Tag Archives: relationships

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: The Illusion Of Safety Is A Highly Gendered Phenomenon

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Some years ago, a spectacularly acrimonious argument with an auto driver had me racing up several flights of stairs, palms sweating, ears ringing with filthy curses, desperately seeking the reassurance of the friend who opened the door. Shaken, I recounted the incident: the driver knew where I lived, I was at the drop-off location frequently, it was a long ride, he knew what I looked like, what if, what if…?

“Don’t be silly,” said my friend. “How many times a day do you think he has a fight? Do you think he keeps accounts of each one?”

His logic was so beautiful, so collected, that for a few moments relief washed over me. I was just being paranoid, I agreed. I mean, why would I think that… And then the genderedness of our perspectives clicked into place. My male friend lived in a city in which he could unzip his trousers by a random wall if the bathroom queues were too long, and no matter how many women dropped by, his neighbours still said friendly hellos to him. I lived in a city in which I never left a party without someone asking me to text when I got home, and none of those same neighbours ever looked me in the eye. Both these cities share the same name and map coordinates, and vastly different emotional echolocations.

Which city did the murder of S. Swathi at the busy Nungambakkam railway station happen in last week: his or mine? Entitlement or vulnerability? Both, as it happens, which is why the reactions to it have been so shameful and so confused.

Chennai is not any more dangerous than it ever was, so let’s drop that sensationalist line of thinking. Ask a college student, ask a transwoman, ask every person wrapping a dupatta on her body as though it was made of chainmail. If you hear women themselves saying that the city has “become unsafe”, what’s between the lines is this: if someone chooses to kill me publicly, they may just get away with it. The psychological stakes have been raised from eyes averted from slaps in parking lots and ears plugged to screams in the adjacent building to even greater non-involvement.

The need to categorise the murder as only an issue of urban safety is an act of obfuscation. True, we should be able to take for granted working CCTV surveillance and prompt responses from authorities, as well as protection for those who come forward as witnesses. But to ignore the larger picture of public indifference and poor socialisation means changing nothing about how things really are. We can talk about these things while still honouring Swathi’s family’s request to not speculate on her case.

We cannot address women’s safety without talking about stalking, specifically how treating love as a dinner table taboo and allowing misogynistic cinema to teach its ways instead has destroyed its spirit. Modern Indian culture does not empower people with respectful courtship etiquette, but neither does it empower them with the skills to handle rejection. And when a person confides that someone makes them feel afraid, how seriously do we take them?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Every Age You’ve Ever Been

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How strange it was, her reaction to the story about the famous writer who had been pulled out of school in the 8th grade for bunking class to go the cinema. “How sad,” she said, with sincere sympathy. “Poor child!” I said nothing, at least not immediately. She had forgotten, in the thrall of someone else’s life, her own daughter’s. She had pulled me out of school after the 6th grade, then the 8th, then refused to send me to college, then sabotaged my tertiary studies at least thrice. I never finished them. I am not a college drop-out in the cool sense of the word, not a genius who invented a software or sold an app or became a superstar. I am the other kind.

This is not a special story. I meet them all the time: high-functioning, ambitious – even accomplished – adults like myself who carry the scars of family dysfunction. Families who made bad choices and blamed it on circumstances. Families who justified abuse. Families who forced their young into situations the young should not know, so that they were raised half on their own sheer will and half on slow-release poison. More importantly, I meet scarred adults like myself who work hard to forge relationships with those same families. We do it out of love, yes, but we also do it because the alternative is an abyss of too much pain.

So to all of us who try, I want to say: I see you, I know you. I’ve seen you at all the ages you have ever been. I see their layers glimmer beneath every brick you lay in a life of your own assemblage, and I know what it has taken you and what it takes you every day.

There are places beyond which the well-adjusted cannot understand what we mean. There are places beyond which the well-concealed cannot carry their trauma across without spilling it, and so they refuse to acknowledge ours. And sometimes these categories are nebulous. We see ourselves reflected clearly, or we are oblivious of our blind spots.

I’ll take a crack in my heart over a chip on my shoulder, but some days it all feels the same.

