So I woke up nearly two hours early today because I had to see the paper. After six years in journalism, my byline by itself is no longer a source of hysterical excitement. But (deep breath) I have a column!
That column is The Venus Flytrap (special thanks to Chat for suggesting the name), in the Zeitgeist section of The New Indian Express. Zeitgeist is the Saturday paper, full of “alternative-style” columns. What can you expect from me? My dirty yet political mind, of course. :) Editor wanted “Early Salon.com meets better Sex and the City meets traditional op-ed”. I thought, “I’m game! Just don’t call me Carrie.”
I’ll be posting up my unedited columns here for archiving and sharing. Here’s installment one.
THE VENUS FLYTRAP
The City of Secret Sin
On New Year’s Day, my sisters and I were at a Barista on Chennai’s trendy Khader Nawaz Khan Road, where we were treated to something of a spectacle in this city: PDA.
Now if there’s any three-letter acronym that raises the hackles of the self-appointed moral guardians of the nation, the Tamil nation, and their general indignation – it’s this one. More specifically, if the parties in question are of opposite genders (men entangled in one another’s arms as they swagger, octopussily, down the street are as common as the cow).
So there’s all the accounting you need for where my manners went when I spotted the hetero couple on the couch, spooning, he nuzzling and kissing her neck while she affected rapturous expressions for a solid fifteen minutes. I stared like my eyelids had vanished. Curiously, the other patrons and the staff were completely blasé.
Was I offended, I asked myself? I, who pride myself on standing for liberated mores, who believes in the legalization of marijuana, the decriminalization of prostitution, the repealing of Penal Code 377? I had a problem with some mild making out within my sight?
No, I consoled myself. You haven’t gone that native yet (I’d been back in the city just a sullen three months at this point). What shocked me, I realized, was that somewhere between my last long spell in India and my present one, it looked like the social order had hiked its skirt above its head and started sprinting into the 21st century. And I had some catching up to do.
One thing I’ve learned about Chennai is that just when you’ve reconciled yourself to her conservatism, her stick-in-the-mud, tattle-to-Appa (or, more appropriately in times past, Amma) sense of staying firmly entrenched in an archaic world – just when you think you know her, she sticks a foot out to trip you up. And then you turn around and see she’s in leopard print thigh-highs.
Still, something about this particular incident uncharacteristically unnerved me. It went further than superficiality: it was actual risk-taking. And that’s when I realized that I was shocked, but not scandalized – actually, I was kind of thrilled. And not just because our voyeur-baiting couple was, well, pretty hot.
It’s been said that identity is a constant process of exchanging masks: and it may hold truer in no other place on earth. This is where women routinely carry around three different outfits to fit into various contexts, relationships are conducted exclusively via SMS, and every straight man wants Mallika Sherawat (but not as his wife). All said and done, under our hypocrisies and – most tellingly – our extraordinary abilities of subterfuge and personality adaptation, we’re as sordid as they come. We populate like we’re competing with rabbits, our HIV rate is among the world’s most rapidly increasing, yet we live in denial of these serious facts, and settle instead for pretensions of progress.
I’ve noticed that these days, everybody’s buying into the myth of New Chennai, and I would imagine, New India. Mid-length skirts and malls make us ‘modern’. As the blogger Krish Ashok put it, the city has gone from being married to tradition to being in a live-in relationship with it. Or so it seems. Because when push comes to shove, we haven’t changed. Misogyny, casteism, religious and communal prejudice – all the old brigades still rule the roost. Our taboos haven’t dissolved; we’ve just found ways to negotiate with them in temporary, individual ways that work in tandem with the system and have no bearing on society at large.
But ultimately – and this is no reflection on the exhibitionists who led to this cud-chewing – these ways are like somebody’s Mami doing the Macarena – mildly amusing, briefly scandalous, but mostly just sad both in a lack of originality and in a reaction so delayed it’s turned cliché. And that’s the thing – when you throw your skirt over your head and run, you have no idea where you’re going. Call me prudish if you will, but I’ll take a full-skirted revolutionary over a panty-flashing bimbo any day.
So as wicked as I found it, I’m not about to equate a little PDA to the dawn of a liberated age. It’s probably more like 3.30am, but considering the 9pm curfews we came from, it’s still pretty cool. Kudos to the cozy duo for taking the time-honoured traditions of Marina Beach to a couch in a coffee joint. I’d gladly waive my right to enjoy my latte in peace for the sake of a little more honesty in this city of secret sin.
Sharanya Manivannan’s first book of poems, Witchcraft, will be launched in June. She blogs at http://sharanyamanivannan.wordpress.com