Tag Archives: emotions

The Venus Flytrap: Once Bitter, Twice Sweet

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Once when I was still intrepid in the ways in which I ventured in the world, I sat on the leaf-carpeted floor of a forest at sunfall and ate a piece of honeycomb. It had been cut fresh from a hive I had watched drop from the overhang of a cliff, unstuck by a spear held by a traditional honeygatherer swinging on a rope ladder. I lifted the leaf on which this piece of honeycomb was given to me and tasted it. And, with surprise, I learnt that wild honey from the flower of the jamun plant is bitter.

Medicinal bitterness, the healing bitterness of herbs. We eat them because we trust that there would be no other reason to. Not taste, not pleasure. The human heart – though often identified by its virtues first, of sweetness and strength – is capable of a kind of bitterness that consumes itself. I have pondered this bitterness of late, because is it also the thing I most fear, the thing I recognised very early in others as something I should guard for in myself. And these days, I look at my face in the mirror and I see a hardness that would not be there were it not for things I can name precisely. And it’s in that naming that my bitterness is rooted, but in naming this I hope to avert its hold.

I asked a counsellor I know, outside of her office hours, what she would tell a person who feared bitterness in themselves. No – I used more dramatic terms – “What is the cure for bitterness?” I asked, because what she said was, “There’s no such thing as a cure for bitterness.”

And then I said – “Maybe not enough people name it in themselves. They call it unhappiness or disappointment or rage. But imagine if we saw it as something we too are prone to, capable of, and addressed it as we would any other toxic feeling?”

She told me she would have to consider it. I did too. I went back to Rumi in prayer: “Make me sweet again, fragrant and fresh and wild, and thankful for any small gesture.”

Could the remedy for bitterness be in thankfulness? I reach hungrily for that possibility then realise immediately that it is not in the kind of comparative gratitude many practise in lieu of the real thing. The comparative gratitude that teaches children to be appreciative they have food when others don’t, and adults to be appreciative that they are privileged without allowing the playing field to be equalised. That’s not being grateful for having what you have; it’s being grateful for having what another doesn’t, which makes it a kind of greed. Vigilance to avert loss can lead to bitterness too.

I have kept vigil against bitterness and that vigil itself has exhausted me, drained me of both love and sorrow and left only an amaroidal aftertaste. I remember jamun-flower honey and turn it over in my mind: how its essence, although so deeply tinged, was sweet. Healing bitterness. Perhaps the cure for I seek is ironic: not in letting go, but in holding true, never forgetting.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 22nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: Sexlessness And The Single Woman

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In the 5th century BC, the Athenian empire waged the Peloponnesian War against a league of city-states headed by Sparta. This inspired the playwright Aristophanes’ 413 BC classic, Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece decree a sex strike as a means to end the war. Actor Janelle Monae recently referenced this concept when she told a magazine: “until every man is fighting for [women’s] rights, we should consider stopping having sex.”

Obviously, we know that not only men desire sex. So the premise of the Lysistrata strike bears pondering. When you withhold sex, you withhold it from yourself too. The truth is that long periods without sexual contact are common among highly independent women. Being outspoken or open-minded comes with its own set of barbs.

If you refuse to play by the rules of heteronormative engagement, you are denied respect, just as women who do play by those rules are. But there, the lack of respect occurs within certain comfortable scaffolds, such as the assurance of monogamy, convenience or protection. Here, because you are more adept at identifying small-scale manipulations and refusing to react accordingly, the disrespect is even more insidious, designed to ultimately convince you of your undesirability. What most people accept as a courtship dance feels like a fencing match to you. Over time, poorly-thought politics, rudeness and other such personality markers become real turn-offs, cuteness be damned. And if you practise ethical principles, you don’t see people uni-dimensionally, making casual disengagement difficult. You can’t sleep with people who treat you badly; but you can’t do the objectifying, either. The result: less sex than everyone thinks you’re having.

A friend shared a page from Heather Havrilesky’s book of advice, How To Be A Person In The World, that resonated for me. “We have to be self-protective but vulnerable… You don’t put yourself in situations where you’re going to cycle through bluster and neediness. That means you really can’t hook up with random men. Even if you never let your guard down in those situations, they still hurt you. They [expletive] your sense of self. They lead you to believe you’re only good for sex, and you can’t EVER settle for feeling that way.”

Reading these sentences made me realise how rarely we discuss this outside personal conversations. There aren’t enough sentences in the world about this aspect of the sexuality of singlehood because they are confidential sharings, never set down. With our confidantes, we move beyond limiting, self-deprecating complaints like “haven’t been laid since Obama’s first term” to deeper revelations about need, validation, boundaries, instincts, ennui, inadequacy and sublimation.

