Monday 23 November 2020

Annus mirabilis

The day just past marked a year since my last day at The Hindu.

This day last year marked the beginning of a week spent on the first actual holiday I’d had in eleven years, just sleeping a lot, reading, being self-indulgent. A week later, I began working on a proposal for some linked non-profit projects I’d been putting aside for years, and a plan for a book project I could do alongside. This was going to be the start of a year of self-discovery, of indulging myself by doing work I wanted to, and to hell with the money, doing just a bit of pay-the-bills work on the way.

But life, as it often does, had other plans. Like death. Dad, the last member of my immediate family got ill, two months were spent between hospital and home and then a sickbed, then he died.

Suddenly I was living completely alone. Suddenly, my life decisions would affect no one but me.

And I was paralysed by freedom.

Weeks went by when I could do nothing except walk every day, a couple of kilometres every day at first, slowly ramping up to 15. And then a health scare that made me pause. And made me pay closer attention to stories I’d been reading about a city called Wuhan and an epidemic of serious disease that then seemed to leap to an area called Lombardy. It seemed inevitable then that the contagion would reach us sooner rather than later. I stocked my kitchen and locked down before the thaalis and taalis.

And so nine months have passed, baby.

I had to put the projects and the book plan aside (they all needed me to travel). The kind of jobs I wanted were getting scarcer; many I know lost employment that seemed secure, and there was no freelance on offer. My health has been up and down.

But, you know what? It’s not been a wasted year.

For one, low phases aside, I’m healthy, net net. (And three Coronavirus tests came out negative.)

Thanks to once having been too broke to pay hospital bills, I had saved madly for medical emergencies I thought would come. Instead, I wound up prepared for the truly unforeseen, with savings to pay rent in the quiet neighbourhood I live in (and a landlord, bless his usually miserly heart, who hasn’t raised it, though he was contractually entitled to). I was in a godawful mental slump a few months, and I pulled myself together with this thought.

I learnt, thanks to the generosity of many of you, and a group I started, how to feed myself better, more nutritiously, with more variety, with stuff I had never encountered before. And with less waste. (Peels and scraps and bones and such are frozen, then made into stock; all remnants are composted; the only waste I generate is packaging from food, and that is one dustbinful a month.) In the time to come when we can visit each other, I won’t be famous for my dinner parties, but I’ll invite you to stay for a meal without embarrassment.

And I helped start and run two other projects that were not even on my horizon nine months ago.

Thanks to being able to afford that quiet neighbourhood (and male privilege) I was able to walk every night. I haven’t been able to do any art or poetry, strangely, but I’m not too worried about that; those things come when they come; when they do, I’ll be there.

My closest friends are still my closest friends, we talk more than we did before (though I’d also like to hug them, and that will have to wait). Friends who’d been too busy to keep in touch — more likely, truth be told, I’d been too busy or worked hours too weird to keep in touch with them — were chatting again. Some folks I knew only slightly have now become close too. Together, we talked each other through this weird reality we find ourselves in, across the world, sharing stories, sharing memories, sharing hopes.

No, not a wonderful year, but yes, a wonderful year.

Tuesday 10 November 2020


The ❤️. When did it become a symbol of love? For that matter, why is it called a heart symbol, when it doesn't look like a human heart?

Illustration from a drop-letter in 'Roman de la poire,' which dates back to around 1250 CE. The first known depiction of a heart as a symbol of romantic love.

We know that we associate the heart with emotions. And that became a symbol of romance in medieval Europe, particularly the Renaissance, when it figured art showing Christ and his 'sacred heart.' It also was used as one of the four suits in European playing cards. By the 1700s, it began featuring in Valentine’s Day cards.

I read also that a symbol much like it has been seen on cave paintings dating back to 8000 BCE or more, like before the last Ice Age, but what meaning those painters may have ascribed to it is unknown. And in the Voodoo religion, the heart icon is the symbol of Erzulie, the loa of love, beauty, and purity. In Ghana, the Asante used the symbol in Adinkra, hand-embroidered cloths that represented social thought and belief, to represent love.

But I digress. Why was this shape the symbol for a heart, which to our eyes, looks rather different?

One theory associates it with saunf, fennel. Or rather, silphium a species of giant fennel now extinct. Silphium grew on the North African coastline. Greeks and Romans used it as a spice, a medicine for coughs, but also as a contraceptive. Poets praised this latter quality. It was cultivated into extinction by the first century CE. In images from the era (the city-state of Cyrene, which prospered with the silphium trade, put the shape on its money, for one) the silphium seed looks like the ❤️.

Some theories say it is based on ivy or water-lily leaves. (Ancient Greeks associated ivy with Dionysus, god of sensual things, which may have lead to its association with sex and then romantic love.) Others say that that it was based on the shape of breasts or buttocks or the pubic mound or vulva or testicles.

The Catholic church's story is that a saint Margaret Mary Alacoque a vision in which the sacred heart of Jesus appeared to her in this shape, with thorns around it. This vision was in the 1600s, much after the symbol (sans thorns) was already well known, so doesn't explain the origins, but since the church had no small influence in Europe, it accounts for its further spread. (Before this, in heraldry, the heart signified sincerity, eventually became synonymous with the holy grail. Some playing cards use the holy grail instead of the heart symbol.)

Some scholars argue for a more simple evolution. They say it originates in the writings of Aristotle, who said the human heart had three chambers with a dent in the middle, and when artists in the Middle Ages drew representations of ancient texts, this is what they came up with. Some say says that the symbol does resemble the chambers of the heart cut open. Bird or reptile hearts are closer in shape to the symbol, and since early anatomical study was based on the dissection of animals, this sounds viable.

At any rate, most early graphic depictions in Europe were sort of pine-cone shaped, and upside-down, at least from our perspective. In the 1400s, a dent began to appear on the base, first small, then getting bigger. By the mid-1500s, it depiction on playing cards was the one we know today.

We no longer think of the heart as the seat of emotions, or of love, though it persists in language. And emoji. An example of iconographic inertia, to use a phrase coined by Nicholson Baker.

(All this is the product of one of those trips down rabbit holes when one goes to look up something. Maybe you'll find it interesting too.)