Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Venus Flytrap: At The Mercy of Her Bite

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Let me just tell you straight up that I have penis envy. Every Rorschach test you could possibly give me will prove it. Like O’Keefe, like Freud, like – Oh! – Hinduism, I can’t get the nethers off my mind. I discern shapes, nature and various abstractions as phallic or vulval. The latter I find sexy, spiritual, artistic, but complex, unlike the former. The former make me laugh, they make me ogle. The former have me fascinated by their humour, simplicity and ultimate alienness. For a pretty ballsy woman, my lack of supplementary equipment entertains and holds my attention to no end.

There, now that that’s out of the way, feel free to celebrate my complete discrediting from the feminist movement by lighting up, very aptly and traditionally, a cigar.

It was a cigar and a conversation with a male friend surprised by the sight of a woman smoking it that got me thinking about my penis envy and expressions of it. Coming to consider this, it surprised me too how few women take to the cigar. Like all the usual paradoxes of the more tasteful vices, it seems the premise of only sophisticated men and strange women.

From Che to Churchill, bastions of masculinity seem to like sticking big long objects in their mouths and sucking on them. Cigars are sexier, less subtle versions of the sceptres and swords of yore. The underlying motivation is practically kindergarten-level Freud to analyse, but worth the giggle.

Yet it remains risqué for women. Someone suggested it’s the gracelessness of it; essentially, one fellates a cigar. But if that were the case, we wouldn’t eat in public, either. Anything involving the mouth – including speech – is inevitably sensual.

After all, it’s mainly a decorative accessory; cigar-smoking is an art, not an addiction. And what could possibly be more sensual than a woman sitting by herself in a dress too fancy for the bar she’s in, sipping a gin and tonic, wearing shoes to tango in, exhaling from a Cuvee Rouge as she looks you in the eye?

I heard your breath still. See what I mean?

But back to business – do other women not smoke cigars because they do not have penis envy? Or could it be because – let me just throw this wild card in – the idea of a woman controlling a phallic object, having it literally at the mercy of her bite, is too disturbing to the (male) viewer to digest?

It’s important to note, of course, that as far as phalluses being evocative of power go, only the erect ones count. So good girls can eat spaghetti, no matter how long and uncut, without conjuring up any primal images in the onlooker. This is also why the cigarette, too skinny to be of consequence, is invalidated. Penis envy is not sex – on this count, size definitely matters. If it’s not obscene, it’s not an expression.

Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that the rooster-synonym is king. Men have their walking-sticks, their neckties, their Papua New Guinean penis sheaths. As well as their fleshly counterparts. What’s a woman with penis envy to do to take her power back but put a symbol between her teeth? What better way to deal with an object that can’t be owned than to objectify it?

A parting-shot defense of penis envy, then (because while it may be true that I’m a gay man stuck in a woman’s body, I’m thrilled it happens to be this one): war, after all, is just a manifestation of menstrual envy.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Waiting For The Dawn

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Last week I went up to my roof and lay on my back to pray to the night sky.

I was praying because I had begun to feel desperate about an unresolved situation. Something I had worked on for years and seemed only weeks from completion had been snatched away without explanation, taking with it something newer and unexpected yet just as painful to lose, leaving me confused and frail of footstep. I prayed for a sign – something that acknowledged the darkness but showed the coming of the light.

I opened my eyes. Immediately, I saw a star falling.

If there’s anything I am, it’s a believer. And to me, there are no coincidences – only the exquisite synchronicities of the universe. I had asked for a sign. And I had gotten it – one that had proved to be auspicious in the past, in my experience.

But after the sign comes the waiting.

Ambrose Bierce wrote that patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue. I have more to add: patience is an expletive involving the person who gave birth to you and the act that produced that birth. You can definitely quote me on that one.

Still, despite a low tolerance level for enduring life as a spectator sport, I have absolute trust in the goodness of the universe. I know this not because I always believed it, but because time and again this has been revealed to be true. My life is either a series of disasters or a series of miracles (and for the juice on that, stay tuned, dig up, or wait for the biopic). These days, I am delighted by the idea that it is both.

Because while I will not forget the traumas, how else can I explain the extraordinary? Showing up in a different country with 37 dollars in my wallet and nowhere to go, but as a result of it having some of the most profound experiences I have known. Meeting by chance someone gifted with the sight who was so impressed by what he saw of my destiny that he gave me a laptop. Being forced to make the choice to sever myself from the only life I knew, but coming out of that farewell happier, luckier, wealthier than I have ever been, fresh from a time when I counted coins just so I could have dinner.

And those are only some of what has happened in a year’s time.

When I think over the events of my life, too dramatic and too convoluted to get into here, I smile inside, knowing that no matter what, I’m still here. Still here looking out for falling stars to put in my pocket, even if all they do is burn up. Because all I want from life is… everything.

