Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Venus Flytrap: Legendary Suckers

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It must be terrifying to have it happen, to wake up one morning and find your animals – livestock, but perhaps pets too – completely exsanguinated, three puncture wounds on each carrion, evidence of vampiric occurrence. You would test your gun and say your prayers, tell your neighbours, and little by little the mythology of the creature that did this would grow, as would its trail of carnage.

They say they’ve found it: the chupacabra. But then, they’ve always been finding it, then second-guessing that they have. A fortnight ago, not one but two strange beasts were shot dead in North Texas, and it seemed, not for the first time, that the mysterious “goatsucker” of contemporary Latin legend had been found. And, not for the first time either, these claims were invalidated.

One news report said: “the DNA test showed that the animal was a canine-coyote hybrid and not a chupacabra.” As if they had the DNA of a chupacabra to compare it with and be able to say, conclusively, that it was not one. As if the chupacabra wasn’t exactly that: a canine-coyote mongrel with mange and a bad reputation.

I’m not particularly invested in proving the existence of the chupacabra. I am sure that, to people who’ve seen it, or had it wreak its terror on their farms, it exists indeed, no less than the phenomena I’ve encountered are real to me. I will believe this without a grain of salt, but I fall into that category of people who aren’t affronted by the paranormal. What intrigues me, then, is how scientific efforts to classify this creature are so quickly nullified. For a creature of a relatively short recorded history, dating back to just 1990, it should be rather satisfyingly easy to catalog it as an unfortunate crossbreed and be done with it, putting us unenlightened freaks in our place.

Yet the chupacabra evades once again. And this is what makes me think that it isn’t that the chupacabra, with such a dramatic approach, doesn’t want to be found, but that we do not really want to find it. As with all things stripped of their mystery, it would immediately lose its draw. And we all enjoy a little mystery.

Relative to the cryptids I have known, I feel sorry for the chupacabra. It’s less pretty than a fox, shyer than a vulture, a disadvantaged predator. It hasn’t, thus far, been known to touch babies. I’m not saying I’d like to have one in my life, but having consorted with at least one incubus, turned from my door many more, and jousted with trickster gods and ordinary sleight, I think the poor thing deserves a break.

And then I remember some less supernatural, but equally scary, beings I have learnt (from much experience) to spot on sight, and I understand better: under the decoy of mythology, under the cover of night, those with no quintessential magic of their own perform as all parasites do. Perhaps, like an unconvinced scientist, I too have miscatalogued. What I may have maligned as vampiric might only be chupracabric – miserable, misunderstood, maybe delusional, and profiting from the gullibility of people like me, partial to the profound. I wonder what might happen if I name the next chupacabra I see as counterfeit, and rescind its enigma…

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 at Madras Terrace House

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And it’s a thriller double-biller!

Monica Mody has published work in Wasafiri, Pratilipi, LIES/ISLE, nthposition, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Travel & Risk was brought out this year by the Wheelchair Party Press. Mody is the winner of the Nicholas Sparks Prize 2010 and the Toto Award for Creative Writing 2007. She has just received her M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Notre Dame.

Sharanya Manivannan
‘s book, Witchcraft, was described in The Straits Times as “sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife”. Her poetry has also been published in Drunken Boat, Softblow, Pratilipi and elsewhere, and a personal column, “The Venus Flytrap”, appears in The New Indian Express.

Readings by Sharanya Manivannan and Monica Mody

Wednesday July 21 2010

Madras Terrace House, 15 Sri Puram IInd Street, off R.K. Salai, Royapettah, Chennai (Tel: 4503 8391)

7pm – 8.30pm

Please do come – I think this is the last event before MTH closes its doors, and the fantastic sale at the boutique and the nicest chai kadai in town are also not to be missed.

The Venus Flytrap: The Hungry Bride

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Give me a gnawing like fire ants in the stomach, four in the morning and the night still thick as treacle. I’ll forfeit the noon gladly for this deferred sleep, the bright nip of this hunger guiding my way out of the unlit room. I will give in.

In my kitchen, poltergeists. Against the hour’s yawning silence, the cacophony of tap water tumbling onto pans, the ignited gas stove ticking, the crackle of eager oil. This hunger demands immediate satiation, first orders, and so an egg is whisked, smattered with turmeric and pepper, cascaded in a rush of sputtering onto the pan, turning Midas-gold before my eyes. Sop it up with a side of Sri Lankan “Chinese Chilli” seafood paste – ill-advised and just a teaspoon too much – and it is done. The head is clear. The greater craving can now annex the kitchen, the sleepless eater’s stomach lucid with longings.

