Tag Archives: loneliness

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.

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.

TOI iDiva: UnValentine’s Day

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Wandering through Wonderland, the intrepid young Alice encounters a hubristic Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, wearing a beautiful cravat. The cravat, as it turns out, was an unbirthday present. An unbirthday, he explains, is every one of those other 364 days in a year on which one might also receive gifts. It is, as he says, “a knock-down argument”: by celebrating unbirthdays she can avoid getting terribly hung up on that one day, that albatross, the birthday.

Yes, we all know what Humpty Dumpty’s fate is. He, like some of us, will never get put back together again (although lots of men, and maybe some horse-like satyrs, will try). I know Valentine’s Day can be very hard for some people. Seeing as it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore it even here in Chennai, there seem to be two ways to deal: be Anti-Valentine’s, or be UnValentine’s.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to waste a fortnight, spending thirteen days feeling edgy (and not in a fashionista kind of way) in anticipation of the one that will make you bristly or downright miserable (add a margin for heartsick hungover-ness). To be UnValentine’s is to spend 365 (it’s a leap year!) eating chocolates.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to say you don’t care when you really, really do. To be UnValentine’s is to care – about yourself and how you deserve to be treated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to secretly buy expensive lingerie just in case someone notices you in your glorious misery and gives you some mercy luck. To be UnValentine’s is to hopefully get laid more than once annually.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to be discouraging of insipidly meaningless extravagance. To be UnValentine’s is to be encouraging of profoundly meaningful extravagance.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to obsessively analyse information on your exes to work out how they’re spending mid-February, and with whom. To be UnValentine’s is to already have them blocked on all your feeds, because there is no day, ever, when unsolicited news of them is welcome to upset you.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks to be alone. To be UnValentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to go on a date ironically. To be UnValentine’s is to not have to call it a date in order to feel validated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to begrudge your coupled friends their coupledness. To be UnValentine’s is to not stoop to entertaining the regrettable idea of coupling with your friends just because they’re around.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to observe Single Awareness Day (SAD). Because, you know, one is so critically unaware of one’s singledom otherwise. To be UnValentine’s is to know one’s loneliness but not be distinguished by it.

In South Korea, Black Day is observed on April 14, eating black noodles and commiserating about being single. In Chennai, this particular UnValentine’s Day happens to once again be a public holiday. You can eat black noodles if you like, but you’ll have to share it with your relatives (how’s that for misery?).

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to Valentine’s what militant atheism is to organized religion. Don’t shake your fist at something that doesn’t exist. To be UnValentine’s is to be a believer: in yourself, and your right to red roses, right-hand rings, assorted ridiculousness and loyally royal treatment. Any day you damn well please.

(“It’s a knock-down argument”.)

Here’s the truth: I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day. I have no idea what it means to be wined and dined and defined by one person’s attention on one particular day. What I would miss on that day I might miss on any other day of the year – and so, what I could celebrate on that day, I could celebrate on any other day of the year as well.

Romance is sweet. Revenge is sweeter. But nothing is as sweet as self-respect.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

The Venus Flytrap: Songs In Another Language

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There is no music nearly as atmospheric as a song in another language, a language one doesn’t know. Familiar torch songs may dispense the sweet, alcoholic comfort of their lyrics, instrumental scores may swell with their melodrama, but nothing comes close to the sheer pathos of words one can only repeat without comprehension – as resonant yet as empty as drums.

Music in languages one doesn’t know is music for everything that hurts too much to feel in words, or which words turn into something that loses shape, slip-sliding away. Music that one knows only with the body, with what is evoked by and within it.

When I lived outside my country, I listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhojpuri and Baul songs, and difficult Tamil. I listened to the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam; now I don’t even have it in my iTunes. And M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1957 rendition of Suttum Vizhichudar; for some reason it made me think of my grandparents driving down a coast, their children in the backseat, my grandmother complaining about how the speed at which he drove made it hard for her to breathe. Nostalgia is remembering things we didn’t know we were experiencing at the time. It’s also remembering things we didn’t experience, but may as well have.

I stopped listening to that music when I came back. Maybe I didn’t need to. Or maybe the person I had been, the person who had needed it, only existed elsewhere.

I would listen to Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela so much in my teens that I began to understand the dialogue in Spanish films. The enigma ended in some ways – and deepened in others. I chose multilingualism over mystery. That was worth it.

