Tag Archives: nostalgia

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.

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The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard, For You

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When was the last time that the most urgent of my hopes was only that there will be bitter gourd for lunch? Because I am eating alone today, the meal is slow to come, and so I sit on the porch and look at the pepper-vined trees and ponder this until it does. There was no rain in the morning, and so the shrine visit – my most urgent hope otherwise – has been completed. It will be days before I have to think of anything else. It has been years since I have thought of nothing at all.

The food is ready. I’m disappointed – no batter-fried bitter gourd, my favourite, but there are long beans, to which I am allergic. Still, when I’m serving myself in the thatch-roofed hall, a downpour begins, and so I eat as slowly as I can, watching the earth become muddy, knowing that the sunken courtyard in the red house will fill a few inches, but dissipate by the time I return. I am here to fill my own well – but more than that, just to cleanse it, wash away all that was accumulated from everywhere but here.

So this is where I come to escape. At night, owls cry and a mad rooster from the poultry farm next door raises a ruckus. During the day, sunlight laces through leaves susurrous in the wind, and because the eight dogs know me well, I walk without fear. I find starfruit and mangosteen on the ground: echoes of my South East Asian childhood in the soil of South India. Corn grows nearby: a new experiment. There is a pool, another new thing, in which my friend threatens to skinnydip. I have a view from my window.

The memory of this place takes me a long way. I contain it the way some creatures contain water, subsisting on their interior resources long after their landscape has betrayed them.

Nearly everything I have written in the two years since I first began coming here has been a postcard – meant for one person, but sealed from no one’s eyes. But, dear reader, this is my week without letters. It is only for you that I reconnect to civilization at all. I intend to write nothing else, although tonight, in the town, I will read my poems to a few people. When I read them to my friend on the roof of this house a few evenings ago, I had looked up to see a faint rainbow in the west. I who have been led so wary by omens accepted it without suspicion.

And because it is you who is my intended now, I have wondered for days what to say to you. What can I tell you of the beauty of these present things, for which no description suffices? Snippets of conversation, an understated happiness that cannot really be imparted, of what use is all of this to you? Here, where I do not have to be who I am supposed to be, because I can be who I am, think of me today not as a witness but a well-wisher: wishing for you the same, a place so generous with its grace you can carry it back to wherever it is you must be, a deep source, a sweet scar.

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: Writ At My Wrist

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Nobody goes to the Kashmiri shops. Not unless one is a tourist, in a rush to find a present, or a girl who can’t find her house key in her handbag, and decides to wander the labyrinthine corridors of Spencer’s Plaza for the hours it will take before someone else can open the door.

The trinkets I wear are all bought in cheaper places. Still, what else was there to do? I was reading Deborah Baker’s The Blue Hand that day, a marvelous imagining of Ginsberg and the Beats in India, and thinking back to a time when this country had also hovered over me “like a necessary light”, a stormy eight months spent in the bowels of Sowcarpet, a Chennai first punctuated by Spencer’s and Moore Market and an outrageous journey to Calcutta – a nostalgic’s Madras, I know now – and then punctured entirely of its charm over me. I was 19 and tempestuous to the point of being almost feral. I left, then returned. It has been exactly three years since moving here properly (and I almost say, with bitterness, permanently), and I can scarcely believe that this is the same life, that I am the same person.

So I meandered through Spencer’s, a woman long free of enchantment, missing a time when the fire in my own belly was my only guiding light, before even the hunger to own a beautiful thing became tainted with a cynic’s restraint. I looked at things I had no intention of buying. And then I stepped into one shop and asked, for no real reason, to see their silver bangles.

Rummaging idly through the large plastic container set before me, what caught my eye was a particular piece, simple but strangely alluring, that was outside on the glass counter, being put away by the storekeeper. I asked for it and put it on. It was perfectly my size.

“Oh that’s just metal, not silver” said Feroze, the storekeeper. “Are you sure you want it?”

“Yes. How much is it?”

Feroze both frowned and smiled at the same time. “Are you sure?” I insisted I was.

And then he said a very peculiar thing. “That was given to us by a peer, a sadhu baba. He said that one day someone will come for this bangle, it is meant for them, and when they come, to give it to them at no cost.”

I was incredulous. Why would a businessperson give away anything at no cost? “Why did you keep it?”

“Because we believe in destiny.”

“And nobody else wanted it?”

“Nobody else wanted it.”

It had been a very long time since I had truly felt the receptivity that led me to trust what he said next. “It was in your destiny to receive it. If you believe, all things come to you.”

Feroze and I talked for awhile. I listened to him speak without aggrandization about faith, and fate. In his, as with many people from his homeland, was the ordinance to carry precious things to places to which travellers could wander undeterred. In mine, in the cusp between disillusionment and belief, was a single band of dull metal in the shape of an unclosed circle.

I accepted the bangle. Later, at home, I opened my handbag and saw the missing key.

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: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to 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.

For Those Who Have Asked

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There is only one video of me in the entire universe that I like. It was shot, handheld and without me noticing it, in April 2007 at No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur. Some people lose count of their lovers — I lose count of the places I’ve read at, but count I did recently, and realised that in the past eight years or so, I have read at an approximate fifty venues. No Black Tie remains the one closest to my heart.

Now, in the years of the drought — I feel like a jaded thing, but once, I read in jazz bars. I could only afford rhinestones, but there were stars in my eyes.

(About the poem – 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.

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.