Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Venus Flytrap: Infidelity Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

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Infidelity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The lines we draw and how we negotiate them are all that varies between who we think we are and what we could be capable of. We are all that person.

What wounds me most may be nothing to you; what devastates you may be a mere trifle to me. The trick lies somewhere between hopscotching around the bare nerves in the battlefield of relationships and pretending they don’t exist, or subverting them altogether.

The old rules didn’t work. Women wept, men slept (around). No one asked, no one told. But no one needs that anymore. We are each more independent as individuals today than we have been throughout civilization. Nothing high-maintenance makes it, only that which is straightforward and obvious in its function survives. The single exception to this rule is love.

But what constitutes cheating? It varies from couple to couple, from context to context. The man in the sexless marriage who stays with his wife for the sake of his child but keeps a bachelor pad is no worse than the woman who claims eternal devotion to her boyfriend but has intense emotional affairs with other people. The loving gay couple with the everything-but-the-kiss rule may be truer and more loyal to one another than the anything-but-the-physical rule so many relationships abide by.

Our moral spectrums are like rubber bands. We believe they hold things together, but it shocks us how much they can accommodate. Circumstance and opportunity bend us, reshape us, twist up all we know of ourselves and deliver us – changed but wholly the same.

And yes, we have all seen it – the way the heart shatters, the jealousy, the rumours, the tragedy. We’ve had it done to us, we’ve watched it unfold its heartbreak within our families and the lives of our friends. We believe it is the worst thing anyone could do, a crime against love, the deadliest sin. And then we do.

And then know, in a way we never knew before, a way in which we never dared to know ourselves before: loyalty is not about what one does with one’s body. It’s about what one does with one’s mind.

Once, I knew a man who thought he could believe in an open relationship only in theory, never in practice. Once, I knew a woman who thought she would never be with anyone but him. Today they live in separate countries, and she is Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife. And who he is, whether he too climbs the table in that dark, dangerous café, or remains on the threshing floor with an arm raised for the bride’s bouquet, she does not dare to ask now.

And so what? If that to them is the only way they know how to love (themselves, one another, others), then leave them to it. I’m with the writer Lisa Carver on this one: “We need the guilt, the mystery, the corrosion of our heart and its rebirth.” I can’t speak for the man I once knew, but I know his gypsy wife does.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

Truly

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Something happened that leaves the book stuck. There is no longer any funding. The book budget, and with it, some elements of the production process, have disappeared. Literally, overnight.

What this means is that I do not know when my book will be published.

And that is okay.

The Venus Flytrap: Is Marriage The New Singledom?

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I find myself, at 22, an old maid.

No, I’m just being dramatic. But you can’t fault me for my dour mood considering that in the past year or so, I’ve discovered that I’ve turned into a minority: unbetrothed, un-hypenated-surnamed and barely past legal age, I’m surrounded by people in my age group who’re taking the leap into holy and not-so-holy matrimony. From primary school friends with Facebook albums full of wedding pictures to discussions about fiancée visas to perfectly serious queries about whether I am married myself (and why not), everyone seems to be quite cozily committed, and more than willing to shout it from the rooftops.

I’m perplexed. Shouldn’t I expect this to happen in, say, five years’ time? Or is there some kind of generational trend in action here – have young women become so chastised by all the pop culture out there about successful, single, “independent” and really very lonely 30-somethings that they’re taking the plunge sooner?

As a census category, the average age of first marriage for Indian women is an almost juvenile 19. But the women I’m thinking of are from all over the world, exclusively urban, with the English language and exposure to its media in common. All the old bugaboos that we associate with early marriage are noticeably absent. Family pressure is no factor – if anything, their families have tried to talk them out of it. With the exception of one friend who doesn’t believe in premarital sex, religious reasons don’t figure either. All these young women are doing it because they want to.

It’s been a very long time since postponing marriage was rebellious; if anything, it’s now the safe choice. True, the right to delay or opt against marriage were some of the great struggles of our foremothers’ lives. But this was at a time when it was one or the other: career or crèche. Feminism is contextual. Our struggles evolve as society does. And if the experiences, anecdotes and celluloid versions thereof of the popular idea of the modern woman are anything to go by, the fine line between real agency and shallow imitation is lost.

Because here’s reality: women who are actually single by choice remain outside the mainstream. Condi Rice, Sushmita Sen and Geri Halliwell are prominent examples. Their legitimate choices are questioned and analyzed, whereas the temporarily unattached statuses of those who imitate that choice to disastrous results, ignoring the fact that it is simply not suited to them as individuals, are perfectly acceptable. It’s no challenge to the system, after all. Same shackles, different shtick.

Extended (but impermanent) singlehood gives one great company: a hundred chick lit novels, a hundred more TV and film characters, and millions of insecure women hellbent on convincing the world that their impersonations are the good life. But look a little closer. Does anything preoccupy those lives to the extent that men do? Money and Manolos alone do not a happy woman make. My generation reads between the lines while women less than a decade older gullibly swallowed hook, line and clichéd cosmopolitan. Frankly, I can’t think of anything any more conformist than that.

