Monthly Archives: November 2008

The Venus Flytrap: Putting The “Bra” In Bravado

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The boss of a friend of mine had a business associate visit their office recently. Partway through their meeting, the boss abruptly went over to where his employees were seated, took off his shirt, turned it inside out, and put it back on again. “It was the wrong way round,” he told his gawking workforce. “And we have a guest.”

“I see,” said my friend. “And here I thought you were just happy to see me.”

If you can ignore the developing subplot between my friend and his boss, what’s really interesting about this incident is the casualness of male toplessness, and its machismo overtones. Hindu priests show off much more than their sacred threads while upholding their patriarchal paradigms, boxers parade their pectorals even as they pound each other senseless in a flood of testosterone and aggression, and football players – they of that hypermasculine pastime – streak across fields with their shirts off upon scoring a goal. There is bravado in barechestedness: nothing says Alpha Male like a flash of man-mammaries, nipples loud as neon signboards.

And putting the “bra” in that bravado is a Japanese e-boutique, Wishroom, which has sold hundreds of pink, black and white brassieres for men. Your menstrual envy (you know, the one that compensates with war and violent video games) got you down? You can now actually pull yourself up the bra straps and be a man.

These aren’t foam-filled cups meant for dressing in drag, and neither are they built for men with bountiful breast tissue (for that, the Australian “Male Support Vest”, which minimizes and de-feminizes, might be more your thing). There is no real aesthetic or functional purpose: no frills, no sequins, and no fancy cleavage-cushioning technology. They are meant, it seems, to be primarily a sensual secret – “I like this tight feeling,” says the boutique’s flat-chested representative as he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black, leather-finish piece, in an online video. “It feels good.”

There’s a saying in Bombay that on a quiet day on Marine Drive, you can hear a thousand bras snap. The man bra (or the much catchier “Bro”, as they called it on Seinfeld nearly a decade and a half ago) might make it two thousand. Rest assured, though, that there is at least one bra (and its wearer) that won’t succumb. As a longtime admirer of blokes of the bellied and B-cupped variety, I don’t find the male bra a very uplifting idea. If anything, the thought of all that silly coverage plunges me into annoyance. It separates me from getting my cheap thrills and pushes up various types of resentment. It also supports ridiculousness and badly fleshed out metaphors.

Still, like any reasonable person, I think that people should wear whatever they damn well please, so I won’t get fashion fascist on you curious gentlemen. I can only subtly discourage you. As someone who once went bra-shopping without wearing a bra (a story for another time), I guarantee that less lingerie equals many more lingering glances. You may not have the necessary equipment, but if it’s good enough for Jacqueline Bisset swimming in that white tee and nothing else in The Deep as she – oh, um, sorry, got distracted – it’s good enough for you.

The curve may be mightier than the sword, as the marvellous Mae West said. She may have been right in more ways than one – just imagine a sumo wrestler or Turkish oil wrestler in a sports bra, or Michael Phelps in a bikini, and tell me you aren’t feeling slightly… unhooked.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

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Manifested Apocalypse

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I feared many things as a child: thunderstorms, plane crashes, the bubonic plague come alive from the pages of books, every flea the potential carrier of a manifested apocalypse.

In all these things, a single binding thread shot through. I never feared losing myself. Only others. I wanted them gathered around me, so that if anything happened, it happened to us all. The dead do not mourn each other.

Today, Mumbai burned. Some have likened it to the events of September 11 2001. I don’t know whether or not it is. But I do know that both times, I cried. Cities I do not know, but know I must get to know.

As someone in a long-distance relationship, events like these rouse particularly tender nerves. To get to the one I love I will need a visa, air tickets, a flight. A friend once told me about a heartrending reality of her relationship: as the half-a-lifetime younger partner of someone whose first wife was very influential, she will not be allowed to go her partner’s funeral when he dies.

This is not the first time I have been in a portmanteau love, split between places. But this is the first time it has been an unwilling separation. I spent the initial couple of months in a sort of morbid surreality. When my partner travelled and didn’t call as planned, I Googled for crashes between origin and destination. There was one time when I actually found one, and I remember feeling all the blood literally rush to my head. The feeling lasted until I realised it was an old report.

My partner and I both moved countries in an effort to carve a viable future out for ourselves, together and apart. It’s been worth it for us both professionally. It has not been worth it otherwise, and these terrorist attacks remind me of it. Reading Sonia Faleiro’s post on being extremely close to one of the points of attack, I thought: blessed are those who are safe because the ones they love are near them.