All this applies especially if you have “trouble” compartmentalising. But why idealise compartmentalising in the first place, instead of a more holistic approach to self and other? Not compartmentalising, not assigning people functional roles and not demarcating yourself all sound pretty healthy to me. Similarly with “not being able to tell the difference between sex and love”. Why is the person who decides this difference never the one whose emotions are involved? To fully embrace ourselves as sexual beings, we cannot stop at simply shifting the shame from our bodies to our hearts.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 20th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Heartbreak’s Optical Illusion

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If you’re capable of being a good friend (and not everyone is), you’ve probably sat through endless sessions of lament, helping someone through heartbreak. Only, when it’s not your heart that’s broken, the circles they’re carouseling can be baffling. The lowlife they’re describing – that lying, cheating, manipulative, selfish man or woman – isn’t the person they’re holding in their mind’s eye (or their heart’s vice-grip) as they sob. It can be as though they’re telling you about one person, while thinking about another.

“S/he’s a [you-know-what],” you say, because, well, it’s clear to you that they are. But even as you say it, you wonder: does your friend know what? The person they’re talking about – the one so clearly conjured up by their descriptions – is obviously undeserving of such lament, or such love. But the person they’re thinking about – the one who has caused these tears and confusion – is almost beatific.

It’s not that your friend is in some failure delirium. Because, briefly perhaps but with total vividness, the one who broke their heart was something other than the rude word you’ve recommended they be saved under on your friend’s phone (try it: in case it rings and flashes the said word, it’s a mnemonic to avoid feeling thrilled). They were – in short – wonderful. So was the heartbreaker intentionally deceitful? Sometimes, but this is not about those times. Consider: were they just as enamoured by the possibilities of who they were capable of becoming – the version of themselves that another saw, and was falling in love with?

And so, the deflating but not devastating premise is this: they tried it until they got lazy. They did it until being interesting, exciting and kind became too much effort. They pursued it until self-actualisation and being with someone as amazing as your friend turned out to not be their journey at all, just a merry detour. And like the kid who thinks he’s cruising along without training wheels until his parent lets go of the bike, they crashed right into the flowerpots.

The truth is that the potential someone else saw in them was probably not there to begin with. But unlike the kid with the bike, the bruises were also received by that someone else. And while the kid may keep trying, the heartbreaker usually just gets up and walks away, dusting themselves off – as though what happened between them and your friend was so light. And that’s the part that hurts most.

Can you help your friend integrate the two: the awful one who broke their heart, and the awesome one that same person was capable of being (but chose not to be)? It’s not bad to see the best in people. But it’s dangerous to see only that.

But also so normal. You see what I’ve been doing all this while? I assumed that you’re an empathetic listener. I assumed that you surround yourself with people who are passionate and resilient, and that you care for them. Are these things true? Or do they really just say more about me, and what I want to see, than they do about you, and who you are?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Twisted By Rage

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Sometimes I watch or find myself engaged in an altercation and see or sense a frustration that comes from another place altogether. This is most evidently observed online, i.e. “Internet outrage”. The thing at hand – this post, this comment, this incident even – isn’t the true source of that emotion, just the scapegoat on which it is temporarily fixated. A decade or so ago, we heard the term “road rage” just as frequently. I suspect the two phenomena – vocalising an emotion by directing it strangers on the street, or at 2D versions of people on the web – have the same origins.

But what is that emotion?

I’m choosing to write this not as an observer, but as someone with a deep wellspring of rage. Mine doesn’t manifest online too much, but I do have a temper that’s as easy to spark and as difficult to put out as a forest fire. I carry trauma in my body, and my hair falls constantly, my teeth clench often, the centres of my palms radiate pain, I go months without menses, I cannot sleep well, I don’t cry enough. It is the backlog of years. It is my burden, and my work to do. I carry trauma. This is my reason. But it is not my excuse.

I sit with my rage and feel my way through it. I know and name it, try to keep it out of others’ ways. I fail and look deeper. Something in me is always howling. It would be easy to howl out loud. It would also be wrong.

Recently, a dear one’s mother told me how stubborn she finds my friend. I had witnessed the disputes she was talking about. On the one hand, I understood her dismay. On the other, I knew very well where my friend’s surliness came from. And so this is what I told her: that they both worried about the same things. That loneliness manifests as irascibleness. That there are things we barely know how to express to ourselves, and these are the things that take on their own twisted expressions.

Shatter the mirror and see the kaleidoscope. Everyone is hurting. And almost every one of us is already doing the best we can, but that doesn’t absolve us from the need to do even better.

Every day, one tries. Every day, one can fail. Rage thoughtlessly externalised swallows whole; rage never expressed poisons slowly. Even if the work of healing comes to an end, the work of trying to be a better person never does. There is no benchmark beyond which one’s goodness is sacrosanct.