Give me the glow of the refrigerator light. Lucky is the insomniac epicurean who has an accomplice, because there is something utterly romantic about this electric illumination, the rectangle of yellow that falls across the dark. The remembered thrill of condensed milk sandwiches eaten by this light as a child, sweet memory warmed along with the reheated idiappom and potato sothi, quiet adult conversation at an hour when everything is louder, more pungent, than life.

Give me the glow of my laptop then, typed conversations with cronies in different time zones, whom I inadvertently curse with obesity and alcoholism – what are you eating, my love, what are you drinking; have another one on my behalf, won’t you? Pangs of the heart and the belly, voracious. Every entreating appetite.

And what, and what, will I eat now, and drink now, after the omelet has settled? What do I do with the ferocious hankering for waffles with maple syrup, or smoked salmon, things I could wait till the day arrives and go out to find, if the wallet can spare it? Worse is the desire for that which cannot be found except by way of travel. Happiness, my friends, is a warm char siew pau. Sadness is living in a country where it does not exist.

How capricious is the mid-night craving. One moment a yen for spice, the next for sweet. The thought of milk toffee, sticky in the teeth and sublime on the tongue, the pining for the rubbery flesh of frogs’ legs with porridge. Survey the spread, between cabinets and fridge: instant noodles, more eggs, milk, cold rice. Coffee – a miracle. This is what happens when you have eaten by day everything you have bought by day. A rueful flashback to a wedge of mutton so tender your thumbnail slid clear into it at lunch, and how you ate each piece as if there would be no tomorrow – or no tonight. Remorse for the half-finished dishes of your past. Again, a desperate longing for places where gluttony is no sin, and the streets bustle all night with grime, steam, oil, even the smells of food lingering in a thin film on your own skin.

Riot in my belly, what will I do with you but wait? I’ll allay this hunger with obsession and promise, hope and fancy, fanning its flames to fever pitch. When dawn rises, I will devour the world.

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: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves

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When the renowned painter Robert Oliver attempts a brutal attack on a painting in a gallery, he is institutionalized under the care of the psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, where he retreats into a sullen and complete silence. Marlowe, who in his fifties lives a reasonably contented life with little upheaval, finds himself inexplicably drawn to his patient’s case. The mystery of Robert Oliver’s outburst, as well as his charisma and extraordinary expertise, have an unusual effect on Marlowe. To his own surprise, he begins to take an unprecedented, even unprofessional, interest in the case.

All Marlowe knows about why Oliver brandished a knife at a painting depicting the Greek myth of Leda’s rape by a swan is that it has something to do with the enigmatic woman who fills sketch after sketch and canvas after canvas of Oliver’s work at the institution, as well as something to do with the antique bundle of French letters he keeps re-reading. The more Marlowe observes Oliver, the more he too becomes entranced with this otherworldly muse.

Thus begins a pursuit of an answer to the mystery that deepens into a pursuit of the truth itself and the setting aright of historic injustice. From the Washington gallery where it all began, Marlowe’s research takes him first to other American cities, then as far as France and Mexico. In order to unravel the secret of Oliver’s muse, he relies on what the artist’s other women – his ex-wife Kate and recent lover Mary – can tell him. The quest becomes the central force of Marlowe’s life.

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves is a novel about this obsession, and others. It is also a novel about possession – the ways in which inspiration and desperation can make us act beyond our wills and radically alter the trajectories not just of our lives, but of history itself. And although it lacks a sense of urgency or tight plotting, and too often gives in to small failings like over-description and meaningless detours, in the yearning of its characters, a clear sense of their passions is evoked. And this is ordinary yearning – only Oliver, whose genius sets him apart anyway, suffers from longing that is anything other than human, daily, and universal. The power of art transforms even the most commonplace of lives.

While it does suffer from some flaws in execution, and could have been more powerful in the hands of a more creative writer, The Swan Thieves is certainly recommended as a light yet absorbing read. At nearly 600 pages it provides several days’ worth of entertainment for the reader who enjoys a mellow mix that’s neither too literary nor too lowbrow. Although written in an unremarkable pedestrian style, and ultimately far too predictable to really qualify as a mystery, there is something both engrossing and satisfying about this book. It is as though the inscrutable Robert Oliver and his muse exert their spell over the reader as much as they do over Marlowe; we cannot help but be rapt.

An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.

Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish

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At a certain point in his piscine-inspired circumnavigation of India, Samanth Subramanian does the one thing that seals the deal as to his dedication to his research: he swallows.

Although he contends, in conversation before the Chennai launch of his book, that he could have written the remarkable non-fiction debut that is Following Fish even if he were not a fish-eater, his swallowing of a live murrel fingerling (not to mention the utter relish with which he describes the seafood he consumes on his travels), suggests otherwise. For someone who spent a decade getting over the disgust of seeing a whole steamed fish as an adolescent, this book is a more than satisfying penance for the deficit.

But rarely is this exploration of fish purely epicurean, although some of the most evocative segments of this book are precisely about this aspect. In Kerala, for example, fish becomes quite literally a side dish in the pursuit of toddy. In Mangalore and Kolkata, searches ensue for different variants of the perfect fish curry. But there’s much more. The live murrel fingerling is ritually swallowed whole in Hyderabad hardly as an adventurous challenge to the palate, but as a cure for asthma. Mumbai’s fish curries are first marinated in the tensions of migration and the question of whom a city could truly belong to. And these are only some of the kinds of fish he follows – even the fishes he encounters that are released back into the water upon capture, or never even seen but understood as the linchpin on which a story pivots, serve as introductions into ways of life and coexistence. In nine eloquent chapters, Following Fish casts lines all along India’s peninsular coast, from Bengal to Gujarat (Orissa is given a miss as two strong leads presented themselves in Maharashtra), and at each place, its author seems to reel in a completely different catch.

Asked what the fish would be to him if it could be only one thing, Subramanian says, “a window”, then apologizes for the clumsy metaphor before continuing. “But it’s multiple windows isn’t it? Every place you open a window, you get a glimpse of another world.” Clumsy or not, it’s a neat capsule for the many narratives that emerge: food and culture, sport and commerce, history and change.

There is much to admire in this collection, not least among them a particularly assured writing style. The narrator himself surfaces infrequently; as far as possible, the stories are about everyone other than himself, and its spare sentimentality is one of its greatest strengths. This is doubly commendable not only for having eluded the modern tropes of the confessional voice, but also because in spite of it being a work with an certain detachment, there is no sense anywhere that this is a dispassionate project.

“I would still classify a lot of this work as journalism, or perhaps narrative journalism” says Subramanian. “And of course, the first rule of journalism is to put yourself outside the story. You have to go there knowing that you have zero knowledge and everybody else is relatively an expert.” Marketed as the first travelogue in the nonfiction narrative genre in India, Following Fish sets a high standard in its reportage and the perfectly balanced pitch of its reserved yet engaged voice.

Nowhere is this skill more evident than in two captures dealing directly with dying cultures. In what is arguably the book’s richest chapter, a community of Catholic fishing-peoples in the Tuticorin district are brought alive in an account that is at once part anthropology and part farewell tribute. Elsewhere, Subramanian lets down his characteristic objectivity in his documentation of the effect of tourism in Goa, where he says the loss of a fishing culture is particularly poignant, because “everybody fishes – not just commercially”. Modernization and its impact on fishing communities troubles him, but he labours under no delusions of activism: “The eternal plight of the journalist is, can he change things? A journalist can only write things. The next step depends on others. In every single state I visited, I heard this complaint. It’s probably the single uniting factor among the communities. The displacement is happening everywhere and in a lot of cases it’s a particularly poor state of affairs”.

Among the many things that this book might be, it stays truest – and does proudest – the purpose the author has intended: a travelogue. “A travel book should not be a how-to-travel book,” he says later at the launch. ‘It should just be a log of what was experienced – that’s where the word travelogue comes from.”

And travel writing in this age is significantly different from its predecessors (Subramanian pegs the beginning of the genre at the writings of the 5th century Greek historian Herodotus) by virtue of how easy it has become to actually cross distances. “Earlier, the journey itself was about the story. For Marco Polo to go to China was difficult. Now it is so easy to get on a plane – so the work becomes focused on the destination itself.” Following Fish was not, as its structure might indicate, a faithful journey along the coastline, but the culmination of a series of trips over around two years to locations along it. In this sense and in others, it is a methodical book, tightly plotted and cohesive, yet with possibly more charm than a more meandering exploration might have.

Following Fish is a highly accomplished debut, the kind that makes it tempting to assume it as a barometer for the future of its genre in this country. While so grandiose a proclamation might best be withheld, suffice to say: the splash this book deserves to make should have quite an interesting ripple effect.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.