As a writer, I believe the story belongs to whoever needs it. As a survivor, I believe the story belongs only to the one who lived it. These are contradictions, balanced by a single word, for a scarce thing: care. The story, like the survivor, is alive: it changes based on the hour or the day, evolves over years, is shaped by battering and by craft, sandpapered by retellings, distorted by silences. The story, like the survivor, requires care.

Redemption is not denial of all that came before. It’s only an extension of the sheer will through which that survival was – and is – managed. I am writing the future by force. The past is trauma, and trauma is memory. The present is a project, and that too will become memory. The ones we make today are the ones we’ll live with later. And wanting to live means having to try.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Cosmic Longing & A Heart-Shaped Bloom-Bruise

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He found a way to tell me he was wandering near the house I lived in then, a way to get me to ask what he was doing there, to spritz my wrists impulsively with nocturnal jasmine and walk out the door. But I didn’t ask. All of that year so far, I had caught a refrain pulsing in me, with no proof: “my heart is going to break”. And so it did. I had known before I’d known. And then I knew, incontrovertibly.

But that was the week they’d flown by Pluto and sent back images of a heart-shaped bloom-bruise on its southern hemisphere. So, instead, I laughed with delicious bitterness at the meme that made the rounds – “so you dumped me years ago and now you’re driving by my house real slow” – of earth’s obsession with the ex-planet. I sent it to my friends, and they too laughed with me, and then I put my phone away and colluded quietly with the night sky. Its burning brightnesses, its invisible implosions. My heart was going to break, but so what, 320 light-minutes away was one that had broken billions of years ago.

I looked at those images of Pluto and marvelled at the perfection of that heart. It, too, was a scar, the result of a collision with interplanetary debris. They call it Sputnik Planum, sprawled across by a frozen, far younger expanse. Sputnik Sweetheart, I thought – but perhaps that was too sentimental for the star-seekers who know their gods and their stories, who named its principal moon for the ferryman of the dead, and dark regions after Tolkien, and one terrestrial macula for a goddess whose nepenthe helps souls forget lifetimes, and others for different beings of other underworlds.

That NASA flyby was the first time that human eyes had seen the celestial body with such clarity. Now, almost a year later, we know even more. Beneath that iciness, the young surface thrives with heat, continuously replenishing itself. Pluto’s heart beats, is what the astronomers and scientists now tell us. It beats like “bubbles in a lava lamp”, is their specific description, and I think of something silent and aquatic. What if we got closer, learned more? Would it beat the way wings flutter as a hummingbird descends to slip its beak into the flute of a flower? Would it beat like the throbbing at the corner of someone’s lips as they sleep, the one you don’t touch unless you hope to wake them? Blood-tide in the conch of the body, song-tide in the silence of the deep.

Would it beat the way his fingertips uncertainly drum surfaces around me now that he knows he can do nothing to thaw my wintry demeanour?

Someone else, longer ago, cracked open corridors that led me to the songs of pulsars. And later, listening to warbling conus shells – a mermaid, according to local legend – from my maternal homeland, I thought of those dying stars too. Does the beating heart of Pluto make a sound?

Only light-minutes of distance, not insurmountable light years, and each generation closer and closer. I’m listening. Are you?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Crows, Caution And True Colours

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When Wendell Berry wrote of “the peace of wild things”, he could not have been thinking of the crow. For the crow, with its blade-like intelligence and its capacity for vendettas, might have longed for the same thing as the only domesticated creature that writes poetry (the human). In the human’s attempts to study the crow, we have learnt that they recognise faces outside their species, and warn one another of inimical elements. They also shower affection and aegis, as they do on Gabi Mann, a little girl in Seattle who feeds them, and to whom they bring gifts of beads and trinkets and objects deemed precious by their intentions.

Chennai is a city of crows, so it is easy to observe them. As they cast shadows on walking paths. As they cascade good luck in the form of shit. As they swoop down on early mornings to eat freshly cooked rice, and some part of us longs to confer on them the names of ancestors. As they keep sentinel silences from near distances, and unlike the needy nuisance of pigeons, never trespass.

