Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Venus Flytrap: The Maladjusted Medium

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“These leaves are used in headache ointments,” she said, and handed me a few. They had a interesting, pleasantly medicinal smell. I asked her what the tree was called, but its name is the last thing I remember from that evening.

We were in the playground, waiting for the baby to tire herself out. The woman speaking was employed by my friend, for whom I was translating the conversation. She walked over and tore a bit of bark off the same tree. “This is used to make paper,” she said. “Where I come from, there’s nothing but these trees and maybe twenty houses, spread out far from each other.

“At night it’s pitch dark. By 6pm, my heart starts to palpitate. I can hardly sleep.”

“Didn’t you grow up there?” I asked. “How can you be so afraid? And what are you afraid of?”

“Ghosts,” she said. “I saw one when I was ten years old.”

Later, she would say that she didn’t normally tell people about these things. About how since she had seen that ghost, with its ghastly monkeylike face, she lived in nightly fear. About how some years after that, she developed the ability to channel deities, and exorcise the possessed – only in her case, it wasn’t so much an ability as an inability to resist being taken over. It always happened without her control, on two specific days of the week.

Later, I would also wonder why she had told this story at all – at 6pm on a Tuesday, no less.

It was the first her employer had heard of this side of her, and there were many questions. She carried on talking about her experience as a medium – but mostly, she talked about fear. Her fears seemed normal enough – fear of the dark, fear of spirits, fear of being in train stations at night, fears about negotiating life in this city as an unthreatening, working class woman.

At some point, she stopped me mid-translation. “I don’t want to talk now, I’m getting scared.” But it was too late. Even as we began to change the subject, she started to hyperventilate. Her slight body tensed and shuddered violently, her face contorted in anguish. I ran for the baby, thinking back on an incident from my own childhood in which a possessed woman had grabbed hold of me and flung me around like a crash test dummy. My friend put her arms around her until she calmed, sobbing. We left the playground as soon as we could.

There was only one thing about the possession that disturbed me, and disturbs me still: how a person of such power – a person who had the capacity to support her community as a healer – could have so little control over it. She was at the mercy of her own power. It had, in fact, turned on her.

And doesn’t this ring true for many of us? How easy it is to hide our own light, our own gifts, so as to get along with a hostile environment. But to get by on a mediocre life when one is meant for extraordinary things is to poison the self. On some level we are all maladjusted mediums. How many of the ghosts that besiege you are of your own killing?

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: Deactivation Drama

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I feel inordinately smug when I tell people that I’ve deactivated my Facebook account. The expressions of shock that greet this statement are a testament to the social networking website’s sheer hold over contemporary living. Foraying into Internet hermitude is not just impressive, it’s downright inspiring, it seems: every time I’ve mentioned it I’ve been gawked at like I had just announced I was donating my left arm to science and my right to reinforce a coat hanger.

No surprise, because until certain security concerns reared their ugly heads, the thought of shutting down my account was utterly unimaginable. I couldn’t shake my fists at its time-wasting, stalking-encouraging and superficial-posturing qualities because I was too busy typing a new status update or textually tangoing in response to a friend’s photo. Facebook is the ultimate can’t-live-with-it-can’t-live-without-it paradox of these times.

The morning after my grand departure (and it is grand – in its typically manipulative way, among the rigmarole of confirmations the website presents includes showing you “friends” who might miss you), I woke to a flurry of emails from close friends – actual ones – regarding the departure in question. Nearly all had assumed I had deleted them.

Ah, that delicate thing that is defriending! If I’d just pruned my list instead of plucking my very presence out of the site, I wouldn’t have been deprived of its many benefits But as anyone who uses it will tell you, one of the great farces of social networking is the idea that it helps you form small social systems of your own choosing. Rather, you become connected to everyone you know – regardless of how you feel about them. Facebook has all the complications of real-life tensions, sugarcoated in cheery cybercivility. This was probably why the Superpoke application was invented, thereby simultaneously providing some space to vent within the system and introducing the word “defenestrate” into the common parlance.

