Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Venus Flytrap: After Orlando

Standard

“What does it mean, though, gay bar?”

I’ll tell you. Some of the best times of my life involved dancing on tables and painting other people’s eyelids in unisex bathrooms and reading my poetry out loud in gay bars, in countries where the right to love and to wholly exist are not guaranteed. Queer allies don’t do a service to queer people by offering their support; we are here because of their generosity and trust.

Someone wrote that a massacre like the one at Pulse in Orlando couldn’t happen in India because we have no gay bars, but we do. Some just don’t advertise. Others occur like flash mobs, with seeming spontaneity: a random afternoon when the “Private Event” sign is placed in front of the door, an evening at the end of June when the décor, the music, the drinks are the same, but there are discreet rainbows on the flyer and flagrant ones on people’s bandanas.

Gay bars are not about sex. They’re about safety. They’re about selfhood, community, solidarity and fun. They are not divisive, compulsory, or automatically elitist. They are not (just) about partying and revelry; they are equally about resistance, defiance and speaking truth to power.

And sex with complete strangers? Wait, that’s not gay bars you’re thinking of, but your average heterosexual arranged marriage, in which all of Indian culture’s precious glory is banked (honour, of course, is stockpiled inside female bodies).

In gay bars you will hear the word family. Among those who have been disowned, those who had to create their own tribes, it means “s/he is also queer.” It means people among whom you belong.

In the holy month of Ramzan, in the heartfelt month of Pride, on Latin night in a club full of – mainly – young men of ethnic minorities, a hateful person opened fire and committed a massacre.

As I write this, I have deliberately not looked at the lists of names of the dead. What little I stumbled on regardless – one man who texted “I love you mommy” as the gunman drew near, another who helped build a Harry Potter ride in a theme park – undid me. I do not think I knew any of them, but in another way, I know every single one of them, that disparate group of dreams and flaws and kindredships and would-never-have-gotten-along-withs.

Most were queer. Many were men. Some had to have been women. (Trans, cis, non-binary? Human.) Some might have had children. Some must have been allies. Some could have been outed for the first time, in death.

We’re watching Pulse from the outside, we’re watching it in retrospect. You may never have stepped into a gay bar, intentionally, and you may say you never will. “What’s a gay bar, really? What do they do?” you ask again. But you already know.

Because if you’ve ever sought love out – filial love, sexual love, companionable love, love that knows you – and if you’ve ever believed it to be a radical force, then you know what the inside of a gay bar looks like. It looks, under any light, just like the inside of your heart, your hope.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 16th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Cosmic Longing & A Heart-Shaped Bloom-Bruise

Standard

He found a way to tell me he was wandering near the house I lived in then, a way to get me to ask what he was doing there, to spritz my wrists impulsively with nocturnal jasmine and walk out the door. But I didn’t ask. All of that year so far, I had caught a refrain pulsing in me, with no proof: “my heart is going to break”. And so it did. I had known before I’d known. And then I knew, incontrovertibly.

But that was the week they’d flown by Pluto and sent back images of a heart-shaped bloom-bruise on its southern hemisphere. So, instead, I laughed with delicious bitterness at the meme that made the rounds – “so you dumped me years ago and now you’re driving by my house real slow” – of earth’s obsession with the ex-planet. I sent it to my friends, and they too laughed with me, and then I put my phone away and colluded quietly with the night sky. Its burning brightnesses, its invisible implosions. My heart was going to break, but so what, 320 light-minutes away was one that had broken billions of years ago.

I looked at those images of Pluto and marvelled at the perfection of that heart. It, too, was a scar, the result of a collision with interplanetary debris. They call it Sputnik Planum, sprawled across by a frozen, far younger expanse. Sputnik Sweetheart, I thought – but perhaps that was too sentimental for the star-seekers who know their gods and their stories, who named its principal moon for the ferryman of the dead, and dark regions after Tolkien, and one terrestrial macula for a goddess whose nepenthe helps souls forget lifetimes, and others for different beings of other underworlds.

That NASA flyby was the first time that human eyes had seen the celestial body with such clarity. Now, almost a year later, we know even more. Beneath that iciness, the young surface thrives with heat, continuously replenishing itself. Pluto’s heart beats, is what the astronomers and scientists now tell us. It beats like “bubbles in a lava lamp”, is their specific description, and I think of something silent and aquatic. What if we got closer, learned more? Would it beat the way wings flutter as a hummingbird descends to slip its beak into the flute of a flower? Would it beat like the throbbing at the corner of someone’s lips as they sleep, the one you don’t touch unless you hope to wake them? Blood-tide in the conch of the body, song-tide in the silence of the deep.

Would it beat the way his fingertips uncertainly drum surfaces around me now that he knows he can do nothing to thaw my wintry demeanour?

Someone else, longer ago, cracked open corridors that led me to the songs of pulsars. And later, listening to warbling conus shells – a mermaid, according to local legend – from my maternal homeland, I thought of those dying stars too. Does the beating heart of Pluto make a sound?