In our folktales they innovate and connive, in our mythologies they chauffeur deities of double-edged power, like the righteous Shani, and Dhumavati who rises in smoke. And according to both science and legend, crows are known for their ability to hold a grudge. They don’t forget ill-will done toward them.

Popular wisdom gives grudges a bad rap. Grudge-holders are said to be small-hearted and stuck in the past, while those who “let go” are noble. Those who don’t make it easy for others to keep trampling them are criticised as “being difficult”. But the way we talk about these issues – injury, forgiveness and healing – is all wrong. By diabolising our emotional responses, we actually allow the pain to twist into different sorts of cruelties, towards the self and others.

A grudge doesn’t mean extracting revenge. It doesn’t mean carrying negative emotions. It simply means recognising a person for what they are, instead of making excuses for them. And not forgetting lessons learnt.

A grudge-holder can be unfailingly polite, while also being cold. They can act kindly, without ever re-opening the door. They can even wish well, while simultaneously wishing to keep their distance. It’s not a grudge one truly holds, but a memory. Not a scar, but the concealed weapon of knowledge. It never needs to be used. Bearing it is protection enough.

Various fables about the crow suggest its intense colour is a form of punishment. But in a story belonging to the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people, its rainbow feathers are singed due to bravery. The earth is trapped in endless winter, and it travels on behalf of all living things to ask the creator for a solution. The creator imagines fire into being, and the crow is the first to experience it. The crow’s gift, however, is that in times of rain its wet feathers will glisten with their original variegation.

One can carry a grudge the way a crow carries a secret shimmer within. Where you’ve been burnt, a resistance: your true colours, and always, an awareness of theirs.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 2nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When You Burn A Bridge, But You’re Still On Fire

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The forests are burning, again, and so are the bridges. In one of the most striking images that I‘ve seen, a trajectory of incandescence outlines the distant black hills against the night sky, while the reflection of the blaze dapples the Ganga waters. Visually hypnotic, but terrible both in cause and consequence. The burning has gone on for a long time.

Those bridges I spoke of are only metaphorical: one way to find sense and language for this much incineration.

How does one withdraw support from those who abuse it? Amputation is a question of the correct knife. Sometimes, a needle will do to loosen a knot. Sometimes, it takes the the heaviness of a guillotine. Most times, it requires pulling out the knife that was plunged into one’s back and using it to stake freedom.

You built a bridge so you could share the bounty of your own land. You built a bridge so you could live more of other places, other impressions. You built a bridge because there was someone on a further bank who seemed to need it badly, and you misunderstood those who paid no heed as cruel, not cautious. You built a bridge so you could stand at its centre and marvel at how you suspended everything – doubt and mistrust and past failure – to build it anyway, and here it stands. And still you arrive at the day when you find the balustrades breaking down, the traffic one-way, and silt  weakening the foundations you lay with your own hands. And so you set a torch to it, and as the first flicker kindles, the words in your mouth and your beaten, beating heart are I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.

What is not known about amputation, except by those who have successfully performed it, is this: you don’t cut anything of another person away. You only excise that which has become gangrenous within you because of your involvement with them.

I woke very early one morning this weekend with the awareness that I was carrying tight orbs of anger and unhappiness, forms of thwarted love that had outlived their circumstantial triggers. I was as surprised by them as I would have been to find mice in my mattress, and I responded in the same way. They had no place in my life, in my body, in my bed. The arsonists behind those conflagrations had long since left or been left, but this was what they had left behind.

Who set the forests on fire? Who taught you tears could douse them? I looked at those red-hot burdens and said: this is my work to do.

Boundaries are just as beautiful as bridges. They keep out those who don’t deserve your bounty, your benevolence. But as you draw the lines and keep vigil within them, know that everything that wound up on your riverbank still belongs to you. Some things you cannot transmute except by way of bonfire.

You’ve been an inferno for a long time, any way.

What rises from the ashes is aurelian, smoke-feathered, jewel-eyed. It takes flight by the light of broken bridges as they burn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 5th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.