Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Venus Flytrap: The Flower Power Party Guide

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Everybody knows that spouses come to resemble each other, and if you’ve ever been bored on the Internet you’ve probably also seen that animals and the people who keep them share some similarities (or perhaps just a hairdresser). One expert usefully asserted that you could spot a hound owner from a mile away because they “look very doggy”.

But for company that neither vocalizes nor poops, you can’t go wrong with plants – and I have a feeling there’s a kind of foliage just for you. Recently, nodding obsequiously through a particularly boring conversation, I spaced out and thought of how the whiskers this woman was sprouting, elegant and sporadic as they were, were not unlike the bristles of a black bat flower.

Rewarded with a great solo party trick after years of deep poetic thoughts about trees and flowers, I suddenly enjoyed looking around the room. There were the clusters of weeds, the sycophants, all different variants: pretty and harmless dandelions, downright irksome poison ivy, and the honestly rather useful St. John’s wort and cannabis. The last one might have been more than a metaphorical sighting. Not that I could tell.

And that one over there – she surely grows bonsai; her soul itself seems corseted in a trellis. A little sad, a little less interesting than the bougainvillea and the pepper vines snaking their papery petals and heart-shaped leaves along the lengths of supportive spines. Not quite sycophants, those, just Sitas.

Hello, night-blooming cereus – why are you never as fun during the day? And over there’s a teetotaler, but you can’t be condescending to a Rose of Jericho, not when his sense of humour is even drier than his drought.

The cacti are actually a lot of fun: they’re a little prickly at first, but they really know how to hold their liquids. Anyone who vomits qualifies as a corpse flower, but only if they’re within smelling distance (otherwise, they may just be a different sort of plant entirely: the factory kind). Speaking of which – it’s also much easier to ignore the inebriated idiot taking off his shirt if you think of him as a deciduous tree.

Thankfully, though, there are other kinds: the banyan around whom the party inevitably congregates, the resilient olives (sometimes symbolically holding martinis) and maybe an ancient bristlecone pine or sequoia, still living it up and sharing everything they’ve seen along the way.

Including perhaps – through we’ll try not to stare – the cute little hothouse flower accidentally flashing her Georgia O’Keefe. A blush of shy mimosa pudicae, meanwhile, curl up and hide for shame.

I don’t know about you, but I always start the evening off as a narcissus. Vanity trumps misanthropy every time. Before the bloom wears off the rose, though, I’m preening with the lot of them. Sometimes I even get mistaken for celebrity flora, the kind mentioned in holy texts for example: sagacious bodhi trees and Lebanon cedars. I’m able to hang around only so long as they don’t realize that my own superstar qualities are fictional, and then I’m booted out along with the Faraway Tree and the Two Trees of Valinor.

And then there I’ll be, sulking and swilling something in the corner (and you know what my ultimate totem plant would have to be): trap-shut, thorny, digesting my findings.

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.

Dead Centre

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The 50 poems since Witchcraft was published two years ago are perfectly halved into two different manuscripts. Which means I am either halfway through or almost finished with them, depending on whether you take the view that it’s 30 poems or 50 that make a volume.

Maybe I could tell you more about them.

Bulletproof Offering

The part about this manuscript that is easy to talk about is its mythic element. Set in what is essentially the Jungian forest, the poems deal exclusively with this suffering, an anguish so deep that one can hardly keep from burning down the forest herself. The sufferers here are Sita and Lucifer. Sita spends most of her life in exile, in the wilderness — and at one point she is exiled in paradise, the most beautiful garden on earth. Lucifer, in the Persian myth of his fall from grace, is exiled from paradise for refusing to bow to any other than God. Both suffer because of an impossible devotion to their divine beloveds. Both are demoted divinities – Sita is named in the Rig Veda, which predates the story of Rama,  not as the earth’s child but as a goddess of fertility and harvest in her own right, and Lucifer was the most exalted of the angels. Both enter the underworld, walking through fire.

At some point, perhaps when the book has come out, I would like to tell you about the odd cosmic synchronicity (and hilarity, a counterpoint to the cosmic heartbreak at the centre of all this) that helped my research. The Ramayana found me in multiple incarnations, in multiple moments, often in incredible scenarios. The motifs in the Sita poems are (naturally) of the earth, the trees, light and shadow, mirrors, and a mysterious place in the forest where she is loved and left behind. The Lucifer poems have a cosmic angle in the literal sense — Lucifer is the Latin for “lightbearer”, and is associated with Venus, the morning star, the planet of love. Before I began to work with this archetype, I had been pondering the pulsar, the dying star that emits a death song, imprinted in the universe for light years after And so the motifs in these poems are astronomical.

