Symbols and sentiments of a fleshy seed

I went looking for something heart-shaped to use as a photo prop, and amongst my objects just as in my life, I found nothing.

Published: 15th February 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th February 2020 11:08 PM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: I went looking for something heart-shaped to use as a photo prop, and amongst my objects just as in my life, I found nothing. That ubiquitous icon had far less presence than I’d assumed, except perhaps by way of ink on paper. I have signed words with lipstick kisses and scrawled sigils, like anyone hopeless and hot-blooded. I thought I had filled my life with love, or at least my longing for it, but it appeared to have been abstracted. Not a single heart-shaped handmade soap, cheap ring of sentimental value or box that had once held similarly crafted chocolates could be found among the miscellany that is mine. I made do with a decaying rose — how’s that for a metaphor?

The heart symbol is not mere kitsch; its form is derived from the seed or the fruit of the near-mythical silphium plant. Its other names are uncertain, but it was known to be an aphrodisiac, a contraceptive and an abortifacient, thus making it a regalia of desire and its corollaries like no other. And then I remembered why I think I see it everywhere: if it feels like the heart symbol is embroidered into my life with the frequency of a hem stitch, it’s because of emojis. Big red ones that throb flagrantly on the phone screen, or burst into tiny heart-bubbles with a sound effect to match. I send them everyday. They are sent back to me, always, and this is only because as frivolous as I may be in punctuating my messages with them, I’m not frivolous about who receives them.

One of my other, actual hearts — my subtle-body one, not the anatomical one, although we know that the weight of the world on the blood-circulating one is not light — knows better. Not everyone is deserving. Not everyone will meet openness with gentleness, even if the truth hurts. Earthworms have five literal ones; octopi and squid can have three. We have fewer of those, just a solo organ because of which everything rises and falls, but perhaps several other kinds. Secret hearts no one knows we harbour. Folded-and-kept-in-pockets hearts. Dissolved-like-ash-in-water hearts. We love and lose, and linger in our own afterlives. Apropos everything and nothing at all, I was thinking of St. Valentine — the martyred saint whose name is taken, sometimes in vain, each year.

I must confess that my thoughts were macabre. I’d read that the relic of his skull, adorned with a crown of flowers a la Frida Kahlo, is kept in a small Roman church. This is of especial importance because his hagiography holds that he was beheaded by order of the law. Other relics of his are scattered across Europe. My macabre wondering was about his physical heart. Perhaps it was the Kahlo-esque imagery that made the idea that it would be cherished separately spring to my mind. A heart in its own case, its own cocoon. But isn’t that in some ways always so — that whatever beats within us also has at least one counterpart that tendrils ectopically, as fragile and full as a balloon?

Sharanya Manivannan @ranyamanivannan

The Chennai-based author writes poetry, fiction & more

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