Tag Archives: sri lankan tamil

The Venus Flytrap: Diving Into The Distance

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I went in search of secrets, and stories only spoken but never committed to script. There in a fan-less portico in the far eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the unforgiving Chithirai month, the elderly gentleman I had gone to see told me candidly: “I have amnesia”. And then: “I also lost all my documents in the flood.”

But the flood he spoke of seemed suspiciously far away; he told me of writing to his grandmother with an exaggeration about kitchen appliances made of stone floating in the calamity. But no one at 90 years old has a grandmother who writes back and exposes the lie. “Was this the flood of 1956?” I asked. He shushed me. In the labyrinth of his memory, the true distances of decades had long ceased to exist.

Distances. My ancestors were mostly fisherpeople who migrated from present-day Kerala, and when I look at Batticaloa on maps I wonder what it was that drew them further and further. I have drawn that map by hand myself, and wondered: which route did they take to the island’s central east: upon sighting shore, did they voyage southwards, where the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa and Galle didn’t seduce them, or north-bound, where the palms of the Jaffna peninsula too failed to beckon? It’s inconceivable that they followed the path that I did, cutting clear across the country on ground, for they navigated by water. Unless they started elsewhere and moved deeper and deeper east to where lagoon-and-field and field-and-lagoon alternate in a geography of perfect balance.

More than a thousand years later, I take a short flight and a long drive: into the country via the capital city on the west coast, followed by nine hours of highways until I arrive on the farther shore. For the longest time, under alibi of war, it was an emotional distance – an expanse, not a detachment – that was hardest of all for me to cross. One’s roots can only be watered by tears.

I discover that the distance between a matrilineal, matrilocal culture and its swallowing into the patriarchal world order is sometimes a mere generation, or one stroke of a clerk’s pen that accidentally transfers the land to the holder of the masculine name because of an ordinance that never considered how it was possible for a society like this to exist at all.

I try to bridge the distance between that pen and mine when I talk to a group of teenagers from surrounding villages and ask them to name ten writers, anticipating correctly that not one would be a woman. “Complicate the narrative,” was what the outreach worker had told me beforehand, and later over dinner with her I felt saddened that the most I could do was to offer my presence as a kind of shock value. Dialogue cannot happen at a distance.

Always, two literal bridges: the old one and the new one over the Kallady part of the Batticaloa lagoon. I crossed it several times each day, carrying more each time by way of knowledge. I never felt the distance. Even now, days later, I still don’t feel the distance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: The Pottu In The Time Of The Tilak

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She was from Hatton, in the hill country. Like all small facts that paint big pictures, it immediately told us her history – or at least as much of the history of another that can be gauged, sometimes unfairly, by data. She was a nurse, and we were next of kin, waiting in a hospital corridor. After a few minutes she asked us, “Where are you from?”

“Here,” we replied, because it was simpler. Her expression showed she was not convinced. “You sound Sri Lankan,” said the nurse. “But you look Indian.”

We asked her what she meant. “Your pottus,” was all she said – and instantly another picture flooded back, of grand-aunts wiping their foreheads clean of kungumam as they fled the Tamil neighbourhood of Wellawatte in the riots of 1983, of 30 years of war. The realisation was chilling. If I had always lived in Sri Lanka, I would probably think of the huge pottus I love the way I think of certain dresses I also love, living in India. Semiotically charged, to be worn at one’s own risk.

I didn’t always love wearing pottus. As a child, made to by parents, I was sometimes bullied for it (I won’t forget the boy who called me “Headgear”). I wondered why my international school classmates couldn’t make the connection between Gwen Stefani’s glittering bindi in the “Don’t Speak” video we watched hundreds of times in 1998 and the small black sticker on my face. Sometimes the sticker was red; other kids asked if I was married because that’s what they’d heard. Black for the non-married, red for the married. A teacher gently said it represented the third eye then looked at me for validation – but honestly, I had no idea.

I cannot remember whether I grasped the pottu’s political power or its beauty first. Its spiritual import only came to me much later. When I, proudly never-married, sometimes streak excess vermilion into the parting of my hair it’s in praise of all three possibilities. Prudes respond as they did to the metti I bought myself and wore for some years. I’m hardly the first, though. The actor Rekha caused a sensation in 1980 when she attended a wedding wearing the marital sindoor, a statement she then repeated many times.

There are many original ways to utilise the pottu. During the last couple of years, the Iodine Bindi has been distributed for free by NGOs in areas where women suffer from a deficiency of the mineral. The artist Bharti Kher’s work features the accessory as a central motif. Stickers of various shapes and sizes are meticulously layered over objects, creating the visual effect of texture. Sperm-shaped sticker pottus cover a fibreglass elephant sculpture in a painful slump on the floor. This famous installation is called “The Skin Speaks A Language Of Its Own”.

