The Venus Flytrap: #SorryNotSorry? #NotOkay.

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Over the weekend, I strapped on a pair of red stilettos for a poetry reading organised by the feminist think-tank Prajnya. The theme of the event was “Zero Apologies”, and the poets shared writing in Tamil and English about being forthright, without fear. For me, I find that the first line of apology begins at appearance. I enjoy clothing, ornamentation and maquillage – but my enjoyment of the same is where external judgement of me also begins. It’s a topic I explore at greater length in an essay in a new book called Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, but for now, suffice to say: I wasn’t sorry at all for the thigh-high slit in the skirt I wore that evening, and I laughed off the fact that my gorgeous shoes were falling apart even as I stood in them.

What an empowering thing it is to stop apologising for being ourselves.

But even as I said yes to “Zero Apologies”, and was delighted to express none whatsoever, something lingered in my mind and it wasn’t just good manners. While preparing for the poetry recital and finding poems that suited the subject, I found myself thinking not only about when we should never apologise, but also about when we really should.

‘Sorry’ is a beautiful word. We say it both as a habit and as a force of conditioning that makes us downplay ourselves, but swallow it at the moments it is made for. We apologise, unnecessarily, for our necklines, our ambitions, our tears, our uncertainties, our emotions. We say the word for all the wrong things, but we’re miserly with it when we’re actually wrong.

I thought back to a few recent instances when I have said it and meant it, a strong word used to keep small lapses small. Once, when I didn’t make it to a dear one’s special occasion; once, when I apologised on behalf of someone I felt responsible for; more than once, when busyness or hunger made me snappy. And I thought further back into the past, to times when my apologies were insufficient. Because sometimes ‘sorry’ is just a placeholder, a way to salve things so they can be worked on slowly. When you have caused damage to another, you cannot justify having done so. You can only say, unequivocally, that you will try better. And then do.

Only in its most routine or manipulative deliveries is ‘sorry’ anything other than a starting point. Because, by itself, it’s never enough. It’s only the key to rebuilding, not an end to itself – and this is where we falter. We misunderstand both apology and forgiveness, centring them on incidents and not on understanding.

I will never apologise for being strong, dedicated, principled or flamboyant. But I will apologise for my blind spots, misreadings, temper and wickedness, should I have the clarity to see them, even if only much later.

And call me old-fashioned, but the one thing that I most believe no one should ever apologise for having or expecting? Good manners!

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories

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In “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, I write about personal style as a mode of self-expression, and self-concealment. I write about the pleasure of the perfect drape, the passion of red lipstick, and the heartache of living in a time when beauty and power cannot always co-exist. This essay is in the new anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Catriona Mitchell. The book is out now from HarperCollins in India, and Hardie Grant in Australia/the UK shortly.

karaikalammaiyaradornments

 

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

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In June of 2008, when Barack Obama was still a presidential hopeful, TIME Magazine published a photograph in which, palm over palm, the candidate held a mélange of metal trinkets. The magazine called them his “lucky charms”, and they included an open bangle that had belonged to a US soldier in Iraq, an icon of the Madonna and child, and a tiny statuette of Hanuman.

            As his two-term tenure as President of the United States comes to end, Obama emptied out his pockets again for a special interview on Youtube. As was widely reported in the Indian press, the monkey god figurine is one he still carries everywhere. I remembered this from 2008; that had been the year that Hanuman had become a vivid presence in my own life, and indeed was the emissary through whom I befriended my muse of many years, Sita. But the tone of the recent coverage bothered me.

            These are the talismans that Obama chose to display during that video interview: a gift of rosary beads from Pope Francis, with a pendant of Christ on the cross; a shiny poker chip that a burly biker gave him while he was on the campaign trail prior to his first election; an Ethiopian Coptic cross, origin mysterious; a Buddha statuette, a monk’s present; and, of course, the Hanuman, given to him by ‘a woman’.

            Taken together, these amulets are a handful of syncretism. Gifts given to a leader as totems perhaps of blessing and protection but more importantly, of responsibility. He carries them on his person the way auto-drivers paste Ganesha-Jesus-mosque stickers on their front windows or on their handlebar cabins. One trinket on its own would only be a personal fetish, but a collection amounts to much more, symbolically and otherwise. And in the current national climate, there’s something just a little saddening about the media focus on that Hanuman statuette. The Buddha too, lest we forget, is just as Indian in origin. Those rosary beads are a part of the worship of millions of citizens. And what, since we’re jousting, could be more secular than a poker chip, representative of the gamble each of us takes on life, every single day?

            Obama may or may not attach spiritual significance to the talismans he carries – and it is his prerogative to discuss this or not. But what he certainly shares openly is that each of these objects was given to him by a specific person – a pope, a monk, an undescribed woman – and reaching for them reminds him of his commitment to people. How successful he has been at this commitment and whether he has acted on it meaningfully in his time in power is a matter of argument. But the least there is to learn here is that one must believe one can do more than try. And when we seek to touch the divine, by any name we call it, let us not overlook that among its marvellous, and certainly, imitable qualities is the one known (not without basis) as ‘humanity’.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 21st. “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: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

kaliflower

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Looking For The Woman (In Service Of The Man)

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The French have a terribly sexy sounding (but actually kind of sexist) saying – “Cherchez la femme”. “Look for the woman.” If there’s a lacuna in the alibi – look for the woman. If it doesn’t add up – look for the woman. If there’s a missing motive – look for the woman. Wherever there is a problem, in short, there is usually a subplot that involves a woman, a tussle for her affections or a drama of her machinations.

I’ve never had reason to drop that phrase into a conversation (never mind that I don’t actually speak French – touché!). Yet I observe its variants around me. There’s a particularly intriguing power dynamic that has nothing to do with an individual’s influence, and everything to do with tacit hierarchy: the curious phenomena of reflex loyalty between and towards men.

Like all deeply-entrenched problems, it’s most evident of all in one-on-one conversation. I’ll share something with a man – an observation of or experience with another man. And my companion will shrug, flash a micro-reaction (a millisecond of a nod or a Cheshire grin) and deftly deflect the topic. It’s not that he doesn’t agree with me. He’s glad I said it, so he didn’t have to. But he just can’t give his bro away. Even if he knows me better than he does him. Even, in fact, if he’s never met him. It’s a response that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The eerie sense that he thinks that he’s looking at the woman, i.e. doesn’t have to look for the culprit. When loyalty is drawn along any demographic line, be it gender, caste or any such category, injustice abounds.

But here’s the reason I’ve never had reason to drop “cherchez la femme” into conversation – I wouldn’t. The only thing scarier than automatic bro-loyalty is internalised misogyny. Which is to say, when the person saying “look for the woman” is herself a woman. There’s no easy way to say this: but in the same way that many men are raised to trust one another first, many women are conditioned to trust one another least.

The woman who rats her colleague out to the resident jerk because she feels ashamed to have confided in her about an abusive partner. The one who would rather believe a distant relative than her molested daughter. The one seeking public office who wants to uphold the two-finger rape test, or criminalise abortion. Each story is equally appalling, and ultimately predictable – in each one, she will pick the man, any man (or “The Man”, as in the one the cool kids stick it to). Over any woman, including herself.

Blind loyalties, stark betrayals. Both in the service of patriarchy. The women unfortunate enough to be tangled up with these turncoats – whether anecdotally or in actuality – get the raw end, every time.

Which is why when I hear an unpleasant story involving an alleged villainess, I do look for the woman. I look for her perspective. I don’t automatically side with her. But I refuse to automatically side against her. Sometimes femme fatale really means femme fatality.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.