The Venus Flytrap: Calling To A World That Isn’t Listening

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Deeply disheartened, I stood before a lit lamp and tried to find a reason to raise my voice in a world made deaf by its own silences. A line flickered to mind, and I recognised it as the title of a book I’d wanted to read, but had never purchased. That line was: “finding beauty in a broken world”. The environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote a collection of essays by that name, on seeking a way of being that integrates all the fragments shattered by human brutality. I yearned for the book suddenly. I have buried myself in language for as long as I can remember. It salves me. It puts me, too, back together.

I sought an excerpt online, the way another person might view a movie trailer. In the first page, Williams writes – “…I faced the ocean. ‘Give me one wild word’. It was all I asked of the sea.”

That was how I had felt, at my altar – and that page led me to this page you read now.

All libraries carry the memories of trees, and sometimes it is to the source that we must go. The summer streets are carpeted with the yellow flowers of rusty shield-bearer trees. I recall the closing lines of Adam Zagajewki’s poem: “Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrush lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.” This is what I try to do, in the evidence of the lines that precede them: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”

As I write this, my voice hurts – both spiritually and physically. For the latter, I drink a kashayam, and for the former I seek the balsam of words. And as I do, I remember something: not too long ago, I was a part of a panel on women’s issues. After the event, one of the other participants asked me, “So, did you never fight with your parents as a teenager?” Of course I had, I said lightly. “Oh really? How is it fighting when you have a voice as soft as yours? Not possible.” The indignation I felt was at once blunt and sharp, like a pair of precise surgical scissors. But in the interest of politeness, I said nothing. I looked her in the eye and allowed a tactful bystander to laugh the situation off with a “that’s just her voice!” How little the person who had insulted me knew of war, I thought, to not be able to tell a fire from a blown fuse.

Tonight, through my bedroom window and yours, the first full moon of the Tamil year will blaze. Perhaps you’ll see it, awoken by mosquitoes or misery (or just the stealth of moonbrightness). And if you do, remind yourself. To sleep well is an act of self-care, and those of us accused of caring too much frequently forget to tender ourselves the same. A mercenary measures steps in blood, a soldier in miles, and a warrior in how gently one’s footfalls shape the earth. Were we only so gentle with ourselves, too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Matchbox by Ashapurna Debi

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The title page of this new volume of selected stories by Ashapurna Debi carries this evocative credit: “Translated into a Bengali English by Prasenjit Gupta”. It’s a small homage both to the many sub-languages that we speak, write and think in, as well as to the oft-forgotten translator, whose burden it is to prove an author’s entire reputation to a foreign audience.

In Ashapurna Debi’s case, that reputation is complicated. She began to publish her work as a teenager, in 1936, and by the time of her death in 1995 had penned a staggering 242 novels and novellas, 62 books for children and over 3000 short stories. Although widely-read, her work was also largely derided for its tendency toward the domestic and quotidian. The author did not command respect, only recognition.

This is surprising, especially if one skips the excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s master’s thesis that serves as the book’s introduction, and returns to it later. Lahiri writes at some length about the author’s critical reception, offering the observation: “[A] complaint issued by critics is the author’s supposed conservatism, especially with regards to women’s lives.”

Only 21 of the aforementioned 3000 stories are collected in The Matchbox, and while the extent of the author’s palette remains out of the grasp non-Bengali readers, what is represented here contradicts, or at the very least complicates, her reputation as a non-feminist writer.

Ashapurna Debi’s feminism is extraordinarily subtle. She does not forget men: their rage, their worries, their susceptibility to being manipulated. In “Brahma’s Weapon”, Oshima seeks employment at a former flame’s company, to her husband’s jealousy. In “Glass Beads Diamonds”, Shomita shows up unannounced to a wedding in her ex-in-laws household, while her current husband waits in the car.  In the disturbing “Shadowsun”, sisters Mollika and Ghentu are pitted against each other since childhood, one deemed feminine and the other inferior. In “Earth Sky”, Rojoni is temporarily swayed by a warm welcome on a visit home but ultimately chooses to keep working at the tea plantation: the subtext is the pain of those at home, who cannot experience that freedom to choose. Her characters do not challenge the milieu that causes them this grief. They lie to themselves and to others: little Monoroma in “A Covering Of Leaves” learns from watching her deeply-bonded parents that love is the only true wealth but a pretense of success will spare the providers’ pain; in “Grief”, Shoktipoda decides to delay telling his wife Protibha her mother has died, and she in turn feigns not having seen the postcard with the news so as to fully express her anguish only when he comes home. They are not progressive in any way. The author, however, in her close rendering of their lives, lays bare the suffering within.