What does my big pottu (sindoor or sticker, it doesn’t matter) convey to dangerous men wearing tilaks? How long before the reverse of that conversation in Sri Lanka happens – when people will be forced to wear them rather than forced to not, concealing themselves, hoping for safety on buses arbitrarily stopped, trains suddenly invaded?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 30th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

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Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 20th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

A New Short Story

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To celebrate its second anniversary, The Hindu Business Line’s BLink magazine has published a fiction special. My short story on Sri Lanka, family and faith, written exclusively for this issue, is in it.

Warakapola

In Warakapola we stop for the first time, at the Bhadrakali-Hanuman kovil by a hill on the A1 highway, the first of many roads on this journey. We climb the few stairs to the temple to see its strangely companionable deities, but our grandfather gets out of the vehicle only for the Pillaiyar at its base. He holds a dried coconut with both hands, and circles it in the air, making his entreaties to the god of beginnings. And then he breaks it open on the ground, using his better arm. On the second try, it cracks open.

We bought the coconuts as we left Wellawatte and divided them into two bags. One is in the backseat, the other lodged between the driver and my grandfather, in the front. They must not be stepped on. We stretch our limbs out and try to sleep.

Nobody tells us — although there are those in the van who know — that it will be 10 hours to Batticaloa, in all.

You can read all of “16 Coconuts To Pillayaradi” here.

The Venus Flytrap: Between Bread and Betelnut

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I was raised by my Sri Lankan Tamil maternal grandparents, and among my various cultural heirlooms comes that famously recognizable accent. That conversation-stopping, glint-in-the-eye, connotations-stirring, “Yaarlpanam-ah?” accent. The one my mother, in her less matriotic moments, tries to pass for Malayali. That political, poetic, deeply personal dialect that I call my mother tongue.

As fiercely in love as I am with this tongue, I have had to rein it in. Living in Chennai and having to haggle with auto drivers on a daily basis does that to you – do you have any idea how much they charge otherwise? I learnt to imitate the coarser rhythms of Madras Tamil out of the need for defense – like a stereotypical Ceylonese, I keep my allegiances close but my wallet closer still.

Still, it’s an accent that never fails to surprise me. The affirmative om that perks up in place of the ama I’ve conditioned myself to use in India. The fact that I cannot bring myself to use the personal nee when the neenga I am used to is just that much more pleasingly polite, and somehow, to my ears, more intimate. My accent gives me away when I least expect it to, like a blush-inducing pinch that makes sure I don’t forget. Just like how my v’s and w’s mix when I argue in English, any Tamil conversation in which I wholly participate is jazzed up (or if you’ll excuse the blatant exoticism, baila-d up) with my real accent. The one I had before I knew it was an accent.

My accent is too pretty to make fun of, I think. But some of my island-inflected vocabulary isn’t.

When I was 18, I spent half a year living with my local grandmother. Bless her, for she tried her best to take care of this half-and-half foreign-returnee. I think her patience was sorely tested by a few incidents in the kitchen (which is not called quisine here – sigh!), in particular.

I wanted some paan, I told her once, incurring her disdain. Paan, as far as I knew, was bread. Paan, as far as she knew, was betelnut. Not getting the hint, I tried to describe a sandwich. Finally, a wave of clarity broke upon her face and she exclaimed, “You mean roti!”. But roti, as far as I knew, was what’s known here as the Malabar paratha.

Equally flummoxing was when I asked for kochikai (chilli, to the Ceylonese). “What you mean”, someone corrected me, is “mizhagai“. “No”, I insisted. “That’s pepper!”

But the linguistic faux pas that I didn’t stop using until literally months ago is the one that takes the cake.

Grand old Ceylonese ammammas, at least in my experience, greet children by grabbing their chins, sniffing both cheeks, and muttering in rapturous tones, “Enda kunju!” Or (once again, to show you how little I knew), “my little one”. Fancying myself a grand young Ceylonese lady, it’s a term of endearment I also use to embellish my speech.

Imagine my glee and horror when my very irate sister informed me recently that kunju, as far as Indian Tamil is concerned, means penis.

So don’t blame me for my dirty mind. It’s genetic.

I love that my Ceylonese accent gives me away, because years and years from the first home of my childhood in Colombo, not so far away at all from losing my grandparents, it’s one of my dearest possessions. An accent like the surprise of sweet in mango pickle, I wrote in a poem once. So leave me to my broken Tamil and my quaintly scandalous expressions in it. It’s one of the few ways that I know how to love and remember love.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.