Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Venus Flytrap: Nothing To Laugh About

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It was the middle-aged waiter’s sweetly apologetic tone and awkward phrasing that gave him away. Clearly, he was not the one with the objection. He was only the messenger.

This is what he said: “You have independence. But please, laugh a little quietly?” Sudhandhiram – the Tamil word for independence; he knew he was infringing on our rights, and he wanted us to know that he was sorry. We were two women who had finished a long lunch, eaten three types of dessert, and paid the bill. We were loitering, already considered a suspect activity for women. Ladies loitering while laughing loudly. Someone – patron or staff or management – had found this worthy of reprimand.

I have a big laugh. People recognise me by it in crowded auditoriums. Strangers turn to look upon hearing it (possibly to check they haven’t wandered into the set of a horror movie). I do not cover my mouth with a dupatta when I laugh. I do not usually wear a dupatta, in fact, because I don’t believe that anything should be covered unless in the interest of weather or aesthetics, rather than decorum.

I’ve jumped ahead a few paces because there’s something you and I, and everyone in this uncomfortable status quo, knows axiomatically. No one would have dared to go up to a chuckling man about to leave a restaurant and told him (politely or otherwise) to can it.

A woman who makes her presence felt – merely through function, existence or expression – in a public space is a public nuisance. And a woman who does not invisibilise herself makes her presence felt. Anywhere. Women who breastfeed on overnight buses. Girls who sweat through their football jerseys until their coloured sports bras show. Women who have to buy three movie tickets just so that no one sits on either side of them. Women who scream for help through thin walls while the neighbours turn the TV up louder.

I believe in silence in libraries and in meditation halls. I believe public walls should not be pissed against, and bhajans shouldn’t be played on loudspeakers. These are courtesies. They affect large numbers of people as they study, reflect, commute, sleep. They are intersections at which personal liberties can infringe on others. They are not gendered. Not even the open urination thing.

In conversations about women in public spaces, the topic we discuss the most is safety. In this painfully unequal world of ours, it is a concern. But a group of four women will still be asked, “Are you out alone?” (“No, each of us is out with three other people for company”). This is because the conversation has yet to extend to the notion of rights to public space. To be there, basically. To step into a public space should not mean giving up one’s autonomy over one’s body, voice or mobility. It should not mean adjusting (that delightful term used for everything from marriages to train bunks to bra straps) one’s very presence so that it looks, sounds and seems more like an absence.

In a world that makes one weep, we must take every chance to laugh out loud.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: Trauma’s Loose Knots

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Much later, caught in an undertow of memory, the true emotional magnitude of certain events assails us. Trauma leaves live wires all over our lives, faultlines with known and unexpected triggers, unknown and expected after-effects.

Like a rope too thick for anything but a loose knot, we come undone again and again.

Last week, hearing from an eyewitness who was confused as to what the scene they had fled was, I tried to find out online what the tussle and commotion they had seen in Bangalore’s Frazer Town had been. I was dismayed to see a tweet that used the words “small communal unrest”.

Seeing that tweet, I wondered: how is it possible to preface something of a terrible nature with a dismissive adjective? Think of it: “little hate crime”. “Tiny war”. There is no such thing. Only those who are affected have the right of measurement.

Perhaps we rank things on scales so as to be able to process them. The mistake we make is in how we calculate the value of not only human life but the experiential quality of the same. It’s like a zen koan: if no one dies in a conflict or difficult circumstance, and those who survive don’t make a sound, does it matter that it happened?

Always. We often keep the things that deeply shape us from others. Victims of sexual abuse often maintain silences of years. We become embarrassed to share how certain locations or keywords can make our palms sweat and our hearts palpitate – and so we simply withdraw and avoid routes, people, places. Unfulfilled dreams and unrequited desire alter ones ways of being, but the topics are carefully evaded in all but the most trusted company. And then there is the question of narrativisation. People will superimpose their versions onto things that happen to us, or trivialise our struggles, our rights to name things as we understand them – and ultimately, us. And so, sometimes, we don’t tell them our stories at all.

Trauma comes to roost in us both individually and collectively. Chennai continues to stagger from the impact of the recent flooding. People are still in relief camps, some dying of infections. Some cannot go home. Others have lost their livelihoods until their workplaces, vehicles or clients are ready for business again. Someone who briefly evacuated their home told me how in the days and nights since, they still hear the sound of the river in spate at night, and are afraid. Upheaval and shock of any kind – from a bitter breakup to a natural disaster – always bring with them PTSD. Rehabilitation efforts must necessarily consider the emotional and mental costs of survival.

It will sound like I’ve put them all on the same scale – abuse, tragedy, shock and conflict. But trauma is very much like the classic trick question of what weighs more: a 200gm metal coin, or 200grams of feathers. One or the other may not look like much to the beholder, but the burden of each can only be known to its bearer. All trauma is unique – from the cause, to the consequence, to the way we choose to carry it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Flood Stories

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I counted myself among the lucky ones, while the city drowned. How lucky to be dry. How lucky to have water to drink, a toilet that flushed. How lucky to be parcelling food and not waiting for it. How lucky to be in my own clothes, and to have excess to give. And even when the power went out and took all lines of communication with it, how lucky to have little to do on a lightless night but to tell stories.

