Tag Archives: life

5 Decades Of Desire: The 30s

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I am often assailed by longing for the woman I was at the cusp of 26, neither too young to know nor old enough to know too much. Not only was I free-spirited and passionate, but I was also met by what I sought. Except, as I sensed even then, I could not keep them: those entanglements, that exhilaration. And so, I am also often assailed by compassion for the woman I was at the cusp of 26.

This year, I will turn 32. But right now, I am 31 – “a viable, die-able age”, as Arundhati Roy unforgettably wrote in The God of Small Things. I prefer to focus on the first word. There is so much that is viable about being a never-married woman in her 30s.

It is true that on any given day, I am likely to feel more lucky than lonely. The blessings of being unburdened are easy to count, and I have the luxury of counting them often. But it’s not all lovers and solo travel and disposable income and possibility. It is also, more often, practical thinking and responsibility and the weariness of combat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But why is it that I feel lucky? More than anything else, it’s because I’ve outgrown so much conditioning about what a woman’s life should look like. Even, in fact, what a wild woman’s life should look like. I’m more interested in what it is. Do I believe in Love with a capital ‘L’?  I’ve found pondering the question a waste of the imagination, when I now much prefer the small ‘l’, the verb, the everyday extravagance of being and feeling instead of waiting.

This life that is neither tragic nor in need of rescuing is anomalous, and I recognise why it’s necessary to not present a unidimensional version of it. So here is another truth: that there is melancholy. Last year, I climbed into an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle for a less bumpy ride, as I appeared to be newlywed and “carrying”. I struggled not to cry on that ride, not because of anything as inane as mistaking concern for body shaming but because those things are not true for me, and may never be true. I am soft and never-wed and I carry memories, desires, legacies and scars, but only and all of me.

But the beauty of being this age, of having arrived here tenderly, toughly, is the sincere acceptance that it’s alright. All of it – melancholy, uncertainty, anger, hunger and even moments of bitterness – is perfectly alright. They are balanced by laughter, courage, wisdom and – yes – pleasures little and large. We are all every age we have ever been. And sometimes I am already all the ages I will ever be. The great moral challenge of my decades to come, should they come, is whether I’ll be able to hold on to both: unyielding principles and petal-perceptive heart.

An edited version appeared in The Indian Express on International Women’s Day, 2017.

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Lives, Once Ours

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Sometimes the ghost of another once-nascent life – not another lifetime, but this very one, if choice or chance had steered it differently at some bygone fork in the road – rises to you and says, “Remember when you wanted me, in the moments before finding out I was a mirage, and for the long time afterwards when you ached with that knowledge?”

And if it rises gently, you can smile at it without a word and watch it move through a tableau. An accidental encounter. The separate tables in the same restaurant that neither of you can leave without disrupting everything, but a glance can pass between you that says just enough.

Other ghosts float by before you notice them, and then you are thankful later that you didn’t. That someone tried to look into your face but it must have seemed opaque to them – you were looking for someone else in that crowd, stepping toward the life that chose you and you choose back in that moment if not for always.

If you too are a creature of the night, attuned to its gentler hours, these fragments out of time become 2a.m. contemplations. Conversations, if you are so lucky. If you have enough courage in you to send that text message, perhaps, and if what transpired the first place was not so irrevocable – and if the half-drunk half-moon that kept you awake kept the recipient awake too – that the phone might beep back. In so many words: “Do you think of me?” “I think of you.”

But we know that mostly, if conversation had been possible to begin with, these contemplations wouldn’t even happen. That you wouldn’t wake, or never fall sleep in the first place, with such conjectures. And sometimes even the sensation that in some alternate timeline, it is happening: there you are, in another bed, in another’s arms. The name on your lips more than a whisper into the night’s reticence.

How poignant though, that unheard whisper. More disconcerting are evocations of lives you no longer want. I woke gasping from a dream last year of such strangeness and clarity that it filled me with dread, the thought that some part of me still shimmered in an old house I turn my face away from when I pass by it, the way some people hold their breaths beside cemeteries. “Because you were not my fate, I could climb the mountain with my back straight,” I wrote in a poem the next morning. There were dream-mountains and not-dream-mountains, climbed and yet-to-be-climbed. I meant all of them.

Sometimes life diverges because there is no other way to save you. It forks like a line on the palm so that you may live. At other times, a question mark lingers. And maybe you don’t really want to know the answer. Maybe the vexing, the wondering, the salting-then-licking of the wound, are just the right amount of bittersweet to fill the spaces between what could not be and what hasn’t come to be. A way to fill the size and shape of a night that offers its companionship, a luxury that not everyone would call loneliness.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 8th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Love, Freedom, Solitude & Consequence

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When negotiating the delicate balance between aloneness and isolation, these lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Vinegar and Oil” waft back to me – “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it. // How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” There are ways to reject the institution of marriage without having to deny the emotional impact of giving up social legitimacy, protection and – indeed – companionship. That’s the reason why my new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, is subtitled as follows: Stories of Love and Consequence.

