Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Venus Flytrap: Wild Song

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Sometimes the forest stretches her limbs, lets loose her hair so its tendrils unfurl – a little like territory flags, but those are human contrivances – into the places in our lives where we have forgotten her.

She reminds us. She asks that we watch, and that we listen for her. On certain city roads, there is an even keen of insect sounds that surrounds us for exactly as long as we ride under an arbour of embracing branches. Then we re-enter the sunlight and that forest essence vanishes.

Do you hold your breath under that canopy cover? Do you slow down?

So I both wonder and don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking, the leopard who was caught in a Bengaluru school last week. He was tranquilised and captured, and has since fled his cage again. He is at loose in the Bannerghatta National Park, his habitat, as I write this. It takes only minimal empathy to imagine why he might abhor his cell. Around the city, there other sightings. What could they be: tricks of the eye, wishful mirages, or truly: animals of the wild, wandering?

The forest seeps into civilisation in ways brutal and beautiful. Sometimes, both at once. In Munnar, mountain elephants stumble onto highways, lumber into jeeps and onto people. In the Sundarbans, tigers whose ecosystems are ravaged by natural upheaval seek human meat. Meanwhile, at the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, where Soligas live alongside them as per longstanding tradition, the tiger population doubled between 2010 and 2014, and no animal-people conflicts occurred. In times of disaster, there are rumours circulated about beasts escaping captivity: about disintegrated walls at Vandalur Zoo during the recent floods, for instance.

Tell me who among these is most brutal: the lost one, the lacking one, or the liar?

So one reads about these leopards, at a safe distance admittedly, and watches and wonders a little more.

Sometimes, I sit with people and sense the sea in them calling. Or the mountains, or the starlight. Or once in a while, in the aura of a particularly battle-weary individual, the desert. Most of all, though, it’s the sea – biologically, our bodies are made almost entirely of water. A sun-kissed beach and a cliff-jagged coast will each offer a different conversation, but it is nourishment just the same.

The forest calls to me often, and even if I no longer chase its song, I know its resonance. Amidst the vehicle horns of the city and its bandage of artificial light, I seek it. And in doing so, invoke it.

I am waiting for April, when a particular jacaranda tree will empurple my daily route. I am waiting for a dark crow taking shelter among tamarind pods on a day of rain. But most of all, I am waiting for escape: for the helix of a montane highway, for the bite of clear cold air, for a place where I can sink my feet into the lush red earth and know it to be a homecoming.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: A Candlelight Dinner With A Difference

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“No, I won’t write about Valentine’s Day!” I texted my friend back, when he suggested the topic. I’d barely hit Send on my next line – “V-Day is vaandi-day only” when I remembered that for several years as a politically-aware young adult, I had refused to acknowledge the romantic festival because I believed so strongly in another V-Day.

V was for Vagina. V was for Violence. V-Day was the global movement founded in 1998 by playwright Eve Ensler (who created The Vagina Monologues) to fight violence against women. February 14th is where you’ll find it on the calendar, and it began as a series of fundraising performances of the play, and expanded to include a variety of artistic and political forms of grassroots engagements worldwide, all of which confront and try to change the disgraceful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime.

I couldn’t ever observe Valentine’s Day, knowing that it is in intimate relationships that this abuse is most pervasive.

“Do I write too much about women?” I started texting my friend, and once again I corrected myself: I realised that when we talk of violence against women, or any form of gender-based violence, we need to stop calling it a ‘women’s issue’. If anything, it’s more of men’s issue. It’s an issue of toxic masculinity, of what happens to men in any society that demands that they be unemotional, aggressive and authoritative. Women aren’t the problem. Men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

I had never stopped believing in its principles, so why had I somehow forgotten about this other V-Day? It was probably because once I moved to India, I discovered that Valentine’s Day itself is subversive. To declare romantic interest or sexual involvement under the hostile watch of right-wing ideologies and discriminatory constraints is itself a radical, and therefore dangerous, act. Every year, couples are attacked, forcibly married or forcibly separated, by powers-that-be that do not recognise the power of love.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably healthy to crinkle one’s nose at least a little at saccharine hormonal garblings and socially-pressured exhibitions of rosy veneers. But let’s not forget that to feel love and not be ashamed of it is a human right. And before we celebrate it, let us first demand and exercise that right. It belongs to people of all genders, across all castes and communities, and of any sexual orientation.

So if you’ve got a candlelight dinner planned this weekend, why not bring that awareness to the table? Light at least one candle in memory of someone killed for falling in love with someone of a different religion, or someone driven to suicide because they were bullied for being gay, or even an ancestor of your own who was forced into an arranged marriage while the heart longed for deeper companionship. And maybe light another candle for the other V-Day: in memory of a woman lost to violence in a bond where there should have been love. Bring the revolution to the table, let it illuminate the conversation, and see if it doesn’t change your relationship for the better too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dear Mrs. XOX…

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The other day, I received an email that could have been a threat, a case of mistaken identity, a prank, or a strategy by some slick operator. The sender warned me to stay away from their boyfriend – let’s call him Mr. XOX. They’d even created an email address expressly for this purpose – “Mrs. XOX” was their chosen pseudonym. Considering that I don’t know anyone by that name, I had no initial clue what to make of this.

