Tag Archives: heartbreak

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: Cosmic Longing & A Heart-Shaped Bloom-Bruise

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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: Dear Mrs. XOX…

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The other day, I received an email that could have been a threat, a case of mistaken identity, a prank, or a strategy by some slick operator. The sender warned me to stay away from their boyfriend – let’s call him Mr. XOX. They’d even created an email address expressly for this purpose – “Mrs. XOX” was their chosen pseudonym. Considering that I don’t know anyone by that name, I had no initial clue what to make of this.

Bizarrely enough (and this is where the slick operator suspicion comes in), Mrs. XOX told me, in explicit terms, that women crave her boyfriend due his impressive appendage. She also told me to delete a particular number (which, of course, I never had to begin with). Yup, my poison penpal gave me the phone number of a well-endowed man.

First, I laughed. And then, just in case this sender was real, I felt very sorry for anyone who’s been driven to such insecurity in a relationship.

So, Mrs. XOX, if you’re reading this – I want you to know first of all that I don’t know and have never met your boyfriend. I’d never want to meet him either, because something tells me he doesn’t treat you right. And I don’t like to be around those who disrespect women.

Maybe you’ve written to me because your boyfriend put the idea into your head that he’s involved with a stranger. This tactic is called gaslighting. It’s when someone controls you by convincing you of a false reality, wearing away at your reason and intuition, until you can no longer trust yourself. As a result, you become paranoid and are driven to extreme behaviours. Gaslighting is one of the most common tactics of emotional abuse.

I want you to know, Mrs. XOX, that emotional abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it by its name. It happens to the best of us.

You’re not crazy. You’re not possessive. You’re not desperate. These may be words you have been called. But they are not who you are, they are just the effects of this abuse.

But those harsh words are not what other women are either. If he has cheated on you, remember – that was his decision. The fault is entirely his and you can blame no one else. If he has made you hate and punish other women, he has made you hate and punish yourself. You must look squarely at him and see him for who he is. And then, freed of the need to possess or belong to him, begin the process of rebuilding who you are.

Most of all, Mrs. XOX, I want you to know that I don’t mean to insult your intelligence. You probably know all of these things already. I’m only here to remind you: you deserve so much better. This is not what love is supposed to feel like.

Maybe you’re Mrs. XOX. Or maybe you’re someone like her – pushed beyond your pain threshold out of love. My wish for you is this: walk away. You will heal. You won’t need to be Mrs. XOX when you can truly be your own person.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 4th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: My Bloody Valentine

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There’s a story I like to tell about an incident that hasn’t happened yet, and to be realistic, might never actually occur. This may be my favourite, and most frequently contemplated, revenge fantasy, but it is also by far the most restrained one I could potentially imagine for this scenario. It puts me in an exuberant mood to describe its minutiae – who said what, who wore what, architectural detail, supporting characters, soundtrack and scenery. I love to see how my friends react as we reach the story’s singular defining triumph: the clip clop clip clop of my high heels as I walk away from the table into the afternoon light of a city straight out of a TV show.

My weapons are only words, and they are designed to leave incisions, but not casualties. I intend only to draw the curtains, not to draw blood. The most that is spilled are tears (not mine), and perhaps, for cinematic affectation, the contents of a fine-stemmed glass across a crisp tablecloth. The air ricochets, in that final frame, with the sound of stilettos, not bullets, and those stilettos themselves are deployed for no purposes sharper than style.

I am less tranquil, however, in art – both the art I consume and the art I create. “Not you too, Black Mamba!” I admonished the screen in the disappointing latter half of the Kill Bill diptych, as our Lady of Atonement herself mellowed out like the rest of us lily-livered mortals. Where was the gore and hunger of the first film? Give me blood and guts – literal and figurative – and righteous rage. And glory, in many spades. Do it with flair – do it like the merry murderesses in Chicago, cell-block-tangoing their way to fully, fabulously, deserved incarceration. The best vengeance is vicarious.