Recently, a foreign newspaper wrote that the “cultural vibrancy” of my city gives me all the inspiration I need. That isn’t true. In the year since I moved back, I’ve had a certain degree of material success. I’m not ungrateful for this. However, there are things which a healthy bank balance and career recognition cannot rectify. Such as how I watch my back around here, because it’s evident that I am admired but not supported – I am surrounded by crocodile smiles put on because I’m an interesting person to “know”. Such as how I count less than a handful of people here as real friends. Such as how I never fully recovered from the trauma of leaving a city I knew almost as home, because I am still not home. Such as how with my grandmother’s death, I live in a house with a steadily decreasing amount of affection directed my way.

What then, does this mean for me? I don’t know yet. I was talking to a friend about Oprah’s quintessential question tonight: what do you know for sure? I know for sure that in a world increasingly fraught with uncertainty, the distances we place between our selves are only that. Distances we place between ourselves. Distances we choose to.

We were once together in an earthquake. I was angry. “I don’t want to die with you,” I said.

I lied.

The Venus Flytrap: A Toast To Sobriety

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This is how we know that the financial crisis has finally hit home: pretty soon, there are going to be multitudes more homeless on the streets of Tamil Nadu. As tends to happen in times of crisis, they will come almost exclusively from one minority: in this unfortunate case, bootleggers. Whereas the impoverished masses generally seek solace in drink, these former Sultans of Smirnoff, these de-crowned Jesuses of Jose Cuervo, traditionally find salvation in dryness. The state’s, that is. But those days are over. Tamil Nadu is letting liquor loose.

As per honoured cultural customs, alcohol can only be procured via four avenues: from the government-run TASMACs, duty-free at the airport for those lucky jetsetters, overpriced in bars (that must by law be attached to twenty rooms – independence is always evil), or from our buddies the bootleggers. But now that imported liquor will become available in the TASMACs and rumours of even more relaxed laws swirl around town like the olive in a martini, those customs are soon to be a thing of the past. Goodbye innocence, hello mass inebriation.

Since all social problems are inconceivable without the presence of an intoxicating substance (such as gulab jamun, frequently found at traumatic events like weddings), we can expect a huge surge in crime and moral decline. It is well-documented that elephants never rampage, students never fail exams, trains never get derailed and women are never abandoned without alcohol being involved somehow.

The fact that one of history’s most famous teetotalers was Adolf Hitler, and some of history’s most famous leading lushes included Winston Churchill, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (the latter two were also a whiskey distiller and a wine-grower, respectively), should be regarded only as mere coincidence and a purposeful distortion of data.

Let’s not forget that extremely dangerous side effect of liquor consumption: honesty. Can you imagine how bleak a future without hypocrisy, self-censorship, underhanded insults and duplicity will be? It may lead to a breakdown of all communication. We’ll all have to hike out somewhere far from civilization, grow out dreadlocks, get high and ponder our navels and the origin of the universe. Unlike anything ascribed in our holy and historical traditions, of course. If things get really apocalyptic, we may even begin to take up that celebrity-endorsed foreign import, yoga.

And a word on the health consequences. Alcohol may have been proven to protect against cardiovascular disease and extend the lives of moderate drinkers, but more importantly by far, it is also known to cause sterility, impotence and lack of libido. We are definitely better off without any impediments to our ongoing social experiments, such as trouncing China in the quest to fit the most number of malnourished babies into a single square kilometre as possible, and getting our most unpleasant relatives married off and out of the range of our rifle scopes.

Finally, on a most sobering note, we can only imagine what will happen to the house rules that prevent men from entering dens of sin in slippers. As everybody knows, there is nothing more uncontrollably titillating, or more of an invitation to collapse into anarchy, than the sight of the male toes. Today it’s tequila instead of homegrown toddy. Tomorrow, it will be a pageant of protruding pinkies and podiatric cleavage. Oh impressionable, corruptible, guilelessly gullible people of the post-prohibition era – how will we ever survive such an onslaught?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

After The Affair

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I don’t like to judge relationships because they are not two-way mirrors; you can never tell what really goes on just from looking in from the outside. But in all this buzz about Jennifer Aniston “breaking her silence” on her ex-husband’s relationship with Angelina Jolie, something obvious seems to be lost. I admire both the women for different reasons. Aniston displays such class in a situation that would reduce most of us to pottymouthed puddles of tears. And Jolie is just cool, even when she’s “uncool”.  Brad Pitt doesn’t deserve either of them. If there must be a villain at all, it’s him.