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.

~~~

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

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9 responses »

  1. I’m surprised it shocked you. But maybe you haven’t seen the evolution of it.. It was waiting to happen.. What you might be surprised to hear is that I once saw the most traditionally dressed woman (sari and malli poo, et al., like she walked straight out of a 80’s tamizh movie) with an equally conservative looking man (I’m sorry but there is a no more politically correct way that I know how to describe them) sitting in the very same barista, all hands and tongue, showing absolutely no signs of noticing the number of dropped jaws in their direction.

    That was two years ago right before I left madras and since then every time I come back it seems to be so much more in your face… And it seems to go across all the social strata.. It isn’t just the ‘cool kids’ anymore, or kids that grew up watching english movies or all those things that people typically would like to blame for the ‘invasion of western culture’ ..

    It really has become a city of ‘let’s see how far we can push this’ … Which might not be the individual’s intention but as a generation of young people that have grown up being constantly morally policed… at school, at college and even at work.. it’s all catching up! Like you said we’re moving trysts from the beach into barista.. and with less cops nosing around waiting to harass you, restraint sometimes gets left behind and nature takes over I suppose.

    Personally, I don’t care. I think it’s harmless and if you’re drunk enough on love (or otherwise), it might even be fun (or funny). I think though that it will take a lot of doing for us to completely let people have their privacy in a public place.. like in Europe where everyone around is blissfully oblivious to a couple that’s going at it. I don’t think we’ll ever get to that stage… Madras, although I love it dearly, is a city that thrives on it’s gossip, hypocrisy and morning coffee and that’s the truth.

  2. Hey hey, congrats! It’s out, finally! Looks pretty much the same as the early draft you sent me… no sense in messing with perfection, eh? :)

    *hugs!*

  3. I’ve no idea what goes on in India, and I don’t pretend to.

    But I love the tone, and your writing is very appropriate for a column. You really got me going during those last few paragraphs. Permission to use a line for my Facebook status? ;)

    Congratulations! Good stuff.

  4. you should thank the couple for one more thing,apart from parting ways with marina-benches
    for giving you the subject matter of your very first article :)
    but then…as the saying goes, all is fair in love and war,’all’ being undefined is its advantage!

  5. Well, ain’t this funny.. I mean i’ve grown on “English” movies – not just Hollywood mind you..

    But the thought of two couples “tounging” in public is unacceptable – as many people say – “Get a room!”..

    But, then again People here equate love with lust.. We live in terrible times.. Dont ‘effin blame the west cause i’ve never seen something soo cheap anywhere.. Even though there’s kissing, there’s a level of decency maintained and it has love driving it.. Not “animal-desires” as we see over here..

    People tend to blame the “other” world.. But, its our own “masala” movies which encourage this..

  6. Dear Sharanya,

    As usual you are trully something la…I wish I can pick just one bit of yr writing juices and I would be happy…and yes finally I read the PDA article…and I am quite suprised to hear this happens in Chennai, well, like you said dont be native yet ok…cuz we still need you as who you are in order people like me can read great stories like this….take care and see ya

  7. I completely agree with this point of view.
    That’s one of the things I noticed about India that seemed very odd to me. But I can’t be too shocked; India is, after all, a country chalk-full of dualities. Extremes reside side-by-side, whether it’s peoples’ points of view or something more tangible, like cows walking on the road right beside whizzing cars. And this duality is most tangible when it comes to sexuality. Check it out: India is the birth place of Kama Sutra and home to 1 billion people, and yet traditionally, women don’t show skin nearly as much as in the West and don’t socialize or enter into a relationship with the opposite sex. Bollywood films depict sexy actors shaking and hip-rolling their way on film but you never see that kind of sexuality expressed on the street in the form of dress or attitude. Oh, and it’s frowned upon for women to smoke, yet men can partake in this addiction whenever they want, and in full view of women! But I digress.

    The PDA incident really surprises me. I have seen maybe 2 couples holding hands in public while travelling in India, and that’s the closest it’s come, to my Western eyes. I thought that it was really taboo to even be touching in public…like the family would be scandalized and the girl punished/ boy beaten. Is that not the case- even for traditional Indians? PDA is common in Europe and America. Here in Canada, I often feel like gagging because it practically happens in your lap. Is PDA a norm in Chennai now, or publically dating before marriage? Am I wrong in believing that all of the taboo-ness revolving around sex and love before marriage exists because of the arranged marriage tradition?

    Marina Beach for sexy time? No way! Why did I not know. Now that I think of it, a chenaite took me there once…at night…Oh no!

  8. Hello…Ms Sharanya! So…PDA is in Chennai…and…its shocking ? How many Chennaites would opt for it if given an opportunity? Not many…those couples you have seen do not constitute “Chennaites” …they are often the kind of couple who think being so makes them not only look different but rather give the psuedo-impression of being sophisticated…PDA is as much a function of one’s level of consciousness as it is of the depth of culture…they are just exceptionals…of course…Chennai is morphing into … well…we got to wait to get a clear perspective…but our ITcompanies are the cocoons within which the transformation in sexual attitudes are more glaring…imagine a hill of condoms ! Some are losing real perspective…

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