I tell people that Witchcraft is a very depressing book but many have told me they read it to cheer up (and as an aphrodisiac, in which case, happy to help and cheers). I think Bulletproof Offering is a very depressing book that is likely to do neither. But it means so much to me — these archetypes have been necessary for my very survival over the past two years, and I’m so attached I almost don’t want to finish the book and have to let them go.

Cadaver Exquisito

In the parlour game Exquisite Corpse (I prefer the European name for the working title, because the English one already belongs to a famous journal and many other things), a piece of paper is rotated around a room, and players take turns adding a new image or word to it without having seen the ones that came before. The simplest version might consist of three players, who divide a page into three and each draw a head, a torso and feet. The resulting creature might be grotesque or humourous — a cat’s face, a mermaid’s breasts, a chicken’s claws perhaps.

I’ve been consumed with the notion of dismemberment.

To have one’s feet in one location, one’s heart in another, and one’s ideas in a third is a sort of dismemberment. Having your life torn to pieces is another kind. Both inform this work. If Bulletproof Offering is the mythic, psychospiritual landscape I inhabit, then Cadaver Exquisito is its absolutely literal cousin, a purgatory I could pick out on a map. The soul a glass-stringed kite, tethered in this undergrowth, yearning for release. What you will read here are poems of the city, poems of inertia, poems of desperation and a displacement that cannot be romanticised (though, of course, I try a little).

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You may have seen a number of pieces from both books already, though some of what I think are the strongest poems have yet to find individual homes. At this time, neither collection has been committed to a publisher. I have yet to start my search, and I find the idea daunting. One of the only things I know for sure is that this time, I want to work with folks who have their distribution sorted out.

I feel very far removed from Witchcraft, and deeply immersed in these two manuscripts. I was confiding in a friend recently about the disconnect I feel from my readership, my uncertainty about whether my poems really have one, and he suggested that I do more to meet them halfway. So here I am, meeting you halfway, with my two halfway books, hopeful.

The Venus Flytrap: Damsel In Dangerlok

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Being of a consummately indolent species, and what more, having recently crossed into the zone of being over a quarter of a century old (and therefore prone to, and hopefully excused for, senility and imperiousness), I consider it a bit of an achievement to finish reading two books in a day. The two I read on that particular day were both autobiographical to some degree – one was candidly subtitled as a memoir, while the other carried all the markings of thinly-disguised non-fiction – but were diametrically opposed in the domestic lives of the women protagonists in question.

Isabel Allende, in The Sum Of Our Days, offered a relatively vanilla account of her matronly interference in bringing her “tribe”, her “people”, together over the course of a decade or so. Eunice De Souza, on the other hand – or more accurately, her alter-ego, Rina Ferreira – went about with parrots sitting on her head (there is proof of this elsewhere – a glorious photo of De Souza doing just this while smoking in her kitchen in her bathrobe exists) in Dangerlok, her scrumptious novel about a lecturing poet, single and past middle age, enjoying her solitude and flexing its margins as and when she pleases. There may have been some vanilla in this book, but it was probably infused in vodka.

I know who my tribe are, and I know them to be both a very small group and one that is widely dispersed. This is how I prefer it, although it helps to have a few dear ones within a reasonable radius. I feel the same way about my “people”, and by this I mean (see the earlier point about imperiousness first) my readers. Recently, I had to count the publications my stories and poems have appeared in and noted there were two dozen – half of which featured my work in the past fifteen months alone.  What made me happiest was that if I made only one new reader as a result of each of those journals, that tallied up to enough. How many true readers can a poet have in her lifetime anyway? A colleague – or a comrade if you will – once told me that he placed the agreeable number at around twenty. That night, having taken my estimate (and a nightcap for good measure), I slept contentedly, assured my work in the world was plodding along as it should.

What occupies me more and more is not the question of whether to live alone or not, but how. I think my needs are relatively simple. A room to sleep in, a room to work in, a well-stocked fridge, some plants, unobtrusive neighbours (if any), and some sort of animal – either a cat with a sanguine personality or a small dog (I didn’t grow up with dogs and want one thanks to both an acquired affection and a need to compensate). Friends are always welcome but can’t borrow my books or trinkets. Nobody ever wakes me unless explicitly requested to.

How soon can I do this and how far away can I get? 25 and already a curmudgeon (but I will tell you this: I was never young). You can rest assured, though, there will be no parrots in my hair. Owls in a tree, though, if I can have that. And butterflies.

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.

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

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Until he turns five, Jack lives in Room with Ma. When God’s yellow face looks in through Skylight, he counts one hundred cereal and eats it with Meltedy Spoon. Then he plays games, sings songs, and watches TV, and when God’s yellow face is gone from Skylight, he lies down inside Wardrobe and watches as Ma lets Old Nick through the door that only Old Nick knows how to open. Jack counts the creaks Old Nick makes in Bed before he finally falls asleep.