Who am I to demand so much and believe myself deserving? And what nerve have I to speak to the sky and treat scientific vagaries as augury?

I don’t have the answers, and perhaps I never really will. But that’s what absolute trust is. It’s being able to wake up each morning after every breakdown, every new bullet to the soul, and not go straight back to bed, unable to face the day. I know this because I have been there. I know this because I am never going back there.

Over and over, I have seen the universe uncover its constellations – all those shimmering patterns we only have to connect to see perhaps not the whole picture, but something beautiful nonetheless.

All I know for sure is that I am still here.

My way is lit by angels. Even when it is too early to speak of them.

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

Review: “The Shape of the Beast: Conversations With Arundhati Roy”

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First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Over a decade after the extraordinary success of The God of Small Things, and somewhere before the publication of what will only be her second book of fiction, comes The Shape of the Beast. This collection of fourteen interview transcripts chart Arundhati Roy’s career as a political activist from between 2001 and the present, and thus comes almost as an exercise in taking stock, in looking both backwards and forwards. Its insight into the mind of one of our foremost public intellectuals is valuable.

In many ways, this is an extremely deliberate book, clearly seeking to fashion an arc of evolution with its snapshots of Roy’s opinions at particular points. Fortunately, it is largely devoid of the egotism one might expect from any such venture by a similarly larger-than-life celebrity. The hero of The Shape of the Beast is undeniably Roy – but her choice to speak for many is by far its central focus.

The Beast in question is, naturally, a political animal. In these interviews, Roy takes on, in her penetratingly poetic manner, the hegemonies of state, religion, imperialism, corporate entities and social constructs. All of them have been published before, so in themselves they say nothing new. But collected together they shed light not so much on the nature of the Beasts that democracy, egalitarianism and sheer goodness are up against, but on the woman who dares to outline their shapes.

What we get then are interviews which seek to understand where Roy’s perspectives come from, how her upbringing and life prior to and since fame shaped the logic behind her activism. The dialogues segue easily from the political to the personal, exploring the relationship between her background and belief system. Whether discussing American imperialism, Maoist insurgency, Narmada Bachao Andolan or Kashmir, the connection to Roy’s fundamental principles is laid bare. Unpopular as her views have been in some circles, both her stunning clarity of thought and refusal to be ignored are evident in these interviews. The Shape of the Beast thus functions convincingly on two levels: as a comprehensive source of the opinions to date of our most beloved and beleaguered activist, and, simply, as fodder for fans.

The most revealing interview of all is the final one, conducted in March 2008, in which Roy speaks about herself as a person, a writer and a celebrity and the private and public negotiations of these selves and projections. The political weight of the other conversations is absent here, and because of this it knits together the two Roys who have inhabited our common consciousness since 1997 – the glimmering, melancholic writer who gave us The God of Small Things and the fierce, incisive activist we have seen since then.

The book’s success lies primarily in the fact that it is neither mere defense for a decade of what some have seen as incidental activism, nor an exercise in self-congratulatory vanity. There is certainly some amount of careful persona distillation here, but hers is a voice that represents in equal measure both the disenfranchised and the simply far less eloquent. And for this, one remains grateful.

“I insist on the right to be emotional, to be sentimental, to be passionate,” says Roy in one of the interviews. This is exactly the kind of statement that does not endear her to her detractors, but it is also the reason why the rest of us remain so enamoured. She dares to be a subjective voice speaking on objective things, an anomaly in an arena of clichéd catchphrases and the politically fashionable, if not politically correct. Love her or loathe her, we need Roy. And this book, in a nutshell, is why.

The Venus Flytrap: There’s Something About Amy

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I can’t remember when or where or how I first came across Amy Winehouse, but she had her hooks in me way back when her success was a cult hit, not the embarrassing phenomenon it is today. It was more than just that smokey, showstopping voice, which would come to win her nearly unanimous acclaim. It was the lyrics. The nonchalance with which she, 19 years old when her first album came out, sang about lovers simply not man enough for her and tramps in f-me pumps had me captivated.

Today, of course, she needs no introduction. With her skin disease, stints in rehab, coked up performances, visa troubles, peculiar dress sense, publicly violent marriage and what seems to be a hell of a knack to get photographed looking like she’s a cross between your worst nightmare and your second worst one, she’s become a sort of running tabloid joke. A woman so obscene not just in the way she looks but the way she lives that no one really knows what to do with her. Heiress flashing her nethers? No. Silicone starlet? No. Spawn of two stars, reality TV wannabe, Disney tween queen gone wrong? “No, no, no”, as Amy herself infamously sang.

She’s in a category all by herself.

