The Venus Flytrap: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to 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.

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15 responses »

  1. You will feel the emotional pull of Chennai once you have left and start to miss this and that of Chennai. I never miss LA until I have been gone for more than 9 months to a year.

    LA and Chennai are not that far apart in that they are great big beasts of cities that others mock but once one has tasted of it, the memory of it never leaves one’s tastebuds.

    Just today, I was at Dog Beach telling a woman from Bangalore of the delights of Chennai. Dog Beach south of Los Angeles. ;o)

  2. Ms. Jen – Although I agree in theory (distance makes the heart, etc), I think I’d have to disagree in this case. I first moved here in 2004, spent a spiritually battering eight months here, thankfully was able to leave, continued to visit once a year to see my family (visits I could enjoy with a guest’s distance), and then was forced to move back here in late 2007 owing to a number of practical difficulties. So that was three years away, during which I did not miss it, and three years since returning. I did not want to come back, and spent about a year desperately trying to love the place – even defending it against those who mock it (there are several columns in my archive that bear testament to this desperation!), until I gave up and decided to be honest with myself. I am – or at least long to be – elsewhere, always. And I suspect that, given the reality of these past three years, even if I were to leave somehow and find myself missing it, it would only be a sort of fool’s nostalgia. Which is fine – better to remember with with a rosy tint than to remember it as it really has been.

  3. Ms. Jen – I guess to truly miss a city like that, you should have grown up there. This might not be a necessary condition, but it is certainly a sufficient one. I miss Chennai dearly – unfortunately the judgment of the so-called “floating population” is bound to be colored by factors like the unforgiving weather, and transient events involving haggling auto drivers etc. I can understand why it is difficult to look past that. Sure, I have had many bitter experiences in the city – but my abiding memory of Chennai is the walk I used to take to the bus stop after college munching on a one rupee samosa*. Time has a way of retaining only the good memories. And reinforcing them. “Fool’s nostalgia” it is certainly not.

    *samosa – A spicy dish with a vegetable filling and a crispy outer crust.

  4. Barath – Again, I’d have to disagree. Many of the places I do miss are ones I certainly didn’t grow up in. My point in the article is that these things are not only subjective, but also happen mysteriously, and cannot always be explained by the duration of time spent there, duration of time since leaving, or experiences accumulated. Just as I would never dismiss your feelings toward your city, I’d appreciate if the same regard could be given toward my feelings toward it. Fool’s nostalgia – of course it would be – meaning I would be the fool if I dismiss my own feelings. And believe me, unforgiving weather and auto drivers have been the very least of my troubles here.

  5. The connections one has to cities, buildings, whatever isn’t bound by the length of stay or the amenities in the city, I feel. That’s a rather superficial way of looking at it (am happy to agree to disagree!) I’ve always taken it to be, the memories and the feelings associated with it, samosas or otherwise. Though, being from Kuala Lumpur, I must say, food does factor in greatly. To each his/her own, I say! I lived in Buffalo for a year, and absolutely love it, but there will always be people, Americans, that mock me for it, choosing not the see the wonderful people I met and the incredibly beautiful memories I have of a dying city. What’s that phrase, one man’s meat is another man’s poison? :)

    x

  6. Meesh – Absolutely. I always shock Singaporeans when I tell them I am writing a novel about a part of their country that nobody likes or visits, if they can help it! Part of its very appeal for me, in fact, is how much that area is thought of as unappealing. But I am on no crusade to change minds – I don’t need to defend it, because I am secure in my feelings for and about it. To each their own. There’s just something really obnoxious about people who insist that if you don’t see a place the way they do, or claim to, you haven’t engaged with it properly. In Chennai’s case, for instance, I actually live here. I experience the city daily. I have earned the right to feel any way I do about it. A lack of emotional geography is not an opinion – it is the absence of alchemy, or chemistry. You can’t really control that, even if you want to.

  7. Sharanya – I never said you *have* to grow up in a city to miss it when you’re away. I have heard quite a few people harbor feelings toward Chennai somewhat similar to yours, and I was merely speculating on some of the reasons why that could be the case. This is not tantamount to dismissing your feelings. On the contrary, it is a bid to try and understand them. You seem to be in a defensive mood today. *ducks*

    meesh – I don’t know if your comments were in reply to mine, but if it was, I should point out that my reference to food should not be taken too literally. I do agree with you that memories do play an important role, and the food is just part of the accumulated experiences.

  8. Barath – Well, if I was defensive it’s because your comment was offensive. You questioned my right to name and know and and question my own feelings (“fool’s nostalgia it is certainly not”). And that thing about a floating population – which, as a resident of this city I am certainly not, but someone like you who lives abroad, actually is!

    But, you were also defensive – why construe an article about the mysterious nature of emotional geography as a takedown of Chennai? It wasn’t.

  9. Sharanya – It was not my intention to come off as offensive. I do, however, need to clear one thing up. I took your phrase “fool’s nostalgia” and applied it verbatim to *my* state when I think about Chennai, and proceeded to say that it certainly doesn’t fit the bill (That’s the content of the last few lines of my first comment). And in neither of my two comments did I once question your legitimacy to like/dislike anything. (And as far as I can tell, the term “floating population” is not offensive).