There are consequences to loving, there are consequences to pretending to be in love, there are consequences to leaving, there are consequences to pretending to not want love. No matter who you are, you must negotiate these.

These are the consequences that the intelligent, and often very brave, women in my book of stories confront. They are women who, if you asked them, would say “bachelorette” is an andro-centric diminutive; reclaiming “spinster” is a stronger statement. They are widows. They are adulterers. They are lovers, they are losers, they are leavers, they are seekers.

The institution of marriage is profoundly problematic, deeply patriarchal in nature. To be a feminist is to necessarily challenge it. In India, for instance, we know that statistically speaking, women are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate (participation stands at just 27%, even compared to 37% a decade ago) – which means that a woman’s passions and ambitions, no matter her achievements or education level, are simply sublimated into the system. We know that only 5% of marriages are inter-caste, which means that even in so-called “love marriages”, the fundamental function of the institution as a means to perpetuate hierarchical systems remains virtually intact. We know that marital rape is not recognised by law, incontrovertible proof of the idea that a woman, and by extension her body, become the property of the household into which she marries. These are not uniquely Indian problems. It is not a coincidence that the English word “husband” is of agricultural origin: a wife was among the possessions he managed on his property.

It must be possible to challenge the system from within it, and some of the characters in my book try to, through transgressions and interrogations. But to not be within it affords its own agency, even as it strips a woman of privileges as varied as not being regarded as morally bankrupt to the literal, physical security of a companion to walk dark streets with (a companion who, if questioned by the equally patriarchal law enforcement system, can validate the relationship where a woman’s word alone has no currency). And it’s those women – the loners and non-conformists, who largely fill the pages of this book.

Autonomy may be stained with fear, but it is pervaded by freedom. It is in this freedom that the characters in The High Priestess Never Marries play, pray, push the envelope and prise their own hearts open continuously. They dive into the myths. They trek into the mountains. They dip their paintbrushes into the palettes of their lives. They serve their hearts on a platter, seasoned to perfection. They weep into the sea. They have lovers’ tiffs with the moon. They copulate with trees and devote themselves to deities. They keep very still. They sing. They sigh. They say No, they say Never, they say Not Now – they say Yes Yes Yes O Yes.

They fall. But how they fly.

(An edited version appeared on Bonobology.com)

The Venus Flytrap: Sharanya Manivannan And The Amazing Technicolor Magic Realist Life

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My friend the filmmaker says that cinema is about one thing only: pace. It comes down to choreography: internal rhythm, internal logic. You can tell any story, you can even tell a non-story, as long as you find its stride.

Like all people who use their life in their work, I tend toward the grandiose. I’m a hypochondriac, an obsessive, a constant connector of dots. Me and my Amazing Technicolour Magic Realist Life (complete with cinematic soundtrack). This is the only lens through which I can bear to look at all – it’s too much otherwise, too intense and too painful.

Yet, there are things I cannot absolve. I cannot fall into their stride, or find a way to absorb them into mine. It takes me months, even years, to name them – and to name something is to attach a value to it, incorporate it into a lexicon of reason. As a writer this is a fundamental of my world. Without this, I can only agitate, like a breathless creature throwing itself against the glass of the bottle that entraps it.

So here I am, replaying over and over in my mind the things I find irreconcilable, the things I cannot find language for. I cannot control them, I cannot rewrite them – and I cannot simply look away. Stripped of language, the power of baptism, I attempt to make this about the visual and the kinetic. Life as train wreck, life as narrative, chronology as dance.

And the body emotes, of course. I took ill, I coughed blood, and spent a night and a day crying, waiting to find out why. I thought – this is my lost voice, trying desperately to find a way out. I thought – this is it, I am going to die in this miserable place, all potential and no plot, a trailer with no film to follow. “The X-ray will show you I no longer have a heart,” I declared imperiously to someone who bothered to indulge me. All my usual dramatic tropes and deus ex machinae. I had a vision of myself as Neelakanta, the bitterness in his throat, eternally caught between belly and breath. To spit or to swallow? Do I deny the fact of these irreconcilable experiences, or do I wallow in them?

But here’s the rub: this amazing cinematic life of mine? I’m not the director. I didn’t even write the script. The control I seek is illusory. The truth, and the trick, is that one can never find a stride – at best, one finds herself having fallen into it. What I am doing then is hardly dancing. This is shadow-boxing.

Realising this, I stop in my tracks. The blood on my gloves is only paint. The gloves themselves, costumery. What if the pace of this time in my life is no pace at all – only stillness, silence?

We measure time in exacting ways. But we experience it with no real sense of its structure – the fulcrums of moments, the futility of years. Maybe it’s time for me to zoom in and take the pointillist view – to invest fully in that single dot, single shot, and trust that it means something. And let go, knowing this: even off-scene, a star is a star. And I’ll never be an extra in my own show.

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.