In hundreds of cultures, there is a legend about a Great Flood. The most well-known one comes from the landlocked region of the Abrahamic religions: Noah, and his ark of animals. Strangely, the elements of this myth are echoed in folklore everywhere: from the Aztec story of Tapi to the Masai story of Tumbainot to the Alaskan story of Kunyan. The common tale is as follows: that the world is punished with a terrible deluge because of human wickedness, and a chosen person or family build a vessel in which pairs of animals also took shelter. After days or weeks at sea, they finally release a bird or beast that returns, bringing a symbol of hope and dry land.

Hindu lore also contains a similar story: that of Matsya, the fish or fish-man, the first avatar of Vishnu. He warns Shraddhadeva Manu, a Dravidian king, of an impending deluge, and instructs him to build and fill an ark with animals, grains, seven sages and his own family – enough, as in every version of this tale, for a new world to come.

There are plenty of other twists, other downpours and other tales.

The Yuma of Southwest America have a flood tale which is also the origin story of the desert: a divine deluge is sent to eradicate dangerous animals, but when people insist that some of them must be kept for food, the waters are evaporated by a too-powerful fire. A beautiful Nigerian story goes that the moon and the sun were married, and their friend the flood demurs to visit their home but they insist; finally, the waters come through the doors and rise so high that the couple must live in the sky. In many South American flood stories, human survivors are turned into monkeys who slowly regain human attributes.

Primordial water is the origin of all life. A flood myth is essentially a second chance, to recreate: what must we do, once the earth is once again beneath our feet?

So many stories to tell by candlelight, in a storm, as one waits for the next opportunity to give, to get back out there and connect people, gather supplies, support the bravest among us all who wade into the worst-hit areas. I will not romanticise what it is like to wait, in that same darkness, for rescue.

When the floodwaters abate, there will be other stories. Among them, most of all, will be stories of ordinary heroism; ordinary because the massive outreach effort that the people of Chennai have shown is how humanity should always be. It should be ordinary to care. It should be habitual to think of others.

Flood stories are about destruction and punishment, but they are also about cleansing and renewal. They are about the obligation of survivors to question the methods of the past, and to build a future based on the wisdom of loss. What will we do differently, Chennai, now that we know how much we want that difference?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tribute To Veenapani Chawla

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One night many years ago, I stood in Veenapani Chawla’s kitchen and tried to tell her what it meant for me to be there. So I told her about how in the time since I had first started visiting her home, the Adishakti Theatre outside Auroville, I had been writing poems about my engagement with the space (at once tranquil and terrifyingly charged), my friendships in it, and the Ramayana studies and performances I’d been exposed to there. I remember how, at one moment, she looked me in the eyes and asked if I was happy, and that I weighed myself and said honestly, “Happier.”

As we were speaking, someone came in looking for a knife. VP, as she was known, would not pass it by hand. “I don’t want us to fight”, she said, smilingly. I admired her so deeply, and so simply, that I adopted the superstition immediately.

VP died on November 30th 2014, at 67 years old. She was an artistic pioneer who immersed herself in everything from chhau, kalaripayattu and koodiyattam to western dramaturgy, and dispersed equal energy into developing new work, questing, teaching, and creating and maintaining the magical Adishakti campus. “There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti – certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began,” wrote Girish Karnad a few months before her passing. I met many who envied her. But I met so many more who loved her. She was extraordinarily powerful, and equally kind. I had come into her orbit by chance, and stayed in it because of her generosity.

The first time I went to Adishakti, I stayed for a month. I would take my slippers off and dig my feet into the cool earth as though I could shoot out roots, and weep. It was a primal connection. This was where I came to understand intimately that what society calls a fringe is what the psyche knows as a frontier. It was not until a few years later that I found out that my paternal ancestral temple was only twenty minutes away. It had not been an imagined bond between my blood, my bones, those pepper vines, that soil.

I am not a theatre artist. I was not trained in the pedagogy for which Adishakti is famous, developed over decades of intensive research and dedication, and given away to all who wanted to learn it. I never studied performance under VP. I never even learnt how to swim from her – an offer she made me each time I saw her going for her laps in the huge, mineralised pool built on the campus a few years ago. Most of what I learnt from her, though, was intangible – both in its transmission and its nature. Veenapani Chawla was a singular influence on me. Meeting her permanently changed the trajectory of my life. I am who I am at 30 only because I met her at 23. Why I still live in India, why I never married, why I gravitate toward grace and quietude over militancy and glitz – the answers to all of these questions are linked to having known Adishakti and its founder, and having been indelibly transformed by both.

How could so much transpire on the basis of one soft-spoken woman and her home of red earth and verdure? Simple. Above all, knowing Veenapani Chawla taught me that another way, another paradigm, is possible. That one can live a life with devotion at its core: to art, to divinity, and to community.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.