Tag Archives: poetry

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Colour Of Craving

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The first mango of the season isn’t what it used to be, a rite, sometimes devoured knifeless over the kitchen sink, pulp dripping to the elbows. No – that gives me away as one who eats alone, which I often am, but I know that a shared bowl of slices is how it usually goes. I am avoiding that sweetness this year, instinctively. I don’t need more heat. I don’t need more thirst. But I want that brilliant colour, the colour of the ambrosial flesh that bursts through as nails or blade break green skin. I call that colour, simply, “mango” – but for centuries it was recreated as a pigment known as “Indian yellow”, made from the urine of cattle that lived on nothing but mango leaves.

That too, a colour. Rain-dripped, in my imagination. The voice of a woman without a lover sears across millennia from the Kuruntokai, in a poem about the ardour of the body without an admirer. These specific words: “my beauty dark as a mango leaf.” She grieves its inevitable pallor from inattention; she grieves, in short, a lack of colour.

People went to great lengths to create pigments. They used the wrappings on mummies for a shade of brown, and went deep into Afghani mines for an ultramarine hue made from powdered lapis lazuli. I want to say the great artists of those times knew what riches and gore they held at the tips of their paintbrushes, but the truth is I doubt it. We do not think deeply about our consumption either: the dead trees of our libraries and furniture, the farmers’ tears in our food.

Today’s artists may not have pyramids and mines excavated for pigments, but they still feud over them. Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights over the laboratory-produced Vantablack, the blackest known substance on earth, which absorbs up to 99.965% of light. Stuart Semple then one-upped him with The World’s Pinkest Pink, made available for sale to all, with the exception of Kapoor and his associates.

There are more imaginative names for colours, so striking in themselves that they change the way a fabric drapes or the way the eye drinks in an object. Verdigris. Oxblood. Bastard-amber. Rose madder. Coquelicot. Areca. And there are medical conditions – synaesthesia – which affect the way in which the senses perceive. So one may see music, words and numbers as distinct colours. To some, this cognition is a gift. I wonder if it’s a disorder too, the pleasure I get from language, how singular words are charged for me with emotive dimensions. Sometimes my mouth waters because of a word.

And my heart is somehow soothed by the sight of indigo, made with that dye that cannot dissolve in water but bleeds and bleeds once on fabric, like someone with a lot of fortitude, who cries often. A plant dye that evokes another one, and more poems still: the protagonist of Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s He Is Honey, Salt And The Most Perfect Grammar binds her manuscripts with thread dyed with hyacinths, a signature.

And let me just say: Kapoor is wrong, anyway. The darkest material in the world isn’t a colour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Forest Of The City

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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: Flood And Drought

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That night, the full moon visited the Pleaides after the cyclone had crossed. All was calm again, and in the absence of artificial brightness I took a single clay lamp to my room to mark the occasion. To reinforce the rattling doors of my balcony, which had already invited a deluge in earlier that day, a decorative item – an altar of steps – that had been stored outside had been brought in. The steps served their purpose as they done hadn’t in a while. They held up that little lamp, its reflection steady against the closed glass door. And I sat for as long as it blazed in the quiet, storm-strewn twilight, and poems came back to me.

So that the next morning, still utterly disconnected from any form of communication, I woke unto poems. I tried to be sensible. I thought of my deadlines first, the people who couldn’t reach me. I thought of all the things that would catch up with me the minute the networks started working again. But I could no more stem the torrents of poetry than I could the rainwater that had seeped beneath and between those balcony doors and creased the pages of the books I had left stacked on the floor.

I write to you pretending to be in another century, envious of writers who predated the Internet, or who were born early enough that they didn’t become usurped by it. What bliss, to wake up in the aftermath of a storm to filthy floors and untallied damages and find myself just as calm as the climate, cossetted in fresh poems. Is this what happens to me when I have so little static around me, when there are no tweets to click on or messages to attend to, when I can’t squander hours in idle browsing, cheating myself that I’m trying to find something interesting to write about?

Will the power come back on in time for me to send you this missive? Even the most ambitious of writers past didn’t have the conceit of today’s. They didn’t know if their manuscripts would survive ordinary accidents, sabotage, and finally, the postal system. But – unlike I have all year, except for the boon of this column – they wrote anyway. And trusted.

I could not raise potted plants this year, after the last ones I’d tended to died in last December’s floods. It was not that I was so attached to those ones that I couldn’t try again. Just that the keeping of plants is an indicator of heart-health. And mine was very small and stony and sad this year. In the interim, other forces took over my balcony: laundry, pigeons, storage, an altar that got its swansong on Karthigai Deepam.

The cyclone was the final coup in my efforts to reclaim the space. Now it stands completely empty, and full of potential. Will I dare to do it: to trust again? I will measure my capacity by beginning with things with thorns: bougainvillea, roses and cacti. Perhaps I only know how to parse the world in metaphor. But isn’t that too a way to look it in the eye?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dancing To The End Of Love

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When Leonard Cohen, whose legacy will probably live forever, died last week, public mourning was more withdrawn than usual. Perhaps it had to do with all the other news of that week, and how the luxury of emotional reactions seemed futile against humanity’s folly. So people shared songs without musings. And goodbyes without eulogies about when they first heard hello. But even if he had passed away in less fraught a week, these responses may have been the same. His lyrics had a way of saying everything necessary, at once personal and all-encompassing.

Leonard Cohen’s words often found us in intimate moments, or more precisely, led us to them – gently swinging the door open for intimacy to wander in and close it promisingly behind her. I thought over the songs that had imprinted themselves on the corridors of my memory and blushed. There were rooms in low light, there were roofs in moonlight, there were regrets turned rosy by what that poet’s baritone made us believe. There were reasons. And there was no reason to reveal them.

There were other kinds of poignancies too. A new friend with whom “Suzanne” was drunkenly sung, still demurely seated at a just-cleared lunch table in Calicut, who passed away not long after and who the song now always reminds me of. But I can’t write about him without feeling that it would anger the old friend, who is no longer one, the one who he actually belonged to.

But like songs, or like secrets, does anything ever only belong to one person alone? The answer is yes, but only that which rests on a palm, not inside a fist.

There will be many people who know only one song of Cohen’s, and they know it in someone else’s voice. They know it from Jeff Buckley’s dulcet rendition or they know it from Shrek (or one of the hundred and one TV shows or films that elevated any scene at all through “Hallelujah” alone). And to them, I say: there’s so much more. Begin with the ones that feel like you’ve heard them somewhere (you have), but maybe weren’t listening as intently then: “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Bird On A Wire”, “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”

And then – if you’re still interested – find my rare favourite, “The Gypsy’s Wife”, with the wild woman, the Salome-Kali dancing with a decapitated head on the threshing floor in the liminality between light and dark. Go further – chase Cohen’s words from the audial to the page. Read his poems. Read his novel, Beautiful Losers, on the Native Canadian saint Katherine Tekatwitha, one of the last things he authored before a nervous breakdown led him to realise he needed to move towards the stage.

Go talk to someone else who loved his work so much they ruined some of his songs for themselves by giving them away, and this is what you’ll learn: still, because they are simply too beautiful to not share, they’ll give them away again. That’s Cohen for you: a spiritualist who knew that transcendence was not in renouncing the world, but in taking its hand, reading its open palm.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Mirror Of Another Time

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I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.

I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.

I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.

In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.

When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…

I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.

But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?

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