Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I were at the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2016 to promote our anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (edited by Catriona Mitchell). Our festival appearances were followed by an event at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane. Read more about this year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival here. You can also see lots of pictures from the trip to Australia on my Instagram.
On Saturday afternoon, I climbed into an auto I had hailed on the street just as a small group of teenagers were walking by on the other side. They were a mixed group of boys and girls, smiling and chatty with one another, and at least one of the girls was in a sleeveless outfit that ended at the knee. I registered fairly little of them, and would not have thought about them for a split second longer, had the driver not spoken just then.
I paraphrase from Tamil: “Like this, of course they’ll get their necks slashed.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Didn’t that happen at that train station? If they walk around the city undressed, what else is going to happen but getting their necks slashed?”
“Stop the auto.”
He did. I disembarked silently and took a few steps away. He drove off. I didn’t note his license plate. I didn’t take a photo. What would the point of Internet-shaming him be? Would it stop women from being attacked? Would it change people’s attitudes? Or would it just be one more app-friendly act of resistance, the kind that saturates our feeds yet does not spill over into our lived practices of equal partnering, better parenting or structural overhaul? Petty wins don’t give me power trips. They give me fatigue. The battle is so much bigger, and so continuous.
That evening, I read about Qandeel Baloch’s murder at the hands of her brother. The auto driver had thought a teenage girl deserved a brutal death for wearing something she must have liked. He found it only natural to relay this as a passing comment. Baloch’s brother had had that same thought. He carried it out. Somewhere in Pakistan is a college lecturer, or a taxi driver, or a research analyst – anyone at all, of any gender – pointing to a woman they don’t know as they tell someone else that she’s asking for it. For her boldness. For her vibrance. For her desire to simply be.
“So, he didn’t aruthufy your throat, no?” Many I know would have taken the ride anyway. They told me so. An auto driver is as irrelevant and impersonal to them as the teenager was to him. Neither of those dehumanisations are right.
The act of disengaging, for me, was more loaded than outrage. This is not categorically true; it must be used with acumen. But we cannot be so rash with the latter that we forget that a lived practice manifests in myriad ways.
I quietly unfriended one sleazebag and one mansplainer recently. I quietly wait for friends with problematic politics to arrive at certain insights that click only when they’re experienced, not tutored. I quietly listen when elderly conservatives bluster, and then I quietly go home and write. And that afternoon, I quietly remained standing on that street with my arm held out, alone. I hadn’t raised my voice. But I had stood my ground.
Several minutes later, the same driver came back around. “Naanthan,” he said, a little sheepishly.
“Vendam,” I said. He moved on, a stupid grin still on his face. I didn’t have that luxury.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
It began with an unwillingness to lug my laptop across the city to a workshop. Almost whimsically, I carried just a notebook and pens. It turned out to be delightful: because of my predisposition that a computer is for “serious work”, paper for messy ramblings, I found myself writing in a unpressured, riskier way. Doing the co-ordinators’ exercises took on a meditative quality, free of the tap-tap of keys and tic-tic of mouse buttons, and the practiced way my body and mind’s subtle rhythms usually respond to the same.
Even though I work on computers, I’ve always loved the physicality of ink and paper, the felt intimacy of the word “flow”. So I own an avalanche of preferred pens and handmade notebooks, which I fill with dreams upon waking, lists, desperate releases of raw emotion, questions that have no answers that I can’t keep myself from pursuing, repetitive doodles of intricate paisley and arabesques, wishes, articulations of the unsaid. But not since adolescence, when word processing software became my best friend, have I really written this way.
But before that, my hands had touched the memory of trees each time I spilled my heart on paper. Among my most vivid formative periods was this: when I was 12, my classroom was a converted chapel located just outside the main building of my school. The bus dropped me off almost an hour early, so I was always the first to arrive. And I would sit there in that quiet room and compose lyrics, every single schoolday morning. It was my ritual and my sanctuary, my way (though I did not know it then), of building selfhood against quotidian loneliness, disappointment, confusion.
Our handwriting, rarely seen by anyone else after the end of examinations, have become such private things. Mine is more mood than calligraphy. When I don’t care, when speed is the only consideration, it is nothing but squiggles. When I do care, when I give myself to the visceral experience of muscle, eye, instrument and journal, there’s something to admire in the curvature of my cursive. I like black ink.
I’ve written this column by hand, in a notebook with a cover into which glossy tamarind pods have been pressed, a gift from another writer. Between this inscribing and your reading are many tap-taps and tic-tics and machines, but there are also the sounds of the very early morning and the smack of the newspaper against your front door (what gets delivered first at your house – milk, news, puja flowers?) and the rustle of pages of newsprint being turned over, still resonant somewhere with the sounds the city made deep into the previous night when my editors finally got to go home.
This ink, this first draft in my notebook, makes no noise as it spills. And I’ve decided that when I travel next, I won’t take my machine with me. I hope the words I send back to you will carry with them all the sounds that accompany their penning: seasprays and birdsongs, translations, homesickness and belonging. And the silences: of falling leaves, of smiles, and of things better read than said.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
I tried not to judge, but wouldn’t you roll your eyes at the words “colouring book workshop for adults”? Then came the real kicker – the fee. It was the cost of a nice 3-course meal for two at any midscale restaurant. And if that restaurant happens to be family-friendly, you’d probably get table mats to not just colour, but also do crosswords and matching puzzles on. Totally complimentary.
Of course, other people’s time and money are not my concern. The off-putting feeling was really about what passes for leisure-cultural activity in Chennai. “But this is interactive” is no defense: when listening to an orchestra, doesn’t one participate right down to the goosebumps on one’s arms?
Some time ago, at the launch of a very good book, I looked around at the meagre audience and felt deeply annoyed. Just a couple of days prior, there had been another reading by aspirant writers, and their absence meant a conspicuous lack of support for someone who had stayed the course and worked hard to gain their current success. I’ve noted this often, over the years: the desire to be read, heard, watched, admired, applauded – but a reluctance to offer the same.
So many burn out because they fuel only their ambition, not their sense of awe. Whenever I discourage someone from self-publishing a collection before sending even a single poem to a poetry journal, or chide them for not reading enough, it’s because I’ve seen a little farther down the path than they have. I speak from just the distance I have come so far, but this I know: the journey is full of disappointment, rife with treachery, and one keeps on it through tenacity, humility and something I can only name as grace. If you demand an audience while refusing to be in one, you become the proverbial frog under the coconut shell. And so does the art you make.
But when I was asked when I’d last been to an arts event not directly related to my own field, i.e. literature, I couldn’t pinpoint one within the last three months. I posed the same question to other Chennai-based artists – when had they last had a cultural experience outside their turf? A musician was unsure – there’d been a photo exhibit in the last month but he couldn’t recall its name. A dancer knew distinctly that at least a year had passed since catching Ponniyan Selvan onstage. A theatre practitioner had attended a concert early this year. The person who’d asked me the question, also a musician, couldn’t remember. My own answer had been a cheat: I’d visited two heritage monuments in Karnataka.
This highlights the next level of the problem: professionals who don’t frequently cross-pollinate locally. Even if most of us privately, compulsively, consume culture through books, films and music, this doesn’t necessarily influence our collective milieu. As tempting as it is to blame Chennai’s sparse arts scene (with a few concentrated festivals a year, not a continuous buzz) I’d prefer to turn the onus on us: those in, and who want to be in, the arts. Let’s colour outside the boxes a little more, shall we?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
A poem on dreaming and fate, new moon and old skin. Read it here.
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.