Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Venus Flytrap: Touché ‘Tache

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When Salvador Dali appeared on the 1950’s American TV game show “What’s My Line”, in which a blindfolded panel deduced the professions of mystery guests based on a series of yes/no questions, he was correctly identified by a suggestion one panelist made to another: “ask if he could use his moustache to paint?”

Historically, moustaches symbolized both masculinity and various types of power in many cultures – from the warrior deity Parthasarathy (the only depiction of a Vishnu with whiskers), to Western intellectual elites from Nietzsche to Einstein, the examples are numerous. During the 20th century, they were sported by artists who represented a sort of hypervirility, including Freddy Mercury, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Selleck. The world’s most famous living lady with a beard, the striking circus artist and professor Jennifer Miller, wears hers proudly, saying, “It goes all the way back to Samson and his big mane of power. That’s why men don’t want women to have too much of it in too many places. So, here I am, a gal with a beard, prancing around the streets of New York.”

But does facial fuzz really have the kind of currency it used to? As one website put it, “moustaches are now the style equivalent of wearing a polyester leisure suit on your upper lip”.

It’s not that people don’t have moustaches anymore, or that those who possess them no longer take them seriously, as a walk down any Indian street will tell you – it’s that they’re no longer sexy in the popular imagination. Sure, a Johnny Depp goatee or some George Clooney scruff still warrants a second glance, but full-fledged whiskers are mostly the stuff of caricature.

In the past, emphasizing gender extremes, from rib-crushingly cinched waists in women to the bulging codpieces of Crete and medieval England, was fashionable. Today, trends veer toward something more androgynous – and bless androgyny for what how it frees us, but I wouldn’t mind being blessed, or rather brushed, with some serious bristles now and then! Has the fundamental sleaziness of the hairy face, with all it implies, lost its semi-subversive appeal? Look to typical old pop culture stereotypes: the baddie is bearded, the hero babyfaced. And who doesn’t secretly want the bad guy, with his swagger and his moustache twirl?

I don’t think I’ve ever actually wanted to have a moustache or beard, in spite of the many male accoutrements I have envied, so unlike Jennifer Miller, my contribution to a face fur revival is much smaller. I’ve invented an emoticon that hopefully conveys a sense of the yesteryear hotness of the whiskered man (or woman). I leave it to your imagination: :-{P.

The truth is, though, that my personal favourite story about facial hair relates to its absence. A Caucasian man, the type who probably thought it was enlightened of him to consider the question, once asked me how evil white people are portrayed in Indian comic books, given that villains are always shown to be dark-skinned. I thought it would be funny, because my sense of humour frequently sabotages my biological imperative and I liked him very much, to tell him that maybe they just had beards (like him). He showed up a day later, cleanly shaved. I could see his freshly smooth cheeks turn pink when I asked him why.

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.

The City As Canvas

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I have a long essay on the aesthetics of the city of Chennai in the current issue of Caravan magazine. Caravan is a journal of politics and culture and is available nationwide at good bookshops, and can also be read digitally here.

The Venus Flytrap: Original Instructions

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In the small town of Gudalur, two and a half hours downhill from Ooty, there is a coalition of NGOs that, through serendipitous circumstances and sound intentions, run a school and a hospital for the tribal community. I’m visiting with my friend the American Badaga, tagging along on an Ooty-Gudalur-Coimbatore-Palani-Perumalmalai-Kodaikanal trip completed over just five nights, sleeping in a different place on each one. We’re there to look into alternative education systems; after the tribal school is an international school in the forest. Mostly, though, I’m there on impulse, just to get away.

The week before, I’d attended a lecture in Chennai by Vandana Shiva, the renowned physicist and activist. Dr. Shiva had spoken about the country’s agricultural crisis, encouraging the audience to “violate the contracts” that gave undue power to governments and organizations that contribute to the deterioration of the environment, and to suffering among the poor.

Yet, sitting by a window overlooking the filthy Cooum river later that rainy afternoon, coming down from the high that listening to an inspiring speaker brings, I was saddened to think that the only phrase that still haunted me was something said in passing as Shiva was introduced. Another world is possible. I so much wanted it to be.

It came to me again in Gudalur. I’d never expected that just a few days after the lecture, I would find myself reading on a rock under a tree on the far west of Tamil Nadu, wet earth under my bare feet, adivasi children singing nearby, a cow to my right and a chicken to my left. My troubles very, very far away.

I’m reading Cait Johnson, who posits that spirituality is essentially rooted in the elements, the same notion that had me head for the hills to hide among trees, and attend Shiva’s lecture. Whenever I lose my connection to my elementals, I seek to replenish them in nature. Johnson writes about “Original Instructions” – intuitive knowledge kept alive by people, like the adivasis, whose ways of life honour the sacred interconnectedness of all life.

Watching the good people of Gudalur – the teacher who speaks openly and without prejudice to a classroom about gay and transgender people, the Ayurvedic doctor seeking to both learn from and better equip traditional healers, the professionals who set up the Ashwini Hospital and Vidyodaya School and gradually ensured that autonomy over them returned to the adivasi community – my heart remembers its own Original Instructions.

Watching them, I remember that there are good people in the world, who do good work for its own sake. I had forgotten.

I have been heartsick for what feels like a long time, but isn’t. I have been disillusioned with my own journey. I have wanted to count to one hundred and bow out, like the poetess in Ana Enriqueta Terán’s mysterious poem. What I did because I thought it was in my blood, I’ve watched others do with a bloodthirst I cannot muster. I have felt time and again that I can barely co-exist in a world so cutthroat, let alone compete.

But this is what I know, after Gudalur: another world, in all the many variations Vandana Shiva may or may not have meant, is possible. In fact, it may already exist. All it takes is to get back there.

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.

Mayda del Valle on Grandmothers, Spirituality, and Faith

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Some of you know that I lost my grandmother last October. Fewer of you, I think, know what kind of rocky ride the almost-year since has been. What you’ve probably noticed either way is that I no longer blog unless it’s to archive my journalism work, link to press about me or to poems published, or to publicize my (very few) events. I’m not going to go into my disengagement with the online life any further right now, except to say that today I came across that most rare thing: something that makes me want to blog, that I simply must share.

I’d never heard of Mayda del Valle before, but I won’t forget her name now. Here she is at the White House with a  searingly powerful performance of a poem that made me cry both times I watched it, for reasons too private and too sacred to discuss now.

If you’d like to read the poem, it’s here.