But Farida Khanum broke my heart for years with that ghazal, and I should have left that honour with her and not handed it over to my own experiences. Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. I discovered eventually what it translated to – don’t leave tonight. And at that point a new layer of meaning glazed over it, the ache of being always the Bond girl and never Bond, always the one having to endure the long ride back from the airport. But until then it meant nothing. And so it meant everything it could possibly mean. Now it can only mean one thing. All that was latent within it is gone.

Perhaps there is something to be said for innocent impressionism. When a song is heard as sound and not story, something special happens. Its semantic spaces broaden. Our understanding draws blanks, and our imaginations fill them in. The human voice becomes an instrument in its own right. The whisper of a throat racked with failure can turn seductive; the grieving crescendo of a mourning song may rouse instead.

There are points in the film of my life where I am happy to not have subtitles. I don’t want to know what the opera my friend was singing years ago, days after he told me his secret, really meant. It may have been a bawdy, or boring, thing. But to me it meant his illness and his mortality, the fragility of that performance itself. Its irretrievability. I don’t want to know what some of the baila of my childhood means, because so much of my creative impulse comes from trying to recreate that time. I need those wide open spaces, for they are my canvases. I used to be a dancer; it was important then to correlate the languages of the body and mind. I used to deconstruct. Now I am happy to just dance.

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: Hunger

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I recently met with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in a year and a half because we had both left the city in which we’d lived. Prior to his arrival, he got in touch to ask if there was anything I wanted from his part of the world. I didn’t miss a beat. “Guarana berry shampoo,” I said. I didn’t even bother to be polite.

I have a fondness for edible things in my toilette. Between a Swiss vanilla shower gel, grapeseed oil body lotion, green tea scented moisturizer and the old world charm of my rose fragrances (dried petals in sharbat are lovely), I must smell – and taste – like confection. To put it as coyly as possible, you could say I would make a most delicious corpse.

I’ve had my experiments with olive body butter, chocolate lipstick, coffee cologne, goat’s milk soap, almond scrubs and seaweed face masks. I’ve clogged my drains putting raw eggs in my hair. And those are just the docile delicacies. Eventually, I suspect I will graduate to sheep’s placenta for my cheeks and awaiting wrinkles – I’ve already conditioned my hair with rabbit’s blood. Someone remarked that I bathe like a Greek goddess – a vengeful one, I laughed.

Perfumes are pleasant, but the smell of food is provocative, appealing to our base needs and instincts. Be they to eat or to be eaten. I don’t shower, I steep and season. I don’t moisturise, I marinate. Like some fatalistic Gretel in a fairytale gone awry, I prepare my body. I tend to it like the gods who made offspring from their dust.

It has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with pleasure. The pleasure of deep sleep, of a groan or a stretch, of a breath inhaled to fullness. The pleasure of waking before dawn to a blue that percolates into mellow yellow. The pleasure of catching your own eye in the mirror and falling for your own smile. The pleasure of perfect underwear, or none, on a night when I can be a woman with long hair, unbound, listening to Billie Holiday alone. Every road I walk along, I walk along with you. These are pleasures for the solitary ones. The slow burners. These are pleasures best enjoyed in a body seeped in ripe things, pungent.

I bring my braid to my mouth often, my scented wrist to my nose. I touch my bare arms under the canopy of a pashmina wrap, comforted by my own softness. I write poems to the fold at my stomach, such fullness on so small a frame as mine. To take pleasure in one’s own body is to wait without waiting. It’s to own one’s loneliness. To let it drift on its own weight, it’s full-bodied song.

So they’re worth it, all those expensive, imported, indulgent things that treat the body like a bronze doll being scrubbed, the delicate rounding of the cambers of her limbs with ash and coconut oil. Or rather, like the hours salivating at the oven over the centerpiece at a table; kneading, steaming, tasting, hoping. The rites of adornment. The gluttonous anticipation and sensuality of preparation, and then of waiting to feast. Or be feasted on.

Be slow to submit to devouring. Light every candle first. Sprinkle salt into the bath to sap away draining energy. Dress to undress, and then dress again. Get ready as though every act, every lifting of jewel to ear and tint to lip, is a bead in a rosary to the self.

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.