The High Priestess Never Marries Wins A Laadli Award

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I am so deeply honoured that The High Priestess Never Marries has won a 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media & Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book (Fiction). The award ceremony was held at the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, on May 12 2017. I was presented the award by Kamla Bhasin.

It means all the more to me because the Laadli Awards are not literary, but feminist.

The complete citation for the award is as follows:

“Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.”

 

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5 Decades Of Desire: The 30s

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I am often assailed by longing for the woman I was at the cusp of 26, neither too young to know nor old enough to know too much. Not only was I free-spirited and passionate, but I was also met by what I sought. Except, as I sensed even then, I could not keep them: those entanglements, that exhilaration. And so, I am also often assailed by compassion for the woman I was at the cusp of 26.

This year, I will turn 32. But right now, I am 31 – “a viable, die-able age”, as Arundhati Roy unforgettably wrote in The God of Small Things. I prefer to focus on the first word. There is so much that is viable about being a never-married woman in her 30s.

It is true that on any given day, I am likely to feel more lucky than lonely. The blessings of being unburdened are easy to count, and I have the luxury of counting them often. But it’s not all lovers and solo travel and disposable income and possibility. It is also, more often, practical thinking and responsibility and the weariness of combat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But why is it that I feel lucky? More than anything else, it’s because I’ve outgrown so much conditioning about what a woman’s life should look like. Even, in fact, what a wild woman’s life should look like. I’m more interested in what it is. Do I believe in Love with a capital ‘L’?  I’ve found pondering the question a waste of the imagination, when I now much prefer the small ‘l’, the verb, the everyday extravagance of being and feeling instead of waiting.

This life that is neither tragic nor in need of rescuing is anomalous, and I recognise why it’s necessary to not present a unidimensional version of it. So here is another truth: that there is melancholy. Last year, I climbed into an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle for a less bumpy ride, as I appeared to be newlywed and “carrying”. I struggled not to cry on that ride, not because of anything as inane as mistaking concern for body shaming but because those things are not true for me, and may never be true. I am soft and never-wed and I carry memories, desires, legacies and scars, but only and all of me.

But the beauty of being this age, of having arrived here tenderly, toughly, is the sincere acceptance that it’s alright. All of it – melancholy, uncertainty, anger, hunger and even moments of bitterness – is perfectly alright. They are balanced by laughter, courage, wisdom and – yes – pleasures little and large. We are all every age we have ever been. And sometimes I am already all the ages I will ever be. The great moral challenge of my decades to come, should they come, is whether I’ll be able to hold on to both: unyielding principles and petal-perceptive heart.

An edited version appeared in The Indian Express on International Women’s Day, 2017.

The Venus Flytrap: Cassandra In The Kingdom Of Closed Eyes

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A boy is knifed in a train and bleeds to death on his brother’s lap on a station platform and no one sees. A young woman is stabbed and bleeds to death on another station platform and no one sees, but someone covers her with a shawl so that her womanly shape isn’t visible, for that is all they can see of her. Something cold sits on my heart, listening to them; how do they do it, looking me straight in the eyes and blithely revealing that they are among the unseeing?

They don’t register the headlines, the statistics, the faces, the stories. They demand proof even as it plays out before them. They claim blips and skewings, and when faced with facts, claim conspiracy. Last weekend I saw someone carrying a poster with a version of Bob Dylan’s words: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Some – no, many – deaths don’t count because some (many) lives matter less than others. There’s a quota that can never be filled enough for them to say “Enough”. That’s not a riot, they say. And a riot’s not a holocaust. And at least a holocaust is not… well, no one will be left to finish that sentence.

And someone will ask me (I know the script) – how can you connect them, the boy with the skull cap and the girl with the stalker – and like a fabulist I will have to try to prove a theory of invisibility. About how there are reasons why some people can only see some things and not others. And I will play right into their hands when I tell them: when a girl was raped on a bus five years ago, you lit candles and raged, when the same thing happened to another girl in Salem a month ago, you scrolled past her, just like you did the one whose body was towed in a garbage truck, the pregnant one found brutalised at the bottom of a well, the one who was never written about at all but whom you would have ignored anyway.