Only light-minutes of distance, not insurmountable light years, and each generation closer and closer. I’m listening. Are you?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Crows, Caution And True Colours

Standard

When Wendell Berry wrote of “the peace of wild things”, he could not have been thinking of the crow. For the crow, with its blade-like intelligence and its capacity for vendettas, might have longed for the same thing as the only domesticated creature that writes poetry (the human). In the human’s attempts to study the crow, we have learnt that they recognise faces outside their species, and warn one another of inimical elements. They also shower affection and aegis, as they do on Gabi Mann, a little girl in Seattle who feeds them, and to whom they bring gifts of beads and trinkets and objects deemed precious by their intentions.

Chennai is a city of crows, so it is easy to observe them. As they cast shadows on walking paths. As they cascade good luck in the form of shit. As they swoop down on early mornings to eat freshly cooked rice, and some part of us longs to confer on them the names of ancestors. As they keep sentinel silences from near distances, and unlike the needy nuisance of pigeons, never trespass.

In our folktales they innovate and connive, in our mythologies they chauffeur deities of double-edged power, like the righteous Shani, and Dhumavati who rises in smoke. And according to both science and legend, crows are known for their ability to hold a grudge. They don’t forget ill-will done toward them.

Popular wisdom gives grudges a bad rap. Grudge-holders are said to be small-hearted and stuck in the past, while those who “let go” are noble. Those who don’t make it easy for others to keep trampling them are criticised as “being difficult”. But the way we talk about these issues – injury, forgiveness and healing – is all wrong. By diabolising our emotional responses, we actually allow the pain to twist into different sorts of cruelties, towards the self and others.

A grudge doesn’t mean extracting revenge. It doesn’t mean carrying negative emotions. It simply means recognising a person for what they are, instead of making excuses for them. And not forgetting lessons learnt.

A grudge-holder can be unfailingly polite, while also being cold. They can act kindly, without ever re-opening the door. They can even wish well, while simultaneously wishing to keep their distance. It’s not a grudge one truly holds, but a memory. Not a scar, but the concealed weapon of knowledge. It never needs to be used. Bearing it is protection enough.

Various fables about the crow suggest its intense colour is a form of punishment. But in a story belonging to the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people, its rainbow feathers are singed due to bravery. The earth is trapped in endless winter, and it travels on behalf of all living things to ask the creator for a solution. The creator imagines fire into being, and the crow is the first to experience it. The crow’s gift, however, is that in times of rain its wet feathers will glisten with their original variegation.

One can carry a grudge the way a crow carries a secret shimmer within. Where you’ve been burnt, a resistance: your true colours, and always, an awareness of theirs.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 2nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Being Adored

Standard

Chemistry is one thing, being adored quite another.

At the cusp of my 20s, there was a gorgeous man with whom I never became involved, even though a deep and evidently mutual crush existed between us for something like three years. A friend of his told me then, “We sit here and talk about every girl who walks by, but when you arrive, he falls completely silent”.

I saw his eyes light up whenever he saw me; and because I could ask for no purer reaction, neither could I ask for more.

No, that’s a lie – I am a shy woman. And I like to be asked.

But this is true: there is nothing really complimentary, deeply meaningful, about being found attractive. There is only a marginal, and often perishable, difference when it comes to being lusted for. Both are ultimately about the beholder and their pursuit. This is why, so often, it wilts upon fulfilment – curiosity satisfied, skin that yielded so tenderly so quickly thickening to hide. For by the light of morning none among us is anything but vulnerable, but some among us are so afraid.

I have not been adored often. I’d like to think that I would always appreciate it, and so would always recognise it. I say this knowing that there’s a part of me that is coy and cruel, and takes and does not reciprocate, while pining for other things that don’t spin intoxicatedly around the vagaries of my caprice.

Such spirals are not adoration, just another form of beholding: if fortunate, one knows better than to risk touch. In astronomy, there is the concept of evection. The word literally means “carrying away”: it indicates the eccentricity of the moon in response to the sun’s attraction. Even the moon is driven mad, and sometimes we are simply moon-kiss’d.

The last time I saw the man who fell silent, his eyes suddenly-lit, whenever he saw me, we had bumped into one another unexpectedly in a public place. Neither of us could contain our delight – we held both of each other’s hands and sparkled hellos elatedly, and then simply let our hands drop away. That too, was almost a decade ago, but I count it among the few times I knew myself to be genuinely cherished.

Should we have acted on it? Maybe, maybe not. He adored me, I adored him; this is not a bittersweet memory.

It was not Love, but it was love enough. Adoration is something else altogether, something soulful and joyous and often taciturn.

The hands, the feet, the eyes – these are the holy centres. The gestures: to kiss the hand, to touch the feet. And those most taciturn and most soulful things rendered by the eyes…

Not everybody knows how to do this, how to adore. It takes a certain grace, a certain respect, to be able to look at a person and make them feel beautiful without it being about the way they appear, feel desirable without it being a proposition, feel extraordinary and original and singular with it being only – and only – about some sublime and recondite essence of their own.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 26th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.