for brutality, my own pet revenge fantasy is so decidedly sterile. No adrenaline, no deeply visceral satisfaction – but also no horrific aftermath, no guilt, no demons – at least, not new ones. What I want is closure. What I want is conversation. Neither are within my grasp for now, so I’ll take what I can get: staving off my madness, the madness we are all capable of, with another movie marathon, the violence of a Pollock, the brute force of the Bösendorfer in the Boys For Pele album, the drum dance, the deep laugh, the riot of my own angry paintbrushes, the pleasure in the way my own voice delivers a certain sequence of words into a microphone, the power to eviscerate a poem of its pretty so all that’s left is elemental, vital, staccato. Clip clop clip clop.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Certain Completed Geometries

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When I realised that my wallet had been stolen at a train station on my way back from a weekend in another city, my first thought was about my debit card, which a phone call quickly took care of. My second thought was about the currency it had held, which was also abated by the realization that I had – serendipitously – been unable to withdraw more than a small amount at the ATM the previous night, and what more, for reasons completely out of character, had stashed enough change in my pocket for a couple of teas and a plate of hot bhaji for the six hours ahead. My third thought, and the one that made my heart momentarily plunge the most, was about the talismans that wallet had held.

There had been two – both gifts. A Buddhist one for grief, given to me the night before the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And another one, which had been personally blessed by a deceased mystic, and which had come to me through a surreal collusion of dreams, magic space and psychic reciprocity. The second was profoundly sentimental; the first less so – but both were meaningful. What startled me was not that they were gone – but that they had gone at the same time.

I hadn’t always been this sort of person – the sort who wears, who keeps, who trusts. But ever since I became this sort of person, I’ve seen that the nature of talismans is to offer temporary protection. The nature of talismans, in essence, is to get lost. We ourselves grow too attached to them to let them go, let alone recognise that their work has been done. They must be wrenched from us in acts of fate, in seeming carelessness, and we must accept their disappearances as markers of certain completed geometries.

The carnelian stone I carried in my jeans pocket from one crucial meeting until I lost it somewhere in a flurry of hotel rooms, while the career catalysts it had accompanied culminated in certain profound and quantifiable rewards. The dead butterfly that simply vanished from my wardrobe upon my return from a shattering retreat. Time and again I have found them, recognized them as talismanic, and learned – after the initial sense of disappointment and shock – to acknowledge their departures as necessary closures.

What does this mean then, to lose these two amulets at once? One was for forgetting, the other for remembering. The first was to help with the surrender that bereavement demands, the other was the lamp left lit so I could find my way back to a place that in moments – in this day to day reality – seems sometimes to have been almost illusory.

I would like to think that perhaps I have finally learnt how to see in all sorts of darkness – that the heart has memorised the map, and neither torches nor known yet treacherous paths are necessary to return to or to honour that which has been lost.

What have I forgotten, and what have I remembered? With both of these talismans gone, I wonder now not just what has come to its denouement, but what I will find next. What will it see me through? And when it goes, what will I have learnt to see by then?

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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Sadness And The River

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How much closer it is to morning than it is still night doesn’t matter, but I am talking to someone I love across time zones. We are talking about ourselves, two or three years ago, marveling at how much like fiction the details of our lives then sound now. We’re a little older, cynical but outwardly thriving. We’ve had success and scandal since. We’ve relocated. Most of all, we’ve calcified. We are shells of who we were when we were poor, unpublished, camping out on couches.

How the hell did we do it? What the hell were we living on? You need to understand – we aren’t giggling over anecdotes. We’re trying to figure out what we lost, and how we might possibly get it back.

I confess that I barely remember individual incidents. I was so alive at the time, I wasn’t keeping count. Everything is a blur of readings and conversation, fashion and addictions and the lights and darknesses of the city I left my soul behind in. It’s funny to think of it now, how a bohemian, barely legal immigrant and a boy wonder acted like they owned it. I’m convinced, still, that we did. You own cities not by living in them, but by loving them. Enough to spend the night at a station after the train service stops. Or to risk your life border running. These are only examples. They say nothing of how a person will fight for what they need, for who they are. They say nothing of what we were, or how far off the map we’ve detoured.

“Needs change,” he says. “We had such simple ones though.”

We fought for ourselves, for one another, but eventually, we also fought each other. We fell apart. Things caught up (my visa status, mainly, but enough has been said and speculated about that). Then he heard I was leaving, moving back to India, and called from a number I didn’t recognise. He said he needed to hear one of my poems, to get over someone, a person he would pursue halfway across the world soon after. I didn’t think till much later that maybe he needed to hear it to get over me.

The poem “Boot Theory” by Richard Siken ends thusly: A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river/ but then he’s still left/ with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away/ but then he’s still left with his hands.