Then they’ll say: where were you when the earth first wept (not yet born), or when that other silence stuck like tar (raising my voice, then as now, but it didn’t carry in the wind) or when those other dead were named (I hadn’t known then – but you had). As though their wilful, obstinate unseeingness is vindicated because of my not being omniscient. And they never turn the same question on themselves: where are you now, as this unfolds, and why do you justify it? And if you ask, they say flatly, “But there is nothing happening.”

They cannot see the forest burning for all the ashes in the trees. Cannot see structure, system, sense. Cannot see anything beyond their own noses, even as they fill with noxious smoke.

Here’s what I see then, if you can tolerate a Cassandra in the kingdom of closed eyes: nothing we have not already seen. Nothing humanity does not already know. Nothing humanity can forget – unless humanity has forgotten the meaning of itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Exhumation of Salvador Dali

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It’s a suitably surreal story, the kind that would make a fascinating novel (and later, when the author can finally quit her day job after selling the film rights, a good movie too). Picture it: it is the 1950s. In a small Mediterranean village called Port Lligat, a celebrated painter builds a waterfront home where he spends some decades, most of them married to his muse. When not busy with her own work, she poses for him as the madonna, a sleeping nude about to be pounced on by tigers, and herself as a matrix of suspended spheres, among other renditions. The couple are childless, but there are families who live near them who employ a young, married nanny. The painter and the nanny have an affair, and more than sixty years later, a professional tarot reader comes forward and convinces the courts to order an exhumation of the painter’s body to determine whether he is her father, as her grandmother once told her.

So Salvador Dali is to be exhumed, although his estate – worth over 300 million euros – will fight the court order. The big hitch in the paternity suit is that Dali was rumoured to have a phobia of female genitalia. Unlike stereotypical muse-artist relationships, it was his wife, Gala, who enjoyed their open marriage (along with some other atypical dynamics like requiring Dali to receive her permission in writing before visiting her at the private castle she spent her summers in). The plaintiff’s mother, the nanny, is now in her late 80s and suffers from Alzheimer’s, and corroborated the parentage story only a few years ago.

The whole thing is mildly entertaining, but also mildly distasteful. Still, who are we to judge? So many people are still hung up the concept of bloodlines as proof of superiority – or something – and that’s even without millions of euros in the picture.

I was curious about precedents for Dali’s exhumation. The 19th century English poet Elizabeth Siddal, who also posed for her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings, was buried with the only copy of his early literary attempts, and her body was later exhumed so he could retrieve them. Then the poets Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca came to mind. The former had been a civil servant who died suddenly days after Chilean dictator Pinochet’s 1973 military coup; the latter was long known to have been executed, with three others, in 1936 by fascists in a Spanish civil war. Neruda was exhumed in 2013 to investigate murder claims, but when he was reburied in 2016, the mystery remained. Lorca’s corpse has never been found, although over the years numerous excavations have been made to determine where his remains lie.

What’s interesting about the search for the truth about Neruda and Lorca’s deaths is that, unlike the Dali exhumation, they speak to, and are reminders of, a larger cause. Thousands died in the same events, yet we only know of the famous few. And there are mass graves the world over: they contain not just the bodies of the dead who had no rites, but also the pain of the surviving who have no proof.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 29th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Once Bitter, Twice Sweet

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Once when I was still intrepid in the ways in which I ventured in the world, I sat on the leaf-carpeted floor of a forest at sunfall and ate a piece of honeycomb. It had been cut fresh from a hive I had watched drop from the overhang of a cliff, unstuck by a spear held by a traditional honeygatherer swinging on a rope ladder. I lifted the leaf on which this piece of honeycomb was given to me and tasted it. And, with surprise, I learnt that wild honey from the flower of the jamun plant is bitter.