    The reason I even wrote the second comment was because I was slightly confused with your stand. In the article (and in your preceding comment), you mention that the reasons for such a feeling towards a city cannot always be explained, and yet in your first reply to my comment, you said “….unforgiving weather and auto drivers have been the very least of my troubles here”, which led me to believe that there’s something tangible about Chennai that doesn’t appeal to you. The reason I didn’t pose this as a direct question was because I was afraid it might be something personal that you might not want to divulge.

    I now realize that this comment is indeed rather defensive, but that’s only because you called a sweet little boy like me offensive. :)

  10. Barath – Well, it’s good we discussed this then (rather than assume/presume each other’s meanings). :)

    Well, “floating population” is offensive if in spite of the fact that I still live here, I am lumped into that category, which is what I thought you were doing. I agree that the opinions of certain members of a truly floating population — folks who write about their grandmother’s peacock having an arranged marriage to a maharani’s mango tree and committing sati due to caste prejudice, people on overnight transits, and that truly horrible Lonely Planet reporter among them — should not be taken too seriously. I strongly feel that having lived here for three and a half out of the last five and a half years, and with no present prospects to leave, I’m both an entrenched resident and one who’s earned the right to opinions about this place.

    As for the unforgiving weather bit, that was again a response to the floating population bit. What I meant is that I have had many far less superficial experiences in this city, and that my stand isn’t based on trivial things. If I were to get into the tangible difficulties, that would indeed devolve into a takedown of this town, which isn’t my intention. Similarly, a listing of tangible positives won’t change the fact that I feel the absence I feel. The overarching intangibles form a backdrop to all my experiences here – positive and negative both.

  11. This post touched a chord because I find my own links to places curious. I am deeply attached to Bombay but having moved to Hong Kong it was instant love. Sometimes, I struggled with the guilt of loving Hong Kong more than Bombay. Then I struggled with the realisation that as much as I love Hong Kong (and I think it will remain a city that is part of my DNA even when I move away) I am inexhorably tied to Bombay. Our souls are just made for some cities and I now believe mine is with two of them. On the other hand, I lived in Hyderabad for two years, and although I thought it was a charming place when I was there on holiday, living there was stifling. It has left me with a fear of small towns.

    You have alluded to your feelings about Chennai on and off. Just wondering – would it not be possible to move to some other city in India (if Singapore/Malaysia is not possible) that would afford your personality more freedom?

  12. The Bride – I think I understand what you mean about the fear living in Hyderabad left you with – in my case, Chennai has given me a fear of small towns pretending to be cities. I love small towns and I love big cities. It’s the in-between wannabe that I abhor. As for moving elsewhere, it’s a question of resources and opportunities. The idea of failing and having to return here yet another time is frightening enough for me to want to wait until I can be reasonably sure that won’t happen.

  13. .. and after all that about not dissing it, that its just chemistry thats not come together, that your stand was not based on trivial thoughts, you had to go and say “in my case, Chennai has given me a fear of small towns pretending to be cities”..

    banal opinion, and sounds more than a bit presumptuous…

  14. Dismalworld – Ironic username. Normally I don’t bother to approve, or even if I do, respond to, trolls like yourself. But this time, only because it allows me to further illustrate my point better, I will.

    Banal? But of course. My feelings about this city are incredibly common. Diss it? Hardly. To diss it would have been to say Don’t Ever Come Here, The Only People Who Would Tell You Otherwise Are Folks Who… That brings me to my next point… Presumptuous? Rather rich coming from someone sitting in California (oh yes, IP adds are hardly anonymous. There’s more I could say but I won’t). Unlike you, I have the balls to stick it out in this town. I grumble about it but I engage with it. You — and many like you, whose secret hate of this city leads you to flee it and then transform your self-loathing into a hyper-defensive stance — don’t.

    Frankly, this kind of argument reminds me a great deal of bigots who say that gay marriage will threaten family values. Are family values so fragile that a minority’s private choices will destroy it? A truly great city would never need to worry that one woman’s feelings, one woman’s writings, might diminish its greatness. A truly great city would have lovers, not reactionary defenders. And if a lover is someone who takes the beloved for what they actually are, and leads a life — however demanding — with them regardless, then this city has no greater lover than I.

  15. Omg Sharanya, you simply floored me with some of the points you make here, particularly comment 14. Pullarichuduthu.

    “A truly great city would never need to worry that one woman’s feelings, one woman’s writings, might diminish its greatness. A truly great city would have lovers, not reactionary defenders. And if a lover is someone who takes the beloved for what they actually are, and leads a life — however demanding — with them regardless, then this city has no greater lover than I.” I love this argument on so many levels, as I do your admission to being one “who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither.”

    And you’re soooo right about the fact that emotional geography is not something one can consciously create. But once the “click” happens (as it miraculously did, for me) it’s like how they say “you can take the girl out of the city, but you can never take the city out of the girl”, all the way! :-D

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