Two years ago, as a survival mechanism, I decided to stop being her. That ridiculous, stormy-hearted woman. But much as I dammed the river or amputated my hands, enough of her ghost has stuck around.

I don’t miss that place; I miss who I was in it. How we measure our histories has as much to do with what we choose to forget, as it does with what we choose to keep. How we determine our futures depends on how soon we realise our folly, and begin the journey back.

So dear one, I’m saying a poem for you tonight. I’m saying more than one prayer. I’m thinking of you and the cities we have known – together and apart. I don’t know what we were thinking but we must’ve thought it was forever. It seemed like it could be. After all, weren’t we?

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.

Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong (trans. Howard Goldblatt)

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Published as part of The Myths series, which retells timeless classics from around the world in the words of some of the best contemporary writers, Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong recreates a two-millennia old legend from China about a woman who travels hundreds of miles in search of her husband, who has been conscripted in the construction of the Great Wall.

Like all of Peach Village, the orphan Binu was brought up to believe that tears are taboo, a conviction that took hold after 300 of its residents had been executed for having wept at the funeral of someone who had fallen from the favour of the King. The women of the village devised new ways to cry, which would leave their eyes dry but their breasts, ears, lips (or which ever body part was most beautiful) wet with tears. Binu wept through her hair, as she does on the day that she discovers that her husband Qiliang has disappeared.

When she learns that her husband has been taken to Great Swallow Mountain, to work on the construction of the staggeringly ambitious Great Wall, she becomes determined to take a coat to him so that he can stay warm through the winter. Warned that this act will carry her death by sorceresses and shunned and envied by her co-villagers for her stubbornness and peerless devotion, Binu sets forth on a journey of a thousand li.

Along the way, she is assisted by a blind frog, whom she suspects is a reincarnated mother looking for her missing son. But she is also accosted by a group of half-deer children, encounters cities where people are sold as “large livestock”, and is chained to a coffin, having been sold off herself as a dead man’s wife. Her weeping takes on legendary scope – she is hired at one point to weep into a vat because her tears contain the five tastes needed for a pharmacy. It overwhelms her to the point where every part of her body begins to cry, and she journeys the thousand li with “eyes dripping like house eaves after rain”, leaving a stream wherever she walks or crawls. As the story proceeds, we understand that Binu did not set out on her adventure under any grandiose illusions of success, but because it was the only thing that, in the face of her loss, she knew how to do.

In the preface, Su Tong says that “Binu’s story is a legend not so much about a woman at the bottom of society, but rather a legend about status and social class”. Perhaps this accounts for the matter-of-fact nature of his retelling, where another writer may have emphasized the mystical and metaphysical nature of events in the story including rebirth, animal familiars, prophecy and the like. Yet Binu’s loss, as all who have endured pain will know, is profoundly intimate. From the work of scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carl Jung, we know that myths exist for the purpose of deconstruction – not in a literary sense, but as a means of projecting our private lives onto narrative structures that allow us to see the bigger picture even as we endure intensely personal experiences.

The story of Binu, in that scheme of things, functions as an allegory on the necessity of grief, and how far one may need to go to truly access – and release – it, against every self-preservative instinct that may prevent it. The great wall that ultimately shatters under the weight of her loss is the one that had been raised by her upbringing, which forbade all but the most discreet, controlled displays of such emotion. Weep, the myth seems to instruct the reader. As Binu herself says to one who questions if she too is dead – “I am still crying, and that proves I am alive.”

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

Manifested Apocalypse

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I feared many things as a child: thunderstorms, plane crashes, the bubonic plague come alive from the pages of books, every flea the potential carrier of a manifested apocalypse.

In all these things, a single binding thread shot through. I never feared losing myself. Only others. I wanted them gathered around me, so that if anything happened, it happened to us all. The dead do not mourn each other.

Today, Mumbai burned. Some have likened it to the events of September 11 2001. I don’t know whether or not it is. But I do know that both times, I cried. Cities I do not know, but know I must get to know.

As someone in a long-distance relationship, events like these rouse particularly tender nerves. To get to the one I love I will need a visa, air tickets, a flight. A friend once told me about a heartrending reality of her relationship: as the half-a-lifetime younger partner of someone whose first wife was very influential, she will not be allowed to go her partner’s funeral when he dies.

This is not the first time I have been in a portmanteau love, split between places. But this is the first time it has been an unwilling separation. I spent the initial couple of months in a sort of morbid surreality. When my partner travelled and didn’t call as planned, I Googled for crashes between origin and destination. There was one time when I actually found one, and I remember feeling all the blood literally rush to my head. The feeling lasted until I realised it was an old report.