Then Jack turns five and Ma tells him that it isn’t true that he and she and Old Nick are the only people, and that some of the things he sees on TV are not make-believe, and that what is outside of Room is not Outer Space – it’s the rest of the world. Only, because he was born in Room (right on Rug), he has never had a chance to see it. And because Ma has lived in Room ever since the day Old Nick tricked her and stole her from her life, neither has she seen it herself in seven years. But now, because they can’t live like this forever, it’s time to find a way out of Room, and to a world that has no idea that Room, or Jack, exists.

Room is the story of a little boy’s world expanding, but in ways that bewilder him and shake to the core everything he has ever believed about what the world itself is. Told in Jack’s voice, Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue’s gripping and deeply stirring novel is on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. This is a story not about trauma and damage – Ma’s kidnapping at 19, subsequent rapes, and the consequences of her life in custody are dealt with only through Jack’s eyes. The child himself is both beloved and loving, and spared the knowledge of his unusual situation until such time that he might be able to reconcile it. What gives Room its power is how it disturbs the reader not by evoking shocking details of human life in captivity, but by turning the question more existentially to confinement, reorientation, and the multiplicity of reality.

Literature about children and adolescents with dysfunctional backgrounds is extensive, but Jack is unlike any other such character. Thoroughly endearing and possessed with a beatific disposition, with a gift for imagination and love that is almost heartbreaking in aptitude, he steals the heart and inspires more awe than pity. Ma, we understand as a complex adult – a teenager who found it within herself to nurture this incredible child under astonishing circumstances, but whose life before and after Room contain other facets. But Jack’s life began with Room. His very first encounter with the world Outside is in during their Great Escape, which he manages single-handedly, and which is the beginning of every challenge that comes as he adjusts to a world beyond his very paradigm of comprehension. That Donoghue has found a way to render a child character who is both innocent, who won’t cut his long hair in case he will lose his strength like Samson and thinks Dora the Explorer is his friend, and yet is so intrinsically heroic and inspiring, is a victory.

Room leaves the reader shaken – disgusted by the criminal nature of what was done to Ma and Jack, disturbed by what it might be like to undergo such an experience, uplifted by the wonder and testament that is Jack himself, and overflowing with admiration for Emma Donoghue’s ability to evoke all of the above. This is a fantastic book, recommended without reservation.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Writ At My Wrist

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Nobody goes to the Kashmiri shops. Not unless one is a tourist, in a rush to find a present, or a girl who can’t find her house key in her handbag, and decides to wander the labyrinthine corridors of Spencer’s Plaza for the hours it will take before someone else can open the door.

The trinkets I wear are all bought in cheaper places. Still, what else was there to do? I was reading Deborah Baker’s The Blue Hand that day, a marvelous imagining of Ginsberg and the Beats in India, and thinking back to a time when this country had also hovered over me “like a necessary light”, a stormy eight months spent in the bowels of Sowcarpet, a Chennai first punctuated by Spencer’s and Moore Market and an outrageous journey to Calcutta – a nostalgic’s Madras, I know now – and then punctured entirely of its charm over me. I was 19 and tempestuous to the point of being almost feral. I left, then returned. It has been exactly three years since moving here properly (and I almost say, with bitterness, permanently), and I can scarcely believe that this is the same life, that I am the same person.

So I meandered through Spencer’s, a woman long free of enchantment, missing a time when the fire in my own belly was my only guiding light, before even the hunger to own a beautiful thing became tainted with a cynic’s restraint. I looked at things I had no intention of buying. And then I stepped into one shop and asked, for no real reason, to see their silver bangles.

Rummaging idly through the large plastic container set before me, what caught my eye was a particular piece, simple but strangely alluring, that was outside on the glass counter, being put away by the storekeeper. I asked for it and put it on. It was perfectly my size.

“Oh that’s just metal, not silver” said Feroze, the storekeeper. “Are you sure you want it?”

“Yes. How much is it?”

Feroze both frowned and smiled at the same time. “Are you sure?” I insisted I was.

And then he said a very peculiar thing. “That was given to us by a peer, a sadhu baba. He said that one day someone will come for this bangle, it is meant for them, and when they come, to give it to them at no cost.”

I was incredulous. Why would a businessperson give away anything at no cost? “Why did you keep it?”

“Because we believe in destiny.”

“And nobody else wanted it?”

“Nobody else wanted it.”

It had been a very long time since I had truly felt the receptivity that led me to trust what he said next. “It was in your destiny to receive it. If you believe, all things come to you.”

Feroze and I talked for awhile. I listened to him speak without aggrandization about faith, and fate. In his, as with many people from his homeland, was the ordinance to carry precious things to places to which travellers could wander undeterred. In mine, in the cusp between disillusionment and belief, was a single band of dull metal in the shape of an unclosed circle.

I accepted the bangle. Later, at home, I opened my handbag and saw the missing key.

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.