Tag Archives: journeys

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard From Bundjalung Country

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I write this to you by hand from a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane. My companions have gone to an animal show, while I have chosen to catch my breath and reflect. I am surrounded by bird calls (I promised you this a few weeks ago) and the quick footsteps of excited children. I still have white sand in my shoes from a beach I stole away to on my last morning in Byron Bay. This brings to mind the first time that I travelled to this land, when I’d lain on my back under regal trees and it was Singapore by the time I washed Larrakia country out of my hair.

But that was Darwin, in the North, and it is Bundjalung country I have been in this time.  On one of three rainy days, the writer Jeffery Renard Allen and I were having coffee when a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to meet one of the Elders. That woman was Dale Simone Roberts, and as Jeff leant to be introduced to the seated Elder, Aunty Dorrie Gordon, Dale turned to look me in the face and said “Bless your journey. I can see a little bit. You’ve been fighting for the women.”

I burst into tears.

I don’t know what it was: the history and trauma embodied by Aboriginal people like Aunty and Dale, and the ordeal and fresh wounding embodied by Jeff, as an African-American man in the world today; or the fact that while I was contemplating the everyday resilience of others, someone had seen right into mine. Aunty blessed me in her way, and I touched her feet first, as we do in mine.

Immediately after, a precious conversation with Helen Burns, a local writer with whom I’d forged an instant bond upon discovering that we are both writing fiction projects on Andal. She told me how sometimes she sees a person in Tamil Nadu, on a bus perhaps, and could swear that they were Aboriginal. In Pitjanjara (one of many indigenous languages), she said, the word for ‘parrot’ is ‘kili’. I fished into my handbag for my notebook to write this down, and it fell open to an image of Andal I hadn’t realised I had carried to this distant continent.

How many countries are within each nation? How many countries are within each individual?

Among my panels was one on multicultural influence. My passport declares one thing, my heart and tongue claim another, and my history sprawls though acres of a third.

But an Australia-India Council grant has brought Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I here to promote our feminist anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, and over and over again we found ourselves simultaneously adding nuance to popular narratives and expounding on the dire condition of women in India. One journalist told us that a national Year 12 exam asks students to write essays on the same. On us.

 And when she asked about India itself, I told her a list of things I was afraid to speak about, and in this way I named them – the many countries within a nation that only on some days do I call mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Going There And Going Back

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When I tell people that my favourite film is Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, they do not understand. They do not understand how this coming-of-age story about two Mexican boys could be the film that I love the most; what could I possibly see of myself in it? But it is true. It is the one film that I can slip into seamlessly, without knowing when or where or if at all I will cry, without expectation, without the hyper-attentiveness that jades so many of our viewings of the films we think of as panaceas, as personal religion.

Like all great stories, this one lends itself to many perspectives. There is its strident sociopolitical commentary, the subtle, powerful and altogether unusual rendering of the female gaze in a manner devoid of fanfare, and of course, the pain, comedy and sensuality of lust. But those are a deconstructionist’s ways of approaching a film that is all these things but in its essence, far more. Ultimately, all that remains are the teenagers, Julio and Tenoch, and Luisa, the woman who lets them spirit her away to look for a secret beach that they invent spontaneously as a joke.

In one way or another, not one of them returns to the city. The journey changes them all. One finds absolution. The others slip back into their lives, disconcerted to find that it does go on, that memory is a broken record but the passage of time is rarely so sentimental.

Like anyone who has ever been on a highway in the wee hours of dawn, under a sky so bruised, so dark like a heart, I am enamoured by the quintessential romance of the road trip. The self suspended between someplace and someplace else. I feel geographical attachments viscerally. Some of the most poignant moments of my life have been in the infinite silence of this suspension.

Poignant because happiness is a thing of hindsight. Julio and Tenoch have no idea that this trip – this joke, this cheap thrill of whisking this attractive older woman off in their car in aimlessly hedonistic pursuit – will contain so much. They do not know while it happens that they will see joy for what it is only in the wake of devastation, and that perhaps it will never again be so uncomplicated, so complete.

We come so far, we cut so deep. And then we flee the scene, retreating back into life as we believe we know it. But whether we choose this or not, we become like the monk in the Japanese poem made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert who stands atop a mountain and watches the world unfurl before him, all its secrets within his sight. And like the monk we return to the marketplace, to ordinariness, forever carrying the mountaintop under our robes.

And above all else, this may be why Y Tu Mamá También resonates so deeply with me: I cannot name my favourite scene. There is no one sequence so conspicuous in my mind that it outshines the rest, and this is why it feels so much like life. The experiences that shape us most are like mirrorballs, catching the light at different angles, revealing different facets at each one. We spend the rest of our lives turning them over and over, always finding something startling. We spend the rest of our lives trying to understand those moments, to encapsulate them somehow in anecdotes or inspired art. We spend the rest of our lives trying to go back.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.