My partner and I both moved countries in an effort to carve a viable future out for ourselves, together and apart. It’s been worth it for us both professionally. It has not been worth it otherwise, and these terrorist attacks remind me of it. Reading Sonia Faleiro’s post on being extremely close to one of the points of attack, I thought: blessed are those who are safe because the ones they love are near them.

Recently, a foreign newspaper wrote that the “cultural vibrancy” of my city gives me all the inspiration I need. That isn’t true. In the year since I moved back, I’ve had a certain degree of material success. I’m not ungrateful for this. However, there are things which a healthy bank balance and career recognition cannot rectify. Such as how I watch my back around here, because it’s evident that I am admired but not supported – I am surrounded by crocodile smiles put on because I’m an interesting person to “know”. Such as how I count less than a handful of people here as real friends. Such as how I never fully recovered from the trauma of leaving a city I knew almost as home, because I am still not home. Such as how with my grandmother’s death, I live in a house with a steadily decreasing amount of affection directed my way.

What then, does this mean for me? I don’t know yet. I was talking to a friend about Oprah’s quintessential question tonight: what do you know for sure? I know for sure that in a world increasingly fraught with uncertainty, the distances we place between our selves are only that. Distances we place between ourselves. Distances we choose to.

We were once together in an earthquake. I was angry. “I don’t want to die with you,” I said.

I lied.

The Venus Flytrap: For Fear, Or To Overcome It

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I have been thinking of my grandmother’s death for most of my life. In the beginning, it was her fault. When we were children, she would laugh about coming back to haunt us when she died, a loose-haired, lolled-tongued cliché. Perhaps this was meant as admonishment, but the heart warms to remember. This was a woman who would sit at windows with a cup of tea and casually remark on the ghost inhabiting the nearby tree. For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe.

Years later, living elsewhere, I became possessed by a sort of paranoia about her mortality. I would dream of getting phone calls telling me she had died, and wake weeping, believing them real. There were other sorts of dreams: like one I cherish, in which she told me, “I am you.”

She lived for a year after I came home again. And one day I woke up and she really was dead, but I already knew, and so I followed the sound of crying, spent an hour consoling others, and went to work.

When the first of my sisters was born, my grandmother’s youngest sibling and only brother died suddenly. She went to the funeral, took the next flight back, washed her hair and returned to the maternity ward with a packed dinner, all in the same day. I wonder now if she had known. If she too had watched her brother in the months before, the death in his bones rattling like a pair of dice no one else could hear. Perhaps, as it was for me, foreshadowing was not frightening, but only preparation for a seamless transition.

The dreaming has already begun for my grandfather and I. She told him to stop crying because she is happy. She told me, when I tried to follow them both down a coast, that I had to stay. That she would be back, but I had to stay. This was my dream on the worst day of my grief, when I hoped to die with my grandfather so I would not be left orphaned.

In her heartbreaking memoir, Paula, Isabel Allende wrote of dreaming of her comatose daughter the night before she died. When Allende awoke, Paula’s rabbit fur slippers lay next to her bed.

All her life, my grandmother lost her smile the minute a camera came near her. Yet for some reason, on an evening four years ago that I barely recall, she let me apply makeup on her and take a picture. She is not just smiling in it – she is effervescent.

This is the picture that my grandfather found the morning that she died. This is the picture garlanded in the living room. I do not feel her gone. Every time I step out, there she is, just as she always was.

I was told once that white feathers are the markers of angels. There was one under my desk at work yesterday. I smiled but didn’t think about it – my life is full of synchronicities and surrealities; if I was an atheist, my “faith” would be tested daily.

An hour later, someone asked if the thing on my shoulder was real. It flew to the ceiling when flicked – a moth, like the one my sister had turned to find at the sound of rapped knuckles against a window in our grandparents’ room. Moths in many cultures are the spirits of the dead. It must been with me from when I came indoors. The white feather was gone when I went back to my desk.

For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe. And I do, Ammamma. I do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: A Photo Negative Heart

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I’ve heard of people planting the umbilical cords of their children in their backyards. I think this is a beautiful, poetic idea, with just the right amount of the macabre to make it a well-rounded celebration of life. An umbilical cord in sacred soil – the soil of home, so the body never forgets. I wish my umbilical cord was planted somewhere – the only thing is, I have no clue where that place might have been.

I was born in Madras pretty much by accident, because my parents lived in Colombo at the time. The first home of my life belonged to the Sri Lankan government, as did the next few, because of my grandfather’s political career, which would lead to our eventual, regrettable move to a country I have very hostile feelings toward. We ate on crockery embossed with the lion emblem for years, and to this day when I see that emblem I think of childhood meals.

If my family had chosen to bury my birth matter, it would have been in a place they did not call home, a place they no longer call home, or a place that in spite of many years of residing there was never, not once, home.

