Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Venus Flytrap: Viva La Diva

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True to her reputation, the diva never lets on that she knows how to swim, but shoved off a plank, she’ll stay afloat like a Salem witch. And what’s more, she’ll kick – hard, with resolve, and at anything that tries to keep her submerged. If you think the diva can be drowned, you’re wrong. Even when it looks like she’s gone under, she’s only blowing bubbly kisses to the coral, and you can rest assured the coral is waving back.

The diva is all kinds of cool, of course. She refuses, not straddles, dichotomies. She appraises Picasso’s division of all women into two categories (goddesses and doormats), assumes herself to be in the former, then chews out the master himself for his lack of imagination. She prays for miracles but distrusts deus ex machinae. She’s rumoured to bite, but mostly bleeds. The diva, she cries. Then she puts her face back on and sets her jaw. The diva is best met in mirrors.

Because to own your divahood isn’t just to put on your red heels on a complicated day and parade anyway. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance. The diva is the one who laughs like a woman with straight teeth though hers are not, the one who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve but seared on her skin. The diva learns how to dive eventually – but only because she’s been pushed off the edge so many times.

When I say I speak in defense of the diva, I’m not speaking in defense of the bitch, the backstabber or the beauty queen. I’m speaking in defense of that little flame inside that picks its broken self off the kitchen floor and then makes you do the same after every extinguishing. That flame is your diva, because only something so bulletproof, so deliberately defiant, can endure so much. And that, the diva, for all her tantrums, for all her impossibilities, certainly is. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance, and the diva herself is by nature irresistible.

My favourite fictional diva is Hedwig from the cult musical-turned-film Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Surviving heartbreak, plagiarism, communism and a botched sex change operation that leaves her not between but beyond gender itself, Hedwig takes the world on with just one wing and an assortment of wigs. “It’s what I have to work with,” says Hedwig, in the film’s most chillingly universal moment. The diva takes what she can get, works her tragedy into triumph, and dares to ask for much, much more.

“Kiss me and you will see how important I am,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal, and for this line alone I have forgiven her everything else. I love my Mae West, my Maria Elena, all the multiple goddesses I channel with affection and aspiration. But tonight, I’ll toast to the Plath who wrote that line. I can see her now: open face, determined chin, the eyes of a beggar but the smile of a coquette. The diva who will say it, feel it, write the poem, feel even worse, and publish it anyway. And when they ask why, I’ll answer as myself, my most favourite diva of all: I don’t kiss and tell, I just kiss and write poems.

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.

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My Friend Sancho And Amit Varma In Chennai

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I’ll be in conversation with Amit Varma about his debut novel, My Friend Sancho, on Monday evening. My Friend Sancho was longlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. Amit Varma is a winner of the Bastiat Prize, was named one of Business Week’s 50 Most Powerful People In India, and publishes India Uncut.

Details about the event:

May 18, 6.30 to 9pm

Landmark Bookstore, Nungambakkam, Chennai

The Venus Flytrap: Sleepless In A City That Never Wakes Up

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To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to bear witness to one’s own insanity. Nothing between midnight and morning but the agitated flutter of the mind, or the pacing of the reprieve-deprived body from window to window, watching how the light changes in each one. The one from which you watch planes taking off, indulging in yourself the envy of the exiled. The one from which sad, ghostless palms flap their leaves in a wind that teases of but never delivers thunder. Even the spirits don’t stay up with you here. And you yourself, sapped and belligerent, are hardly any company.

I stopped being able to sleep properly six weeks ago, upon returning from my most recent hegira. I call them hegiras because that is what they are. I need to escape this city for the sake of my soul. The further behind I leave it, the closer I return to something resembling myself.

What can I tell you about a month and a half of chronic insomnia? I can tell you there is a point you hit where you begin to enjoy it. How nothing stirs but that which stirs within you. The silence. The sadness. The solitude. All the things you must stave off during the day, but can unwrap quietly and feast on at night. I can tell you how you begin to take pleasure in becoming a creature of nocturnal habits. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is not to live a shadow life, but to shine light on the cry of a heart in eclipse.