Winehouse is conventionally attractive only by a gargantuan stretch of sheer kindness or kinkiness. She neither cleans up pretty nor seems to make the effort to try to. The last epitaph on earth that could wind up on her tombstone would be “media darling”. No, that phrase is for wimps and little marionettes dancing on the strings held by some big machine. Amy Winehouse – or at least, the Amy Winehouse I imagine – would snort at the thought if her nostrils weren’t stuffed already.

In a world positively festering with clones and clichés and pretty puppets galore, Winehouse is a gash, an anomaly, an abomination. It’s what makes her irresistible. It’s what will, ultimately, canonize her good and proper as a Dangerous Woman. An unforgettable one.

Because here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the few people in the entertainment industry anywhere who are where they are by sheer talent alone. Winehouse, in other words, is a serious artiste. And one in the style of the true greats – a reckless, ruthless, roaring creature. No apologies here, no excuses. No pretending to be anything but who and what she is. We can’t take our eyes off the mess the paparazzi show her to be because we’re just too mesmerized by her music to look away. She’s the siren’s call – and she’s also the shipwreck.

That category she’s in by her lonesome? It’s a category she seems to have created all by herself too, although this is probably just a side-effect of being idiosyncratic and destined to be iconic. And that’s what’s most intriguing about her – in a time of daddy-bought celebrity statuses and pin-up doll factories, this ridiculous, fabulous woman went right ahead and manufactured… herself.

And it’s the kind of self no one else wants to be, not right now anyway. But mark my words – when her birth centenary – which she’s not likely to see, if the track records of the legends before her are anything to go by – rolls around, rest assured there’ll be “Come As Amy” parties (ever been to a “Come as Frida” one?). Beehive hairdos, nasty eyeliner and tequila on tap all round. Not too many entertainers around today are going to leave such legacies. Not too many people, entertainers or not, dare to live life so unapologetically. And for that, I keep my headphones plugged in and raise a decidedly Bacchanalian toast in her honour.

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

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense of Insensible Fashion

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Some people know they’re depressed when they can’t eat or sleep. I know I’m depressed when I stop giving a damn about what I’m wearing. I’m a huge believer in what Tim Gunn called “the semiology of dressing”; my ostentatious collection of attire and accessories – stacked, scattered or in storage – colour my allegiance glorious. From fluorescent pink bras to huge hibiscus hair ornaments to boat-shaped bags you could zip me into, I have it all, and then some.

Ever since I began choosing my own clothing, I’ve taken this liberty and spun carousels with it. In college, I enjoyed semesters of never repeating an outfit. It wasn’t as though I set myself a challenge. I just had that many clothes and that much imagination and that much disrespect for the humility required in the face of Institutions.

My passion for fashion has often been privileged over common sense. I own a red feather boa, after all. I’ve stalked through international business districts in cowboy hats and feathered ornaments. I went to church the other day draped in a black wool crotchet poncho. In Madras. In May. Because that’s just what I think I should wear to church. It helps me feel, you know, spiritual. Whatever sins I confessed to, rest assured they were not sartorial.

Get off your holier-than-thou clotheshorses, I’m only kidding (but not about the poncho). For more drastic consequences than death by flamboyance, consider this: I’ve done dozens of spoken word readings, but excepting a few truly special ones, pretty much all I recall about most involves what I wore. When I did my first solo show a year ago, I embarked on several expeditions seeking the perfect outfit. I settled on thigh-high leopard print boots and a brown kurta worn as a dress with a huge waistbelt. I spent the afternoon before the event hand-stitching the kurta to my shape. I wrote my set list in the taxi on my way to the show.

Do I dress for men? Absolutely. I also dress for women. I dress for pets. I dress for plants. I dress for praying and flights and to hang out by myself. I dress to drink black coffee at 1a.m. and dance around in my sister’s room for an hour and incur her wrath. I dress because if God had wanted us to be drab, She wouldn’t have created the bias cut and the body to carry it off.

I also dress down. I do the typical Fab India kurta and jeans work thing. I tie my ridiculous Draupadi hair up. When I really need to get serious, I even wear my glasses. It’s all about aura. And as the most cunning coquette will tell you, sometimes it pays to keep it toned down.

I’m a slave to my narcissism, alright. Stoned on my own sensuality (and greatly bolstered by my uncanny ability to spot rock bottom bargains). Vainpot? Yes. Victim? No chance.

What I do, dressing up and down and occasionally upside down – it’s not what a magazine or a man or a mannequin told me is expected of me. It’s not under someone else’s power.

There is one dogma I live by, and it is this. Anais Nin wrote: “Women always think that when they have my shoes, my dress, my hairdresser, my makeup, it will all work the same way. They do not conceive of the witchcraft that is needed. They do not know that I am not beautiful but only appear to be at certain moments”. And that’s my secret.

Because it is power. And all of it, every last bead and hook and the divine proviso of femme fatale-ness vested within, is mine.

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