I was able to clarify the situation to those who simply asked outright. But as weeks passed, I wondered if less forthcoming folks had taken offense, made assumptions, or otherwise overreacted to perceived defriending. Further complicating things was a loophole that sometimes showed my profile, along with a list of mutual friends – thus conveying the impression that the viewer was deleted, but all mutual friends remained intact. Unbeknownst to me, what decisions were being made – professionally, personally or politically! – based on a presumed snub? What wills was I being written out of, parties disinvited from (I can’t be phototagged anymore, which seems to be the point of most parties these days) and negotiations dropped from as I carried on obliviously in the post-Facebook world?

Social faux pas or not, how much healthier it felt to have my communications go from a superficial broadcast level to a meaningful personal one. Remember kids, stalking is no excuse for not saying hi.

But I write all this in the past tense, despite being still very much off-site, because I must admit there’s a chance that by the time you read this, I’d have reluctantly reactivated. Because when it comes down to it, a hiatus from Facebook is like an impulse wedding – it would be great if it works out, but it’s probably not going to last forever. Staying off Facebook is almost as much drama as being on it.

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 Hum of Many Roads

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Who knows what possesses us in those hours between departure and destination. We give ourselves over to it, the road trip, with a reverence we offer few other things, and perhaps because the road trip is so supremely demanding, supremely absorbing, supremely seductive, we cannot help but acquiesce.

Not all journeys are like this. They all have their thrills, their frustrations, but few bring us so casually close to epiphany the way the long drive does. In trains, the multitudes within oneself jostle with the multitudes outside it; the carriage is choked with impatient energies, even the lucky one by the window is pinned in by bars. Planes terrify in their absence of landscape, the disconcerting inability to sense a trajectory of movement. On motorcycles you may not speak to the person whose thumbs rest at your shoulder blades, or whose waist your arms encircle; it is too dangerous. We may walk, but neither for long nor fast enough. The reality of these methods disenchants their romance.

But the drive, for some or many reasons, continues to occupy a particular glamour not only in the imagination, but in the experiences that validate that ideal. In a time in which distant travel has become almost as nonchalant as commuting, the long drive retains some mysterious aspect. Stretched over an expanse of highway and hours, it carries the intensity of the epic.

There is a suspension of time, a transfiguration, unlike any other kind experienced in travel. The silences we fall into on a drive hold a certain tension. The songs we listen to take on the pathos of hosannas.

The road trip is dramatic: every landscape we enter is a looming one, suffused with evidence of a creative force, architectural or mystical (for at its core every road trip is a pilgrimage) that manifested what meets the eye. Therein lies its seductiveness. We cannot look away. We cannot choose to disengage. Even if we sleep our bodies continue to carry the hum of the road. It lulls and wakes us. It paces our dreams.

The road trip in its essence is romantic, and by this I mean not just what happens between people, though I know all too well what a road trip lends itself to – the ways it can free and frighten and surprise. It’s also romantic in the way in which all great things lend themselves to metaphors and the metaphysical. To be faced with the open road is like being faced with the sea.

In my body I carry not only the hum of many roads, but the knowledge that something about the mysterious allure of the road trip lies in its transformative, even cathartic, power. We leave behind. We put distance between. Every journey, even between the same points of departure and destination, is different, and so there can never really be a going back.

Some take trips to nowhere, but I don’t believe in nowheres, only elsewheres. And I know this as I have known every sob that has overcome me, every madness that has risen in me, every hand that has held mine in the transfigured time between origin and denouement: that elsewhere, that epiphany, can sometimes be the journey itself. What it did to us, and what it made us do.

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.

Reading This Saturday

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Asma and Manasi have been holding poetry meets at a private residence in Chennai for a few months now, and I’m happy to tell you that I’ll be coming out of my cave  for the first time in six months for a reading this Saturday, October 3rd. I’ll be reading from new work, as well as selections from Witchcraft, and copies of the book will be available for purchase.

This reading series is a very informal and intimate one, so if you’d like to attend, please drop me an email and I’ll give you the address and other details.