Only in the title story, “Matchbox”, does her concern for the status quo of a patriarchal worldview – take an explicit turn. “This is precisely why I compare women to matchboxes. Even when they have the means within themselves to set off many raging fires, they never flare up and burn away the mask of men’s high-mindedness, their large-heartedness. They don’t burn up their own colourful shells. They won’t burn them – and the men know this too. That’s why they leave them scattered so carelessly in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere. And quite without fear, they put them in their pockets.” In one reading, this is a statement of restraint. In another, it is a statement of sheer power.

Here, the introduction sheds light again, quoting from the scholar Manisha Roy’s 1972 critique: “Ashapurna Debi’s novels, which emphasize the glory of love in a conjugal setting, are frequently given to brides as wedding presents. They have attractive jackets, often with illustrations of a demure wife touching the feet of her husband to show respect.” On the one hand, her books were seen as light romantic reading. On the other, they told the truth about mundane oppression within marital contexts. This bifocality of her work is what explains its popularity: it was subversive literature about life within ordinary households, welcomed in those same households through a non-threatening guise.

In terms of language, that Bengali English brought to life by Prasenjit Gupta is well- rendered. The languages are interwoven effortlessly, without the awkwardness of italics. Onomatopoeic touches are maintained: a cat purrs pirring-pirring, and a drawing is made at khosh-khosh speed. A glossary at the back of the book needs little consultation – not because of a pan-Indian familiarity but due to the smoothness of the translation and the universality of the spaces in which the stories occur. There is something to be said for understanding through osmosis: in any fine translation, such ease is a characteristic most notable when it goes unnoticed. For instance, when Keshob Rai in “The Scheme Of Things” is full of vitriol for a child described as “that cold-in-the-nose, enlarged-spleen-in-the-abdomen, amulet-on-the-arm, tiger’s-claw-around-the-neck, rickets-stricken boy”, we need no explanation for the meanings of this odd string of invectives.

Reading these stories, one senses what its original audiences – those whose lives most closely mirrored those of the characters – must have felt. For lack of a better word, they must have felt understood. Even the distant reader, at times bored by the domesticity of squabbling in-laws or long-suffering spouses, sees the genius it takes to stir such clarity of recognition.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

The Venus Flytrap: What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Delta Meghwal

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Delta Meghwal wanted to study. She was raped, murdered and towed away in a garbage tractor.

Delta was the first girl in her village (Trimohi, Rajasthan) to go to secondary school. Then she went on to Jain Adarsh Teacher Training Institute. She was Dalit. She was 17.

On the evening of March 28th, the hostel warden instructed her to clean the PT instructor’s room, where she was raped.

Returning to her room, injured and terrified, she called her father. The next morning, she was found dead in a tank. Police then took her body to the hospital in a municipal garbage tractor. The autopsy showed that there was no water in her lungs. She did not drown herself.

Pause. You didn’t know. Now – do you care?

Delta Meghwal was an artist. A painting she made of a camel in Class 4 was hung in Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s office. Is it still there – reproaching the politicians who haven’t spoken a word about her murder?

She is not the first woman – artist or otherwise – to meet a tragic end because her talent stood at odds with what was expected of her. I don’t see Buzzfeed articles, neatly packaging tragedy for public consumption, with images of her paintings. I don’t see a government agency being set up in her name to provide arts scholarships for underprivileged girls. When her devastated father tells a reporter, “I shouldn’t have educated her… maybe she’d still be alive”, all I see is the story of Delta’s murder being used to frighten disenfranchised parents into wanting less for their children.

Most of all, I don’t see your 140 characters of hashtagged outrage. And that is what makes me sickest of all.

When Jyoti Singh Pandey – valorised as Nirbhaya – was raped and murdered, the entire nation grieved publicly. We observed candlelight marches. We claimed her as sister and daughter. We demanded that laws be changed. If that solidarity is reserved only for those whose backgrounds don’t discomfit our smug lightweight activism, it is no solidarity at all. It is ugly hypocrisy. There is zero meaning to your still angrily shuddering at the words “Delhi gangrape” if you ignore Delta Meghwal today.

