Tag Archives: friendship

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: The Heartbreak Whisperer

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By the time I hang up, it will be late into my night or theirs, but I know that by the time they come to me they have exhausted their usual sources of solace. And so they call from somewhere in the world, asking almost shyly first, and I listen and let them weep and then tell them what I know to be true. One friend recently told me, “I knew you’d understand.” Another said, “You’re the only one who doesn’t judge.” I hadn’t heard either of their voices in a long time, but it didn’t matter. I am happy to be just their heartbreak whisperer.

Heartbreak is a form of grief, and all grief deepens after the initial stage of public acknowledgement. In that stage, desperate for distraction, most people make themselves fun to be around. They want to be social, and to be seen. They want to be tagged in as many photos as possible, caught mid-laugh, their arms around new acquaintances, raising a toast to the camera and the concept of liberty. Their anger, confusion and sorrow are gladly indulged, because it’s really not that difficult to say, “There, there, hon – bottoms up!”

But the mask wears thin, and not just one’s own. Fairweather friends show their true colours and leave, or must be left, with the added damage of tending to that loss. No one who tells you “get over it” is your friend. But even close ones grow weary, and one grows guilty and self-critical. Ultimately, we’re left to our own disasters.

It’s socially unacceptable to stay heartbroken beyond a point – an extremely arbitrary point, often determined by no more than your confidante’s disinterest. There used to be a popular calculation: that it would take you half as long as you were with someone to get over them. But how provably untrue. What does “with” mean anyway?

It takes as long as it takes. If your physical heart underwent surgery, you would give your body all it needed to heal. Well, your metaphysical heart shattered into pieces. How can anyone expect it to behave like it didn’t happen? Why do you?

Among those who hit the ground running, successfully staving off the horror of their true feelings by throwing themselves into adventure or work or a rebound, the mess comes out later, inconveniently. By then, the early sympathy is gone and they’re entrenched in new self-made environments. But there it is: the unrequited love calcified into insomnia, the self-destructiveness in the second year after divorce, the irreversible regret.

So this is why I’ll be the heartbreak whisperer, across time zones and in violation of sanctioned timelines. A heartbreak isn’t something you build a bridge across and “get over”. You almost drown, you sink to the very bottom, and there you learn the language of water. And when you surface, breathing raggedly but breathing, not only are you in a new lease of life but you’ve also seen the undercurrent of another world. I’ve spent a lot of time in those depths. No one who’s seen them forgets. Anyone who tells you to forget is telling a selfish, and dangerous, lie.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 8th. “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: It Takes A Long Time To Grow An Old Friend

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Once upon a time, I was in a little coterie with B and C (let’s call me A, then). There was also D, but D – well – was eventually a complete D to all of us, if you know what I mean. I became, separately, very close to both B and C. Adult life meant we all saw less of one another than we had when we first met. But I stayed in regular contact with them both, and they would each ask me about the other. “I miss B,” C would emoji me now and then, and because I missed B too I’d concur. But I didn’t know that where I only meant I would like to see B more frequently, C meant something else altogether.

No, this isn’t a case of B – C = exam (love)failure. That’s a topic for another set of initial-based pseudonyms! So one weekend, I suggested something logical. Given that B and I meet often, and C and I meet often, why didn’t we all just meet together?

Except that the day came and I flaked out. Sunday-slumped, I told B I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t bother to tell C, thinking that they’d enjoy being together after such a long time and my absence might help them reconnect. But when C asked me where I was and I flippantly said, “oh yeah, didn’t B tell you I’m not coming?” I wasn’t prepared for the earful I received.

“I thought you’d like hanging out, considering how you’re always telling me you miss B,” I defended myself. “I had no idea that some other dynamic existed.”

I insisted that they meet, and C reported back to me. It turned out that B + C – A equalled shallow conversation, inability to share, and a total lack of meaningful exchange. “We talked about work,” shrugged C. “Office stuff.”

“Why didn’t you talk about the H situation or the O revelation or the X confession?”

“You weren’t there, na,” came the reply. “So how?”

How had I wound up being the proxy through whom two good friends conducted a non-friendship with one another? One devoid of acrimony or issues, but equally devoid of value?

In adult life, we often create ties knowing that they are water-soluble. Part of this no doubt comes from the heartbreak of watching seemingly close friendships dissolve like confectionery in the palm. But another part comes from sheer self-involvement, which can reflect as much in busyness as in laziness.

Not every relationship will weather everything. But those that do have one thing in common: investment. This is why I have what I have, separately, with B and C. In our respective friendships, we chose and keep choosing to put in the work of love.

It takes a long time to grow an old friend. Fleeting connections may be water-soluble, but friendships are like plants. They need to be watered. They thrive on things like dialogue, time, vulnerability, support, laughter and secrets. They cannot rest on proxies like alcohol, location, alumni reunions, or even a common companion. One doesn’t need a garden, just a windowsill of soothing, well-rooted green.