The night drifts on fitfully, always too fast. You like the faraway first call of the muezzin; maybe it reminds you of a city you loved once, which, for all its faults, didn’t kill half its time in slumber. You like the sounds of the train that cannot be heard in hours of traffic. But with these comes the sunrise, and how it comes – hijacking the night sky with an impatience you recognise in nothing else here but your own wretched longings. You will come to hate it – all it brings is one more day you will lose to this city.

On an average night I wake five or six times. I dream almost every night – in snatches, intensely symbolic dreams that please me more than anything the day brings. I lie awake for hours, sometimes too tired to move. I am in grief. I am in the labyrinth. I never have nightmares, and I suspect my waking life compensates enough for this. I am alive here only when all else sleeps and I, alone, am awake.

The days pass without consequence, but at least the nights are complicated. This is the only way I can live in a city of no rain or redemption. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to be its only sentinel, and to see from that vantage point that there is nothing here to save.

Real cities never sleep, just like the people who don’t belong to the ones that do. The trouble with this city and all cities like it is how pleased it is to remain comatose. How pleased it is to shut it eyes and never dream of more.

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: Healing, Subtle As A Scar

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Without going into details, I was attacked last week and left with gashes on my chest which required medical attention and an injection. They were inflicted on me at the beginning of a nightmarish evening, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the damage for myself until the next day. What happened then surprised even me.

Streaked across my decolletage, above my heart, were three bright, stinging maroon gashes. The deepest and longest rose from near my armpit like a wave unfurling in a torrent of movement. The one beside it looped in a small knot somewhere at the start of its trajectory. The last was shortest and extended almost directly under my suprasternal notch, that evocative hollow at the base of the throat. They were unequivocally, unexpectedly, beautiful.

Resting beside them on a thin silver chain was the rose quartz I had purchased just hours before the attack. I’d bought it to heal my heart chakra, and the literal effect – the surgery, if you will – laid bare across my flesh was not lost on me. Healing is rarely subtle work. I trust that which hurts.

Between the scarlet of the scarring and the calm pink of the quartz, dramatized against the brown of my skin, the only logical thing for me to do was to reach for my camera.

In the photographs that emerged, I look serene where my face can be seen. Where it cannot be seen I am all clavicle and throat, whisper of cleavage, shadow and light. The gashes tether every picture.

I know all about the documentation of scars. I’ve always found catharsis in creativity, in taking the trauma of a situation and subverting it. It is a manner of control, of reclamation, of hijacking Pavlovian associations before they fully form and replacing them with artistic ones. It is the duty of the artist to interrogate every experience. But although I had experimented with the subject of the self, in particular the wounded self, in a variety of disciplines – from autobiographical writing to self-portraiture in oil painting, and the body itself in dance – my photographic self-portraits had never been driven by anything but vanity. The horror of the scarring, however, and the overwhelming sensuality of their placement, had me transfixed.

Most people who saw the photographs reacted with horror. “I can’t look at it, Sharanya – I’m sorry, I just can’t,” friend after friend told me. I’m certain there were some who reacted with a different kind of horror – appalled at my exhibitionism, perhaps. I am very well aware that what to me was a meditation on pain, a means of negotiating with the multiple complexities of an event that had left me shaken and hurt in more ways than one, was for others just victim vogue.

The responses intrigued me. I had shared these photos not to shock people, but because it was truly healing for me to have taken them. Those close to me, I realised, were reacting to the violence I had experienced, and not to the process by which I was dealing with it. Many avoided it altogether. “I wanted to call and ask to meet,” said someone, when we eventually spoke. “But I saw the pictures.” Only one person told me the photos were beautiful, and asked – almost as an afterthought – what had happened.

I answered the question very rarely, when it was asked. What mattered was that if I was well enough to subvert it, it meant I had survived it.

The body is the canvas of our personal mythologies, but we are conditioned to titivate and obscure its realities. The reality of my body today includes three beautiful gashes across my chest, just as it includes the scar at my navel and an assortment of idiosyncrasies better left to poetry. They may fade, or they may stay, testament. The body and its blood. All of it is beautiful. And every last mark I carry is mine.

There are scars we see, and then there are scars we can’t. Perhaps what drew me to honour these ones, etched across my body with brutal intention, was that to do so gave me another way of calligraphing the invisible ones. I was here. I am here. Here I am.

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