Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

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In June of 2008, when Barack Obama was still a presidential hopeful, TIME Magazine published a photograph in which, palm over palm, the candidate held a mélange of metal trinkets. The magazine called them his “lucky charms”, and they included an open bangle that had belonged to a US soldier in Iraq, an icon of the Madonna and child, and a tiny statuette of Hanuman.

            As his two-term tenure as President of the United States comes to end, Obama emptied out his pockets again for a special interview on Youtube. As was widely reported in the Indian press, the monkey god figurine is one he still carries everywhere. I remembered this from 2008; that had been the year that Hanuman had become a vivid presence in my own life, and indeed was the emissary through whom I befriended my muse of many years, Sita. But the tone of the recent coverage bothered me.

            These are the talismans that Obama chose to display during that video interview: a gift of rosary beads from Pope Francis, with a pendant of Christ on the cross; a shiny poker chip that a burly biker gave him while he was on the campaign trail prior to his first election; an Ethiopian Coptic cross, origin mysterious; a Buddha statuette, a monk’s present; and, of course, the Hanuman, given to him by ‘a woman’.

            Taken together, these amulets are a handful of syncretism. Gifts given to a leader as totems perhaps of blessing and protection but more importantly, of responsibility. He carries them on his person the way auto-drivers paste Ganesha-Jesus-mosque stickers on their front windows or on their handlebar cabins. One trinket on its own would only be a personal fetish, but a collection amounts to much more, symbolically and otherwise. And in the current national climate, there’s something just a little saddening about the media focus on that Hanuman statuette. The Buddha too, lest we forget, is just as Indian in origin. Those rosary beads are a part of the worship of millions of citizens. And what, since we’re jousting, could be more secular than a poker chip, representative of the gamble each of us takes on life, every single day?

            Obama may or may not attach spiritual significance to the talismans he carries – and it is his prerogative to discuss this or not. But what he certainly shares openly is that each of these objects was given to him by a specific person – a pope, a monk, an undescribed woman – and reaching for them reminds him of his commitment to people. How successful he has been at this commitment and whether he has acted on it meaningfully in his time in power is a matter of argument. But the least there is to learn here is that one must believe one can do more than try. And when we seek to touch the divine, by any name we call it, let us not overlook that among its marvellous, and certainly, imitable qualities is the one known (not without basis) as ‘humanity’.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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A New Short Story

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To celebrate its second anniversary, The Hindu Business Line’s BLink magazine has published a fiction special. My short story on Sri Lanka, family and faith, written exclusively for this issue, is in it.

Warakapola

In Warakapola we stop for the first time, at the Bhadrakali-Hanuman kovil by a hill on the A1 highway, the first of many roads on this journey. We climb the few stairs to the temple to see its strangely companionable deities, but our grandfather gets out of the vehicle only for the Pillaiyar at its base. He holds a dried coconut with both hands, and circles it in the air, making his entreaties to the god of beginnings. And then he breaks it open on the ground, using his better arm. On the second try, it cracks open.

We bought the coconuts as we left Wellawatte and divided them into two bags. One is in the backseat, the other lodged between the driver and my grandfather, in the front. They must not be stepped on. We stretch our limbs out and try to sleep.

Nobody tells us — although there are those in the van who know — that it will be 10 hours to Batticaloa, in all.

You can read all of “16 Coconuts To Pillayaradi” here.

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

kaliflower

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Looking For The Woman (In Service Of The Man)

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The French have a terribly sexy sounding (but actually kind of sexist) saying – “Cherchez la femme”. “Look for the woman.” If there’s a lacuna in the alibi – look for the woman. If it doesn’t add up – look for the woman. If there’s a missing motive – look for the woman. Wherever there is a problem, in short, there is usually a subplot that involves a woman, a tussle for her affections or a drama of her machinations.

I’ve never had reason to drop that phrase into a conversation (never mind that I don’t actually speak French – touché!). Yet I observe its variants around me. There’s a particularly intriguing power dynamic that has nothing to do with an individual’s influence, and everything to do with tacit hierarchy: the curious phenomena of reflex loyalty between and towards men.