Bizarrely enough (and this is where the slick operator suspicion comes in), Mrs. XOX told me, in explicit terms, that women crave her boyfriend due his impressive appendage. She also told me to delete a particular number (which, of course, I never had to begin with). Yup, my poison penpal gave me the phone number of a well-endowed man.

First, I laughed. And then, just in case this sender was real, I felt very sorry for anyone who’s been driven to such insecurity in a relationship.

So, Mrs. XOX, if you’re reading this – I want you to know first of all that I don’t know and have never met your boyfriend. I’d never want to meet him either, because something tells me he doesn’t treat you right. And I don’t like to be around those who disrespect women.

Maybe you’ve written to me because your boyfriend put the idea into your head that he’s involved with a stranger. This tactic is called gaslighting. It’s when someone controls you by convincing you of a false reality, wearing away at your reason and intuition, until you can no longer trust yourself. As a result, you become paranoid and are driven to extreme behaviours. Gaslighting is one of the most common tactics of emotional abuse.

I want you to know, Mrs. XOX, that emotional abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it by its name. It happens to the best of us.

You’re not crazy. You’re not possessive. You’re not desperate. These may be words you have been called. But they are not who you are, they are just the effects of this abuse.

But those harsh words are not what other women are either. If he has cheated on you, remember – that was his decision. The fault is entirely his and you can blame no one else. If he has made you hate and punish other women, he has made you hate and punish yourself. You must look squarely at him and see him for who he is. And then, freed of the need to possess or belong to him, begin the process of rebuilding who you are.

Most of all, Mrs. XOX, I want you to know that I don’t mean to insult your intelligence. You probably know all of these things already. I’m only here to remind you: you deserve so much better. This is not what love is supposed to feel like.

Maybe you’re Mrs. XOX. Or maybe you’re someone like her – pushed beyond your pain threshold out of love. My wish for you is this: walk away. You will heal. You won’t need to be Mrs. XOX when you can truly be your own person.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 4th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #SorryNotSorry? #NotOkay.

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Over the weekend, I strapped on a pair of red stilettos for a poetry reading organised by the feminist think-tank Prajnya. The theme of the event was “Zero Apologies”, and the poets shared writing in Tamil and English about being forthright, without fear. For me, I find that the first line of apology begins at appearance. I enjoy clothing, ornamentation and maquillage – but my enjoyment of the same is where external judgement of me also begins. It’s a topic I explore at greater length in an essay in a new book called Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, but for now, suffice to say: I wasn’t sorry at all for the thigh-high slit in the skirt I wore that evening, and I laughed off the fact that my gorgeous shoes were falling apart even as I stood in them.

What an empowering thing it is to stop apologising for being ourselves.

But even as I said yes to “Zero Apologies”, and was delighted to express none whatsoever, something lingered in my mind and it wasn’t just good manners. While preparing for the poetry recital and finding poems that suited the subject, I found myself thinking not only about when we should never apologise, but also about when we really should.

‘Sorry’ is a beautiful word. We say it both as a habit and as a force of conditioning that makes us downplay ourselves, but swallow it at the moments it is made for. We apologise, unnecessarily, for our necklines, our ambitions, our tears, our uncertainties, our emotions. We say the word for all the wrong things, but we’re miserly with it when we’re actually wrong.

I thought back to a few recent instances when I have said it and meant it, a strong word used to keep small lapses small. Once, when I didn’t make it to a dear one’s special occasion; once, when I apologised on behalf of someone I felt responsible for; more than once, when busyness or hunger made me snappy. And I thought further back into the past, to times when my apologies were insufficient. Because sometimes ‘sorry’ is just a placeholder, a way to salve things so they can be worked on slowly. When you have caused damage to another, you cannot justify having done so. You can only say, unequivocally, that you will try better. And then do.

Only in its most routine or manipulative deliveries is ‘sorry’ anything other than a starting point. Because, by itself, it’s never enough. It’s only the key to rebuilding, not an end to itself – and this is where we falter. We misunderstand both apology and forgiveness, centring them on incidents and not on understanding.

I will never apologise for being strong, dedicated, principled or flamboyant. But I will apologise for my blind spots, misreadings, temper and wickedness, should I have the clarity to see them, even if only much later.

And call me old-fashioned, but the one thing that I most believe no one should ever apologise for having or expecting? Good manners!

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories

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In “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, I write about personal style as a mode of self-expression, and self-concealment. I write about the pleasure of the perfect drape, the passion of red lipstick, and the heartache of living in a time when beauty and power cannot always co-exist. This essay is in the new anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Catriona Mitchell. The book is out now from HarperCollins in India, and Hardie Grant in Australia/the UK shortly.

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