Medicinal bitterness, the healing bitterness of herbs. We eat them because we trust that there would be no other reason to. Not taste, not pleasure. The human heart – though often identified by its virtues first, of sweetness and strength – is capable of a kind of bitterness that consumes itself. I have pondered this bitterness of late, because is it also the thing I most fear, the thing I recognised very early in others as something I should guard for in myself. And these days, I look at my face in the mirror and I see a hardness that would not be there were it not for things I can name precisely. And it’s in that naming that my bitterness is rooted, but in naming this I hope to avert its hold.

I asked a counsellor I know, outside of her office hours, what she would tell a person who feared bitterness in themselves. No – I used more dramatic terms – “What is the cure for bitterness?” I asked, because what she said was, “There’s no such thing as a cure for bitterness.”

And then I said – “Maybe not enough people name it in themselves. They call it unhappiness or disappointment or rage. But imagine if we saw it as something we too are prone to, capable of, and addressed it as we would any other toxic feeling?”

She told me she would have to consider it. I did too. I went back to Rumi in prayer: “Make me sweet again, fragrant and fresh and wild, and thankful for any small gesture.”

Could the remedy for bitterness be in thankfulness? I reach hungrily for that possibility then realise immediately that it is not in the kind of comparative gratitude many practise in lieu of the real thing. The comparative gratitude that teaches children to be appreciative they have food when others don’t, and adults to be appreciative that they are privileged without allowing the playing field to be equalised. That’s not being grateful for having what you have; it’s being grateful for having what another doesn’t, which makes it a kind of greed. Vigilance to avert loss can lead to bitterness too.

I have kept vigil against bitterness and that vigil itself has exhausted me, drained me of both love and sorrow and left only an amaroidal aftertaste. I remember jamun-flower honey and turn it over in my mind: how its essence, although so deeply tinged, was sweet. Healing bitterness. Perhaps the cure for I seek is ironic: not in letting go, but in holding true, never forgetting.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 22nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Lives, Once Ours

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Sometimes the ghost of another once-nascent life – not another lifetime, but this very one, if choice or chance had steered it differently at some bygone fork in the road – rises to you and says, “Remember when you wanted me, in the moments before finding out I was a mirage, and for the long time afterwards when you ached with that knowledge?”

And if it rises gently, you can smile at it without a word and watch it move through a tableau. An accidental encounter. The separate tables in the same restaurant that neither of you can leave without disrupting everything, but a glance can pass between you that says just enough.

Other ghosts float by before you notice them, and then you are thankful later that you didn’t. That someone tried to look into your face but it must have seemed opaque to them – you were looking for someone else in that crowd, stepping toward the life that chose you and you choose back in that moment if not for always.

If you too are a creature of the night, attuned to its gentler hours, these fragments out of time become 2a.m. contemplations. Conversations, if you are so lucky. If you have enough courage in you to send that text message, perhaps, and if what transpired the first place was not so irrevocable – and if the half-drunk half-moon that kept you awake kept the recipient awake too – that the phone might beep back. In so many words: “Do you think of me?” “I think of you.”

But we know that mostly, if conversation had been possible to begin with, these contemplations wouldn’t even happen. That you wouldn’t wake, or never fall sleep in the first place, with such conjectures. And sometimes even the sensation that in some alternate timeline, it is happening: there you are, in another bed, in another’s arms. The name on your lips more than a whisper into the night’s reticence.

How poignant though, that unheard whisper. More disconcerting are evocations of lives you no longer want. I woke gasping from a dream last year of such strangeness and clarity that it filled me with dread, the thought that some part of me still shimmered in an old house I turn my face away from when I pass by it, the way some people hold their breaths beside cemeteries. “Because you were not my fate, I could climb the mountain with my back straight,” I wrote in a poem the next morning. There were dream-mountains and not-dream-mountains, climbed and yet-to-be-climbed. I meant all of them.

Sometimes life diverges because there is no other way to save you. It forks like a line on the palm so that you may live. At other times, a question mark lingers. And maybe you don’t really want to know the answer. Maybe the vexing, the wondering, the salting-then-licking of the wound, are just the right amount of bittersweet to fill the spaces between what could not be and what hasn’t come to be. A way to fill the size and shape of a night that offers its companionship, a luxury that not everyone would call loneliness.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 8th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.