The mainstream media is silent. In Barmer, Pali, Jodhpur, Bangalore, Delhi and Bikaner, photos of small demonstrations show mostly men, protesting caste violence. Where are the women, the ones who cried for Nirbhaya?

Talking about Delta’s death means talking about caste, and our complicity when we ignore aspects of any power system that serve us, but not others. It means being uncomfortable.

Now, when I hear the words “the Delhi gangrape”, I want to correct the grammar. That was a gangrape that took place in Delhi in December of 2012: in that same month, in that same city, there were others, mostly with fewer perpetrators involved.

That year, 24,923 rapes were reported in India (more – more than we know or want to imagine – were not). 98% of those perpetrators were known to the victim. We chose to focus on one case in the 2%, conveniently othering the rapists on the basis of class.

What about Delta Meghwal – has she been othered too?

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

The Venus Flytrap: On The Sexism Of The Iconic Marriage Proposal

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Borrowed largely from Hollywood, thoroughly supported by the wedding industry complex, and encouraged by the pressure and appeal of social media (“She said yes!”), the proposal has gained popularity as a nuptial rite of its own. Both in love marriages and modern arranged marriages with their tinny gloss of long engagements and staged meet-cutes, this gesture – often described as romantic – signifies a certain threshold in a relationship. Given the highly public nature of most marriage rituals, that a private novelty has gradually come to be included among Indian customs is a nice thing. Only, as we move away – as we must, if we believe in a better world – from traditional circumscriptions on marriage, it’s worth thinking about which notions of romance are worth preserving and appropriating.

The thing about the iconic wedding proposal – a ring, a bended knee, four scripted words – is that it is almost without exception, in heteroromantic contexts, performed by the man.

This would be okay if a proposal was just a loving gesture, and not a watershed moment which advances the status of a romantic relationship. Neither is it a request, because what comes after the famed question is an equally scripted reaction: surprise, excitement, and invariably, acceptance. The words “will you marry me?” sound like they are asking for permission, but in practice they are giving it. The surprise element is a decoy, unless the supplicant is truly clueless as to what the response will be (in which case, I hope there’s a sympathetic refund available for that bling). In the version of the script that we have all subconsciously downloaded, the woman has waited for it, and the man has decided on its timing. It was her waiting that was the true petition; he simply offers his agreement through the enactment of asking.

Marriage is patriarchal – but surely love is not so pathetic?

Sometimes a woman must say no, because that is her true answer. Sometimes a woman must pose the question herself, because she must pursue what she desires, and she need not wait for anyone’s validation of the same.

But more than either of those subversions, I like the idea of the decision to marry being a matter of consultation, a series of increasingly confident discussions. I fail to understand how one person asking a life-altering question and the other shifting quickly from astonishment to certainty inspires any trust in that couple’s ability to articulate, negotiate, and make choices together.

We haven’t evolved marriage out of our worldviews yet, and perhaps we don’t need to. But we do need to keep evolving its workings, questioning it as an institution and contextualising it in ways that emphasise individual wholeness and challenge structural inequalities, as expressed in misogyny, casteism, colourism, homophobia and other chauvinisms.

Let’s begin by falling in love. Let’s begin by being honest. Let’s do boring things like talking about whether or not to get married and radical things like changing the problematic verses and actions in the ceremonies. Indian marriage has so far been about social legitimacy, not about togetherness. Let’s begin by rewriting that script. Or better yet, let’s begin with no script at all.

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

The Venus Flytrap: It Takes A Long Time To Grow An Old Friend

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Once upon a time, I was in a little coterie with B and C (let’s call me A, then). There was also D, but D – well – was eventually a complete D to all of us, if you know what I mean. I became, separately, very close to both B and C. Adult life meant we all saw less of one another than we had when we first met. But I stayed in regular contact with them both, and they would each ask me about the other. “I miss B,” C would emoji me now and then, and because I missed B too I’d concur. But I didn’t know that where I only meant I would like to see B more frequently, C meant something else altogether.

No, this isn’t a case of B – C = exam (love)failure. That’s a topic for another set of initial-based pseudonyms! So one weekend, I suggested something logical. Given that B and I meet often, and C and I meet often, why didn’t we all just meet together?