I’ve been back in India for almost a year now, and I am happy. But I am in love with my passport-identified home with the same ferocity with which some atheists hate god. For a person to whom no home exists, I am vociferous in my loyalties.

There are, of course, many benefits to the nomad’s life. The ability to make friends, and sever attachments, quickly. Travel. Multilingualism. The chance to constantly reinvent oneself. The double-edged gift and curse of being able to see one’s “native” places with renewed, awestruck eyes on every always too long, and always too brief, holiday.

But to grow up belonging nowhere at all is not a fate I would wish on anyone.

The great Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo wrote of Caracas, “Its space is real, fearless, solid concrete./Only my history is false”. And this is what I feel of Chennai.

I write this sitting in the café in which I have co-curated a photo exhibit and reading series for Madras Week. I am surrounded by images of a city to which both my past and my destiny are irrevocably interlinked, but it has lived within me in a way that makes sense to no one else at all.

I have written this before, but if there is a better description for how I feel, I cannot come up with it myself: Chennai is my photo negative heart. It is my life flipped inside out. At times I feel as though there was one me living elsewhere, and one that grew up between Chennai and Colombo. My two hearts. My homes to which I am bound by invisible umbilical cords.

In company, I am the former. I don’t understand pop culture references, school cliques, certain slang, certain frustrations. I can’t tell you how much I resent this. I am constantly filled with envy at those who have lived in this city, and not had the city live in them, lingering, looming and all-consuming in its distance.

Only when I am alone can I forget this sobering fact: I did not grow up here. There is nothing I can do to reverse it, nothing that will give me back the childhood I should have had, but watch me try.

My umbilical cord was probably destroyed. I make up for it by putting all that’s left of me, body and soul, into the praise of this city.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Paradise In My Pocket

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When people talk about ecological damage, what bothers me most is not that future generations will gradually have less and less to subsist on – I believe too much in abstract ideas to fear that. This is selfish, but I am saddened by the knowledge that even within my own lifetime, sacred places are going to be lost.

When I speak of sacred places, I do not mean pilgrimage monuments. I speak of those things that have allowed my soul to touch centre by being in their presence. These things are paradise only to me. I believe the earth is sacred, and so are coasts and trees. I do not think this is important to anyone but me, just as I expect people to respect that I may not share their beliefs.

I recently resumed work on the novel I have left alone for almost a year, a novel that was begun at all because of one such place: Pasir Ris.

Pasir Ris is a beach in north-east Singapore. It’s a strange place, an aberration in a nation known for its perfectionism – unkempt, wild, lonely, and the water sometimes coagulates with oil. It is barely a beach, by any standards. When I tell Singaporeans that it’s my favourite place in their whole country, they are puzzled. Some of them have never even been there; why would they? There’s nothing there.

But I am writing an entire novel in which the characters, the plot, entire lives and events, are just a way to tell a story about this place that moves me so.

I became obsessed with Ris because of a poem someone else had written. It was years before I discovered that it had been fiction, and by then it was too late. I was miles deep in a story that was more real to me than the scars those lies caused me. By then, it had become my personal sanctuary.

There isn’t the space here to describe all the synchronicities I’ve seen relating to Ris, but one particular incident matters. I had gotten it into my head to have a photoshoot there, dragging a friend clear across a border and then across the island to do it. It transpired that this friend, a multi-award-winning prodigy, had written his first poem at the same beach. We used a clay vessel in the shoot. I left it there because I felt I needed to give something back.

I went back a month later. A single piece of that vessel remained, almost impossibly given all that would have happened in a month. I knew only blessings return that way.

The last few times I was there, I saw that the amusement park nearby was being expanded. I don’t know when I will next go, but I do know it will no longer be my Ris.

Here is the irony of all this: Pasir Ris, like many Singaporean coasts, is reclaimed land. “So much sand,” someone told me. “I don’t know how they found so much. One day it was just there.” Tampering with ecology produced one of my places of pilgrimage, and yet I worry about ecological damage.

I cannot explain this, except to say that the same person who told me about the reclaimed land also told me that because he had grown up by the sea, he did not realise it  had a smell until he was nearly an adult. We only know the worlds we inherit, the metaphors and realities we are lead to believe. We lose these worlds. And we do what we can to immortalize them, to keep paradise in our pockets. I write.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Constellation of Scars — The First Chapter Published In Ghoti

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The first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Constellation of Scars, is available in the summer 2008 issue of Ghoti Magazine.

I recently realised the glaring grammatical error in the first line which, because it still worked on an instinctual level, escaped me for years. All my life I will remember this…

The novel is far from over. I have worked on it in some form or the other for about seven years, but in the form it is in now for about three years. There’s much left to go.

The Venus Flytrap: In The Mood For Nostalgia

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I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.

It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.

When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.

Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930′s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.

I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.

We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.

Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.