So I’m happy that my generation sees the sense in not buying so completely into myths of superficial empowerment. If we’ve learnt this vicariously from observing the failings of those before us and not through actively participating in the experience of decade-long serial monogamy and glossing over loneliness with lies and pretty trinkets, all the better.

Something tells me that because we are more honest, both to ourselves and in what we choose to project publicly, we’re also more likely to succeed in cracking that modern riddle: what does it take for a woman to have it all?

Maybe most of us are built like chopsticks: perfect when paired, good for nothing but to poke out an eye or tuck in a ponytail otherwise. There’s no shame in that. Getting that baggage out of the way could really help when it comes down to the tasks of pursuing real success and happiness.

And the baggage of divorce? There are no guarantees in life. Marriage, late or early, is always a risk. Staving it off for as long as possible doesn’t actually negate it. It just means you die sooner.

Now all that’s left is for me to get over my engagement envy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

The Blasphemy Reading

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Venue is a mystery because it is extremely cool.

RSVP to find out.

Ok, we discussed it and changed our minds.

It’s the Rama temple in Koyambedu, near the outstation bus stand and the market. Meet us at the little cupola-like thing (CC’s description: small platform with a roof) outside. 10am. Bring poems that fit the theme.

Man Twitters Out Of Jail

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I’m not on Twitter because my life is way too hyper-connected as is. And because I am an egoistical artist type prone to enjoying shocking people (though not on this prim little blog), I would be totally addicted to inflicting the minutiae of my fabulous life on everyone who declares themselves curious.

So I don’t.

But here’s one hell of a reason to. Someone owes the Twitter folks a drink or fifty.

Review: “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Because I work with the reimagined archetypes of Draupadi and a (female) Karna in my own writing, I cracked open Divakaruni’s retelling of the Mahabharata expecting, even hoping, to feel some envy. The Palace of Illusions presents the epic via the voice of Draupadi/Panchaali. It’s an ambitious project, and not without predecessors, choosing as its medium one of world mythology’s most idiosyncratic women.

To rework an epic is like writing a ghazal: there is infinite variety within the constraints of its key identifiers. But Divakaruni’s Mahabharata bears little difference to what we popularly understand to be the epic. That Panchaali is the narrator offers only a slight, undistinguished shift in perspective.

Plot-wise, the story is largely faithful to the original. The author succeeds in conveying depth and nuance in almost every character, portraying for example both Kunti’s resentfulness and righteousness, or Drona’s cruelty and greatness, in different lights. But when it comes to rendering her protagonist, the results are unadmirable.

Curiously absent are elements that truly challenge the misogyny of the original epic. Where is Panchaali’s famous lust, which in some retellings (but not this one) caused her husband in a previous birth to have cursed her with five husbands to quench it? Despite unexplored hints at her temper and capacity for vengeance, she is depicted mostly as obedient, pleading codes of honour as a ruse to mask cowardice. Even the single attempt at subversion, the centering of Panchaali’s secret love for Karna as the great regret of her life, is trite.

This Panchaali is obsessed by her roles, self-conscious – never is there a moment when she is not a princess, a queen, a wife, an exile, a woman wronged. Weighted down by these, she markedly lacks individuality – an enormous pity because what good is it to retell a familiar story without injecting it with a special spirit? Ultimately, the reader never manages to be fooled into believing that it is Panchaali speaking, as the best first-person narratives can do. Nowhere remains the intense, resilient, dangerous Draupadi we know of, who undoubtedly inspired the author herself.

Panchaali, in the final reckoning, is a weak, malleable character. She is unlikable, consumed by her ego, lacking the essential humanity that makes us love our heroes; the only thread that keeps the reader concerned for her is the memory of other, more fully-fleshed Draupadis.

Divakaruni seems to have juxtaposed one of the near-identical female protagonists of her previous books onto an epic setting. But positioning an indistinct character in a grand plotline cannot make the transposed character inhabit that skin comfortably by default. One wishes that Divakaruni had been bolder, dared to manipulate the epic in a manner that could have made this Draupadi truly hers.

Perhaps what draws the reader back to Divakaruni’s books regardless of their clichés has always been her impeccable stylistic craft, particularly her extraordinary gift for metaphor. But her writing in The Palace of Illusions is functional, stripped of lyricism. The closings chapters have their gripping moments, riding on the emotional crescendo of the original, but it is too late by then for the novel itself.

The Palace of Illusions succeeds as an introduction to the Mahabharata. But both its feminist and artistic aspirations seem shallow. Divakaruni’s reinterpretation of the Mahabharata falters above all because of an absence of imagination. The pathos of the original tale and its powerful heroine as raw canvas, combined with her gift for imbuing beauty in even the most repetitive storylines, should have made this book the author’s masterpiece.

The Venus Flytrap: My Weekly Column, Out Now!

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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.

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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 https://sharanyamanivannan.wordpress.com