Tag Archives: musings

5 Decades Of Desire: The 30s

Standard

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: Once Bitter, Twice Sweet

Standard

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

Standard

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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Forest Of The City

Standard

Sometimes I think of what that learned one told me as I move through the city’s avenues, sound-sieged and sun-bleached but for intervallic canopies of leaves. “Vana is ‘city’ too,” he told me, a woman with a forest in plain sight in her name. Vanadurga is She of the City then, another kind of wilderness. Etymologies rearrange things. I think of urban briar and bramble, some danger always underfoot. The frightening things gridlocked into the city’s rhythms the way traffic engorges its roads. It makes sense: Vanadurga’s temples are supposed to be open to the air. No sunshade, no crown of verdure. It is the primeval forest goddess, Aranyani, who has no temples at all, who resides deeper within and without human consciousness. She is remembered only by the beauty of ancient words made to praise her.

Sometimes potted plants are too obvious a metaphor for things that grow – or try to – wherever they are given, in containments disconnected from the bounty of the earth. Other times I wake unto my gallery of green and am grateful for their tenacity, their thirst, their sheer splendour. The way bougainvillea the colour of sweet mango flesh arcs beyond the trellis, flagrantly flirtatious. The way water poured on parched soil brings forth the smell we wrongly identify as rain, for petrichor is only the scent of mud being made.

On the street, besides the stump of a tree we lost in the last cyclone, a vivid frond announces an uprising. Life goes on – “grows on”, someone said. There’s something immutable about this fact, despite the other one: everything changes.

Aranyani walking through cities, through what has become of the landscapes of her dominion. Redolent of bark and blossom, the tinkling of her anklets lost amidst the noises of this feral place.

If only the summer could still do to me what I see it do to the pods and buds on these trees. I borrowed the line from Pablo Neruda, and that’s why I reject its original preposition. I cannot type his “do with” without remembering what he did to the Ceylonese woman he employed while a consul on the island. Reader, he raped her. Don’t tell me you can know that and still be softly stirred by “I want to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees”. Yet, why then did I forget, for awhile, what Derek Walcott too had done as every timeline filled up last week, in eulogy, with his exhortation to the rejected lover to feast on their life?

No, the summer is probably doing with me everything it always has: season of quenching, of moisture, of the quotidian pleasure of undressing. Season when the skin sings. I can’t see the brazen bougainvillea bursting over my balcony from behind my French windows. Am I like that too, in blossom but unaware? Disentangling the wrong etymologies. Seeing cities of trees and forests of conurbations while seeking some other kind of proof. I’d like to flourish again as if it was the first time, as if I need not be grateful, as if I did not know too well that seasons turn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: On The Cusp Of A New Year

Standard

Here is a story about patriarchy, faith and the passing of time. Many decades ago, when my grandfather was a Marxist, he would not allow altars or rituals in his spaces. My grandmother wrangled a concession in the one place in the household that belonged unequivocally to her. Each year, a new tearaway baby Murugan calendar would find its corner in her kitchen. And each day, she would place a flower on the sill of pages, until the year thinned enough that she had to affix it to the cardboard shrine in some other way.

As this year dwindles to a close, many are pinning great hopes on the one to come. Not because there is anything to look forward to, but because this calendar year seems to have been measured in more upsetting things on a public scale than usual. But humankind is selfish: there is no way that celebrity demises and political disruptions alone have created this atmosphere. That means that events in the theatre of the world have allowed for camouflaged expressions of private burdens and distress. By participating in collective performances of dismay, putting terrorism and pop culture on a near-even scale, one conveys emotions from a personal sphere that don’t necessarily get an airing otherwise.

It’s self-perpetuating: dissatisfaction leads us to seek validation from social media, and social media protocol demands constant opinionating on current affairs. My theory is that we appear to care more than we used to. My hope is that we actually do.

I’m not thinking about the year to come; I’m casting myself halfway into the last century, where my grandmother buys a fresh tearaway calendar for her contraband prayer alcove. She measured her lived years in pain and endurance, as do you and I. But she saw far into the future, which is why time after time I reach far into the past to find her anchoring.

The truth is that next year isn’t going to be radically different, because some of the upheaval we’ve experienced will cause permanent damage. The annals of history are replete with evidence, and the cycles of the present offer nothing new under the sun.

How dare we be so naïve? And how dare we distance ourselves from the fact that we co-created and contribute to this collapsing world, with its mutilated environment and scarcities of compassion and common sense?

For some years now, I’ve been meeting all celebratory occasions very quietly. That might be why that synecdochic piece of family history – about a calendar in a kitchen, my grandmother’s act of resistance in the years when her way of seeing the world had little place in its grander milieu – is on my mind now. This is the world we have inherited, whether we measure being in it in years or months or only by the ages we ourselves turn. It doesn’t have to be the world we leave behind. We must begin – again – to tend to the vision. Begin with a little self-carved stakehold. A corner so sovereign that no one can touch it. And quietly quotidian acts of faith and revolution, among the wilting blooms and crumpled pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 29th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Bearing Witness

Standard

Somewhere on the road between Thanjavur and Thiruvarur, on the scorching afternoon of the last day of February, I see them. The women among the rice crops. They are bent over, their fingers among the wet and the growing, only their lower halves visible from behind. The van passes them for only a moment but it is enough. I think about them for days. When a reporter calls shortly after to ask which female personality I would like to be for a day, I think only of them.

Where was it written that I could be this person – an artist, a traveller, a young woman fortunate enough to number among her graces the ability to chronicle her own life?

A guest of the Prakriti Foundation, I’m on a hegira from the city, heavy with sadnesses I can’t quite shake off even for the weekend. But what privilege to be among a small group of erudite aesthetes. To see Darasuram not as a mere tourist collecting photographic evidence of having been there, but with the luck to be with those who look upon every tiny carving with love, see the story in every stone, connect mythology, history, postmodern theory and the practical. To participate in a beautiful private puja in the home of the Senior Prince of Tanjore. To sit down on the dry Cauvery riverbed as someone explains the constellations above, illuminating the links between Orion and Nataraja, between the Southern Cross and Trishanku.

Where was it written that I could have this? Where was it written that I would not be one of them, a woman living somewhere on a sacred trail, tending to rice crops under a merciless sun?

What would my life mean if I had no language for it, if my interior world was the only one I could experience, let alone create? How much richer would it be, stripped of the filter of observation, the casual voraciousness with which I regard my experiences, knowing I can alchemize them into art? There is a point at which you become mercenary about the things you do, the ways you let the damage be done, because it’s inspiring. There is a point at which you justify anything because of the knowledge that you’re Rumpelstiltskin, and your life just straw ripe for the spinning.

I want to know it for a day, yes. A life exposed to the elements, so close to the earth, so far from mine. And on that day I want to forget myself, forget there was ever another way of seeing or being, forget that whatever happens, I possess the power of baptism. I want to know an interior life that cannot be absolved or celebrated in art. I think that, upon return, that day would devastate me. I think it would teach me things I do not have the language to imagine.

Later that evening, after a kutcheri during which the women I’d seen earlier continued to scatter seeds in the arable of my heart, we assembled for dinner under the stars at an old house in Thiruvayarur. We took the opportunity to share simple, impromptu performances. The Dutch musicologist recited what he called a poem for “adult children”.

“I saw two bears smearing honey on bread”, it went. “What a miracle! Ha ha ha he he ho! I saw two bears smearing honey on bread. What a miracle. I was watching them.”

The last line was the cinch, he said. The most magnificent miracle of all was not so much that it happened, but having been able to be there, witnessing it.

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.