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

The Venus Flytrap: A Reunion

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I am delighted that my column, The Venus Flytrap, is back in The New Indian Express after a 5-year hiatus! The first piece is below. An edited version appeared in the newspaper on October 26th. The column appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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What do you say to someone, an old friend of sorts, after five years have passed, out of touch? Let me try. Think of this as me greeting you as you find most appropriate: with a hug, a handshake, or maybe just the hope that you still remember me. Do you? Walk with me a little while, if you will. Let’s take for granted that much happened, as was only necessary. Five years is a long time to waste, and a short time to spend. You aren’t the same person; I assure you that neither am I. Yes, I still love to laugh, and I live by the moon even more than before. Yes, there’s indigo in both our throats now – and on some nights, it’s an arrested poison, and in some lights it’s a hauntingly beautiful blush. You, I can see, still seek out challenge, are charmed by caprice, still wear your circumstances like a loose collar, so that nothing gets in the way of a deep breath. Still look for yourself in the reflections of others, and delight in how similar and similarly entangled we all are.

Let’s say, also, that some things stayed the same, even as others changed.

I hope you still have more fingers than mistakes to count on them, and that you do not do so often. Which is to say – I hope you always knew the difference between a risk and Russian roulette. I hope they threw carnations at you more than they did arrows (you know who they are). I hope all the love you ever threw out there yourself boomeranged right back, full force. I hope your elsewheres still fill you with sweet nostalgia, and your somedays have inched ever closer.

Me? There’s plenty of time for that later. But I will say this much: there’s a mountain inside each of us, beyond which no one can hear us screaming. I have conquered mine. But this is also true: Rumi wrote, “There is a kiss we want with our whole lives.” And I am still waiting. And that is probably why, my dear, that I am still here.

I still have a heart like a pair of saloon doors, swinging open at every chance.

What fills your life now? Who are you becoming?

I thought of you sometimes, and of what I would say if I knew you were still listening (and at other times, I thought we’d never see each other again). I thought of you when I wept with joy in the Tuileries one dying summer, and when I looked over a bridge into a lagoon in which a mermaid lay silenced through thirty years of war, and always when the Madras summer does to the jacaranda and rusty shield-bearer trees what a greater poet’s spring did to the branches of the cherry.

Any time someone allows you into their lives is a privilege. Any time someone takes two minutes of their own time to listen to you is a chance.

Walk with me, again, a little while. And thank you, old friend, for letting me walk with you.

 

Guest Column: Sisterhood Is Complicated

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I’ll have to begin this with a mea culpa.

There have been times when I’ve been a multiplier of gossip, a pronouncer of wicked words, a deliverer of the sharply-shredding gaze. And although I don’t think gender has anything to do with who constitutes one’s tribe, I’m still plagued with a little feminist guilt when the rage subsides and I realize its recipient has been of my own “kind”. Which is to say: another chick, another bachelorette, another girlfriend gone gaga. How strange that I can comfortably joke that one of my superpowers is emasculation, but feel such self-reproach when I turn my cruelty towards another woman.

I did this, in fact, not so long ago. The when and the why have (hopefully) sunk into irrelevance, but what I’ve continued to think about is a specific phrase I appended to one particular verbal defenestration. “Oh thank God I met you today,” I said to the other party, after a long tirade about a certain distressing damsel. “I needed to talk to a female friend today to restore my faith in the sisterhood.”

The Sisterhood.

What on earth does it mean, who gets admittance, and why does it sound so grandiose? In the United States some decades ago, sisterhood was radical and political – specifically, it was also (to quote from some book titles) Powerful, Global and Forever. But what does it mean to us, here, in these times? Female friendships are one thing but what about female community? In a country where the sexes still experience segregation in some quarters, i.e. that community can be forced rather than fall together organically, it’s a particularly interesting question.

The times I have most felt that sisterhood is important have been in times of its abject lack. For instance, I have longed for it when I felt betrayed by female peers who preferred stabbing me in the back and stepping on my shoulders to reveling in the creative synergy we could have had together. I have longed for it when I’ve felt ostracized. I’ve longed for it when I’ve seen other women enjoy it with an ease I did not share.

But sisterhood is complicated, like all good and grandiose things. Platonic relationships between women are the ultimate Longfellow’s little girl – when they’re bad they’re horrid, but when they’re good they’re very good indeed. There have certainly been times when I have genuinely had it, or something resembling the fuzzy, fierce emotions I associate with it. And in those times, I haven’t always been its perkiest cheerleader, much as I may have yearned or fought for it before. I’ve thrown in the towel (“I’m sick of these chicks and these straight boys. Where is my gay posse? Give me a boa and crown me empress among queens!”). I’ve been downright partial (too little energy for a bus across town to see a galpal, way too much enthusiasm for a bus across town to see a funbunny). I’ve taken it for granted, forgotten how special it is, traded it in, opted out, and generally been less than totally sisterly.

But then, think for a moment about what it actually means to have sisters or siblings. It means rivalry, it means responsibility, it means broken things and fisticuffs and conspiracy and tears and duplicity and loyalty and love. Love is complicated. Women are complicated. Family is complicated. Sisterhood is all of these – a little less on some days, a lot more on others. But always, somehow, worth the effort of finding out which.

An edited version appeared in Times of India (Chennai) today.