Except that the day came and I flaked out. Sunday-slumped, I told B I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t bother to tell C, thinking that they’d enjoy being together after such a long time and my absence might help them reconnect. But when C asked me where I was and I flippantly said, “oh yeah, didn’t B tell you I’m not coming?” I wasn’t prepared for the earful I received.

“I thought you’d like hanging out, considering how you’re always telling me you miss B,” I defended myself. “I had no idea that some other dynamic existed.”

I insisted that they meet, and C reported back to me. It turned out that B + C – A equalled shallow conversation, inability to share, and a total lack of meaningful exchange. “We talked about work,” shrugged C. “Office stuff.”

“Why didn’t you talk about the H situation or the O revelation or the X confession?”

“You weren’t there, na,” came the reply. “So how?”

How had I wound up being the proxy through whom two good friends conducted a non-friendship with one another? One devoid of acrimony or issues, but equally devoid of value?

In adult life, we often create ties knowing that they are water-soluble. Part of this no doubt comes from the heartbreak of watching seemingly close friendships dissolve like confectionery in the palm. But another part comes from sheer self-involvement, which can reflect as much in busyness as in laziness.

Not every relationship will weather everything. But those that do have one thing in common: investment. This is why I have what I have, separately, with B and C. In our respective friendships, we chose and keep choosing to put in the work of love.

It takes a long time to grow an old friend. Fleeting connections may be water-soluble, but friendships are like plants. They need to be watered. They thrive on things like dialogue, time, vulnerability, support, laughter and secrets. They cannot rest on proxies like alcohol, location, alumni reunions, or even a common companion. One doesn’t need a garden, just a windowsill of soothing, well-rooted green.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 31st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Old Gods And New Ones

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I’m often asked how I reconcile my irreverent delight in multiple mythologies with my, well, devotion. How can I say that Rama is a terrible husband, but still murmur a couplet from the Vishnu Sahasranamam to soothe my weary nerves? How can I light candles in churches, wishfully say “Inshallah” and also chant in Sanskrit? The answer is that I see story, history and spirit as distinct threads. Braided together, they make an ethos, one way to absorb and encounter. To be a human reaching for the divine is to have the humility to know that only by holding those threads as distinct in the mind can the braid then be experienced in polyphonic fullness, through the heart.

We have the capacity to accommodate variations, unpredictability and what might appear to be inconsistencies. In forests, I rustle with the thought of the Rig-Vedic Aranyani; pining, I reach for the Inuit Sedna: when I sense the feline mystique, I remember the Egyptian lioness Sekhmet. If a story soothes my heart, is it not a prayer too?

New deities are constantly being made, just as old ones are being retired (have you read American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s unputdownable novel about what happened to the figures of European folk religions, gradually forgotten by migrants to North America?). It’s fascinating how, on a national stage, the latest expression of patriotism is to pledge allegiance to one such new deity, an artistic creation of late 19th century Bengal.

So Bharat Mata’s official temple, which contains not an idol but a map of India, is one kind of religious expansion. There are of course shrines to film stars and politicians, replete with garlands and aartis. There are also those which emerge from organic impulses, rooted in faith and incident, such as two dog temples in Karnataka built in 2008 and 2009, respectively – in Channapatna, the canine is worshipped as an animal familiar of the village goddess; in Ranebennur is a temple to a pet that’s said to have miraculous posthumous powers.  The Bullet Banna temple in Rajasthan, which sprang up in 1988, has an interesting origin: a rider was killed one night, and no matter how many times the police took his bike to the station, it kept mysteriously reappearing at the site of the accident. The idol in the shrine is the bike itself.

In the 1970s, a Hindi film called Jai Santoshi Ma popularised a new myth about a daughter of Ganesha. Until the film’s popularity had women all over the country undertaking new fasting rituals, the spot of what became the “ancient” Santoshi Ma temple in Jodhpur had been a shrine to the folk deity Lal Sagar ki Mata. Presiding deities are replaced, subsumed, emerge elsewhere, become obsolete, turn into cult figures. This happens both naturally and through imposition.

Spiritual practice is not monolithic – as lived belief, it is constantly enriched and complicated by many sources. It is porous, subjective, disorganised. When we streamline it, let be strictly defined, and – most importantly – limit the rights of others to pursue it in their personal ways, we lose more than just entwined stories and manifold possibilities. We lose spirit itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.