Violence enjoyed or expressed through art, indulged in imagination, or released in aggressive sport, is not senseless. If anything, it is sensible – even sensual. It’s a primal scream in a soundproof room. It’s also an indicator of one’s sanity or lack thereof. The sociopath is consumed by it – the sound-minded, as I said earlier, simply consume it. There is a delicious mercenary quality to brief immersion – by participating in a proxy ritual, be it armchair massacre or arm-wrestling, there is relief and satiation for that bloodthirst without anyone else having to suffer for it. Surrogate slaughter, if you will. It is singular obsession that is dangerous.

Perhaps this is why, for someone with such a taste for brutality, my own pet revenge fantasy is so decidedly sterile. No adrenaline, no deeply visceral satisfaction – but also no horrific aftermath, no guilt, no demons – at least, not new ones. What I want is closure. What I want is conversation. Neither are within my grasp for now, so I’ll take what I can get: staving off my madness, the madness we are all capable of, with another movie marathon, the violence of a Pollock, the brute force of the Bösendorfer in the Boys For Pele album, the drum dance, the deep laugh, the riot of my own angry paintbrushes, the pleasure in the way my own voice delivers a certain sequence of words into a microphone, the power to eviscerate a poem of its pretty so all that’s left is elemental, vital, staccato. Clip clop clip clop.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Solo In The City

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I am not Carrie Bradshaw, and Lady help anyone who thinks so (for the record, the glorious Samantha, the most soulful maneater in the recent history of female iconography, is my favourite). But among the many moments of Sex and the City that struck a chord in me in spite of its protagonist was the occasion when she realized that perhaps, if we’re all destined for only one great love in this life, New York City was hers.

What does it mean, to have an affair with a city? To be lonely in a way so profound that one speaks to it, feels it under her skin?

I’ve known different types of loneliness in different cities, just as I’ve been different selves in them. But never, nowhere, have I had the kind of erratic, love-hate, impossible relationship to a place the way I do with Madras.

This is not the city in which the pivotal moments of my adolescence played out. Its highways, its bars, its boutiques have not been background sets to my life the way other surroundings have. This is the city that once put me on emergency antidepressants, devastated me in other ways at other times. But it is the city in which I am today, and will be tomorrow. It is the city I cannot run from, and I’ve long acknowledged my surrender.

Among other places I’ve called homes, there are two about which I still dream. One of them is lost to me in practical, bald ways: the tyranny of immigration. In those dreams, I am wistful for a life that I possessed fully, irreplaceably. The other still lies open, like a day I can simply walk into, if I so choose. For months I thought I wanted this second city. I knew myself in it so well.

But I am still here. Still here loving every single auto ride. Thinking of her, my naked city, bereft of hoardings now, as a girl stripped of her jewellery, suddenly bare of everything but her dimples. I’ve written elsewhere about this affair – how even my birth here was accidental, how my last long residence was equally fortuitous, how I wound up back here again against what felt like the wishes of every cell in my body. I have called her mistress and muse in different breaths.

I am alone in this city though there are people I live with and people I speak to. I am alone in this city in an absence of love – an absence into which the city decants herself perfectly. I am alone with this city, perhaps, like that Red Hot Chilli Peppers song.

A friend told me last year how in every hotel room he occupies, he leaves his footwear facing opposite directions. It’s a sign to the spirits, he said, that one is there only temporarily, and will not cause trouble. In the seven months that I’ve been in Chennai again, I’ve been following this advice, as though to invoke the energies of dislocation once more. I won’t be here long. I won’t cause trouble.

Today, for the first time, I placed left and right shoe facing the same direction. For whatever it is worth, for whatever this affair will amount to, I will ride it out. At the end of this, when we come to it, she will have beaten me to a pulp again. Surely. That is her nature. And it is mine to succumb to her.

For if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the way forward is truly, truly only possible with all the epic, luminous ache of a broken heart.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.