Guest Column: IDiva’s “Break Free” issue

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I had a guest column appear in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. The brief I was given was “life as a PYT (pretty young thing) in Chennai”. What fun!

Whatever anyone might say about me and my having grown up abroad, take this: I lived in Sowcarpet for eight months in my late teens. How’s that for street cred? And when I say lived, I mean it – glam, bling, potty mouth and all. So whenever I think that even Nungambakkam can’t take my sass, I remind myself: if I was rocking my divahood in a North Madras labyrinth five years ago, this city better learn to keep up with me!

But it’s true: life as a PYT in a decidedly unsexy city like Chennai is a challenge, and the secret to it is to never forget it. Never take it for granted. So every time a girlfriend and I have a Zara’s or 10D lunch and order a pitcher for just the both of us, every time I take the 29C in a sleeveless blouse and don’t get hassled, every time I stare down that horrible policeman who patrols my road on evenings, harassing single women, until he revs up his bike and retreats – I celebrate it!

The way I see it, it’s a choice. You can let the parochial mentalities and hypocrisies depress you, or you can engage with the city as it is. Like all sexually repressed societies, Chennai is obsessed. Which means that as women, we are actually far more objectified than we would be in freer societies. I say, embrace it. If every Raman, Soman and Quick Gun Murugan on the street can admire your goods, why can’t you? We live in one of the few places on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear flowers in your hair, for any occasion and for none at all. Sarees, salangai, all of Pondy Bazaar rolled out for your choosing. A great town to look like a woman, as my transgender friends will attest. Reclaim the kitsch. And the chic.

The truth was, for me, there was a defining moment – what I call my “When I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Embrace My Expat Status” moment. It took months of Fab India kurtas, polite smiling, neutralizing my Ceylon Tamil accent and general diffidence before it happened. But once I realised that nothing was worth losing my spark for, I stopped compromising.

Finally, it helps to keep a sense of perspective. One of my favourite Chennai anecdotes is of when my older friend (who was as much a badass in her time as I am today, and even more so now) suddenly put out her cigarette with a mumbled expletive, then went up to an old woman and her grandchild and made small talk.

When she came back to see me laughing at this show of conformity, she said, “You know that old woman? She has issues with my smoking – but she once sent a nude photo of herself to a friend of my dad’s”. My laughter turned to shock. My friend winked. “Bet you wish I’d told you that before you saw her, eh?”

Oh yes, my fellow PYTs (and our wannabes) – this town has seen a lot before us, and will see a lot after us too. I just plan to leave stiletto tracks visible enough for the next generation. No hypocrisy here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Sadness And The River

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How much closer it is to morning than it is still night doesn’t matter, but I am talking to someone I love across time zones. We are talking about ourselves, two or three years ago, marveling at how much like fiction the details of our lives then sound now. We’re a little older, cynical but outwardly thriving. We’ve had success and scandal since. We’ve relocated. Most of all, we’ve calcified. We are shells of who we were when we were poor, unpublished, camping out on couches.

How the hell did we do it? What the hell were we living on? You need to understand – we aren’t giggling over anecdotes. We’re trying to figure out what we lost, and how we might possibly get it back.

I confess that I barely remember individual incidents. I was so alive at the time, I wasn’t keeping count. Everything is a blur of readings and conversation, fashion and addictions and the lights and darknesses of the city I left my soul behind in. It’s funny to think of it now, how a bohemian, barely legal immigrant and a boy wonder acted like they owned it. I’m convinced, still, that we did. You own cities not by living in them, but by loving them. Enough to spend the night at a station after the train service stops. Or to risk your life border running. These are only examples. They say nothing of how a person will fight for what they need, for who they are. They say nothing of what we were, or how far off the map we’ve detoured.

“Needs change,” he says. “We had such simple ones though.”

We fought for ourselves, for one another, but eventually, we also fought each other. We fell apart. Things caught up (my visa status, mainly, but enough has been said and speculated about that). Then he heard I was leaving, moving back to India, and called from a number I didn’t recognise. He said he needed to hear one of my poems, to get over someone, a person he would pursue halfway across the world soon after. I didn’t think till much later that maybe he needed to hear it to get over me.

The poem “Boot Theory” by Richard Siken ends thusly: A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river/ but then he’s still left/ with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away/ but then he’s still left with his hands.

Two years ago, as a survival mechanism, I decided to stop being her. That ridiculous, stormy-hearted woman. But much as I dammed the river or amputated my hands, enough of her ghost has stuck around.

I don’t miss that place; I miss who I was in it. How we measure our histories has as much to do with what we choose to forget, as it does with what we choose to keep. How we determine our futures depends on how soon we realise our folly, and begin the journey back.

So dear one, I’m saying a poem for you tonight. I’m saying more than one prayer. I’m thinking of you and the cities we have known – together and apart. I don’t know what we were thinking but we must’ve thought it was forever. It seemed like it could be. After all, weren’t we?

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.