There’s a viral web poster that goes: “I meditate. I burn candles. I drink green tea, and I still want to smack some people.” Yes to all of the above. Rage is not hunger, to be so quickly quelled. The people we want to smack aren’t usually those who harmed us. The difference between a jerk and a self-aware person is in the answers to these questions: what do you do with that want? Who or what do you turn it towards? Who does it make you turn into?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 22nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Crows, Caution And True Colours

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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: When You Burn A Bridge, But You’re Still On Fire

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The forests are burning, again, and so are the bridges. In one of the most striking images that I‘ve seen, a trajectory of incandescence outlines the distant black hills against the night sky, while the reflection of the blaze dapples the Ganga waters. Visually hypnotic, but terrible both in cause and consequence. The burning has gone on for a long time.

Those bridges I spoke of are only metaphorical: one way to find sense and language for this much incineration.

How does one withdraw support from those who abuse it? Amputation is a question of the correct knife. Sometimes, a needle will do to loosen a knot. Sometimes, it takes the the heaviness of a guillotine. Most times, it requires pulling out the knife that was plunged into one’s back and using it to stake freedom.

You built a bridge so you could share the bounty of your own land. You built a bridge so you could live more of other places, other impressions. You built a bridge because there was someone on a further bank who seemed to need it badly, and you misunderstood those who paid no heed as cruel, not cautious. You built a bridge so you could stand at its centre and marvel at how you suspended everything – doubt and mistrust and past failure – to build it anyway, and here it stands. And still you arrive at the day when you find the balustrades breaking down, the traffic one-way, and silt  weakening the foundations you lay with your own hands. And so you set a torch to it, and as the first flicker kindles, the words in your mouth and your beaten, beating heart are I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.

What is not known about amputation, except by those who have successfully performed it, is this: you don’t cut anything of another person away. You only excise that which has become gangrenous within you because of your involvement with them.

I woke very early one morning this weekend with the awareness that I was carrying tight orbs of anger and unhappiness, forms of thwarted love that had outlived their circumstantial triggers. I was as surprised by them as I would have been to find mice in my mattress, and I responded in the same way. They had no place in my life, in my body, in my bed. The arsonists behind those conflagrations had long since left or been left, but this was what they had left behind.

Who set the forests on fire? Who taught you tears could douse them? I looked at those red-hot burdens and said: this is my work to do.

Boundaries are just as beautiful as bridges. They keep out those who don’t deserve your bounty, your benevolence. But as you draw the lines and keep vigil within them, know that everything that wound up on your riverbank still belongs to you. Some things you cannot transmute except by way of bonfire.

You’ve been an inferno for a long time, any way.

What rises from the ashes is aurelian, smoke-feathered, jewel-eyed. It takes flight by the light of broken bridges as they burn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 5th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not This, Not This | This Too, This Too

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There’s a love that looks like no love you’ve ever seen. And on some days, and certain nights, you can almost convince yourself that it looks for you, too.

Almost. The deeper you travel into a life of your own design, the further away the mirage of a co-sojourner appears. There is no one who falls asleep thinking of you. The face you see when you wake up is your own, in a mirror, all evanesced dreamscapes and smudged kohl.

But you must indulge it, a little dulcet speculation. You parse the present as though it already comprises kernels of a different future. Everything that has happened to you has happened in the absence of the one who loves you, who does not know it yet, whom you contain no memory of. The world appears less maimed through this awareness, this version of the story in which there is someone you would walk through the rain to meet, had you only known how to reach their door.

What you do contain, positively, is wisdom. It beams in you like a blacklight tattoo when you need it most. Like that night when you came home after seeing someone so perfect you could have sworn you wrote them into being, but you couldn’t sleep, and not because you’d been hit by lightning. There you were, your palm on your chest at 2am, breathing deeply, sitting still and listening to your heart. How it wouldn’t stop saying, “neti, neti.” Not this, not this.

“Not never, but not now,” you explained to those who were dismayed. But even then, you knew.

A seer tells you to say affirmations to draw love into your life. A priest prescribes garlanded circumambulations. A doctor puts you on multi-vitamin supplements so your hair might stop falling out and you’ll have the energy to go dancing. A friend downloads another app into your phone. You’ll do some or all or none of these.

But mostly you’ll just do what you have to do. You’ll return to the poems, and when the wish to mouth their magic into someone’s ear becomes too much, you will go to Rilke’s “You Who Never Arrived”. You don’t cry like you used to, emotion billowing from you as unmistakably as a bullfrog’s throat. Your sorrow gets mistaken for anger. Your strength for coldness. Your grace for forgetting. Now your tears are scant and taste like tea steeped far too long.

And the flights of speculation too grow fewer, which is why you notice them, lift them to the light in curiosity. There is nothing to anticipate. Days and nights of lacklustre certainty. And it’s you who must tell your heart, this time: “Iti, iti”. This too, this too. Even this. This with its saudades. This with its cosmic signs that anagram to red herrings. This with its gambles made on someone else’s loaded dice (but you’ll make them anyway). “Heads you win, tails I’m lost” – that country ballad by Jewel you’re surprised to remember, so many years later. This now, this here, this always – with its almosts that only almost count.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 10th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.