Like all deeply-entrenched problems, it’s most evident of all in one-on-one conversation. I’ll share something with a man – an observation of or experience with another man. And my companion will shrug, flash a micro-reaction (a millisecond of a nod or a Cheshire grin) and deftly deflect the topic. It’s not that he doesn’t agree with me. He’s glad I said it, so he didn’t have to. But he just can’t give his bro away. Even if he knows me better than he does him. Even, in fact, if he’s never met him. It’s a response that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The eerie sense that he thinks that he’s looking at the woman, i.e. doesn’t have to look for the culprit. When loyalty is drawn along any demographic line, be it gender, caste or any such category, injustice abounds.

But here’s the reason I’ve never had reason to drop “cherchez la femme” into conversation – I wouldn’t. The only thing scarier than automatic bro-loyalty is internalised misogyny. Which is to say, when the person saying “look for the woman” is herself a woman. There’s no easy way to say this: but in the same way that many men are raised to trust one another first, many women are conditioned to trust one another least.

The woman who rats her colleague out to the resident jerk because she feels ashamed to have confided in her about an abusive partner. The one who would rather believe a distant relative than her molested daughter. The one seeking public office who wants to uphold the two-finger rape test, or criminalise abortion. Each story is equally appalling, and ultimately predictable – in each one, she will pick the man, any man (or “The Man”, as in the one the cool kids stick it to). Over any woman, including herself.

Blind loyalties, stark betrayals. Both in the service of patriarchy. The women unfortunate enough to be tangled up with these turncoats – whether anecdotally or in actuality – get the raw end, every time.

Which is why when I hear an unpleasant story involving an alleged villainess, I do look for the woman. I look for her perspective. I don’t automatically side with her. But I refuse to automatically side against her. Sometimes femme fatale really means femme fatality.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Jarful Of Joy

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At the start of this year, I decided to keep a jar of wonders. Each time something very good – truly meaningful, or in the form of an accomplishment – happened, I wrote it down, folded the paper and kept it in a container meant just for this purpose.

Some years ago, during a time of struggle, I had embarked on a similar exercise, though far different in scale. Each day I would find three things I could be thankful for and write them down. They were the smallest things. A chance to wear certain earrings. Somebody’s smile. Ice cream. They were all I could have at the time.

A new year is like a birthday: no matter what we say about not taking them seriously, we do. Something in the stardust of our bodies responds to the orbit of the earth around the sun, and so we keep score, mark off tallies, calculate and clear the slate. Some years allow you to enjoy looking behind you; some years demand that you turn your back on them.

And where do I find you? Here we are at the very last page of that free tearaway calendar everyone has in their kitchen. Are you looking forward, or are you holding back? What did you make, using what you were given, this year? What do you carry with you as you step over, trying to keep your lucky foot forward, into the next?

It doesn’t feel like December in Madras this year. It’s not cold enough. It’s quiet, too. The intangible fabric of the city has been creased by the strandline of floodwaters.

But tomorrow can still feel like January. We’re only two weeks deep into mystical, romantic Margazhi. The harvest is around the corner – may our pots overflow!

Tonight, I will open my jar of wonders and read the notes, and bask in gratitude. This was the year I was blessed enough, and brave enough, to ask for more. This was the year the Queen of England was in my audience, listening to me recite a poem. This was the year I finished writing books I worked on for years. This was the year I started writing The Venus Flytrap again! For every piece of paper I fish out of that jar, I will be thankful, thankful, thankful.

I feel like I should add a dhrishti-dab, so let me just say that somewhere there’s an inverse of that jar and it contains disappointments, dead-ends, lost friendship, fear, grief, nights when even the moon snubbed my company and – of course – my perennial heart condition (i.e. broken). But I didn’t keep that jar.

And so, after reading the notes in the one I did keep, I will clear it out so that it will be not empty, just not yet filled. I don’t know how I will measure the coming year, whether it will be a year for asking or for accepting. Whether I will collect pebbles or count cairns. But that’s the beauty of a turning year, and the human need to reckon. We can always begin again.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 31st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

In Femina Magazine, Dec 18 2015 Issue

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I was very thoughtfully interviewed by Kirthi Jayakumar earlier in 2015 for Femina. The piece appeared in the Dec 18 2015 issue of the magazine.

Please keep your eyes and hearts open and your loving wishes sent in the general directions of The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016) and The Altar Of The Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017). And me, if you have more love to spare. Because I do, and I’ll try to make more books from it :) Happy new year! xo

Sharanya Manivannan Femina 1Sharanya Manivannan Femina 2